If you're a little concerned about whether Gears of War: Judgment fits in with the rest of the series, you can rest easy. While it's the first Gears game to ship without the series' creator Cliff Blezinski at the helm, Judgment captures the look and feel of the main trilogy and adds cool new gameplay elements as well.
When Jim Brown from Epic Games came to visit New Zealand in late February, he gave journalists - including me - the chance to play everything. I spent six hours playtesting the campaign, the secondary campaign, and new multiplayer modes.
The main campaign is the story of how (and why) the COG's designated sarcarm expert, Baird, was demoted from Lieutenant. It begins with Baird standing trial for war crimes, and you play through the testimony that Baird delivers to the court. The gameplay itself takes place around Emergence Day, when the locust first burst from their tunneled home under the planet Sera and launched an attack on humans.
In Judgment, which is set 14 years before the original Gears of War game, the grizzled military men are looking younger and fresher, and even speak differently than they do in later games. Baird is funny, and he still blurts out the things that you're thinking. Since Baird wasn't the main character before, his character stands in stark contrast to the grunting, hyper-masculine Marcus Fenix. And yet, Judgment recaptures some of the grit and feel of the original Gears game. Unlike the third game of the trilogy, where the art style and world had become a brighter place, the world of Judgment is dank and dark again.
The story is about Baird, but it's not always told from his perspective. If you're playing through the game on your own, you'll switch between the four playable characters. Baird and Cole will be familiar to Gears fans, but Sofia and Paduk are new. With each new act you play, you'll come to understand a story of another COG in the game.
There are also new weapons and new enemies, as well as the return of some weapons that were introduced in later games. (Brown promised there was a reason the Retro Lancer was in Judgment, even though it made its first appearance in Gears 3.)
The craziest new enemy is called the Rager: a big, humanoid locust that doesn't react well when you shoot at it. It transforms into what looks like a hellbeast, all red and black and screaming as it charges you. It takes quite a few bullets to put them down, but if you start shooting while they're still at a distance, they're easy to handle.
There's also one human gun that's new, as well as a modified locust version of it. It's a sniper rifle called a Markza, and the modified version is a Breechshot, which has a bayonet on the end much like the retro lancer does.
While the co-op horde mode is gone from the multiplayer menu this time around, elements of horde mode have worked their way into the campaign. At different points in the campaign, you'll be asked to place turrets and get ready for a firefight. Sometimes you'll just have to survive waves, and sometimes you'll have an extra objective, such as defending a certain point.
As you play through the primary campaign, you earn stars that contribute toward the eventual unlocking of a separate secondary campaign called Aftermath. There are several ways to earn stars , including kills, headshots, and declassified missions. At the start of every level, you'll notice a big, glowing skull on a wall. Go up and examine the skull, and you'll be given the option of completing an objective that raises the difficulty of the level. It might set a time limit, or send a second wave of enemies after the first has been dispatched. If you fail the declassified missions, you get nothing, and in some cases you get instant death.
Once you earn enough stars to unlock the Aftermath campaign, you'll be back in Baird's body again - only this time you're playing through Gears of War 3 from his perspective. At one point toward the end of Gears 3, Marcus sends Baird, Cole and Carmine on a mission to find supplies. In Aftermath, the player finds out exactly what happens to the three COGs while they're away. I didn't get to play much of the Aftermath campaign, but it's in the style of Gears 3, and really shows off the contrast between the world before Emergence Day, and the world that Sera has become.
The real overhaul, though, is in Gears multiplayer. We played two multiplayer game modes, both of which were brand new. There was Free-For-All, which is pretty self-explanatory, although it did have one cool feature - the map we played on had a helicopter. Once you got in the helicopter and took control of its massive turret gun, the helicopter would start to fly around the map allowing you to pick off enemies along the way. However, it's no match for a well-placed projectile from a Boomshot.
But then there's the much more interesting survival mode.
Survival mode has as much in common with Team Fortress 2 as is does Gears of War 3. Combat is class-based, and the different classes have to - and we really mean have to - work together to survive ten waves of enemies. The four classes are the medic, scout, engineer and soldier. There's no ammo on the map, but the soldier can replenish others' supplies. The medic is the only one who can heal or revive, by throwing her stim grenade, and the engineer is the only one who can repair fortifications and throw down turrets. The scout is a sniper, but he can also climb to high points and spot enemies for the team by throwing down his beacon grenade. In short, if you don't have at least one person of each class at all times, you're bound to fail.
There are three points to defend, but you only defend one at a time. Once the locust destroy the first point, you move back to the second, and so on. The ultimate goal is to keep the third point, your generator, intact. The first time my group played, we failed during wave eight. The second time, we succeeded - with 1% left before our generator exploded. We were told that aside from one of the Australian teams, no one on Brown's press tour had beaten all ten waves (both of the Kiwi teams beat it, thankyouverymuch). No matter how much you communicate, it's not easy.
Survival mode was one of the most fun and most intense multiplayer experiences I've had in the past few months. Completing it felt like a massive achievement, and when I stood up afterward I realised that I had an actual adrenaline buzz going (as well as a desire to high-five every single teammate I had).
As a fan of the Gears franchise, I went into the preview session sceptical about the direction the franchise was going in. After all, Epic Games had outsourced some of the work to People Can Fly - who knew how much? But what I've seen of Judgment so far was fantastic, and like many a Gears fan, I'm eagerly anticipating 19 March.