Into the Sinkhole

Between Epic Games’ announcement of a Gears of War sequel at this year’s GDC and last Friday, there hasn’t been much information to provoke the ire or lust of the internet’s legion fanboys. Sure, we watched a metric ton of cubed meat jostle rhythmically to the beat of a few shotgun blasts and gazed in awe at Cliff Bleszinski’s pneumatic pelvic thrusts, but aside from the welcome addition of being able to lock chainsaws with your opponents in a kind of homoerotic lumberjack tango, new information about Gears 2 has been sparse. Nothing is accidental when multimillion dollar franchises are involved, however. When you’re developing the biggest 360-exclusive title of the year, you don’t ride the wave of hype – you create it.


It was only natural, then, for the savvy folks at Epic to invite The Escapist down the highway for a peek at the work that goes into the creation of a “bigger, better and more badass” Gears. Sure, we may not be a factor in any Metacritic rankings; we’ve hardly ever previewed a game in our nearly three years of operation; and most of the review titles we receive unbidden are based on Nickelodeon licenses. But if anyone can appreciate the hard work that goes into creating the perfect blood-spattered corpse, it’s a group of blithely ineffectual games-as-art snobs.

It’s about a 20-minute drive from The Escapist‘s crude hovel at the outskirts of Research Triangle Park to Epic World Headquarters. There are no outwardly visible logos to indicate that you’ve landed at the workplace of some of the most influential developers in the game industry, but the parking lot immediately raises eyebrows. BMWs, Italian imports, a stray Lotus here and there – this isn’t your local Wal-Mart.

We were greeted in the lobby by Dana Cowley, Public Relations Manager at Epic, followed by Cliff Bleszinski, Lead Designer and tour guide. As the public face of Epic, Bleszinski duties seem to extend far beyond tweaking enemy spawn patterns or balancing checkpoints; he’s the company’s resident “guy you’d wanna have a beer with,” always ready with a quip about the industry or what he’s been playing. He treated us to a brief trip around the office, including their state-of-the-art motion capture studio as well as their bizarrely pristine workout facilities.

We got to the patio overlooking a half-size basketball court, and it was down to business. With barely a pause for breath, Bleszinski delivered a concise synopsis of the plot of Gears 2: Humanity stands at the brink of annihilation after the Locust Horde discovers how to burrow mega-sinkholes beneath the last remaining human outposts. Refugees have taken shelter in Jacinto, the last remaining capital of the Coalition of Ordered Governments. With the locusts closing in beneath them, their only choice is to go on the offensive by sending forces deep within the planet’s crust to cut them off. He highlighted the most relevant information with the steady, confident tone of someone who has delivered the same pitch hundreds of times.

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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.

And while we were only privy to a single meeting, we got a feel for some small part of Epic’s “kitchen sink” approach to level design. After a group of Locusts spews forth en masse from a few emergence holes, containing nearly every type of unit from Boomers to Brumaks, a director suggested adding a few Reavers into the mix for good measure. Bleszinski hesitated. “Usually I’m pushing for more, but -” Someone finished his thought: “We’re getting to the point where we need to stop shoving stuff into the level.” The room briefly fell silent as the team pondered the implications of what had just been said.

The suggestion there could be such a thing as “enough” seemed oddly out of place in this room, at this building, among these people. Slowly the confused looks faded, nodding heads achieved critical mass and the team focused like a laser on the task of taking what was there and polishing it to a mirror shine. Normally this kind of push precedes a game’s release date by mere months, sometimes weeks, but here, almost half a year away from Gears 2‘s ship date, the team was being asked to cap the features and crunch. Gears 2‘s producer, Rod Fergusson, called it a mini-crunch, and says it focuses the team, many of whom have been working on Gears 2 since around the time Gears 1 shipped. So here they were, stepping out of the development cocoon for a brief moment in time to mini crunch on “Assault,” adding smoke effects here, chasing down a missing shotgun sound there, using the fine-tuning dial to hone in the badass.

In the level’s finale, the last remaining derricks are intercepted by a Brumak (the gigantic, heavily armed humanoid creature that makes a brief appearance in the original Gears). In the build of “Assault” we saw, the Brumak simply stood in place, waiting to be mowed down by the derrick’s on-board turret. But a couple directors wanted to take it further. “What if he was charging at you – would that be too much? Like a full-on suicide run. So it’s coming at you screaming and you’re hitting it with the gun and chunks of its face are flying off.” It’s not exactly Saving Private Ryan, but who says you can’t find inspiration in the gleefully absurd violence of a Schwarzenegger flick?


Once the level played all the way through, the designers traded notes, spreadsheet cells were filled in, reports filed, orders assigned and kills tallied. You could see the gleam in each set of eyes. This was their baby; they were proud to behold its badass, but the biggest problem seemed to be there was only one controller. If they all could have started playing, they would have.

Someone suggested they run it again – just to be sure they’d caught everything. They didn’t have to ask twice.

Jordan Deam is the Content Editor for The Escapist. He wrote this byline from Oslo, Norway.

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