E3 2012 is all about prequels. Franchises that have come to their natural end as a trilogy, but from companies who will make too much money from another game in that same franchise to let go. So what do you do when a trilogy ends? Make a “reimagining,” say the game was never a trilogy in the first place and keep going, or make a prequel. Prequels are the most comfortable for developers and gamers alike; they give one last hurrah for the series without making the developers tired and bored from working on the same project for so long. Prometheus did it for Aliens, God of War is doing it, and so is Gears of War with Judgment.
The difference with the 3rd person cover shooter is that Epic Games is no longer behind the helm, likely working on a separate Unreal Engine 4 project. Instead, Epic Games sub-developer People Can Fly, who brought us Bulletstorm, Gears of War PC, and Painkiller, is developing the entire game. As an Epic Games studio there is still plenty of input from the original Gears team, so authenticity is obviously key.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some stark changes to the Gears universe. As a prequel that takes place 14 years before the events of the trilogy, right after the Locust attack, the world is a much different and scarier place. Humanity has only just ended the Pendulum Wars, a civil war across the entire planet of Sera, to combat this new threat. The Locust is the only enemy; there is no Lambent, and because of how menacing, dangerous, and fresh the Locust threat is, it’s unlikely that there will be any infighting between humans.
That doesn’t stop the COG leadership from putting chains on Damon Baird, the smart-ass engineer who can seemingly fix anything and always has something to say. Baird, a fan-favorite from the original trilogy, is the main protagonist along with Augustus Cole (“the Cole train, baby!”), though only Baird has the same confirmed voice actor. The game begins with both Baird and Cole being court martialed for disobeying direct orders which led to the deaths of civilians. According to Cliff Bleszinski, previous Lead Designer on the Gears of War trilogy, the entire game is told through a series of flashbacks.
Flashbacks are considered the weakest way to tell a story, but perhaps an exception can be made this time. The reasoning behind the use of flashbacks is for purposes of replayability. People Can Fly is intentionally doing so to allow players a different experience after every play through, and the developer will attempt to do this by what they call “Mission Declassified”. Just like our memory is never 100% accurate, the story that Baird and Cole tell won’t be perfect every time, allowing for a different experience for each playthrough.
To create that different experience, Judgment does two things. First, it uses a Smart Spawn System, or S3, which is designed to increase the difficulty of gameplay without raising the health or damage from enemies. Think of S3 like Left 4 Dead’s AI Director, which calculates everything from player health to ammo levels, and then throws an appropriate number of enemies without the scene too easy or too difficult. This means there will be more Locust combatants, not necessarily more powerful ones, and they’ll spawn all across a given map, not just from one emergence hole.
The second way flashbacks provide a unique playthrough is based on how well you perform and what you’ve unlocked from previous play. The first run through the game is going to be fundamentally different from the second because, just like when you tell a story you may remember something you missed, the same holds true with Judgment. Events later on in the game can open up anything from additional ammo, new weapons, or an entirely new section to an earlier level. There will also be new challenges to complete which in turn will unlock more extras for following playthroughs.
One important note that Bleszinski shared was about the change in controls. In the past, the D-Pad was associated with switching between the two main weapons, pistol, and grenades, but that has all been assigned to a single button now, which according to Bleszinski speeds up gameplay tremendously. Considering how slow and often confusing changing weapons was in the previous Gears of War games, I can’t help but agree, even without any hands-on time.
Alongside Baird and Cole are two new characters, Sophia Hendrick and Garron Paduk, an Onyx Guard (COG elite unit) cadet and a past member of the Union of Independent Republics (the army that the COG fought against in the Pendulum Wars), respectively. Each acts as a different class; Baird is an engineer, Cole a soldier, Hendrick a medic, and Paduk a sniper. These classes cement competitive multiplayer by adding structure, but without limiting any of the player’s combat. Hendrick, for instance, can run around just as easily with an assault rifle and isn’t limited to a short-range weapon, but at the same time can revive fallen comrades.
“For a long time now, I’ve wanted to get a serious, legit, team-based multiplayer gametype,” Bleszinski stated. Judgment is very different from past Gears titles, which revolved around quick kills, jumping in and out of cover, and brute force. While details on competitive multiplayer are sparse, one new team-based mode called Overrun has been revealed. Two teams of four, with each player as one of the four classes, fights against another team of four that are Locust. The Locust have the same classes, but they function differently. Each class is a different type of Locust altogether (including Tickers and types of Drones), and any Drone class can hop on a Bloodmount and become even more powerful. Locust skills are weaker than human skills, but they can combine their attributes with the Bloodmount or by working together to become even more powerful.
While titles like Bulletstorm may have you wondering about the authenticity of Judgment, Bleszinski is quick to say that this isn’t a game about crudeness or obnoxious violence. It’s about the return of fearing the Locust, a return of the once terrifying enemy that by Gears 2 and 3 became the butt end to every joke. Judgment dulls down the testosterone and humor to provide a more real, darker tale, one that’s about survival.