“It’s a tremendously deeper, darker game. It’s bigger – the whole pitch about being ‘more badass’…I think is completely true.” – Epic Games Design Director Cliff Bleszinski

By John Gaudiosi, Special to WRAL LTW

LOS ANGELES — Smiling like a new father, Cliff Bleszinki watched intently as a group of journalists tried out “Horde,” a new multiplayer feature for Epic Games’ forthcoming “Gears of War 2.”

Epic Games’ design director came to the E3 Media Summit to formally announce the Nov. 7 launch date and then to debut its cooperative (with jump-in/jump-out gameplay) and multiplayer features.

Journalists got a chance to feast on the "Horde" multiplayer mode at the Ciudad restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. Expectations are high for "Gears 2" because the original sold more than 4 million copies, won multiple awards and is being turned into an entertainment franchise of movie, graphic novels, toys and more.

“Multiplayer has been improved significantly,” said Bleszinski. “The online play will be a lot of fun. There’s going to be a very robust feature set that we think will keep us very competitive in that space.”

"Horde" allows a group of five friends to team up online and take on 50 waves of progressively more challenging locusts in a number of different environments. The River level was showcased at E3, which showed off Unreal Engine 3’s new water effects.

“The majority of the ideas are down, and now we’re at the point where it’s all about iteration,” said Bleszinski. “Now that the base level is there, from here on out until ‘ship,’ what we do is start tweaking difficulty, ammo placement, ammo balancing as well as overall pacing, music hitting at the right moment, stingers hitting, things like that. It’s a matter of playing with timing, a matter of what looks good and what doesn’t work, pacing and everything like that.”

Once E3 and Comic-Con are behind him, Bleszinski will return to overseeing development of the game to ensure an on-time release.

“Locally, I’m going to be firing up the game to play it and periodically having team-based peer reviews, where we all just sit down with a notepad and call out what we think sucks, what we think needs work and how we can make it better.”

During his E3 demonstration at Microsoft’s press conference Monday, Bleszinski showed off the ability to grab an enemy and use it as cover. That’s one of many new features of this sequel – and one of the creator’s favorites.

“I like breaking the neck,” said Bleszinski. “It took us a week to get that sound correct. It’s like a crispy crunch.”

While the new game earns its Mature rating, the focus on story should keep gamers’ attention, even if players have the option to skip any cut scene. Bleszinski is not a fan of games that force people to sit though long interludes of forced storytelling.

“We’re making the accessible blockbuster, and we’re painting our characters with far broader strokes because we keep our cut scenes short and to the point,” said Bleszinski. “Our dialogue is snappy and we cut to the chase. We don’t have the time necessarily to pontificate on who this guy is for 20 minutes at the opening of the game, because the player picks up the controller and he wants to get in and he wants to get action right from the get-go. So that’s what we give the players, and over the course of the game, you start to get to know these guys a little better and you have a better sense of who they are.”

"Gears of War 2" will focus on action, but there’s more to the game this time around than cheesy summer movie popcorn dialogue.

“Yes, it’s about guys who are these kind of big, bad space-marine-looking characters, but at the same time there are a lot of secondary themes in the background about struggle for energy sources and themes of loss and retribution and whatnot, and I think that those who play the game and want that will find it there,” said Bleszinski. “There’s some wonderful interaction with Baird, Marcus and Dom, and certain characters are back that were in the first game. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there’s some nice giggle or laughable moments in the game, too.”

Bleszinski promises that "Gears of War 2" is a larger epic than the original, although he wouldn’t divulge details on just how large the new game is.

“It’s a tremendously deeper, darker game,” said Bleszinski. “It’s bigger – the whole pitch about being ‘more badass’ … I think is completely true. Since we had that base game to start off with, we could just layer on top of that. We’re no longer saying, ‘Should we do cover?’ or ‘How’s that chainsaw going to work?’ Now we’re like ‘What new ways can we use the chainsaw?’ or ‘How can we make that cover mechanic that much better?’”

It’s not easy to follow up a blockbuster game with another blockbuster, because expectations run so high. Epic Games appears to be delivering on its promise and it’s just a four-month wait until gamers can dig into planet Cera once again and take on the next wave of Locust threats.