Crispy Gamer

REDACTED: The Gears of War 2 Preview

"There is that gamer out there, I don't really understand him, who skips every cut scene and roadie runs all the time. I don't get it."

I'm talking to Rod Fergusson, senior producer of Gears of War 2. We're both slumped in comfortable chairs, bathing in the glow of high-definition monitors in the Embarcadero ballroom of the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. The room is crammed with screens and Xbox 360 units for a three-day Microsoft press event. Earlier in the week I had the opportunity to play through the entire Gears of War 2 campaign. Today we're spending the day test-driving the game's new "Horde" cooperative multiplayer mode in the classic map "Mansion." I moved through the decrepit gardens and rotting innards of Marcus Fenix's childhood home -- one of the last areas players experienced in the original Gears of War. Bunkered down in one corner of the gardens, defending our position from multiple directions, I couldn't help but think of the place's significance. This old mansion is a relic from Fenix's past. It's one puzzle piece in a larger story. I realized that we haven't seen many of the pieces.

Between me and Fergusson begins a casual, spoiler-laden discussion about the story I experienced days earlier. We talk about everything from the fate of [REDACTED] to the big blowout on the [REDACTED] at the end of the game. I play devil's advocate. "Maybe some people always skip the story because the stories in most videogames they played were kinda shitty."

Fergusson laughs knowingly. He, like any gamer, has played his share of games with less-than-stellar narratives. "If you have a game with great gameplay but bad story, you still have a great game," he says. "With a movie, if you have a bad story you have a bad movie."

Vehicle sequence
This vehicle-based sequence is the first of many action blowouts.

That's why I'm so comfortable talking to this man almost exclusively about the guys behind the guns and the places where all the blazing gunfights take place. The stop-and-pop gameplay in Gears of War was already near pitch-perfect. This team has its shit together when it comes to nailing the mechanical stuff -- Gears of War 2 is a taut experience. I liken the sum total of the game to somehow riding all the rides in Disneyland in one go. One moment you're barreling down a waterfall in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean boats, the next you're soaring through the sky in a Star Tours shuttlecraft. The game is one great action set piece after another -- expertly strung together by a lean story that never crowds the action. Fergusson goes into specifics, likening the big action blowouts to sorbet between courses of a meal. "The [REDACTED] and the [REDACTED] and the [REDACTED] stuff," he tells me, are "all just breaks -- to cleanse your palate, so you're more willing to go back to shooting again."

"That's what we really liked," Fergusson says, "Do something really cool, then go back to the shooting for a while." And yet there was fear that they'd crammed too many wild action scenes into a game that is, ostensibly, about gunplay. "For a little while, during development we were like, 'do we have enough [hardcore] gameplay?'"

Any doubts were unfounded. There's plenty of gunplay in Gears of War 2. And every time you crouch behind a barrier to take cover, it feels like you're doing it in someplace altogether new. The scenery feels more varied and frequently brighter when compared to the shadowy urban ruins and subterranean caverns of the original. "We didn't want people to think the game was a cave crawl," Fergusson says. "You get tired, visually tired, if you're too long underground and all you're seeing is cave walls." I interject, mentioning the blue skies and verdant mountainsides of the game's first act. The sequence where Marcus and Delta Squad first encounter [REDACTED] feels like it takes place in the Pacific Northwest on a sunny spring day. Fergusson recalls some company research on the matter: "When you read Microsoft usability testing of Halo, their favorite level of all time is the fight on the beach with blue sky." That's why the team behind Gears of War 2 made sure to include more than a couple beautiful environments to counter the more dreary locales. "People like pretty environments -- especially the contrast, I think, of high violence and beautiful scenery. I think people get off on that."

Tai
Tai, one of the new faces in Gears of War 2.

So you've got great gunplay. And you've got great action. The last bit of the formula, and the stumbling point for so many other games, are things like drama and motivation. Fergusson and his team tried to up the emotionality this go-around without getting too heavy-handed. To that end they've injected one hell of a plot point into the game's opening moments -- Dom's wife Maria. Like any soldier during uncertain times, he longs to see her again. A good part of the game is about his efforts to reunite with his lost love; luckily the trail of breadcrumbs follows the same path Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad take in their fight against the Locust.

