Clint Hocking has written a great blog post on Gears of War.
Like Clint, I was (and am) skeptical about Gears of War. I consider it a game worth paying attention to, but I don't know yet if I like it, or think it's great. But I might be changing my mind right now.
Basically, futuristic military settings bore... me... to... TEARS. All of them. Put a muscle-bound guy in some kind of high-tech suit, give him a weapon the size of a small car, one facial expression (either angry or pissed off) and a voice so low it only comes out of the sub-woofer, and you are pretty much guaranteed to lose my interest. The only thing that is worse is if instead you have a 36-24-36 woman in a skin-tight suit (because women are so bad-ass they don't need body armor).
I can't think of an Epic game since Unreal 1 that has not used this kind of setting, which is why I might look at their games for the technology, but not for any artistic intent. But now there is Gears of War, and a new teaser trailer. As Clint says, it promises something different.
I happened to be visiting a friend of mine yesterday who had just bought the collector's edition of Gears of War. The little art book inside has a foreword by Cliff Bleszinski which explained how he wanted the game to be about loss and an emotional sense of the post-apocalyptic. I didn't see much of the game, but I did see how this might work (for a large part through environmental storytelling). Clint outlines some more techniques Epic might be using.
If Epic managed to pull this off, they will have done something incredibly difficult. First of all, they made a highly-polished crowd pleaser, with not just tons of eye candy but also highly integrated controls, camera, animations, enemy behavior and level design. This is very hard, especially since Gears of War has a very particular gameplay style. Epic will not have been able to study many other games for this kind of gameplay. (Note to self: play Brothers In Arms.)
Second, it looks like they managed to put a consistent artistic message in the game as well, while respecting all of the rules of futuristic military settings. This is also very hard. There is a huge difference between artists making bits of nice-looking art, and artists making effective art that works well as part of a consistent whole (and this doesn't just apply to artists either). It requires much more maturity and better artistic management skills. (In Hollywood this is fairly routine, but then, they are more mature and have better artistic management skills.)
Simply being in an environment where you can talk about an artistic message is rare. The two arguments Clint takes issue with in his blog post, "It's a waste of time because it will sell without it" and "That kind of emotional connection is impossible to deliver" are, sadly, very common in the games industry, and not just from the suits in upper management. Your average game developer in his mid-twenties who has been a hard-core gamer all his life and therefore thinks he understands games can be as guilty of believing these two self-defeating mantras as anyone. Kudos to Clint for coming up with good counter-arguments.
So it seems Epic has managed to do two very difficult things at the same time, while incidentally delivering state of the art content and technology. Hats off to them. I may actually buy the game. If only all the protagonists didn't look like identical clichéd bad-asses... Remember, the guy with the bandanna is you.
( /wave Susan )