In preparation for the AI Summit that I am helping put on at the 2009 Game Developers Conference, I am rapidly cranking through some of the key games of the year. So, I signed up for GameFly just so I could putz with some games in the short term. I will likely buy some of these games down the road, but the research budget for IA doesn’t cover spending $300 on games in only a few weeks!
Well, the first thing in my queue (along with Fable 2… check back later for that) was Gears of War 2. I had seen a number of the reviews in various places and I was impressed by not only what I saw but by what people were saying about it. Despite having Gears 1 sitting here, I had never really played it. (My son had.) So really, I had no idea what I was getting into.
Obviously, it is a very good looking game… but that’s not what this column is about. After watching Yahtzee’s take on the game, I was also fully prepared for plenty of “chest high walls”. Of course, there’s good reason for that given that the cover fire system is an integral part of the game. On the other hand, I have not seen the poor AI quirks that Yahtzee cracks on the same review. (Although I suppose referring to the generally satirical and sarcastic Zero Punctuation blurbs as “reviews” is a bit of a stretch now, isn’t it?)
So far the AI seems pretty solid. Now note that I have only played the opening level up to just past the epic speech (<- unintentional pun for those of you who actually pay attention to the names of the game studios who crank out your entertainment products) so I haven't experienced too much of it. However, what I have seen has been pretty decent for a shooter. The enemies are frustratingly adept at using cover. I have often found myself flanking them just so I can get a shot around whatever “chest high wall”-like object they are behind. What’s more, I have noticed that they will shoot from around different sides of the object. If the baddie is behind a desk, he may pop over it or around the side. This is a nice touch of realism that steps away from the typical method of 1-1 relationships of designer-tagged points. That is, there is no “and at this point, the AI can shoot over the object.” There seems to be simply “here’s a hiding spot… let him do what he needs to do.”
My allies seem to be pretty proficient at using the cover as well. Of course, I haven’t been paying too much attention to what they are doing since I have been concentrating more on saving my own ass. (Nota bene, I’m playing on the hard difficulty level.) However, as we move from battle to battle, I do notice that they are very conscientious of taking cover as we go… even when they are simply waiting for me to catch up.
All of this cover-taking is very refreshing in a shooter. I have (for 15 years?) been so tired of enemies (and allies) that simply stand out in the open and either wait to get shot or are so invincible that cover is unnecessary. (Yahtzee suggests this is possible in GoW2, but maybe he was on a different difficulty level than I am.)
For the most part, the animation seems clean. The transitions are pretty decent and any quirks seem to be more a result of the control system than the animation. That’s a hard problem to solve, so I don’t bitch about it too much. A better example is watching the animation of the AI characters rather than of myself. Everything seems smooth as they move, duck, fire, etc. I will pay more attention to that as I go.
I have yet to play enough to see how much of the enemy combat events are scripted and how many are dynamic. For example, early on the Locusts in the hospital are retreating… but that is obviously scripted as I have played through it three times (twice by myself and once in co-op with my son). I understand that. However, as I play on, I would like to see if there are places where the enemy retreats simply because I’m kicking his ass. I saw a lot of this in Halo 3, for example, which was controlled by Damian Isla and Max Dyckhoff’s battle management system. Given the impressive use of cover in Gears, the inclusion of a good fall back or retreat system would be cool. We’ll see.
That about covers it for the moment. More later. If you are jumping into this article, remember to check the Gears tag below to see if I have written anything else about this game.