A Cog in the Machine
Doing the first sequel to big games usually means changing the levels, adding some multiplayer maps and a weapon or two, and slapping a "2" or a "II" after the name. But when Microsoft releases Gears of War 2 on the Xbox 360 this November it will include a bit more than the usual including augments to its single-player, co-op and competitive multiplayer modes. According to Cliff Bleszinski of lead designers Epic Games, some of the augments might change the way you play the game.
Crispy Gamer: In terms of gameplay, what's new for Gears of War 2? Let's start with single-player.
Cliff Bleszinski: We're Epic Games and the game is epic in scale. Basically, you'll not only have a bigger sense of the war going on around you from the narrative and also from voice-overs, but you'll also have tremendous battle scenes that are just bedlam. The Brumak, for example, had a cameo in the first Gears, but in Gears 2 he has quite a lot of screen time. You'll meet new characters such as Dizzie. Anya has more screen time. Jack has more personality. There's just too much to list.
Crispy Gamer: Have you made any fundamental changes to gameplay, like to the cover system?
Bleszinski: I'm not a fan of how developers tend to hate on their own games. "Our first game, even though it sold a ton of copies, was crappy." What's wrong with you? But I have to say, after playing Gears 2 for so long, the cover improvements alone are just amazing. Whatever you want the A button to do, it just does. It was amazing in the first game, but there were a couple problems with players unintentionally getting into cover when they didn't want to. So we're polishing it until it shines. We made something like 500 code tweaks to the system, so now there are never any instances of someone going into cover when they don't want to.
We've also added Stopping Power so players will physically slow down when they're shot with bullet-based weapons. This fundamentally changes how multiplayer is played since it prevents people from doing that cheesy shotgun roll thing they've adopted. Oh, that drives me crazy.
Crispy Gamer: So if I'm shooting someone now they'll actually slow down?
Bleszinski: Yeah. If you're running at me and I unload on you, you will slow down even if you're running at me. Though it only works if you're facing me. It doesn't work if you're running away or strafing.
Crispy Gamer: Were any of the changes things you wanted to do in the first game but couldn't?
Bleszinski: I wanted crawling in Gears one, and we didn't have time to get it in. And it makes a tremendous difference when you've been knocked down and you're trying to get away. I wanted more time for the Brumak, and this time we have bigger, bigger creatures. Not to spoil anything, but we have far more interesting boss battles this time around. And vistas. A lot of people's memories of the first game are of these stone grey columns, but in this one we've planned it so there will be times when you'll come over a hill and see this amazing view. I also think our pacing is getting better, and we're going deeper with the narrative.
Crispy Gamer: One of the biggest criticisms about the first game was the story, or lack thereof. It sounds like you're doing a better job this time.
Bleszinski: We are. And there are multiple ways we're doing that. We're repeating the objectives and what's going on a more regular basis, we're using discoverables like a newspaper that might tell you about Emergence Day, and there are levels that have loudspeakers and characters who comment on what's going on. And we do have some cut scenes, but we're not fans of long cut scenes because it's a videogame and you want to play.
Crispy Gamer: It seemed, though, that some of the story problems in the first game could've been alleviated if that little movie had been integrated into the game. Why didn't you do that?
Bleszinski: We wanted to get you right into the action. But in hindsight, if we were to do it again we probably would've had it come up. When you fire up Gears 2, there is a two- to three-minute, "Previously on '24,' " kind of thing to catch people up to speed.
But it's kind of good problem to have if the biggest criticism of your game is that people wanted to know more.
Crispy Gamer: To flesh out the story you brought in writer Joshua Ortega who has written such comics as "Spider-Man Unlimited" and "Star Wars Tales", as well as his own novel "((FREQUENCIES))." Why him?
Bleszinski: I met him one day when I was up at Microsoft. We just totally bonded over sci-fi and graphic novels. I hadn't read any of his stuff, so he sent me a bunch and it was all really good. He's just fuckin' eager, he's the most eager guy. The first couple of months we thought we were going to strangle him because he'd send these emails where he'd ask if someone was left-handed or right-handed and questions like, "What's Cole's blood type?" But we really mind-melded on a lot of stuff.
Crispy Gamer: Will we, in the new game, get to see any of the Locust's society, any of their cities?
Bleszinski: You very well might?
Crispy Gamer: Do they actually call themselves Locust, or is that just a slang term we use for them like Charlie or Jerry?
Bleszinski: No, they call themselves Locust. Humans call them Grubs.
Crispy Gamer: Will you be addressing our racist attitudes towards them in the game?
Bleszinski: Well, that's kind of part of war?
Crispy Gamer: Have you added any new weapons this time out?
