Gears of War 2: Dark Corners Hands-On PreviewBy Andrew Pfister - Posted Jul 21, 2009
Shaded by a blanket of deep green pine trees and tucked away in a sleepy corner of Cary, North Carolina, the offices of Epic Games don't exactly exude the same sense of energetic violence that made Unreal Tournament and Gears of War the blockbuster franchises they are. Maybe it's the summertime humidity and backed-up freeway that drive the company's designers to envision things like guns with chainsaws and giant city-destroying worms, because as we found out on our trip to see the new downloadable content package "Dark Corners" for Gears of War 2 (available July 28), the city of Cary is downright peaceful.
Perhaps we weren't there long enough to get the full North Carolina experience, but we did have enough time to take a tour of Epic's existing studio, as well as the new construction they're working on to accommodate their ongoing expansion -- if their main building was the "House that Unreal Built," this is assuredly "The Summer Home That Gears Financed." We also sat down to chat with company founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, design director Cliff Bleszinski, and executive producer Rod Fergusson. The topics ranged from what makes good content for an expansion pack, the best (and worst) of Internet communities, and what the games industry has in store for the next five to ten years...but first things first, we played through "Road to Ruin," the Gears 2 deleted chapter included with Dark Corners.
Highway to Hell
We begin with what we'll dub the "Maria" scene in the latter half of Gears 2, as to not give anything away (but if you're reading about additional content for Gears 2, chances are good you've played through it already, so don't be sensitive about spoilers!). Marcus and Dom are underground, plowing their way through the Locust hollow when the opportunity arises to gear up in Theron armor and sneak through the defensive line, a very un-Gear-like thing to do. Using the game's path-decision process, you can then choose how you want to go through the next scenario: left trigger lets you sneak around, right trigger is the kill-'em-all approach.
If you're still cringing at the thought of shoe-horned stealth in your Gears of War, Epic is one step ahead. "We didn't want to reinvent some sort of stealth mechanic, it's not a totally new game," says Fergusson. "It's about staying in cover and moving through the environment without getting spotted or getting too close to the enemy." What that means in practice is that the Locust are now blessed with working nostrils, and even though their cognitive and sight functions are severely lacking (a pair of Theron guards popping in and out of cover isn't suspicious?), your foul human stench is enough to set off the alarms.
But this isn't old-school Splinter Cell -- just because you get spotted doesn't mean you have to restart. "I'm personally not a fan of games that have this kind of black and white of success or failure for sneaking," Bleszinski explains. "It ultimately winds up to this game design where as you're going through this level and one guys sees you, the previous 20 minutes are completely invalidated and there's no way of recovering."
That wouldn't make sense in Gears, which is why if you happen to get too close to a patrolling Locust, he'll sniff out his suspicions, alert his buddies, and open fire. Then it's time to scramble for cover and clear the area in the traditional, blood-everywhere/active-reloading way. With the battle zones sectioned off by giant sound-proof walls, you can resume your attempts at being sneaky in the next area. The scene starts off slowly, so slowly in fact that it felt very weird to be playing Gears of War and not be shooting something. And while it was definitely an interesting way to weave through the Locust, it got me wondering just how long I could go without firing a round, and if Epic was asking too much of my -- and by extension, other gamers' -- patience.
"I think it's a departure," admits Fergusson. "It was sort of tricky for us, too, because most of the time you see the Locust, they're just charging straight ahead at you and guns firing and yelling at you, so [the challenge was] how would the Locust move and interact in a way that you can stand amongst them and see what they're doing...that was actually part of the bigger challenge, trying to convey a little more than just combat."
But after pulling levers to open giant doors and lowering concrete blocks as distractions, the game eventually transitions back into familiar Gears gunplay, including a climactic open-area, multi-wave ambush to conclude the scene.
Not having prior knowledge of Road to Ruin's length, I was surprised to be done with the stealth path in little over 30 minutes (my second playthrough running-and-gunning was at a slower, savory pace). And anyone who has been around the Internet for a while knows that gamers can get...sensitive when it comes to game value as it pertains to length (also: everything else).
Cul-de-Sac to Complaining
As we've watched this console generation play out, the expectations for downloadable content vary from publisher to publisher, developer to developer, and player to player. What's deemed substantial and fairly-priced by one can be seen as a "cheap cash-in" by the more cynical, and as a developer with an active and vocal community, finding that sweet spot can be difficult.
