Gears Of War wasn’t always the machismo, testosterone-fuelled third-person shooter that came to define the early life of the Xbox 360; it actually rose from the ashes of an unfinished Unreal game that had been in the works five years before Gears would see the light of day.
“Gears started as a class-based Battlefield kind-of game,” explains Unreal Engine lead programmer, James Golding, “It had classes, mechs and it was going to be multiplayer focussed… that was until [Cliff Belszinski] played Medal Of Honour and he was like ‘no, single-player campaign is where it’s at!’”
The early 2000s were an intensely busy time for Epic – after Unreal Tournament shipped, Epic began looking at releasing some new IP, to showcase the power of the Unreal Engine 2.
“So we were working on this multiplayer focused class-based game, which I think started off being called Unreal Warfare, and the idea was that you could play it in a big multiplayer arena or against bots, and we came up with this mech that you could deploy and use to suppress the battlefield,” explains Golding.
“Because we’d been working on Unreal Tournament 3 before that (and then Unreal Tournament 2003 and 2004) by the time we came back to look at Unreal Warfare, it’d been a couple of years and the industry had completely changed.
“We saw the rise of more single-player and campaign-based games, so we took Unreal Warfare back to the drawing board – it became just ‘Warfare’, got another name, then another name (but we always kept the ‘War’ part – that stayed!).
“We redid a whole bunch of the characters at this point, too: we went from the traditional-looking soldiers to a more sci-fi looking thing and certain precepts like ‘no laser guns’ came along a little bit later, and it slowly became more in line with the Gears of War we know now.”
Epic showed off Warfare at GDC 2002, featuring a demo where an industrial sci-fi planet hosted a group of four soldiers (whose design in reminiscent of our old COG friends) exploring catacombs and cave networks… that looked remarkably similar to Locust burrows.
The game was to be a vehicle-based shooter with on-foot sections thrown in for pace, and the enemies the player would be facing would be called the ‘Geist’ (the initial form of The Locust, funnily enough).
By the time Warfare came to be redesigned into Gears of War, there were years’ worth of assets floating around the Epic studio, which were studied by newcomer Jerry O’Flaherty when he arrived at Epic to become Gears Of War’s art director.
“The early concept for Gears kept the class-based assets, but just altered the art style a little – the evolution of the game really was a slow, organic process,” Golding elaborates.
“We were lucky, because we were fairly independent, having the [Unreal Engine] business – we weren’t on a deadline from a publisher or anything. The project just came up and down and meandered for a long time before it all became assigned to Gears Of War.
“The team at Unreal was working on the first draft of the game in 2001, as a multiplayer game, and Gears shipped in 2006 – so it took five years for the whole project to become this very different, whole other thing. Back in 2006, there was a real crunch to get the game done; a month before release [it didn’t feel anywhere near finished].
That was the first game on the Unreal 3 engine, and it had a lot of new ideas, a lot of new tech, and the lead-up to release was the busiest I’ve ever been at Epic.”