Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer « LimitlessUnits.com

Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Gears of War 2 Box Cover

I finally made time to play through the campaign of developer Epic’s Gears of War 2 and wanted to share my thoughts on the game. I will begin by saying that this post is not so much a review of the game as a slightly more organized version of my notes taken while I was playing the game. With that being said, there will be spoilers. Continue reading at your own risk.


Gears of War 2 continues the nearly non-existent story of Gears of War. The Locust horde has been sinking entire cities and steadily pushing humanity back. The game begins with humanity clinging to their last stronghold of Jacinto and the Gears setting out on a counter-offensive to prevent their last bastion from being undermined.

In the following sections I will outline the aspects, levels and events in the game that left a more lasting impression on me.

A nice lengthy starting video helps to catch the player up on the setting and events. This video is something I felt was missing from the original Gears of War and does a great job in establishing the setting.

After the video, the player gains control of the protagonist Marcus Fenix and can choose to go through training or skip it entirely. Training is handled in a very novel way. Fenix takes on the training of a rookie recruit. The player, as Fenix, orders the rookie to perform each of the game’s mechanics, before the player performs the actions himself. The advantage of this is twofold. The first is that it maintains that Marcus Fenix, being a badass veteran, does not need training.

The second is that as Fenix orders the rookie around, the rookie AI shows the player the action before the player has to perform it himself. For example, Fenix will bark out, “show me how to take cover rook!” The AI takes cover and the player is shown how it is done, before he performs the maneuver himself. If you want to see another great tutorial that uses the AI to show the player the mechanics and controls of the game, look at Lost Planet.

The first real level of the game takes place in a hospital and starts out fairly slowly on the action quotient. The interior corridor setting does do the job of familiarizing the player to the basic cover mechanics without a lot of distractions. The developers placed dynamic flat panel monitors on top of the desks used for cover. The well-placed monitors were often shot off during the firefights and gave the action sequences more movement. The other thing that I noticed was when certain events occurred that would bring you closer to an accumulation achievement, such as performing 30 Active Reloads, the game would display a progress indicator to show you how far you are along to gaining the achievement. While I generally do not go out of my way for achievements, I found that these indicators would dictate the way I played the game. I would purposely keep specific weapons in order to get the achievements. I have a feeling this will not be the last time we see this mechanic used in other games. Epic also replaced their collectible dog tag system from the original Gears of War with a journal collection that serves the same function as dog tags, but they also give the player additional back-story in text format.

The one great bane of developers in first and third person shooters is that when we place down scripted events, we can never guarantee the player will witness the moment because we have no control over where the player’s camera is facing. Gears of War got around this problem by inventing the third-person-look-at (Y button) mechanic. This ensured that players knew where to go and are able to witness the scripted events that the developers spent so much time implementing.

One of the moments that are keyed off of Epic’s camera look-at-system is later in the mission when the action moves to the exterior. Locusts have taken over the high ground and are bunkered in on a turret. The turret is just out of the range of the weapons you have been introduced to at that point in the game. Just when the hail of fire from the enemy turret becomes frustrating a friendly helicopter flies in and takes out the enemy turret. The Y Button pops up on the screen during the event and when pressed by the player moves your camera to frame the event ensuring that none of the action is missed.

Another annoying thing about having friendly units with the player in other shooters is that when they run in front of your gunfire, they always scream at you like it is your fault for hitting them. This is different in Gears of War 2 in that when Marcus Fenix shoots his friends he is the one that screams, “Would you get the fuck out of the way please.” This really makes the player feel more like the hero.

Later in the game there is a sniper mini-game that was so well executed you just had to smile as you played it. There is a squad of Locusts who are moving and at range. A conveniently placed sniper rifle allows you to pick them off. Once you start firing, the surviving Locusts run off the screen out of your line of sight, which adds a timed element to the mini-game. Marcus counts out each kill with the sniper rifle. This mini-game did not have any bearing on the story, but it was just a simple moment that tests your sniping skills and was fun. More games need to add moments like these.

The next fun scene was when you are approaching a shut door and without cutting to a cinema the door opens on its own with a loud audio stinger and a bunch of creepers burst out of it rushing the player. This is one of those surprise moments that make you immediately slam down on the gun trigger and flail your weapon around spraying everything. Experiences like these remind me why I am a gamer.

The tank level had the player driving through a dark tunnel with the only illumination coming from the tank’s headlights. After landing the tank from a steep drop, the tank’s engines and lights malfunction and shut off. For several moments the only things you can hear are Locusts and then you begin to see the iridescent glow coming off their carapaces creeping closer. Meanwhile the tank’s crew is frantically trying to repair the tank. This was a suspenseful moment and was just awesome when the tank crew manages to fix the tank just in time.

During the locust queen’s castle mission you enter into a room where the enemies are not yet aware of your presence. There is a flamethrower-wielding locust on the bridge with his back turned to you. Since the player has already run into these locusts prior to this moment they have already been taught that these locusts carry flammable fuel in their backpacks for the flamethrowers that blow up if shot. In this case, if you shoot his pack he blows up and the bridge he is standing on collapses in glorious fashion with him. Having cool stuff happen when the player shoots is great because it almost guarantees that the player will see it.

