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Gears of War: Judgment - Free-for-All, Overrun and rewriting history

Enormous hands-on with the final Gears of War for Xbox 360

Gears of War straddles the timeline of the Xbox 360 like a muscular, testosterone-sodden and occasionally soppy colossus. It's written itself into the DNA of the console, and mutated the genetic code of the third-person shooter.

It revved-up the modern need for co-op play. It popularised sticky cover to the point where it infected games as distant in tone and content as Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And in terms of Epic's output, it was the first time the thick-set parodies of masculinity that bounced around Unreal Tournament maps felt as heavy as they looked. As the current gen's lifespan stretches on, Gears has had to open its stance a little wider. Judgment is Gears' cowboy-stanced farewell to the Xbox 360.

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That's not to say it's a retrospective. Judgment is a new creature, with changes both minor and huge. For starters, that simmering bromance is over. The spotlight has moved on to fan favourite Lieutenant Baird. Fifteen years later, you might remember, he's a Private. That negative-velocity career path could have something to do with Judgment's storyline - Baird, Cole, and the two previously unknown members of Kilo Squad are standing trial for their actions in the weeks following E-Day.

Judgment steps away from a linear narrative. It's a sentence that's as bold as it is vague, but there are a number of concrete ways in which this shows itself. There are fewer cutscenes. People don't stop to chat mid-level. Instead, introductions to the levels are narrated in the form of testimony. It's a method that doesn't force you to stop the action for the story.

Also, the story seeps into the level design. Just like Bulletstorm, the world is full of clues as to what's happened. The wounds of the city are still fresh - we're just two weeks after the day that the Locust exhumed themselves and set about diligently whaling on us. The buildings had banners up - we were attacked during a celebration. Pay attention to the world, the bloodstains and the graffiti, and you'll see clues of stories that you'll never get told. Oh, and another new thing: Gears has got a new multiplayer mode.

All For One, Free-For-All
Free-For-All. The words themselves are nothing new - it's just another way of saying Deathmatch, and that's the oldest word in the LAN party phrasebook. But this is Gears: a series built on teamwork. A series that wilfully put Unreal Tournament to one side and created a game of desperate battlefronts, of tidal multiplayer. Free-For-All is a little chaotic - for a long time, Epic was convinced that it wasn't compatible with Gears. But it's a feature that's been requested so regularly that Epic tried it out. And with a few tweaks, it's got it to work. Good thing, too. After all, everyone's got a Horde Mode these days.

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Once that decision was made, other changes became inevitable. Ten players all intent on killing each other alters the way the game has to work. The first revision is grenades. That classic dotted-blue line that appears while you swing the grenade like a manly handbag is all very well when you're trying to shut down an E-Hole. But when nine other players have a vested interest in bulleting your big muscular face off, this kind of ponderous lobbing is suicidal.

So now the left bumper automatically lobs out a grenade a fraction of a second after you press it. And those grenades have a new, adhesive property. If you hit your target with one, it'll stick to him like an amorous toilet chain. It's a definite kill. It's also a good time to run - there's nothing as homicidally aggrieved as a massive dude with a grenade on his face that he can't pull off. He could use his emotional final seconds to get lethally close to you. This creates a knock-on effect of control tweaks. The Tac-Com moves from LB to the D-pad.

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