With some thoughtful changes to the traditional formula, and a dash of inspiration from their peers, People Can Fly and Epic's Gears of War: Judgment could be the most progressive entry in the series to date. Its narrative is communicated in an entirely new way, and surprisingly, this inventive approach also affects the flow of gameplay. These modifications to the Gears formula may even extend the series' endgame beyond Judgment.
The plot centers around Kilo Squad, which is composed of familiar faces Damon Baird and Augustus Cole, and two newcomers, Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk. All four stand trial for treasonous actions taken during the battle at Halvo Bay--specifically, their procurement of secret technology belonging to the Coalition of Ordered Government. Their fate lies in the hands of the staunch COG Colonel Ezra Loomis. He proclaims, "The charges will be defined as I hear your testimony," and one by one, each Gear delivers his or her own account of the events that took place that fateful day at Halvo Bay.
As the Gears testify, you relive the events of that day from their perspectives. Your individual reenactment of the testimony plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the trial and the fate of the Kilo Squad--potentially. There's no way to definitively say how the conclusion of Judgment can be influenced at this point, but it's confirmed that the testimonies themselves may be altered by your actions in-game. Trials, especially this military tribunal, live and die by testimony, so it's not a stretch to imagine this one will impact the progression of Judgment's story.
Each map contains COG tags in the environment that, when approached, give you the opportunity to hear declassified testimonies relating to the events at hand. Generally, opting to hear declassified information will alter environmental variables that in turn will complicate your current mission. They may reveal, for example, that Kilo Squad had to fight in the midst of dense fog, or that it came equipped with a severely limited arsenal. Masochists will appreciate the added challenge, but beyond that, the revelation of these extended testimonials could also influence Loomis' verdict at the end of the trial. If that's true, it introduces the possibility of multiple endings--a first for the series.
Choosing to hear declassified testimonies also rewards you a score multiplier. Gears of War: Judgment introduces a ranking system that gauges your performance in each mission using stars. Epic sees this as a way to fuel the obsessive desires of completionists, but it also noted that consistently acquiring perfect star ratings will unlock "significant" content, though what that may entail remains a mystery.
Declassified testimonies and multiple outcomes definitely bolster replayability, and in that regard, Judgment has one more trick up its sleeve. A new dynamic system varies spawn points and enemy types based on weapon loadouts and unit positions on the battlefield. It's the perfect analog to The Director, the AI responsible for dynamically summoning the undead based on an array of conditions in the Left 4 Dead games.
The ruins of Sera's fallen civilizations work quite well in this regard, featuring elements that can be manipulated by specific enemy types. Certain hulking locusts may, for example, hurl dilapidated cars aside as they charge headlong into the Kilo Squad's ranks. The same scenario approached with a different arsenal may spawn smaller enemies that snake around said cars, or perhaps use them as cover. With such rampant unpredictability, you'll never know what to expect while waging war among Sera's ruins.
Despite the reliable success of the first three Gears of War games, Epic has decided to veer slightly off the beaten path for Judgment. By adding to, rather than replacing, elements that made the series a success in the first place, it may have found the best way to extend the series' life span. Judgment is neither stale nor a departure from the now-classic cover-based gameplay, and though our experience barely touched the bulk of the game's narrative, the testimonial-based delivery is a sound fit for a prequel that is itself a testimony to the events leading up to the original Gears of War. Epic currently plans to release Gears of War: Judgment on March 19, 2013.