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Feature: Truly Epic: Grinding the 'Gears Of War'

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Epic Games studio

Cary, in the US state of North Carolina, is in all fairness a pretty nondescript place. The town has all the usual trappings of the American way of life; three-lane highways filled with hulking SUVs, a landscape littered with branded restaurants and shopping malls, and the inevitable army of bulging waistlines. This is the real America, a million miles away from the more distinct cultural palates of San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. But this rather unassuming location is where one of the most-acclaimed video game universes was birthed: Gears Of War. As the multi-million selling, third-person shooter trilogy reaches its climax this autumn, Digital Spy visited developer Epic Games to meet the people behind the phenomenon that is Gears of War.

Approaching the building housing Epic at first promises few surprises; it's a typical office block on a typical estate. That all changes upon entering the lobby, upon being welcomed by a whole host of distinct curios - a display cabinet housing a full-size Lancer assault rifle, a giant two-storey-high character model from Unreal Tournament (Epic's first-person shooter series) and enough merchandise to sink a battleship. The Gears of War franchise has sold more than 13 million copies to date, making it the third most successful series on Microsoft's Xbox 360. Pre-orders for Gears of War 3 surpassed one million last month, making it the fastest pre-ordered game in the console's history.

Epic Games studio
Gears of War 3 wraps up the story of Marcus Fenix and his band of drop-outs, battling the grisly Locust horde. Epic has attached the tagline "brothers to the end" to the third story, as this is the moment that Fenix and co must survive in a world where civilisation has collapsed and all bets are off. After the horrific situation with his wife in Gears of War 2, the now-bearded Dominic Santiago has nothing left to live for but the desire to kill, while controller Anya, previously just a disembodied voice, has been forced to pick up a Lancer and join the fight. The game also ushers in a new threat in the shape of the Lambent, a twisted race of mutated monsters that are equally hated by the Locust as the humans.

Lee Perry, senior gameplay designer at Epic Games, has worked on Gears of War since the series was first conceived almost ten years ago. Perry said that the team was "caught off guard" by the critical acclaim and massive success of the first game after it was released in 2006. But the studio caught a hint that they were onto something special in their first demonstration at E3 in LA.

"We showed the game in a back room to the press. It was the moment that we really caught on that this had legs to it," said Perry. "We only showed well-executed cover stuff and a couple of cool, visceral moments, but everyone was like, 'Yeahhh! I kicked that door!'. It was something that we couldn't put our finger on, but I guess it just felt meaty and next-gen, to use an over-used buzz word."

Lee Perry
Third-person shooter video games had been done many times before Gears of War, but the game excelled not only with its stunning visuals and brutal combat, but also its genre-defining cover-based gameplay. Perry said that the idea of getting into cover was a gamble for Epic, but one that ultimately paid off.

"Cover-based play was a total crap shoot for us, because we didn't know whether people would find it fun to get into cover and not get shot," he said. "For all we knew, people might just see that as cowardly and defensive. But we hit this really magic time to launch a cool new IP, because the Xbox 360 came along and people were willing to try new styles of play. The timing worked out really well, and we were very fortunate to take advantage of that. The rest is history."

Over the years, Gears of War has burst out of video games and become a cultural phenomenon in its own right. A Gears of War movie has long been in development at New Line Cinema, while the series has also spawned books, music and masses of merchandise. Rod Fergusson, producer on Gears of War, showed a photo of a woman who had asked Epic for the artwork of Marcus Fenix's crossed Lancers tattoo so that she could get the image inked on her back before her wedding day. This got him thinking...

Rod Fergusson
"I never really had anything that I wanted forever on my body, but particularly over the last year or so, it's kind of become that one thing that I am actually tempted," he said. "Because I do think that this could be the pinnacle, or at least a very important part of my life. It's not like having a Zelda character because you like the game. This has been a major part of my life for six years, so having a Crimson Omen on me would really reflect that. I don't know if I will do it, but it's funny for me, considering my background, to even consider that."

