During my years as a games journalist I've become fairly good at identifying those small details that separate a game developer's home from other normal office landscapes. When it comes to Epic Games, these small subtleties take the form a seven meter tall plastic soldier, a display case full of Lancer replicas and other weapons from the Gears universe, the slide down from the top floor, and the fridge that's filled with local soft drink Sun Drop. I know I haven't accidentally stepped into the offices of a law firm.
Sun Drop, a delightful drink with citric taste, and caffeine levels on par with Jolt Cola, became my foremost companion during the long sessions I spent with Gears of War: Judgment. The fact that the game sports a subtitle rather than a 4 throws up a bunch of questions. Unnumbered sequels are becoming more common these days, with varying levels of ambition. But there is no need for concern when it comes to Judgment.
Gears of War is second only to Halo as the most important action franchise on the console, and failure is not an option for any of the parties involved. What mainly separates Gears of War: Judgment from previous entries is the fact that we're experiencing an earlier part of the story rather than a continuation of the adventures of Marcus Fenix. This side story also harbours a greater appetite for experimentation - something usually absent from a traditional sequel.
One change that is immediately apparent is how the controls have been revised. A soldier can now carry two weapons of any size as well as a grenade. The latter is tossed with a quick tap of a shoulder button, rather than forcing you to switch from your weapon to grenades with the d-pad. For reasons I will go into later, using cover isn't as essential as it has previously been, something that grants the game a faster pace.
As the campaign kicks off it becomes evident that the changes are an improvement, almost without exception. It's an opinion I'm sure a lot of longtime fans won't share with me. The new crosshair is bound to draw even more hatred as it now there permanently, not just when you're pulling the left trigger. It's an obvious way of making the game more accessible.
The story I'm given brief glimpses of revolves around Kilo Squad, including fan favourites Baird and Cole, as well as newcomers Garron Paduk and Sofia Hendrick, as they stand trial for war crimes. The first four chapters give us separate events in the shape of the testimony given by one of said characters. I would be lying if I said the concept comes across as fresh or inventive, but Gears of War has always mainly been about the action, not its narrative devices and character development.
There aren't a whole lot of changes on the battlefield apart from the faster pace. There is a simple joy to putting down one Locust after another, and there's seldom any room given to catch your breath between waves.
The unrelenting cruelness and killer instinct is something Epic wanted to highlight this time around. Everyone I spoke to, from writers to producers had the same message: Locust are going to be scary again. After six years, three games and more dead ground dwellers than anyone can count, it's time to rewind and recall the horror Kilo Squad experienced as they faced the fresh threat from below just a month after E-day.
The only issue with that concept is that even if Baird is facing his first Boomer, the player has done so a thousand times over. It seems like a mistake to try an inject shock value in this manner as most players will shrug their shoulders at the encounter. In the end the injection of survival horror doesn't do much for the overall experience, but perhaps there is some potential for surprises later on in the game.
The campaign sports two elements that really breaks the tempo and atmosphere, each in their own way. With regards to breaking the pace up, the developers have included a miniature Horde mode. The player is given a certain amount of time to place turrets in locations of strategic importance, this is followed by a number of waves of enemies. It's different, but not necessarilly something that adds to the experience.
The next new feature is basically an "arcadification", or merger of story and arcade elements. Each act is rated with stars in order to challenge players and increase replayablity, meanwhile the storytelling is toned down and less serious. But why play down the importance of the story and atmosphere if this is something you believe in?
Well, blazing guns and explosions are what attracted me to Gears of War in the first place so the subtle shift in focus doesn't bother me. This "arcadification" also serves up a number of mechanics that at their best come across as well crafted additions, even if they've been a bit clumsily introduced into the experience. In each act you will be able to give an alternative testimony that makes things more difficult, but in return allows you to gain more stars. This mechanic is called "Declassified testimony", and, especially at one point where a drawn-out firefight was hit with a severe sandstorm, certainly feels like a worthwhile addition.
Gears of War wouldn't have reached its position in the video game hierarchy if it wasn't for multiplayer. There are two new modes in Gears of War: Judgment that I was given an opportunity to try out. Most talked about is Overrun - a merger of the popular Beast and Horde modes and an example of assymetric multiplayer without the use of a tablet controller.
One team, made up of human Cog soldiers, faces a team of slimey Locust. It's five-on-five with an attack and a defence phase. Humans defend, creatures attack. The latter play much like Beast mode in Gears of War 3. Attack the humans and if you die you can respawn as a range of different Locust creatures. If you do well you're given points that unlock more powerful creatures such as Corpsers.
When it comes to Cogs the objective is to fend off the attack for as long as possible, even if it can rarely be fended off completely. There are different classes to make use of, much like in Team Fortress, but unlike the Locust you don't have to unlock these gradually. Among your options are medics who can throw extremely useful healing grenades. It's a new addition to the Gears universe, and it makes for something as strange as near-immortal soldiers for a few seconds.
The engineer also stands out, as he repairs damaged fortifications and places turrets, and then there's the scout who can reach elevated positions his teammates can't reach, and the heavily equipped soldier. When Overrun is at its best it's an extremely captivating mode, and it's an addition I wished we'd gotten a long time ago. Much like the updated controls.
Far less complicated is the other new addition to the multiplayer - Free for All. The objective is simple: one point per kill, first player to reach a set number of kills wins. The pace is relentless, it's overwhelming. An interesting idea such as maps with more verticality are a bit pointless, as this sort of mode caters to more primitive run and gun mentalities.
When I've digested my impressions of a few intense sessions, the overwhelming sense is that I want more Gears, and as quickly as humanly possible. On the one hand I had a difficult time getting my head around some of the changes in the campaign, and thousands upon thousands of fans will tremble as they see the simplification of the proud and influential game series. Personally I'm convinced that these changes, particularly given the effect on multiplayer, will ensure Gears of War: Judgment stays relevant far beyond its release in March.