From the patio, Bleszinski led us to a conference room fittingly called the Sniper Nest. There we were to bear witness to a meeting of department heads previewing the latest build of the Gears 2 level, "Assault," the highlights of which would to be spliced into the first public showing of Gears 2's gameplay. The mission puts players in the thick of this invasion force as they escort a fleet of massive trucks ("derricks") to "Landown," where they will activate their "grindlifts" (described by Bleszinski as "express elevators to hell") and deploy their cargo of Gears into the heart of enemy territory. If it sounds like there's a lot going on here, you're absolutely right.
But levels like "Assault" don't spring forth, fully formed, from the prodigious mind of Cliff Bleszinski. Like any complex work of collaborative art, they're the result of thousands of minute decisions - both individual and collective - that contribute to the elusive quality known only as "feel." With most of "Assault" already quite polished and fully playable, nailing the feel was the first order of business.
Aside from receiving the disclaimer that what we were seeing was very much a work in progress, we remained wholly invisible throughout the meeting. No hand-holding, no marketing speak, just a group of professionals doing the mundane work of squeezing every last ounce of badass out of their combined creative output. It's a side of game development few of us ever get to see: the process of building a AAA blockbuster entertainment extravaganza reduced to spreadsheets, raised hands and the occasional murmur of appreciation at what they'd wrought.
The current build of "Assault" was not entirely without bugs - some more comical than annoying. The most fearsome enemy wasn't among the Locusts, but rather the trees. A convoy of massive derricks attempting to cross a lightly wooded field would stop dead in their tracks from a few resilient saplings. The temporary fix was simply to shoot them, knocking them over with a disturbingly incongruous spray of blood. One of the developers did his best impression of Dizzy, a backwoods-yokel conscript who joins Fenix's squad in the course of Gears 2's story. "You gotta shoot these trees or we're done for!" he drawled.
For the Gears 2 team, however, even features that seemed perfectly polished had room for improvement. They paid particular attention to the violent camera-shake when the player's derrick collided with one the Locusts had commandeered. The fluidity and responsiveness of the camera was one of Gears 1's greatest achievements, but something didn't feel quite right to the team about this particular instance. The potential solution? Animate a half-dozen more camera movements, including one that responds to in-game audio.
It was equally important for the development team to establish and preserve a realistic sense of scale, especially since terrain in "Assault" is far more open and expansive than any previous Gears level. At one point, hundreds of individual Locusts pour out of a newly opened sinkhole, swarming the derricks. But without any frame of reference in the background, the shock of confronting a force of this size wasn't as forceful as it could have been. The developers seized upon these moments with aplomb, implementing minor tweaks to great effect.