The Gears of War series drew to its logical conclusion in its third installment, which made the announcement of Gears of War: Judgment a bit of a surprise. The cynic in me wondered if Epic and the newly acquired developer People Can Fly were using it as a stop-gap, developing yet another game in a familiar franchise in the waning days of the console that birthed it. But that consideration seems to be the last thing on the developers' minds, instead crafting a new title that iterates and expands on the series as much as one would expect from a Gears 4.
The prequel deals directly with Baird, who Epic feels never had a moment to call his own in the main series. Judgment is an attempt to flesh him out, showing what happened both to him and to the world in the early days of the Locust war. It takes shortly after E-day, when the locust race emerged and started wreaking havoc, so the world is still reeling from the invasion. Instead of decrepit structures and crumbling buildings, the environments are filled with signs of recent habitation that was suddenly and violently interrupted.
Baird is put before a military tribunal for some mysterious crime, and the stages are delivered as vignettes as each of his squad mates give their testimony. Baird may be the star, but you'll actually play as each of the squaddies in tow, including series favorite Cole and new characters Sofia Hendriks and Garron Paduk. The new characters, a fresh-faced rookie trained in the most elite squadron, and a worn-out veteran of the Pendulum Wars respectively, already play off each other and the existing squad mates with comfortable ease.
Since the game uses a testimony as its concept, it lets you play a "Declassified" version of each stage. A prompt appears on the wall, letting you select a more difficult mission condition with a few extra lines of dialogue. It's a well-integrated way to increase the challenge, but the real motivation is to earn extra stars. The game ranks you on each individual chunk of a chapter, and gaining the highest 3-star rating becomes much harder on higher difficulty levels. You can instantly replay a section to get a better star rating, making the stages play like a score challenge. It's another layer that should keep Gears veterans busy, and stars are said to unlock special content--though Epic declined to go into detail.
I replayed several stages, and found that the new "Smart Spawn System" actually mixed up my tactics quite a bit. Rather than set combat scenarios, the game throws different combinations of enemies at you, so even a quick replay for a better star rating caught me unprepared once in a while. I had to adapt and react, rather than plan based on previous encounters. The game also introduces defense scenarios, forcing you to set up sentry guns and stand your ground. Sentries come in the shotgun, machine gun, and flamethrower varieties, but careful babysitting is required to make sure they stay stocked with ammo.
The pace of play is quickened by a few control adjustments. You're limited to two weapons at a time, apparently before COGs learned to carry four at once. Switching weapons is mapped to the Y button, and the swapping animation is noticeably faster than in prior Gears titles.
BOOM video 14357
The game introduces a host of new weapons and a few new enemies as well. The Markza is a mid-range rifle with a 2x scope, matched by the more powerful (but sans scope) locust variation, the Breechshot. The Booshka is a grenade launcher that starts the fuse after the grenade's first bounce, making for handy corner shots in a pinch. Finally, Stim Grenades serve as self-healing for yourself or teammates, reducing the need to call for revivals or run across to a hot zone to help up a buddy. The Breechshot is most significantly carried by the new Rager enemy, a fairly small locust that turns into a melee-focused rage monster after it sustains enough damage.
Epic and People Can Fly aren't reinventing Gears of War with Judgment, nor do they need to. As the console lives on, this game feels like a natural evolution for the series. If we must hold off at least one more year for new hardware, games like Judgment seem likely to help distract us from the wait.
This Gears of War: Judgment single-player preview was based on a pre-release Xbox 360 demo of the game.