So, with the launch of Gears of War 2, I sat down for a phone interview with its head design guy, Cliff Blezinski, to talk about the game—but not before playing through it myself. Click below for the interview, which also serves as a handy introduction to the game for those unfamiliar with it. Scroll past it for my review.
Vice: Could you introduce Gears of War 2 to the audience?
Cliff Blezinski: Gears of War 2, first and foremost, is only on Xbox, cause that’s the way it is. It’s kind of a story about an antihero named Marcus, who is dealing with a threat that comes from the underground of a planet called Sera. It’s about him and the members of his squad named Delta Squad and as they’re attempting to push back these nasty, horrible mole men enemies, and the various denizens of the underground that they’ve managed to harness, these nasty creatures and whatnot, and potentially save humanity. Some of the bits that go back and forth between all of them in regards to Dominic Santiago, who is Marcus’s best friend, who has been looking for his missing wife for quite some time. This is all taking place on this backdrop of a truly epic war on this distant planet. And there’s guns with chainsaws attached to them.
And the gameplay?
It’s an over-the-shoulder, what we call third-person shooter game, in which the player is encouraged not just go running blindly into combat, he has to… I would kind of describe it as a fast, yet tactical game, in which you take cover and really see your character on screen, kind of crouching behind concrete barriers in this beautiful, destroyed landscape of this pseudo-European architecture. The player is not only playing this Marcus Phoenix character, but he’s also is kind of the embedded war cameraman, following behind them, kind of in a panicky sense at a certain point.
You mentioned the guns with chainsaws on them, and the game also has characters who make linebackers look slim. It could be described as sort of testosterone distilled to its essence. Yet in other interviews you’ve mentioned that the Gears of War franchise also has an appeal to female gamers, much more so than other games you’ve made. That seems to be a contradiction, no?
This is purely from-the-hip, anecdotal evidence, but I swear that Gears has a decent [female] fan following, considering how masculine the characters are and how large they are. I believe it’s partially because the game is kind of a dark universe but it’s also a very beautiful universe, the vistas are gorgeous, the European architecture that’s been blown apart is just very attractive to look at. Yes, it’s about big bad ass guys with guns and chainsaws and big monsters, but we’re thinking there’s maybe just a little bit of heart, somewhere in there, amidst all the blood and mayhem, in regards to Dom’s story looking for his wife, in regards to the themes of loss and humanity being on its last stand. It’s one of those themes that has actually come to the forefront in regards to the ad campaign for both Gears 1 and Gears 2, in regards to contrasting the imagery they would use with the very sad, kind of independent music.
While most shooters of yore have been sort of first person, third person is coming into its own now. Were there any sort of interesting design challenges associated with creating third-person games in a world where most of the conventional shooter design wisdom has been garnered from first-person experience?
We took a lot of the pseudo-first-person controls and applied them directly to a third-person game. When you target your gun, kind of like in a traditional first-person shooter, you ramp your iron sights. But in Gears, Marcus raises his gun and it’s almost like you’re going into first person when you’re shooting in the game, and then when you’re moving around, you’re seeing the character more, but when you aim, you are looking more down the barrel of the gun. Continuing along those themes, we didn’t want to see the character running towards the camera, which is a mistake a lot of third-person shooter type games make. It’s like, I don’t need to see this guy running at me with a gun pointing at me like he’s going to shoot me; instinctively, that’s something that’s an unpleasant thing to actually witness, so if you press back on the stick, the character actually just backs up, and then he can stray left and right, and very much controls like a traditional first-person shooter. Just make sure the camera doesn’t screw up, which is also its own challenge when you make a game like that.
I personally wasn’t struck by the first game. This second one is very similar but I liked it significantly more. I’ll go into the reasons for that in my review, but for now, assuming we have readers who played the first game and maybe weren’t really caught up in it, what did you put into the second game to insure that people who didn’t really like the first game would have a reason to go back and try again?