Bleszinski: Yes, though we haven't revealed them all. The Scorcher is a blast. That's a flame-thrower. There's something so satisfying when you use it in multiplayer, especially when you get the Active Reload going and it shoots flames even further. The semi-automatic pistol is also good, though it's a little too powerful now. We have to dial it back. But there's something great about taking someone hostage and using them as a human shield and using that pistol to cap other guys in the knees.
Crispy Gamer: Yeah, when you use a Locust as a, well, not a human shield but a Locust shield, can you only use a pistol?
Bleszinski: Yeah, the other weapons are too heavy to use with one hand.
Crispy Gamer: One of the other big things about the original was the co-op mode, where someone got to play as Dominic. I assume you'll have two-player co-op again, but will you also have three-player co-op, four-player co-op, 10-player co-op?
Bleszinski: We haven't really announced what we're doing yet, but we do have a surprise in the future when it comes to that.
Crispy Gamer: One thing you have said is that in co-op people will be able to play at different skill levels. How does that work?
Bleszinski: It's actually a pretty easy nudge. Depending on what skill level you play, we scale the damage you take as well as the amount of damage you dole out. It's pretty easy. We might do some other things, like maybe the person playing on Easy will get more ammo out of the ammo boxes than someone playing on a higher skill level. All that will come out of the tuning process we're doing this summer.
Crispy Gamer: Why did you feel this was necessary?
Bleszinski: Well, Casual in the first Gears wasn't really Casual, and there are a lot of people out there who are just getting into this stuff, so we wanted to add a tourist mode.
Crispy Gamer: Competitive multiplayer was also big in the first game. First, will all the modes in the original game be back?
Bleszinski: Yes. But we're going to five-on-five, and we've taken Assassination and modified it to a mode called Guardian where your leader is your spawner. If your leader dies, you get no more respawns.
Crispy Gamer: Will you be adding any new ones?
Bleszinski: We have one that I think we're going to call Submission which is like Capture the Flag, but instead the flag is a character whom you have to knock down and take to a designated location on the map. And he's yelling the whole time. We've also added one called Wingman which is two vs. two vs. two vs. two vs. two. It's kind of a mix of last-man-standing free-for-all with co-op. And we have others that we're not talking about just yet, but there will be over a half-dozen.
Crispy Gamer: Have you determined how many maps you'll include at launch?
Bleszinski: More than the first game.
Crispy Gamer: You've also added environmental hazards in multiplayer. What kinds of things will people have to watch out for? Bear traps?
Bleszinski: We have laser fences in some maps and there's one map that has an environmental hazard that would cause you to want to seek shelter periodically.
Crispy Gamer: Some players have been hoping there'd be a female character for online. Will there be?
Bleszinski: Nope. There are no female soldiers in the game.
Crispy Gamer: Given how manly and macho the game was?
Crispy Gamer: ?were you surprised at how many women played the game?
Bleszinski: Dude, there are women with Gears tattoos. But then, there's a guy who branded himself with a gear. But yeah, a lot of women play Gears. There's a clan called Girls of War. I think part of it is the pacing of the game. It's not a "run around like an idiot and teabag people" kind of game.
Crispy Gamer: Speaking of which, did it ever bum you out that some people do play this game online by running around like an idiot teabagging people?
Bleszinski: Well, the goal has always been that, given two players of equal ability, the one who uses cover and blind firing and active reload will do better. And I think we did a good job of it with the first game, but we're also doing things to improve that in this one with things like Stopping Power.
Crispy Gamer: Are there plans to bring this game to PCs?
Bleszinski: We haven't announced any plans for that yet.
Crispy Gamer: Speaking of which, in the PC version of the first game there were levels not included in the Xbox 360 version and you said they couldn't, for technical reasons, be added to the 360 as a download.
Bleszinski: Yeah, it had to do with how the engine had evolved. Adding them would've pushed Gears 2 back, and we really wanted to get cranking on Gears 2.
Crispy Gamer: Has there been any talk of doing a special edition of Gears, or even Gears 2, that might have those added PC levels like the deleted scenes on a DVD?
Bleszinski: No, we were okay with it being a good motivator for people to check out the PC version. And we'd still like to keep concentrating our effort on Gears 2. We're not talking about it yet, but we have plans for downloadable content for Gears 2 for after the game comes out.
Crispy Gamer: Finally, in the wake of Gears and Rainbow Six Vegas, there have been a number of games employing a similar cover system. Of them, did any stand out for you as being particularly good or interesting?
Bleszinski: I thought Army of Two did a solid job of it. So did Dark Sector. And Uncharted, I thought they did an excellent job.