- Developer - Epic Games, People Can Fly
- Publisher - Microsoft Studios
- Platforms - Xbox 360
- Price - £49.99
- Release Date - 22 March (Europe); 19 March (US)
Gears of War: Judgment
Set 14 years before the original trilogy, Gears of War: Judgment follows the testimony of Lt. Damon S. Baird who is hauled before a military tribunal along with the rest of four-man Kilo Squad, accused of war crimes.
Joined by Augustus 'The Cole Train' Cole and series newcomers Sofia Hendrick and Garron Paduk, Baird is first to give evidence to the tribunal, which starts in The Museum of Military Glory in Halvo Bay.
Kilo Squad was tasked with reinforcing a supply convoy, but they soon realised the convoy was under attack by Locust, forcing them to change plans and defend the museum. From here on the game cuts between scenes of Kilo Squad introducing a new mission as evidence, followed by you playing it out.
As expected from the Gears franchise, the gameplay of Judgment is fast and frantic, with Locust swarms quick to attack and not afraid of progressing aggressively to take you down. The developers at Epic Games and People Can Fly have worked hard to stop the enemy from being predictable, as level designer Jim Brown explained at a Judgment preview event: "From a tech side we wanted the game to be highly replayable. The system we came up with was Smart Spawn System, or S3.
"It changes the game every time you play. So where traditionally you get in cover and you know the bad guy is going to come out of the closet here, then there's a cut scene here and you learn what to do...the game becomes a puzzle that doesn't change.
"But in Judgment things are different. When I see a door I don't know what's going to come out, what weapons will be there or how many, it's completely random - every time you respawn it's a different experience. The game randomises and responds to how you're playing it."
It isn't just the enemy that adapts to how you play. Other characters will come up with different lines of dialogue and behave differently based on your actions. "Every time you play it'll be a different experience," Brown says.
Another way developer Epic Games has made Gears of War: Judgement an unpredictable and flexible game is with declassified levels.
Scattered across each level of Judgment are large red Gear of War logos painted onto walls. Approach one and you are offered the chance to play a declassified mission, which offer insight into Baird and Kilo Squad's experiences that isn't brought up in the tribunal.
All declassified missions are optional, but playing them gives you the chance to unlock new weapons, characters, and special moves - and of course there's the extra insight into what really happened to Kilo Squad, beyond what's said in court.
But the main reason to play Judgment's declassified missions is Aftermath, an entire second campaign which is only unlockable by collecting enough stars in the declassified missions - 40 are required, with each mission offering up to three, based on how successful you are.
Aftermath acts as an epilogue to the main campaign and takes place during the events of Gears of War 3, offering you a new perspective on the third installment of the franchise.
Multiplayer takes the form of a class-based game of survival, where each player can choose from four different types of character. You can opt to be a regular foot soldier to fight on the front line, a sniper to shoot from lookout posts, an engineer who can create blockades to slow the enemy down, or a medic who can revive team members.
While everyone can run and shoot, only certain characters can heal others or provide extra ammunition, so the roles have to be evenly distributed between your team.
Gears of War: Judgment's take on defend-the-flag sees your team of four protect a generator from wave after wave of attacks from the enemy Locusts.
Our team, by blind luck more than skill, progressed quickly through the first five or six waves, surviving by grunting 'ammo' at one player and 'medic' at another. As the waves became more intense and the health of our precious generator deteriorated our actions became desperate. Grunts for extra ammo became clipped shouts that would make a Navy Seal sit up and listen. We edged forward in our seats, some removed headsets to hear commands more clearly, others' eyes were on stalks.
The emphasis on teamwork was so much higher than when, as in other first person shooters, each player has a roughly equal job to perform; yes, you can make plenty of unique characters in Call of Duty and the like, but with Judgment it felt like your individual role was as critically important to your team's success as any other.
Of course, our beginners' luck soon fell to pieces and the generator was eventually destroyed by the tenth and final wave of Locusts, but we felt we had the teamwork mastered and immediately tried again, building on what we'd learnt.
By giving each player a unique skill relied on by all, Gears of War: Judgment isn't looking for the one-man-army player who fancies himself as Rambo - he'll run out of ammunition before the end of the first wave - instead, genuine teamwork is needed, despite the hugely chaotic outward appearance.
What I'm trying to say is that Gear of War: Judgment is huge fun, but not always in the way that other first-person-shooters are. The multiplayer system relies heavily on teamwork, so while the gameplay remains as frantic as ever, it requires thought, corporation, and as such the rewards are greater than if all four players are doing the same thing.
The inclusion of declassified missions and the eventual unlocking of Aftermath helps to tie the story arc together for fans who are familiar with the first three games and the military tribunal setting adds an extra dimension to the storytelling, helping you get under the skin of each character.
Mechanically, Gears of War: Judgment benefits massively from the smart spawning system, which genuinely makes a difference to levels every time you play them and helps to keep the game fresh, even if you have to try a level several times to complete it.
Gears of War: Judgment is available on Xbox 360 in the UK from 22 March.