We spent a little more time on story. It’s not to say that this is Shakespeare by any means. It’s still very much kind of a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer type of production. Just a little more time on letting the characters breathe a little bit, in regards to kind of getting to know them a little bit better. We’ve allowed a little bit more color to bleed through in regards to the visuals of the game. We have a lot more environmental variety, especially in regards to set pieces. The goal, from the moment you fire up the title screen to the moment the end credits roll, is to give you something that’s basically a rollercoaster movie trilogy and that just never lets up. The goal has always been to see how can we get the player’s hands sweaty on his controllers so we know his pulse is up and we know that he is engaged. Judging by the reviews and the reaction, it seems like we’ve done that.
I don’t want to give anything away, because it would be a spoiler, but there’s a sequence during the last part of the game where it plays a bit differently. I won’t explain it, but to draw a comparison, in my review of Metal Gear Solid 4, I gave the game some flak for going from a decent sneaker to a mediocre rail shooter for certain periods. What made you decide to shift play genres during that sequence, and what did you do to ensure that you wouldn’t fall into the trap of having a good game in one genre with bad game sequences in another genre?
I think everything comes down to execution. If you look at a game like Grand Theft Auto, it’s a sum of its parts in regards to adventure elements, story elements, shooting elements, driving, things like that. Whenever you make a game that’s more of a straight-up shooter, like Gears, we have these sequences we call “palate cleansers,” which are like the sorbets of a nice meal that break up everything. It’s one of those things where we let the player forget about the core combat loop of shooting and taking cover just long enough so he drives a tank for 20 minutes or something like that, so when he gets back to the cover combat, he’s like, “Oh, I kind of missed this a little bit.” This is a moment of empowerment so it’s ultimately very satisfying for the player.
And now, the review …
GEARS OF WAR 2
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Gears of War 2 is the highly polished, well executed blockbuster sequel to 2006’s highly polished, well executed blockbuster Gears of War. It bears a strong resemblance to other highly polished, well executed annual blockbuster shooter games. As an iteration of an established formula, it delivers exactly what it promises: action, gore, spectacle, and guns with chainsaws on them. As blockbuster shooters go, it’s better than most.
You probably know whether you want it by now.
Cliff helpfully introduced the mechanics in such detail above that I don’t need to do my usual “For those of you unaware” paragraph, so let’s get to the meat of this thing. I played through most of the game on co-op mode, rather than single player. I played enough on single player to know the teammate A.I. doesn’t suck. As a rule, I thought the game was made well. Many online reviewers comment on the story or dialogue being stupid. I don’t really agree. Marcus Phoenix occasionally says stupid, stupid things, but Marcus Phoenix is a huge asshole, and projects the impression of being too tired and pissed off to waste effort thinking of witty insults.
I do have a couple of issues with the game, and the biggest issue I have is confined to the way co-op plays during a particular stretch of game. Specifically, throughout the two-player co-op campaign game (three- and four-player co-op is horde mode only), player one is Marcus Phoenix and player two is Dominic Santiago. Should Marcus or Dom be disabled, the other is usually close enough to revive his teammate, except during the short sequences where they split up and if one gets gibbed by explosives. During the split sequences, usually each takes a different path—one wades into combat while the other snipes, for example. During the end game, there’s a lengthy split sequence where both must travel along dull, parallel hallways filled with difficult enemies. This killed my co-op playthrough, because instead of being able to help each other, my partner and I were hindering each other—either he’d be playing well, and I’d die, and we’d both have to restart from the beginning, or vice-versa. Separated, we couldn’t revive each other. Instead of co-op, it was two parallel single-player games where each of us was punished for the mistakes of the other. We played this one hallway for an hour or so, and then my partner left, tired and bored. I can’t blame him. This is the single most objectionable piece of bad design in the game, which I suppose is a compliment.
Otherwise, it’s all good. I would have a very hard time telling anyone he or she made a bad choice picking this one up.
STEPHEN LEA SHEPPARD