The prequel presents developers with an interesting dilemma. On one hand, the backstory of a well-known franchise can be fleshed out and popular characters can be explored in different ways. On the other, there is usually a strict history and storyline that the game must link in with, possibly stifling a few creative urges. Gears of War: Judgment is unusual in that it ignores both of these problems and ends up being all the better for it.
Judgment's main campaign is set 14 years before the events of the first Gears of War, and is cleverly played out through a series of flashbacks, told by individual members of Kilo Squad as they stand trial for committing war crimes. Damon Baird and Augustus Cole return from previous Gears games, and it's obvious Baird is the leader of proceedings here. Most of the story is told through his perspective, and he probably comes out with the best one-liners as well. Judgment also introduces two new characters to the series, Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk, although they're quite dull and are fairly forgettable.
Baird and Cole are definitely the more interesting soldiers, but those expecting an in-depth look into their psyche and motivation for war will come away disappointed. There isn't much storytelling going on here, as the campaign pretty much follows the tried-and-trusted Gears formula of shooting, covering and shooting some more, with little focus on narrative.
But that isn't such a bad thing. While it would be nice to know a little bit more about the characters you're controlling, it is refreshing in a way to play a game that just lets you have fun without disrupting the flow. Gears has never been a series that invests too much time in storyline - more cut scenes means less time shooting Locust, afterall - and Judgment definitely doesn't change anything on that front.
So how do you keep the gameplay fresh and exciting for players who have become loyal fans of the Gears franchise? Adding the new 'Declassified' missions into each level is a start. At the beginning of each new segment players will come across a Crimson Omen emblem on walls and doors. Interacting with it will bring up the option of cranking up the difficulty a fair bit. The Declassified missions range from just throwing a few more Locust at you, to slightly more varied challenges like having to shoot with a particular weapon or losing the ability to get revived after being downed.
None of the Declassified missions are obligatory, but your reward for accepting them is the ability to accumulate stars much faster. Stars are how the game grades you on your performance through a section, so obviously the more you gather the better you're doing. Players will also be greeted by a report card at the end of each section, telling them how many kills, headshots and similar that they've recorded. This works better in cooperative gameplay as teammates and friends attempt to outdo each other for bragging rights.
It's not just stars that you'll be gaining, either. As you progress through the single player and multiplayer segments, you'll be earning XP that counts towards new levels. There are also bucket loads of Ribbons and War Medals to unlock as you progress. They offer no benefit other than pushing you to do better and better each time, as you strive to unlock that elusive medal.
Running-and-gunning is also broken up by various wave segments. You and your team will be challenged to defend an area from oncoming Locust and you'll get a minute or two to sort out your defences and strategy. Then it's just a case of shooting down anything that comes your way and hoping you don't run out of ammo. There are several of these wave challenges throughout the campaign and they freshen up the gameplay nicely.
Elsewhere the visuals look very, very good. This has never been a problem for Gears games, but this might be the prettiest looking installment in the series so far. Quite the compliment when you're spending most of the game coming face-to-face with several variations of nasty looking creatures that want to rip your head off. The fire effects are lovely and the outdoor sections are a highlight, when the sun is setting on the grand buildings of Halvo Bay you almost want to stop what you're doing and take it all in. Almost.
While the campaign is more of the same, it's multiplayer where Judgment really comes into its own. There are several different modes here that could keep you occupied for weeks, and if you get really good at it, months. However there is one multiplayer mode that really stands out against all the rest, and that's OverRun.
OverRun comes with a simple premise; get the chance to play as the Locust. This long-overdue concept offers a variety of different ways for players to tackle this tower-defence style mode. Players are split into two teams, then take it in turns to either control humans who have to defend their base for as long as possible - relying more on their wits and cunning to persevere - or joining the Locust forces who do everything in their power to crush the humans.
Each team comes with different classes that players can select before respawning. The human side has the usual soldier, medic, scout and engineer classes that you'd expect from any game, and they all feature their own unique qualities that can aid in battle. The Locust side offers a bit more variety in that there are four classes to choose from initially, but after earning points in battle a further four classes can be unlocked. And when players unlock the big guys, they really are a handful to stop. Take the Corpser, for instance, a large spider-like creature that can burrow underground and take enemies by surprise. Or the Serapede, a giant centipede that can rear up and spit acid around the battlefield.
The winner of OverRun is the team that manages to protect their base for the longest, and it's likely that most players will spend the majority of their time in this mode simply because it hits that perfect balance of being both fun and challenging. Stray away from OverRun for a second and you'll see that Judgment also adds a new free-for-all Team Deathmatch. It's nowhere near as hectic - or enjoyable - as OverRun but it's probably the best place for new players to get acquainted with how Gears of War works.
There are many cynics out there who don't think that Judgment is needed and that it's merely a stopgap for the series, rushed in before the next generation Xbox is announced. While they might have a point, Judgment is still a very enjoyable shooter that sticks to what it does best and is all the better for it. It's definitely evolution over revolution for the Gears of War series, but there's nothing to complain about when the game is this fun.