When a popular license like the Unreal Engine 3 gets tossed around a lot, everyone has questions based on their own personal observations. One of these observations is a little unfounded, as noted by Epic's Mark Rein: it's the belief that most all games using the Unreal Engine 3 "look the same."
During a discussion about game engines at this year's Games Convention 2007 in Leipzig, he was asked why these games tend to look similar to one another. Rein replied that just because this happens doesn't mean it has anything to do with the engine; art directors just might share "similar ideals." And besides, not all UE3 games look the same, obviously-
"Do you think BioShock looks like Gears of War? Really? Have you seen Undertow? The answer to that is that if two games look similar to one another in this day and age…it's probably intentional. It's probably two art directors who like one another's work and go for the same effect," finished Rein. (source: Eurogamer)
Crytek's Doug Binks was also in attendance at the time, and moved to reinforce Rein's point but still acknowledged the idea that certain engines do lend themselves to a "certain amount of look."
"I do think there are technological features from engines that define a certain amount of the look," he said, "but you can play around with that using tools."
The panel also included Cryptic Studios' Bruce Rogers and Vicious Cycle's John O'Neill, and they also agreed that licensors need to be both "honest and non-judgmental" when it comes to working with a particular engine. But at the same time, licensees would be better off if they "showed their working." What they want to see happen is simple: the two parties need to communicate their concerns about final implementation, and simply see which engine is the best fit for their creation. Of course, they don't always listen, but that's beside the point.
In the end, no, we can't say Gears of War looks anything like Bioshock , and we do believe something like the UE3 engine – and other popular engines – offers developers plenty of opportunity to expand their artistic horizons. Just gotta try, that's all.