Few people quite epitomise Gears of War quite like Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski. The rise and rise of the series has been mirrored by his ascent to video games royalty, even appearing on US talkshow Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to announce Gears of War 3. Bleszinski's office is a treasure trove of toys, collectables and other related memorabilia, including a full-size Lancer, a bust of Iron Man, a motorised scooter and, somewhat bizarrely, a portrait of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. "I don't have all this stuff in my home," he says quickly.

Bleszinski said that Epic created a "coffee house" with Gears of War, in which likeminded people could meet and share experiences, albeit if that is just "stepping on each other's heads". But also, he noted that the series has grown to become much more to some people.

Cliff Bleszinski
"We still get handwritten letters, and anytime people tweet a new tattoo I will repost it. It's those little stories, right," he said. "There was a guy who was a cancer patient and a friend of mine was in the same hospital. The topic of Gears came up and he said that he knew me. So we sent over some Gears swag and got a photo of the guy in hospital wearing it. Not that we can send everybody swag, but we can make some exceptions. We just want to help others whenever we can."

After reaching a certain level of success, Bleszinski is starting to think about his own legacy. He said that his goal is to ultimately join the philanthropic pioneers, mixing charitable donations with super yachts and jet-set lifestyles.

"It's all about the end game of life, we all fantasise about having a private jet and our own island, but the ultimate goal is to get to where Bill Gates is," he said. "[It's] a place where you're set and you don't really have to do anything but you can give to charity and maybe become a true force in the world to do something good, such as cure malaria. That's how you guarantee the ticket to heaven. I am still not at the point with the island yet, but I sure would love to do that. I've donated to various charities. I've helped out the zoo because the cheetahs are often forgotten and I have a crush on them. Things like that, but I also have to sub my own 401k as well."

Gears of War 3
Fergusson is also pondering what's next now that the end of Gears of War is looming. He said that it has been a "long journey" working on the series and admitted to wondering if this will be "as good as it gets" for his career.

"It's about seeing the world we created and stories we have told getting some closure, so it's definitely bittersweet to reach the end," he said. "I like the fact that we are actually answering some questions for people in the series, but this is not only the culmination of the trilogy but also kind of the culmination of my career. You have to ask yourself, 'Is this as good as it is going to get?' And I am like, that's okay."

Bleszinski confessed to becoming "a little choked up" at the some of the Gears of War 3 cut scenes, written by Karen Traviss and brought to life by art director Chris Perna. The third game will wrap up some key questions about Marcus's past, and feature a more emotional storyline for Augustus Cole, along with "slightly more absurd things like giant worms". However, Bleszinski said that Fergusson is far "too humble" and should not consider Gears of War to be the pinnacle of his, and Epic's, achievements.

"If anything, Rod always comes across as too humble in the press and I come across as too cocky," he said. "But I can tell you know that if for the rest of my life I am only remembered for a f**king chainsaw gun, I will drink a bottle of whisky and put a gun in my mouth. I am far from done with everything. There is plenty of life left in Gears, but you also don't want to beat a dead horse, right? If there was another Gears game down the line, it would have to play around in another couple of spaces. It could never just be, 'Hey, Marcus and Cole are back, and there's more Locust!' Gears is amazing and I love it, absolutely adore it, but it will not be the final legacy of this studio."

Gears of War
Bleszinski added: "As a studio, we are considering where the industry has shifted. In a few years time I think people will still want to pay $60 for a AAA-rated game, but they are not going to want to pay $60 for an okay game. We are still trying to work out what social and mobile mean for the industry. What are the ways that we can bring triple A to those realms? Stay tuned."


Additional image copyright: Epic Games

Gears of War 3 will be released exclusively on Xbox 360 on September 20 worldwide.

More Gears of War 3 coverage:
> Gears of War 3: Horde 2.0 preview
> Gears of War 3: Cliff Bleszinski on multiplayer
> Gears of War 3: Rod Fergusson on Horde 2.0
> Gears of War 3 interview: Lee Perry on gameplay and enemies


View photos from our Epic Games studio tour below:

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