"In terms of what we're doing with Dark Corners, we really wanted [Road to Ruin] to be seen as sort-of bonus content -- for the price of Dark Corners, you're getting 7 multiplayer maps...the whole idea of this chapter is really more of a bonus, there's no cost to it at all." That's Fergusson, quickly dispelling any argument that Epic's trying to pick up a neat extra off the cutting room floor and pass it off as a whole new story. And when played as you might watch a deleted scene or extended cut of a favorite movie, Road to Ruin is definitely put in a better context.
But he doesn't rule out expanding the Gears universe in a meatier way through future DLC. "We've always talked about, even from the Gears 1 days when Baird and Cole go off in the factory and the sewers...it'd be really cool as a player to go and play that mission. We're definitely talking about stuff like that, but it's about what the team's focused on."
With a healthy supply of implied backstory and a growing pool of supplementary fiction to work with (we're up to two books now), there's definitely a lot of life left in the Gears franchise, even beyond what eventually Gears of War 3 turns out to be. And it seems that the future will be shaped more and more by the community. Filtering feedback, though, is a process.
"It's great to get player feedback in any form, whether it's the forums or e-mails or going out on press events...we've always been focused on making sure the silent majority is represented even though the vocal minority is in your face. But the vocal minority has a lot of very valid points."
That vocal minority has been busy since the launch of Gears 2 last November, taking aim at the game's more annoying bugs and sometimes-erratic netcode -- just another example of the sea change occurring as games ship with longer shelf lives in mind. On the subject of how much control the community has over the development (and continued support) of Gears 2, multiplayer lead Jim Brown understands the importance. "We're constantly scouring the forums, tracking gameplay trends, playing online, and recording user opinions and emergent strategies." This is a process that now begins before the game even ships, Brown continues, "Our pre-release QA is fully integrated with testing in the field...We also organize real world testing across Live prior to release and get as many people involved as possible." Whether or not that's enough to appease the dedicated, perceptive player who notices more than the silent majority might remains to be seen. But it's clear that the dialogue is vital.
Turnpike to Teamwork
Our day at Epic concluded with a stress-relieving, wisecracking tour of the 7 new multiplayer maps that comprise the core of the Dark Corners package. Using a round of Annex as an excuse to quickly tour the maps, it was difficult to tell how the team strategies will emerge (other than "if a G4 editor is on your team, pray"), but the locations and layouts were given plenty of attention.
"There was definitely some thought put into the settings," says Brown. "Highway and Way Station are both set in the Locust underground to coincide with the deleted scene from the campaign, for example." And lumbering in the back of the Highway map is a massive Brumak, an atmospheric touch that carries through the rest of the maps. Like the skin-shredding precipitation from the Gears 2 map Hail, new map Nowhere features a vision-obscuring dust storm that provides fortuitous moments of natural cover. Which is good, because if you're going to attempt to reclaim a fortified rooftop, you're going to need all the help you can get.
This is an in-house Epic favorite, along with Memorial: a Gears of War setting with open courtyards, the Hammer of Dawn, and refreshingly blue skies. (It's Cliff's favorite, too, because "it feels like a new place I've never been to in the Gears universe.") Filling out the roster are Allfather's Garden, a memorial graveyard for fallen COGs with lots of columns, small stairwells and gated chokepoints; and then the two refurbished maps from the first Gears of War. War Machine returns as a fan favorite ("Overwhelming," says Brown), and Sanctuary comes from the PC version in hopes it will catch a new set of eyes.
And while we exclusively played the Annex game type, the maps are built with everything in mind, and can even be altered slightly depending on the chosen mode. The gates in Allfather's Garden, for example, are closed off for Annex to funnel players toward the control points, but will be open for other modes.
Avenue to Anticipation
The day we returned from North Carolina, Microsoft accidentally leaked the Dark Corners pack for a very small window of time, but some fortunate and attentive Live Marketplace browsers jumped all over it, so the community is already at work devising the best strategies and paths to weapon locations (and probably already making a list of things they don't like). When you have a passionate audience, these things can happen. And hopefully, maybe, Epic will take it as a sign that more substantial single-player content would be very well received. Because really, Gears 3 is still a long wait.
Dark Corners will be available on Xbox Live Marketplace on July 28th, for 1200 Microsoft Points ($14.99 USD).