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Gears of War: Judgment

War never changes? Look closer

Damon Baird and the roughnecks of Kilo Squad are on trial for their lives, dragged before a COG tribunal chaired by the incurably grumpy Colonel Loomis as Halvo Bay collapses in fetchingly rendered flames around their ears - and so, in a sense, is the Gears of War series at large.

An inevitably motley crew composed of new and returning characters, Kilo Squad stand accused of gross dereliction of duty, having gone AWOL in order to hunt down a particularly pesky Locust (a charge to which, in Baird's case, I'd add the crime of being the least amusing "comic relief" in videogames history). The charge against Gears in general is simpler, and more pressing: that of having existed for too long, with too little of genuine novelty to show for it.

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It's an accusation levelled at many franchises of late, as the current generation of console hardware approaches its eighth and, per the PS4's announcement, final year - and publishers have proven devious in their attempts to demonstrate otherwise, rearranging the pieces and garlanding the board with ever-stupider "cinematic moments" and generally inessential tweaks.

Judgment's approach is cunning indeed - echoing Black Ops 2's "Pick 10" load-out refresh and Dead Space 3's weapon-crafting, it eschews genuine new features in favour of letting players take creative ownership of the guns, enemies and scenarios they're familiar with from prior games. That's possible thanks to the frame narrative, which sees Baird and co relating the events that led to their arrest. Accounts differ, as you'd expect, and in that difference lies Judgment's enormous, exhilarating strength as a sandbox shooter.

To play this game is to be continually asked how resilient and ambitious you're feeling, how much you're prepared to fiddle with the tools at your disposal. The main campaign is chopped into 49 sections, book-ended by gobbets of narration and purple-white Crimson Omen sigils denoting optional "Declassified" missions, which represent parts of Kilo's testimony the bigwigs have trouble believing. Triggering one ups the odds you'll face in the area ahead - not just by making the enemies tougher and more numerous, though that's occasionally the idea, but by imposing engagingly weird limitations on the player.

Even the most pedestrian of these variants throw preconceptions about Gears of War's well-honed style into harsh relief. You might be asked to fight a melee Locust type such as the shield-bearing Mauler with shotguns only, for instance, or ordered to see off an army of Wretches without the benefit of recharging health, or told to weasel a mortar crew out of a thicket of turrets and laser fences. The best of the bunch put strain on the visuals in a way that's bizarrely reminiscent of Eternal Darkness, as you struggle through chemical fumes in search of elusive snipers, or flail around in a haze of exaggerated damage spatter.

Fold in a new spawning system which spits out different enemy combos each time, plus RTS-lite scenarios where you rush to arrange turrets and tripwires before the Locust arrive, and you're looking at some serious replay value. Just as well, given the 5-10 hour completion time. With Bulletstorm's example clearly in the air, People Can Fly has added in a rating system which encourages showier (read: bloodier) performance - the more gibs you unleash, and the more heads you pop, the more Stars you'll get per area.

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Scooping up 40 of these stars unlocks the Aftermath epilogue, which takes place alongside the events of Gears of War 3. It's a worthy unlock not so much for the paltry couple of hours playtime it adds, or for the light it sheds on the fates of certain characters, as for how it appraises you of just what a departure Judgment represents. There's barely a whiff of the main campaign's modular, choice-driven architecture here; indeed, it's tempting to conclude that Aftermath was originally a Gears 3 DLC pack, hurriedly pasted into Judgment in response to misgivings about its length.

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