CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After last year's "Gears of War 3" brought to an end Epic Games' outstanding trilogy that helped define the Xbox 360, I thought I'd seen the last of Marcus Fenix and the "Gears" franchise for quite some time, or at least until the launch of Microsoft's next-gen console.
Turns out I was only half right.
"Gears of War: Judgment," developed by "Bulletstorm" creators People Can Fly with an assist from Epic, delivers a fresh take on the familiar "Gears" experience. But "Judgment" shifts the focus away from Fenix and Delta Squad, choosing instead to focus on the exploits of Kilo Squad and a pair of familiar faces - Damon Baird and Augustus Cole.
Set before the events of the original trilogy and taking place shortly after Emergence Day, when the Locust emerged from beneath the planet Sera to begin their assault on humanity, "Judgment" follows Baird, Cole and the rest of Kilo Squad - Onyx guard cadet Sophia Hendrick and former UIR soldier Garron Paduk - as they battle against the Locust in an attempt to save the city of Halvo Bay. When we first encounter Kilo, they are being arrested and charged with treason for reasons as yet unknown. Over the course of the 8-10 hour campaign, experienced through flashbacks as each member of the team offers testimony during the trial, we discover not only the cause for the team's current incarceration but learn more about two key members of the "Gears" saga.
Having enjoyed Baird and Cole as supporting characters, it was great to see them and their budding "bro-mance" take center stage here. The two new characters are also welcome additions to the "Gears" universe, with intriguing backstories and motivations that drove the decisions that ultimately led to their current predicament.
From a gameplay standpoint, "Judgment" feels like a "Gears" game should. Everything from the roadie run to sawing Locust into bloody bits with your lancer is here, along with a number of new weapons and enhancements. I especially appreciated the new Smart Spawn System, which kept encounters fresh by constantly mixing up enemies thrown into the fray each time I was forced to repeat a section. However, the real star of the campaign is the Mission Declassification system, a series of optional objectives and variables that add to the difficulty of each mission.
These Declassified moments range from limiting the weapons you can use in battle and putting a time limit on completion to altering the environment to limit your visibility. Completing missions with these Declassified options engaged adds to your score and makes it easier to rack up the stars you need to unlock the Aftermath campaign. Aftermath is set during "Gears of War 3" and provides a much-needed measure of closure for Kilo Squad while filling in some holes in the "Gears of War 3" narrative. It felt a bit odd at first combining the fast-paced flow of "Judgment" with the more traditional "Gears" setting, but in the end it worked. Aftermath ended up being my favorite part of "Judgment."
Beyond the two campaigns, "Judgment" puts its own spin on classic "Gears of War" multiplayer with several new game modes and the addition of class-based character selection. My favorite among these is OverRun, which pits teams of Locust and COGs in an objective-based game similar to the Rush mode found in the "Battlefield" franchise. I'll miss Horde mode, but OverRun is a worthwhile substitution. Other new modes include Survival - think OverRun against waves of A.I. instead of another player - and Domination, which sees teams vie for ownership of three scoring rings scattered across a map. Team Deathmatch and Free for All return, rounding out a deep, varied selection of multiplayer offerings that should appease new players and returning "Gears" fans, alike.