Previews

Gears of War: Judgment - a Brumak-sized hands-on with campaign and multiplayer

Epic's prequel is no quick-and-dirty spin-off

Remember the bloodlust-satiating thrill that came with opening an ugly Locust from brain to belly with a chainsaw bayonet? How about the hair-raising fear you felt the first time a Berserker came calling? And let's not forget that overwhelming sense of relief we've all experienced when a last-ditch Hammer of Dawn attack turns a previously unbeatable baddie into a black pavement scar and allows us to live... at least for another few minutes.

These moments have not only shaped the Gears of War franchise, they've also moulded the third-person shooter market as a whole. And while driving a Lancer's buzzing business-end through the thick skull of a too-close Locust is still loads of fun, it doesn't pack quite the same visceral punch it did back in 2006.

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In Judgment, a series prequel that benches go-to Gears' protagonist Marcus Fenix for fan-favourite supporting ass-kicker Damon Baird, Epic - with help from co-developer People Can Fly - aims to bring back the sweaty-palmed intensity of the original game. Or, as senior producer Alan Van Slyke sums it up: "We're really trying to make this the most intense Gears that you've seen so far."

Rather than adopting the bigger-is-better approach so many other sequels, prequels and spin-offs have relied upon, Judgment's taking a very specific path back to the franchise's nail-biting beginnings. Van Slyke explains: "We're evolving the franchise and trying new things out... faster gameplay, optimised control structures, and new ways of storytelling."

"Where Gears 3 was set 15-plus years after Emergence Day when everything was destroyed, Judgement takes place just 30 days after the event," says Van Slyke. "This allowed us to do a lot more with the environment and storytelling. Everything is freshly destroyed, there are still things on fire... you'll see freshly packed suitcases that maybe somebody didn't get a chance to take before they were evacuated."

Rough justice
We got a firsthand taste of this tweaked storytelling almost as soon as we loaded our Lancers. Each of Judgment's missions begins in a courtroom, where a handcuffed Kilo Squad - made up of Baird and Augustus Cole, as well as newcomers Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk - are being charged with desertion, cowardice, trespassing, theft of experimental military technology, treason and probably unpaid parking tickets, too.

As each steps up to offer their testimony, players - solo or as part of a four-member co-op squad - are transported back to the mission that character is narrating. In our demo, that's Halvo Bay's Museum of Military Glory, where Baird and his team are tasked with fending off the Locust Horde, still an unfamiliar threat so soon after E-Day.

As Baird begins his testimony, we're immediately immersed in that renewed intensity promised by Van Slyke. While navigating the claustrophobic confines of a dark tunnel, the ground rumbles beneath our feet and we quickly find ourselves recalling those nerve-fraying scenes from Jurassic Park, when the characters start sensing the T-Rex's presence.

Of course, as we later learn, the monster that's rocking Judgment's world is far more menacing than anything Spielberg's ever committed to celluloid. As we exit the tunnel and make our way to a courtyard, we discover a recently-ruined convoy: destroyed vehicles, mangled corpses and burning trees hint at the hell that's about to be unleashed.

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Continuing forward, we're completely enveloped by the disturbing environment before finding ourselves face-to-ugly-reptilian-face with our first foes. It takes just a second to grasp the streamlined control scheme (see Taking Control, right), and before long we're roadie-running, curb stomping, utilising cover and using our Lancers to cut through Locusts like kindling.

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