Gears of War has been a flagship series for Microsoft and, to date, it's racked up a whopping 18.8 million units sold. It created a new approach to third-person shooters, introducing a groundbreaking cover system, a slower - almost clunky - method of movement, and insane levels of both violence and gore.
The original team from Epic have now joined forces with their sister studio, People Can Fly, to deliver a whole new experience. Judgment looks set to change a lot of things.
There are two areas where Judgment makes a major departure from its predecessors. To start with, this game is a prequel, and doesn't feature Marcus Fenix in the lead role. Instead the story revolves around Damon Baird, the rowdy and head-strong mechanic introduced to us in previous titles. However, as a prequel, Baird is now younger, thinner, and minus a few dozen scars. He's also less annoying to those who remember him spouting out mindless one-liners from the cheap seats.
Baird might seem like an odd choice for the lead, but speaking to Adrian Chmielarz, the Creative Director at People Can Fly, a lot of thought went into the decision. He conducted numerous surveys with fans of the series and engaged in active feedback of Gears 3 to learn that Baird was a favourite amongst many.
While the original Gears trilogy was Fenix's story, Judgment takes place 15 years beforehand, when Baird and his small squad stood accused of treason, theft, and corruption. The Gears timeline puts this just after the emergence of the dreaded Locust, around the time of the Pendulum Wars.
The other dramatic shift in Judgment lies in the controls and gameplay speed. While the first three Gears felt solid and clunky, this new title ramps up the pace of the action tenfold. Baird will be able to move faster and switch weapons swiftly, with a revised control setup to match. For example, throwing grenades can now be performed by simply tapping B for a quick lob in the heat of battle. Those players needing precision can still hold down B to bring up the projectile arc.
The reason for the change is linked to the developers' promise to deliver the largest number of enemies seen on screen for a Gears game. The action will be fast and intense, and Chmielarz admitted that Judgment will also be one of the hardest games in the series. The odds will constantly be stacked against you and even hardened veterans of the game are promised challenging moments.
This is partly due to a background 'learning engine' that studies the way you play, and then adapts the environment to suit. Players will seldom encounter the same sequence of events, even when replaying checkpoints. This 'on-the-fly' variation means that players will have completely different experiences with every play-through.
Judgment comes with a comprehensive multiplayer component, complete with the popular modes of the previous Gears games. However, it also introduces OverRun, a new class-based multiplayer experience revolving around two teams trying to defend or attack generators located within a map. One side plays as the human Kilo Squad and has the choice of four classes, including the Engineer (our hero Baird), the Soldier (a jock named Cole), the Scout (a trigger-happy refugee called Paduk), and the Medic (a red-headed cadet known as Hendricks).
These four classes are stock standard for many multiplayer games, however the opposing Locust side adds a whole new dimension to OverRun. Here you can choose from a range of diverse monsters, such as Wretches, who charge around the map at terrifying speed and whose scream can paralyse enemies, or the Ticker, a fast moving parasitic insect creature that can eat grenades and be used as an explosive weapon. The Locust have their own version of a medic known as the Kantus, but this towering killer has the advantage of being able to ride Bloodmounts (a sort of multi-eyed canine) for extra protection and attack abilities. There are eight different Locust units in total, each one as nightmarish as the next.
We witnessed some of the gameplay for OverRun and it was absolutely insane. The action plays out like it has been given a shot of caffeine straight to the goolies. Blood and body parts litter the screen and watching human-controlled Locust horrors charging down on you is enough to make you pack up your things and join a nunnery. The different classes from both sides are all designed to work together as well. For example, the human Engineers can build sentry guns while the Scouts can access high-up areas to help defend from above. The Locust abilities can also be combined for dominating plays, too, such as the Screamer causing a distraction as your Mauler, a giant Gladiator-like Locust, ploughs through players with his razor-sharp spinning shield.
Chmielarz ended the presentation with promises of sweaty palms, plenty of 'crunchy' combat, and balls-out, non-stop action from start to finish. Early signs show this could be the most intense Gears title to date. It's a bold, confident move to show that they are not churning out a cash-cow. Instead, Judgment's faster pace is likely to attract a whole new audience to the series, while not alienating their loyal fan base. It's difficult to confirm without solid hands-on time, but if this game proves to play as good as it looks, then Microsoft might have a killer in their 2013 line-up.