Despite this new personal angle on the action, Gears of War 2 doesn't dip into the emo depths of the Final Fantasy series. "That was a concern with Dom," Fergusson admits. "It's all walking a fine line. It's all discovery for us. How dark can we go before people say, 'I don't like him anymore because he's Mr. Somber.'"

Still, players will see at least a couple of the members of Delta Squad in new light. That's one of the benefits of working with characters that fans have already accepted into their lives -- you get to deepen them a little. "In [Gears of War] Marcus would have never [REDACTED]." Fergusson says of a subtle moment where Fenix drops his gruff attitude for a split second and shows a glimmer of sensitivity. In the first game, he points out, "that shit never happened."

Locust
Cole debates which quip he'll use once he's carved this Locust in two.

As we talk, our conversation is briefly overwhelmed by the screaming of nearby game journalists. There are a couple of multiplayer matches happening around us, and the heated competitions result in more than a few shouted expletives and cheers of triumph. Don't let all this talk of character motivation and storytelling overshadow the fact that Gears of War 2 is a balls-out actioner. If any of the game's characters epitomizes this vibe, it's Augustus "Cole Train" Cole. Some critics took umbrage with Cole's bravado, and a couple suggested that his character was treading in the territory of stereotype.

Rod Fergusson is adamant in his defense of Cole. He reminds me that the soldier was a gridiron pro before he signed up with the Cogs. "Cole, when he's in battle, is on the football field. His energy and enthusiasm is what carries him through -- and everybody else through." Cole makes his entrance [REDACTED] when Delta Squad are [REDACTED]. It's a great moment that takes unique advantage of his boisterous personality. "Have you watched a football game? Nobody says that Cole is going home to his wife and slamming her on the shoulders like 'YEAH! LET'S DO THIS! WHAM!'" he says. "Each one of these games represents 36 hours in the life of a person. You're not seeing them on their off day. That's how he copes and how he deals with it."

Cole
That's Cole in the forward gunner's seat.

What started as a quick break in gameplay has stretched to an improvised lunch break. I scarf a sandwich and swill a Diet Coke while grilling the game designer. Our interview session became formal midway through the conversation when I whipped out my digital recorder. I'm torn between opportunities. I want to keep playing Gears of War 2: The game is damn fun. But I've also got a great opportunity here. How often does one get to play a game, then turn around and talk in-depth with one of the creators of the game?

I swallow my last bite of focaccia to take advantage of the moment. We start talking about the big picture. The meat of the plot. I note that Gears of War 2 doesn't slam the player with revelations, lore and backstory. There's a lot of mystery. Things go unsaid.

"We wanted to make sure we weren't doing a 'Lost' thing -- that all we were doing was opening questions and never providing answers," Fergusson says. "It felt like [REDACTED] was a great one," he says. "And also exposing or revealing the [REDACTED] to be [REDACTED]." (The game's two big reveals.) "We felt like those were two areas where we could actually provide some closure -- answer some questions."

Still, for every answer we get, two more questions are posed. I realize that the world of Sera has more than few tales to tell -- some of which will be tackled by a forthcoming novel and comic book.

"It's a very broad world," Fergusson teases; "There are still lots of things to question."

Dom
Hey, Dom. I think the plot is this way.

And despite all run-ins with the Locust, we still don't know all that much about the enemy. Fergusson insists that the secrecy is very intentional -- a way to keep the bad guys scary and keep us, the good guys, feeling like we're continually in peril. "There's this fine line when dealing with monsters. A monster's only a monster as long as you don't know what it is."

After my talk with Rod Fergusson, I rustle up four more game journalists for another round of "Horde" multiplayer. These big enemy grubs, with their thick necks, pale skin and nasty weaponry, remain frightening. I roadie run into the heat of battle, slamming my back against a wall and reload my Lancer. Behind me are a half-dozen baddies out for my blood. I find myself glad -- no, relieved -- that there's a slab of concrete between me and them.

This feature is based on hands-on gameplay at a Microsoft media event.