Passing judgement on the new Gears of War
Baird and friends go back to where it all began, Emergence Day, in Gears of War: Judgment.
I'll be honest: the first time I heard about a new Gears of War title, following close behind the supposed conclusion of the story that was Gears of War 3, I was cynical. Oh dear, I thought, Epic is going to keep milking this cash-cow for as long as its teats hold out, so of course they're rushing out a new sequel.
Now, having sat down with Gears of War: Judgment and played quite a few hours of both the single-player campaign and the new multiplayer modes, I am happy to say I was wrong. This is a game that has a reason to exist, both in terms of story and in refinements to game mechanics.
A big part of what changed my mind was the lengthy chat I had with Jim Brown, Lead Level Designer at Epic Games. He's a veteran of the studio, having joined over a decade ago. "I joined during the crunch to ship Unreal Tournament 2003, so I've worked on everything since then," he told me. "I've worked on Gears pretty much since its inception, all the way up to this latest one."
An Imulsion rig is one of the new multiplayer levels.
Now, before you dismiss Brown as "just a level designer", you have to take into account Epic's flat organisational structure and inherently collaborative design processes. "Compared to other studios, Epic is still really, really small," Brown explained. "Everybody who works there is super-passionate, they really care about the franchises and games we're working on and throw themselves into it. Because of that, almost everybody is not specialised into doing just one thing."
Brown went on to give an example of this corporate multitasking. "I build levels, but I also write some of the story, and I've done audio design work. Everybody wears multiple hats. So we can say, hey, we're in pre-production and we need people who can build things really quickly. Later on when they need to make it pretty, the same person might then become an artist."
As such, Brown has worked on many aspects of the Gears franchise over many years, and says he is now "one of the keepers of the canon". "So I can jump in and say, 'No, they would never do that! That character doesn't behave that way!' We don't only build the environments, but also make sure the game systems operate, that they're fun, that sort of thing."
"Our design process is very collaborative. So we have the guys who make the engine go, and artists to make the pretty, then the designers put those together, taking the pieces they've built, putting them in the world, making sure all the systems are in place."
Judgment is a major departure from previous Gears titles in a multitude of ways. For one thing, it occurs much earlier in the story, acting as a prequel story to the original trilogy, set many years before at the beginning of the war against the Locusts. Additionally, regular protagonist Marcus Fenix is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the role of main action hero is taken by professional sarcastic bastard, Baird.
Choosing to centre a game around this acerbic personality seems an odd choice, and I mentioned this to Brown. "On its surface it might seem strange, but we have a very good relationship with our fans, and he's a fan favourite, due to the fact that he's the smart-mouth," he explained. "When you're playing the game, Baird's the guy who actually says what you're thinking."
"Also, in the expanded fiction, Marcus had his story with his father, Dom had his family, and in Gears 3 even Cole got to go back to his home town, but you never really knew anything about Baird. He wasn't in any of the books - well, there was a little bit in the last book - he wasn't in the comics, and so he's kind of a clean slate, and we can do whatever we want with him."
"Whatever we liked" turned out to be Emergence Day, the start of the war, when the Locusts suddenly erupted from beneath the ground and quickly overran the surface-dwelling humans. The story is framed by a court martial trial, in which Baird and his squad are made to give evidence to explain their actions on the battlefield. Each level is one squad member's testimony, with that character being the one that the player controls during single-player campaign. Players can also unlock a bonus campaign called Aftermath, which explains where Baird and Cole got those helicopters at the end of Gears of War 3.
The first things I noticed when I sat down to play Judgment was that it not only looks amazing - "We have new rendering features, we're pushing more polygons, more animations, and more characters on-screen," said Brown - but its pace is also much more fluid, quite snappy and dynamic instead of the old stop-and-start cover-based combat.
Brown explained that this was part of a design overhaul, intended to make the game play faster and be easier for new players to get into. "We streamlined everything a lot," he said. "We wanted to get rid of the roadblocks in the game, make sure people could spend more time playing." This was done in many ways, including picking up ammo for guns you are carrying by simply walking over it, shorter character animations for things such as chainsaw kills, and simplified grenade-throwing controls.
"Think about how you'd throw a grenade," Brown said. "Up on the d-pad, which is unreliable, hold the left trigger to aim, right trigger to throw... So now you can just hit the left bumper - no need to stop, and you don't even have to aim, you can just underhand toss while you're moving."
The new grenade-tossing is just one of a total overhaul of the control scheme. Instead of four weapons including grenades on the four points of the d-pad, you now switch between two guns with the Y button and throw grenades with the left bumper, either tapping for a quick throw or holding and releasing to get the aiming overlay.
"It's a more of a traditional control scheme, so you're average shooter player will be able to pick it up and run with it," Brown said. "We also wanted to get back into that intense dark feeling from the first Gears, and the controls was one of the many ways to do that."
This new design philosophy even extended to characters. "We went back and remodelled all of our characters to make them younger-looking, and we recorded all of our dialogue so that Cole isn't as war weary, not as tired," Brown told me. "As part of that you see Cole moving around a lot faster. So he feels a bit younger, too."
Multiplayer has also been revamped, with several new modes including a class-based Horde mode, called Survival, and a five-on-five class-based human-vs-Locust mode called OverRun. Judgment also features the gears franchise's first foray instead every-man-for-himself deathmatch play, with a mode called Free For All. I played a few rounds of this new mode and loved it - it's incredibly fast paced, with very little stop-and-pop cover-based shooting, but instead lots of lively, active combat.
Finally, I asked Brown why Gears needs a new game. The trilogy is finished, so why go back now? He shrugged and said, "It's such a big universe. We initially wanted to do a trilogy to tell that specific story. A lot of the stories in there are very personal to us, and they kind of run parallel to our own life stories (minus the end of the world and monsters coming out of the ground, of course). But yeah, specific relationships between the characters."
"I've got a decade of my life poured into this franchise," he concluded. "There's a lot of me in there, and I'm not done with it. There's a lot of room left to explore."
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez
This game is going to be really cool. Bulletstorm was awesome so I expect big things from this.
I might even loan my brother in law's 360 for the weekend.