The combination of a machine gun and a chainsaw was strange enough. Bolting them together into one futuristic weapon for the fictional soldiers of Sera helped make 2006's "Gears of War" the biggest Xbox 360 franchise this side of "Halo."
Now a sequel is out, launched last week with midnight events in New York City and Los Angeles. And an even stranger combination is central to this new "Gears" game: a bloody, violent, M-rated action adventure mixed with ... romance.
There are no fresh flowers, boxes of chocolates or much else that's softer-edged than a revving chainsaw in "Gears of War 2," but the game does indeed have a love story. Protagonist Marcus Fenix spends a portion of the game trying to help fellow soldier Dom track down his wife, Maria, who is assumed to be captured by the series' enemy invaders, the Locust.
"Putting a little bit of heart in a shooter that's full of all sorts of brutality that people are used to?" pondered "Gears" chief designer Cliff Bleszinski in a phone interview with MTV News. "It's kind of a good priority to have, I think. ... If everything in the game is so badass and nasty, then you just lose perspective. It's like a person who just yells all the time."
"Gears of War 2" reaches the Xbox 360 in the wake of its 5 million-selling predecessor and on the back of game-development studio Epic, which has tried to make the best-looking, best-designed action game on the console.
In the process, Bleszinski and his team have tried, romance aside, to create the perfect red-meat game. They have introduced a longer campaign, this time offering an adventure that can take about a dozen mostly violent hours for one or two players to strategically duck and shoot though. They have beefed up multiplayer with a selection of competitive and cooperative modes aimed at doing what the first "Gears" didn't: challenging "Call of Duty" and "Halo" for popularity on Xbox Live. And they've carefully moved away from their comfort areas, keeping some favorite enemies out of the sequel, trying to tell a more involved story and using improved technology to, in at least one section, coat Marcus Fenix's squad in a car wash of blood. (Thankfully, that part has nothing to do with the love story.)
Making a second version of any major hit has its pitfalls, of which Bleszinski is well aware. He cited the second "Star Wars" film as an inspiration, but admitted a smart wariness of some other number twos. "['The Empire Strikes Back'] is the obvious one that everyone goes to, because it's darker," he said. " 'Dark Knight' as well — doing what the first one did but also having a darker twist on it and going places the first one wouldn't have had the ba--s to go and also doing everything on a larger scale. I think 'Aliens' is also a great one. Seeing dozens or hundreds of Locust pouring out of a hole, whereas in the first 'Alien,' it was just an alien, basically. ... I wouldn't say 'Predator 2' or 'Robocop 2' or any of those. Although we do have our share of '80s Stallone and Schwarzenegger winks and homages and whatnot."
For all the machismo of the "Gears" series, its oft-quoted lead creator never fails to give a thoughtful explanation for what's in the games.
Why is Marcus Fenix bigger and more muscular than athletes who fail drug tests? Because it's easier for players to identify the movements of a larger protagonist, Bleszinski explained.
Why is the game so bloody and violent? "It's a tool that we as game designers use to indicate success, first and foremost," he said. "When I play a game and I shoot an enemy and little sparks fly out, I'm like, 'Really? Really?' The reason blood is used — and it's obvious — is because there's not a lot of straight-up pure red in the 'Gears' palette. So when we use that, you know that you've done something and that it's an indication of victory. When a person blows into bits ... and makes a mess, it's very clear that you've succeeded rather well."
And why did the development team try so hard to make the sequel's animation and graphics even better, when the original game is still considered one of the best-looking titles on the 360? Because all the graphical improvements help "make a very fun core loop of gameplay. It's the little stuff, man. It's the cuff links."
"Gears of War 2" is out now and a sequel seems just about assured. A movie is on the way, but Bleszinski won't spill any details. And as for his future? "Doing a few games in a series is cool," he said. "Once you start getting up to four, five, six, sometimes creatively it can be not only tricky but difficult." He's got other universes he'd also like to bring to life. And in due time, he'll get to them, introducing however many buckets of blood and however many dollops of romance it takes to bring them to life.
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