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Epic's Capps: Gears of War 3 and the next generation

Epic president Mike Capps is confident that Gears of War 3 is the biggest and best game in the trilogy. What's next? We caught up with the exec to find out.

Epic president Mike Capps has a reputation for being well-liked in the games industry thanks to his ready handshake and open smile. He’s also one of the best-connected men in development, heading up Unreal Engine 3 and Epic IPs such as seminal actioner Gear of War. It’s rare he’s caught out, but he wasn’t ready to be showing Gears 3 at gamescom last month.

“We’re quite surprised to be here,” he jokes. “We had no idea we’d be rated in Germany, so we didn’t plan to have any presence at the show. Microsoft’s done a great job setting up the booth. I don’t know where the signs came from; it was all set up in the last few weeks.”

Gears of War 3 will be the first game in the series to get a German release, and it’s going to hit without cuts. It’s fitting the break should happen now: according to Capps this is the one to play.

“This is the biggest and best game we’ve done at Epic in 20 years,” he says.

“I’m really proud of it. It’s a much longer campaign than Gears of War 2. We had some extra time on the product that we weren’t planning for, so we got to put it through its paces and really polish it."

Capps and his team were keen to take advantage of the "business decision" to shift Gears 3 from April 2011 to the autumn, a move announced in October last year.

“Honestly, Microsoft came to us and said, ‘We’ve got a better window for you to ship in.’ Normally, as a developer you’re saying, ‘Please, God, I need more time,’ but we were kind of ready," he says.

"Gears of War 3 was on schedule, and when we got extra time, we took advantage of it. It was weird; we’d never had this before. Normally we barely make it to the end, but this time we just had more time than expected, and that made it bigger.

"That’s where Beast mode came from, for example, which is my very favourite way to play Gears right now. Taking the part of the monsters attacking the humans is a blast. Being a Ticker and blowing yourself up to kill their turrets is a lot of fun.”

Beyond Jacinto
Sat in a room on Microsoft's gamescom stand, we see a demo taken from the game’s first act. The ending of Gears of War 2 featured the destruction of safe haven city Jacinto, the melting of a very large beastie, the drowning of many locust and the humans fleeing on helicopters and boats. Gears 3 starts on a flotilla of ships out on the ocean.

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The Gears of War 3 campaign. It's purdy.

The gameplay we see, however, is on dry land. We’re taken to Hanover, Cole’s original ball-playing town; the level’s called Homecoming. We're shown female characters being played - this is the first time they've been included in a Gears game - and combat against Gears 3’s third force, the Lambent.

One of the main additions this time is fourway co-op. Capps is rightly proud that the feature, which was originally intended for the second game, made it to final release in the third.

“One of the big ones for us was just making sure the whole game could hold four people," he says. "You need bigger combat spaces and you need more enemies, because if you play with four then everyone dies really quickly as you have more concentrated fire.

"When you’re playing alone you always have three people playing with you, and you don’t want the AI stealing all the kills because then you’re not having fun. It’s a very different balance for one human and three AI than two and two. It was a lot of work for us.”

The enemy count remains constant no matter how many non-AI players are involved in the game, but the difficulty scales. Less people, easier progress.

But while the co-op mechanics have undergone some fundamental changes, the tone is unmistakable. The cut scenes are Gears to the core. Cole and his squad, searching for food, speak to a distinctly uncivilised civilian behind a barricade who attempts to swap intimacy with the lady COG for some lunch. Cole refuses and the “hairy-assed heroes” are pushed on to more, potentially friendlier sources of meals.

Inevitably, the team enters an arena area before being attacked. The scene's set in a playground, and Capps is quick to highlight the boosted level of detail over the second game, claiming there are “significantly higher polygon counts” and “greatly improved lighting” over 2009’s Gears 2.

That the extra time afforded to the game has created something technically exceptional is undeniable. It looks “next gen”. It’s still locked at 720p30, but there’s so much going on in terms of effects and shading it’s hard to believe it’s Unreal Engine 3 running on an Xbox 360. Capps grins when I point out the immediately obvious step-change over Gears 2: he’d specifically told the team not to expect any engine improvements for Gears 3 because Epic was shifting its focus to the next console round.

Microsoft came to us and said, ‘We’ve got a better window for you to ship in.’ Normally, as a developer you’re saying, ‘Please, God, I need more time,’ but we were kind of ready."

“Then, of course, they came back and said, ‘We need this, and we want this, and this level doesn’t run.’ We ended up spending a lot of time on it, but it paid off.”

Epic’s already said publicly that Gears of War is likely to continue, but Capps refuses to be drawn on whether or not we’ll see another Gears game on current hardware.

He says: “Who knows? Certainly, it’s the end of the trilogy. We’re really wrapping up all the loose ends of the storyline. It ends with the trilogy, and you can tell it’s ended.

"As for what else we’re doing, Epic takes a lot of pride in supporting the games after they’ve shipped, so you can imagine we’ve got some things in store. We haven’t announced any of that yet. It’s hard to say. Is this the very last thing? Well, not exactly.”

The next generation
The talk naturally switches to the next console generation. Given Capps' involvement with ongoing editions of Unreal Engine, he's bound to know something. Turns out he knows too much.

“The hard part about getting to work with the hardware manufacturers early is that then I can’t talk about it at all," he says.

"‘What would you like to see?’ I can’t tell you, because I know what’s going on.”

Despite the silence, though, Capps is willing to concede that developers Epic’s engaging with on UE4, the company’s next generation engine, are pumped.

“We’ve only talked to a small number, but the ones we have are very excited because we’re doing a lot of core work that’s going to make it easier for them to scale up, especially with lots of processors," he says.

"That’s what you see on PC; ten years ago you had one, maybe two, and now you have 16. I think we’re going in the right direction, and I expect to have a bigger marketshare, not a smaller marketshare.”

One last thing. In the demo, during the fight, Capps show us an Easter egg. In the playground, Cole climbs up on a children’s slide and squeals with glee as he descends. It’s Gears; it’s stupid; it’s glorious. You’ll be able to buy it on September 20, exclusively for Xbox 360.

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