"Gears of War: Judgment" review: Moves the needle forward a notch

Baird makes his debut as a leading man in Gears of War: Judgment. Microsoft Studios

New lead protagonist. An additional developer. Revamped multiplayer modes. You couldn't accuse Microsoft of playing it safe with the latest entry in the Gears of War franchise -- "Gears of War: Judgment." But are all these changes for the good in a series that has become the preeminent third-person shooter?

Set before the events of the original "Gears of War," "Judgment" takes place right after Emergence Day -- the first strike on humanity by the enemy Locust. Kilo Squad -- comprised of series veterans Damon Baird (now the lead protagonist) and Augustus Cole along with newcomers Sofia Hendrick and Garron Paduk -- is being tried for disobeying orders. The campaign relives the events that led Kilo Squad to this trial from each of the quartet's perspective.

Though this story-telling mechanic does little to keep you engaged with the narrative because of the shifts in focus, the new Mission Declassification system more than makes up for it. Developer People Can Fly, which is co-developing this latest Gears installment with Epic Studios, sprinkled these optional sections throughout the campaign to add an additional layer of challenge unlike anything found in the "Gears of War" franchise.

One section has you fighting with limited ammo while another needs to be finished in a set amount of time. Completing each of these numerous missions will net you a rating -- three stars being the maximum -- based on a number of categories such as headshots and total kills. For veterans to the series, these sections will feel like a breath of fresh air for a series that has become synonymous with the cover-shooter mechanic. The rating system gives you incentive to replay the sections you did not get a three-star grade, and increasing the difficulty will net you higher-level stars (Normal gets you silver, Hardcore gold and Insane onyx).

The campaign, which can be played split screen locally or up to four players online, also infuses one of the series' most popular modes -- Horde. Some sections of the campaign afford you a limited amount of time to set up some automated turrets and use one of the new weapons in the game -- the Tripwire crossbow that emits a laser that explodes on contact. These sections throw a lot of enemies at you so the fortifications are necessary and teamwork is a must.

Once you complete the main campaign, it unlocks Aftermath -- a lost chapter from "Gears of War 3." This chapter, though brief, fills in some of the events from the previous game but feels superfluous. Overall, the campaign is action-packed but does little to advance the overarching story. But if you're looking for a fresh take on the tried and true Gears gameplay, the single player does an admirable job with the addition of the Declassified missions.

The developers were not afraid to make other tweaks to the gameplay -- for better or worse. Heaving frag grenades is now mapped to the left bumper button. This change allows the player to fling grenades much quicker, making it a more viable option than in previous Gears games. Another major change was made to weapon swapping. In previous iterations, this was controlled by the directional pad. In "Judgment", the Y button switches weapons, which makes this task more fluid but also more restrictive. In the three previous installments, you could carry two primary weapons, a handgun and frag grenades. But in "Judgment", you can carry only two weapons and frag grenades, so in order to carry a pistol you must ditch one of your primary weapons. Sacrificing versatility for speed is not a fair tradeoff, something that hinders the gameplay.

The multiplayer also has undergone some changes. The new competitive mode, dubbed OverRun, is a class-based mode that pits COG soldiers vs. the Locust. As a member of the COG, you choose between a medic, soldier, engineer and scout. Each class is outfitted with its own ability and predetermined loadout. The soldier hands out ammo, medic provides health packs, engineer builds and repairs fortifications and scout reaches locations other players can't while also deploying a grenade that can show enemies' positions through walls. The Locust have a wide variety of enemy types to choose from -- anything from a Ticker (a fast-moving creature that can explode on command) to a Boomer (large, plodding soldier that fires highly explosive rounds.)

The goal of the mode is for the Locust to destroy specific objectives the COG is tasked to protect for a specific amount of time. If the Locust destroys the objective, the battle moves to a new objective, where the process begins anew. If the Locust can destroy three of these objectives, they win while the COG's goal is to hold off the onslaught for the specified time. It's a fast-paced mode that relies heavily on teamwork. The only drawbacks are the predetermined loadouts, which restricts experimentation, and preset characters that are selected based on your class. So all soldiers will be Cole while all engineers are Baird. Yes, you can choose different skins for the characters and weapons, but if you want to play as a medic while also being Cole, you will be disappointed.

The other competitive modes from past iterations -- domination and team death match -- return along with the inclusion of free-for-all. The modes ditched the familiar COG vs. Locust setup in favor of an all-COG character selection. The change can make matches a little confusing because picking out friend from foe is more of a challenge.

Horde mode, the cooperative mode that pits five players against wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies, has undergone some changes and is now known as Survival. Much like OverRun, you play as the COG and your goal is to protect a specific objective while the Locust try to destroy it. You need to survive 10 waves before the Locust detonates the three objectives. The classes return -- with their restrictions -- and provide some depth to the traditional Horde mode. The maps, which are limited to three, are tight, making the task of holding off the Locust more difficult. Communication and a mixture of the classes is a must for survival. Again, the only drawback is the loadouts and the character setup. If not for these limitations, this mode could really live up to its potential.

"Gears of War: Judgment" moves the franchise forward in some ways but also misses some opportunities to really invigorate the series. Though the story is forgettable, the campaign makes some great strides in adding some variety to the gameplay. The Declassified Missions inspire more risk taking by switching up the gameplay scenarios, forcing players to experiment outside their comfort zone. The tweaks to the button layout provide ease of access to certain weapons and grenades but also limit the number of firearms that can be carried. It's a give-and-take that works splendidly in certain situations but also becomes a hindrance in other scenarios.

The multiplayer takes some chances but doesn't go far enough to give players true freedom of choice. The class system is refreshing but not being able to change your loadout or character preset is a drawback. Providing more unlockables -- equipment, guns, grenades, launchers, attachments -- would have been an interesting addition, if only for Survival mode in order not to break the balance of the competitive modes. People Can Fly and Epic deserve credit for taking some chances with a proven -- and successful -- franchise. Hopefully the next installment will push the series further.

"Gears of War: Judgment" will be available on March 19 exclusively for Xbox 360. It's rated M for Mature by the ESRB.

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