Chris Perna, lead artist at Epic Games, tells Peter Rizkalla how Gears of War 2 raises the bar with more graphical richness and complex animation.
Name a game right now that you love to play. Why do you love that game? Because it's a great game; it keeps you coming back to play it over and over again.. A good example of the kind of game I'm talking about would be the first Gears of War; great gameplay, it looked beautiful and it created a fan following from nothing. The only problem with the first Gears is that it would be really tough to top it.
Meanwhile, the hype following Gears of War 2 has been huge and Epic has definitely kept the fans appetites whet by constantly revealing new aspects of Gears 2 even before it was released. Now that Gears 2 is out and millions of hours are being spent playing it on Xbox LIVE, I got to sit down with Chris Perna, the lead artist at Epic Games, to talk about the development of Gears 2.
The first thing you notice about Gears 2 is that Epic definitely intended to stick with the "Destroyed Beauty" theme from the first Gears of War; after all, this is the sequel. The environments are sophisticated and unique but not so unique that the player would be unable to relate to it. For example, even though everything in the world looks like nothing you've ever seen, you can still recognize destructible object or cover points. Also, even though Gears 2 retains the same "feel" of Gears 1, there is, graphically, more richness and significance in Gears 2. "Environments and characters have been designed to feel heavy and weighted with lots of worn pieces to complement the theme of destroyed beauty." says Perna. "On the art side, we revisited many of the characters and creatures from Gears 1. Marcus was redone and given a higher polygon count, better shaders, new animations, etc. Most of the weapons were tweaked to add more polygons and adjust the shaders as well."
Gears of War 2 has also been given a much broader range of colors this time around, according to Perna. You won't see a rainbow splash across the screen, but you will notice new colors being used for shrubbery, buildings and the many different species of Locust. Even Marcus' eye color is more apparent. That's the kind of subtle improvement that goes unnoticed but is appreciated as a whole as you play through the game. "I think all this combined with the hard work of the team helped create the richness and increase the visual fidelity [of Gears 2]," adds Perna.
In terms of animation, Gears of War 2 can be used as a standard of balance between animation and motion capture. Epic Games' animators worked extremely close with motion capture talent to create an outstanding display of work. Everything from facial animations to character animations and melee attacks to the chunks of flaming meat that fly through the air as enemies are blown apart have been painstakingly animated to create an experience that is satisfying and dramatic but not so dramatic as to not be believable. All of this rests on the physics-y goodness of Epic's 'homemade' game engine, the Unreal Engine 3. "If the game is the circus, Unreal Engine 3 is the ring leader. It runs the show. Everything we do relies on the engine and its capabilities. Animations, shaders, textures, 3D meshes, characters, lighting, levels, AI, gameplay, etc. The engine brings all those pieces together and makes the game not only possible, but amazing." says Perna.
The first Gears of War touted outstanding and "revolutionary" gameplay as well as graphics, so the real question now is: "Has the gameplay in Gears 2 been made better or worse?" Everything that made the gameplay great in Gears 1 has been brought back with a bunch of new abilities that fit like a glove in the Gears 2 world. A new feature that is definitely turning into a fan favorite is the ability to finish off your opponents in new ways. After laying waste to a wave of Locust grubs, which are the humanoid type of Locust and the most common type, you will find that most of them have been turned into heaps of bodies while others will be injured and slowly crawling away from the insane mess. The whole idea of crawling is also new to Gears 2. In the first Gears, a downed enemy could be finished off with a curb-stomp but finding the downed enemy was a pain because they wouldn't move; they just sat there lifeless.
New weapons have been added to the Gears universe as well. Players will now come across some truly awesome weapons of devastation such as the poisonous Ink Grenade, a flamethrower, the Mulcher, which is like a portable turret and the Boom Shield. The Boom Shield can be carried around while wielding a pistol or it can be planted into the ground to use as a cover point while wielding larger guns. New gameplay modes have also been introduced to Gears 2; the newest in particular is the Horde Mode. "Horde is a crazy five-man co-op that puts you and your buddies up against wave after wave of the voracious Locust Horde. It's a blast!" contends Perna. There are a total of 50 levels in Horde mode and I can honestly say that they are painful! The all-around multi-player experience has been refined; in fact, most of these refinements came from the PC version of the first Gears of War. A lot of complaints from gamers stemmed from problems in the first Gears for Xbox 360 that were answered in the PC version.
The fact is, Gears of War 2 is a sophisticated shooter that completely redefines the entire shooter genre and raises a standard that the game industry will have to meet for years. And Epic intends to support Gears of War 2 with new additions and refinements as time goes by."The unbridled enthusiasm everyone has for the project made it fairly easy to come to work every day," Perna offers. "We wanted to make a bigger, better, more impactful and more beautiful game, and I think we achieved that hands down."
Peter Rizkalla is a life long enthusiast of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in various videogame companies such as THQ, Namco and 2K Games and avidly attends many game conferences such as E3 and E for All. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.