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Everything old is new again: We chat with Gears of War Judgment’s art director

When players explore Halvo Bay in Gears of War Judgment, they won’t be seeing the destroyed beauty of previous installments. With its earlier timeline — which is set just 30 days after Emergence Day and 15 years prior to the original trilogy — the environments of this world feature museums and homes that have just come under attack. Fans will even be able to see the class structure of Sera as they explore the campaign mode. For a better look at the upcoming game, check out our hands-on preview from earlier this week. 

Although the development is split between Epic Games’ headquarters in North Carolina and the Epic-owned People Can Fly in Warsaw, Poland, art director Chris Perna is the man behind the look and feel of Halvo Bay, as well as the cast of returning younger characters and brand new heroes and villains. Perna talks about what’s new in Gears of War: Judgment in this exclusive interview.

What did going back in time in the Gears universe open up for your art team?

From a visual standpoint it was interesting. We wanted a darker, more brutal take on the Gears universe. We felt we got away from that as the franchise wore on. If you go back to the original Gears of War, it was a darker, grittier time with desaturated colors and a darker pallet. With Gears of War 2 we added some more color and played around with the visuals, the bloom and the lighting and things like that. With Gears of War 3 we added a new global illumination light system and added a lot more color. It has a lighter, more mid-tone feel to it. With Judgment we wanted to make the game a sweaty palms experience again. We made the Locusts scary. While the game’s not necessarily dark in terms of nighttime, it’s darker in tone.

How did having the setting so close to the end of the Pendulum Wars impact the environments?

Gears of War is traditionally destroyed beauty, which is the term that we coined for the architectural style of the franchise. Being so close to E Day we wanted to show you a little bit of that beauty intact and some of its freshly destroyed. You’ll see stuff that’s on fire as it’s just gotten hit. There will be dead bodies and a little bit of blood here and there. Halvo Bay just got hit and you get to see it happening around you.

Can you talk about the class system we see in the Museum and Mansions levels of the campaign?

We just like to set different tones so it’s not a boring romp through the world. You get the gritty museum levels and then you go to the lighter more Beverly Hills-esque mansion area, where the upper crust of Seran (ph) society live. We thought it would be neat to give people a little glimpse into that with manicured lawns and security fences and huge mansions. There are fences and high fancy bushes and shrubs and things like that. It’s a lighter pallet and a little more upper crust and different from the Gears of War you know.

How have advances with Unreal Engine 3 technology opened things up for you creatively?

There are lots of lighting advances and performance enhancements that we’ve done. There are character lighting advancements and shader advancements that have allowed us to add further clarity to our characters and pop them off screen. We enhanced the bloom in this game to give it a little bit of a dreamy feel, which is different than in the other games where it was much harsher. Here it’s a lot softer and it allows for some of the fire play and the fire light to look almost magical in certain areas of the game. We’ve gone over a lot of the older models and updated them. It’s really a crisp experience.

What were the challenges of bringing these characters to life so much younger?

Going back in time was a little bit challenging. With Cole he’s fresh out of Thrashball. He’s an athlete, so we thinned him down and we made his face younger. They’re not as dirty as they were in Gears of War. There aren’t pimples and pox marks and dirt all over them. Baird was a Lieutenant so he’s got his Lieutenant uniform. If you look closely at the insignia on his uniform it’s all COG military hierarchical insignia, so he’s more cropped and primped as a Lieutenant than he was in the Gears of War. I think it works. And then we have Paddock, who’s an ex-UIR guy from before Emergence Day. It was almost like US and Russia kind of thing. UIR was very utilitarian, very heavy military, even more so than the COG, and a little bit higher tech, so we took some of those UIR elements and incorporated them into his armor and shoulder pads. Sophia is a member of the Elite Guard, so she has this real sleek black uniform. We wanted something a little more ninja-like for those guys, a little more stealth. We did the males first and then we retrofitted it to her.

We’ve talked a lot about the human characters, but what’s new for the Locusts?

One of the new Locust characters is General Karn. He’s the conductor of Emergence Day. He’s the guy leading the charge. In the past we’ve had the Locust Queen Mira and Locust General Rom, but this is the precursor to them. There’s a backstory with him. He’s a malformed Theron guard. You’ve got these big guys that were the Queens protectors and he’s that type of guy who wasn’t big enough to fight hand-to-hand or anything, but he just evolved and used his wits as a master planner and master general with military combat. He rides this beast called Shibola and the backstory there is that he found this thing when he was young and feeble and an outcast himself and it had a broken leg. He was smart enough to retrofit it with this kind of tech that allowed it to move and now they’re in a symbiotic relationship. He rides this thing and it’s a crazy boss creature. It’s just really cool.

How did you create the new Rager Locust?

We have this morph technology, where we can take one mesh and turn it into another on-the-fly. The Rager starts out as a withered Locust and he has a gun and a weapon. As he starts to take on damage, he’ll morph and hulk out into this crazy beast that will just come charging at you. If you don’t stop it, he’ll rip you to shreds.

Where did you come up with the Locust Serapede?

I think Lee Perry designed that guy and that was a crazy character. Just trying to make that thing work in AI pathing was a pain, but they got it to work and he had to go over cover. In Gears 3 we tried to come up with ideas that would break cover. We wanted to get a little innovative with the gameplay and that’s where the Lambent came from…things that could over cover or undercover or through cover and get you moving around so you weren’t so safe and covered.

Without there being a Gears of War bible to work with, how do you keep consistency from game to game?

We just look back at the work we’ve done it. We’ve done the three games. The guys here are familiar. There aren’t a lot of new people here. We retain talent. A lot of these guys have worked on Gears 1, 2 and 3, and they know the Gears universe inside and out. For people who haven’t, they’ll get a crash course in the art books and the art meeting folders. We have weekly art meetings. They get the dumps from all the guys who are making models and characters and textures. We look at that stuff every week and it all goes into a folder and that’s our art reference. When a new employee comes in, they’ll take a week or so and just look at the stuff. It’s like a kid in a candy store looking at all this art because it’s all the raw stuff people have never seen.

How do you work when it comes to Poland and North Carolina when it comes to art?

That’s a little bit challenging because of time of day. I have an art director of there, Waylon Brink, who is fantastic. The artists over there are fantastic. They have great character guys, great environment guys, lighters, etc. We have weekly VTCs, video teleconference calls, and we’ll send images back and forth. I thought it was going to be more challenging than it was, but those guys are really good and it’s actually gone pretty smoothly.

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