The soldiers in Gears of War have a terrifying new enemy: bureaucracy.

In Judgment, a Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) city is under siege, but that army’s leadership appear more concerned with prosecuting new protagonist Baird for alleged war crimes than with defending their current locale.

According to the military tribunal, just after Emergence Day Baird’s Kilo Squad took part in a series of treasonous acts in the city of Halvo Bay, and as bombs fall around the courthouse, the prosecution begin their questioning. We then flash back to the events in question, and play through each scenario the way Kilo Squad claim it unfolded.

Each chapter of the game is played from the perspective of a specific member of Kilo Squad as they give evidence in the present-day trial, which is a neat framing device that varies the soldier used in each chapter (except in the campaign’s up-to-four-player co-op mode).

Gears of War: Judgment hands-on
THE ACCUSED

Kilo Squad leaders Baird and Cole are familiar faces, but their two companions are new. One is Garron Paduk, a Russian-sounding fellow who sports a lot of facial scarring, the result of a COG bomb. His green armour tells us he’s a former major from the Union of Independent Republics, who were at war with the COG until the Locust showed up and destroyed their homeland.

The other new face is Cadet Sophia Hendrik, a journalist who was critical of COG until E-Day, at which point she immediately enlisted to fight the Locust.

Playing as these characters will allow us to get to know them better, as does the banter within the squad, which apparently has many variations that will only all be heard via multiple playthroughs.

Gears of War: Judgment hands-on
SANDING THE EDGES

We begin our playthrough with one of Baird’s chapters, from the very beginning of the game.

Kilo Squad is investigating the disappearance of a convoy when they are ambushed by Locust. Immediately several things are obvious: there are only two gun slots which are toggled between using Y rather than the d-pad; RB is used to throw grenades; there is no waypoint/teammate indicator button; and gameplay is noticeably faster than prior Gears installments (particularly things like door breach animations), giving movement a less ‘tanky’ feel.

All of these changes are part of an attempt by Epic to streamline the game, a word that comes up frequently during our preview. Fewer cutscenes also contribute to this goal, and the bulk of the game’s storytelling is now communicated via small in-game vignettes that may be sought out or ignored.

Not everything is sleeker though: the fighting is furious from the outset, and there are greater numbers of enemies involved in every skirmish. What’s more, powerful foes such as Maulers, Grinders, and Lambent troop variations are immediately present, but so are many of the game’s most powerful weapons.

Coupled with the permanent presence of three allies, this lends Judgment a sense of scale lacking in its predecessors – this feels like the front line of a war. The downside of this is that in smaller areas your squad occasionally get in the way, but their improved AI more than compensates for this, particularly when it comes to getting revived.

Limited to two per life in prior games, revives here will always happen if a teammate is able to get to you, but each will cost experience points, which are needed for unlocks. In single player these range from cosmetic upgrades to access to the game’s second campaign, but the bigger news is that a player’s campaign level carries across to multiplayer. This means the main campaign can be used as a grind of sorts to level up before online play, with higher difficulties granting larger experience hauls.

Extra experience may also be gained by completing Declassified Testimony challenges, which are essentially sections of the game that may be optionally taken on at an increased difficulty level. These challenges temporarily make enemies more aggressive, but also introduce heavy fog, limit players to certain weapons, or placing time limits on areas, for example.

Gears of War: Judgment hands-on
SMART SPAWNING

We’re now battling our way through a museum, and come to a room with a turret at the far end to the left, where there is little cover. To the right is much more cover, but swarms of enemies are pouring down that side. There is also a back way to the turret blocked by larger Locust.

It’s a well-balanced encounter where our approach depends on our preferred fighting style as much as our current arsenal. But like all battles besides those against bosses, here the enemy type, number, weaponry, and position have been randomly generated.

Gears of War: Judgment hands-on

That is the result of the smart spawn system or S3, whose only mandates are to place groups of enemies of equivalent power into the game after each player death, and to adjust their positioning according to the player’s fighting style. That means that one battle might have a dozen Tickers on the field, but following a restart the same battle substitutes those out for four Locust grunts, for example.

It also means that aggressive players will be met with more heavily armoured foes, or flanked with emergence holes, while players that hang back and snipe will face faster enemies that attempt to close the distance and melee.

Gears of War: Judgment hands-on

At the conclusion of each major firefight, the player is given a summary screen that shows experience points gained, headshots made, perfect active reloads completed, and so on.

HORDE, REVISED

The campaign also changes things up with mini “Horde Mode” sections, where an objective must be protected from waves of enemies. Here players may place, reload, and reposition Sentinels – small automated turrets that come in long and short range varieties – while they fend off the Locust. These are great, a nice twist on the “hold this position” trope that surfaces in every shooting game. Although we didn’t play them, there will also be sections of the game where you play as the Horde, as was the case in the Gears of War 3 expansion RAAM’s Shadow.

Gears of War: Judgment hands-on

The bad news is that Horde Mode (and Beast Mode) won’t feature in Judgment, although there is a wave-based mode called Survival on offer. A co-op mode for up to five, Survival plays like Horde except it is class-based, ten levels long, and involves protecting assets rather than preserving your marine's life. Each class may only use the weapons it begins with, and each has unique abilities: engineers can erect turrets and repair damaged fortifications, for example. We had a great time playing with a full squad of marines, but the specialisation of each class would likely become problematic with fewer than three players.

AFTERMATH

Aftermath is the game’s secondary campaign, and takes the player forward in time 27 years to reveal what Baird and Cole were doing at Halvo Bay while Marcus and Dom were fighting the Locust Queen. Aftermath mimics the look of Gears of War 3, but keeps all the changes Judgment has made intact. Here we fought dozens of weak immulsion-sick humans that felt a lot like Mass Effect 3’s Husks, as well as the Rager, a weak and shy sniper who when damaged tosses his weapon to one side and transforms into a fast and deadly melee brute along the lines of a scaled-down Berserker.

Gears of War: Judgment hands-on

Gears of War: Judgment is certainly back on our radars following our lengthy preview session. While none of the changes to the franchise are drastic, enough has been done to shake things up and reinvigorate our interest.

The worst case scenario appears to be that the campaign will simply provide more of the same, while the multiplayer delivers a clearly superior experience. Either way, Baird is a far superior protagonist to the dour and gruff Marcus Fenix, the wider colour palette and cover destruction elements are welcome, and there are a couple of great new weapons and enemies.

We'll know for certain how Judgment stacks up when it releases for Xbox 360 on March 19.