There are a lot of different enemies in Gears of War 2. They vary greatly from one another in both their silhouettes and sizes, making them easy to differentiate from the varying types of enemies. The lesson here is that when each enemy type is dramatically different in size and silhouette it helps players quickly assess the threat of the situation and decide how to tackle the different scenarios designers create.

Chapter four of the last act is one of the most enjoyable levels because of how ridiculous everything is. As the game progresses the action continues to ramp up and by the end it is just out of control. This level has you falling through the floors of a building. You survive another falling building, which lands on its side and then you ride an elevator sideways through the building. It is so crazy, but you are having so much fun it that it does not even matter. The level ends with you and Dom commandeering a giant Brumak and using him as a mobile weapons platform to wreak havoc on the Locust hordes. It is just the absurd fun you can only have in a videogame.

The overall design theme of Gears of War 2 was unique and fun ways to introduce and use cover. This is a list of the different ways that I can remember that Epic introduced or had the player interact with cover.

  • A living rock worm that is attracted to red colored fruits that hung from the ceiling that the player can shoot down to entice the worm to move.
  • Player operated switches that turn cover on and off.
  • Enemies that attempt to remove your cover through the use of these switches.
  • Pillars that fall and create additional cover.
  • Rolling destroyed cars into place for cover.
  • The Boom Shield portable cover.
  • Picking up injured enemies to use as cover.

The sheer number of different locales and art pieces for the game are also amazing. Just off the top of my head.

  • Above ground forest
  • Hospital
  • Underground city
  • Underground cave
  • River
  • Inside the worm
  • Research facility
  • Snowy Forest and frozen lake
  • Locust home city
  • Jacinto city

All of the settings were very different and distinguishable from the others. The amount of art required to pull this off makes my head hurt. The artists at Epic are simply on another level.

The gameplay pacing was excellent. There was an incredible amount of gameplay variety and the designers constantly mixed things up so you never did anything for too long. There were on-foot segments, various vehicles that felt really different from each other, and rail shooting.

As I mentioned already, Gears of War 2 keeps outdoing itself over and over and reaches a great crescendo. The gameplay is lengthy and there was more than one time where I thought I was nearing the end of the game only to find the story twisted and offered so much more. The greatest accomplishment for this sequel was that I actually found myself caring about and getting involved with the story, which is really amazing considering how little I cared about the original Gears of War story.

Finally, it is very fitting that Gears of War 2 was EPIC. There are explosions, buildings collapsing and helicopters flying overhead everywhere you looked. You felt like you were part of a bigger war.

Issues I saw and improvements I would have liked to see in the game:

1. Bugs:

  • The number of obvious bugs that the game shipped with surprised me. While none of these were game breaking progression stoppers, I just expected better from Epic and because of these bugs the game does not feel polished. During my single play through of the campaign I saw all the geometry disappear and all the dynamic objects including people fall through, my squad warping everywhere in my line of sight dozens of times and lots of floating objects and players.
  • There are noticeable hitches when the game saves.
  • I saw Dom standing in front of a sentry gun blasting away at him and he just stood there not dying or even reacting.
  • The AI on a few occasions got hung up on static mesh and just kept running into walls over and over.
  • The flamethrower wielding AI would fire their short-ranged flamethrowers at me even when I was 200 meters away.
  • There are no interaction animations when carrying turret weapons. These include the kicking of doors and using switches. It is just bizarre when you are wielding a turret and the doors open by themselves. A minor issue, but noticeable nonetheless.

2. When you are alone, which happens very often in the game, the reviving mechanic does not work. In these segments, when you are injured, very often the enemy AI will ignore you after you have fallen and you are forced to wait until you bleed out and die before you are able to play again. This is very annoying. A very simple solution would have been to kill the player outright if there is no partner in the vicinity to rescue them.

3. Having the pick up a downed enemy to use as a human shield and the dive for cover move on the same button is just frustrating; especially when you accidentally do the opposite of what you intend to. The controller mapping on this is just bad. When an enemy is downed X, Y, and B buttons essentially have the same effect (different ways of killing the enemy). The only different option is on the A button (same button as dive), which picks up the downed enemy to use as a human shield. Having 3 options doing the same thing is redundant. Drop one of these killing moves and replace the button press with the human shield option. This would prevent the player from mistakenly diving when they mean to pick up a human shield or vice versa by only having the A button for dives.

4. Seeing the scene through Dom’s eyes as he is reunited with his wife is very jarring as the rest of the game is told through Marcus’ perspective. When telling a story, you have to be careful of not breaking the perspective from which the game is told.

5. The voice acting fluctuates in the game from bad to good. The voice actors for Dom and Carmine are noticeably worse than the rest of the cast.

6. Lastly, how does your robotic companion Jack just appear and disappear into and out of thin air like that?

I have to say that I am more than impressed by the game. Epic really outdid themselves on this title. The scope of the game and the variety of gameplay in Gears of War 2 is mind-boggling. I do not say this of many games, but the sheer amount of content in the campaign alone makes this game worth the $60.

My thoughts and impressions of the game were based off of a play through of the single-player campaign at the Casual difficulty.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
TapDefense Reviewed Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 at 5:19 am and is filed under Video Games. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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