The surprise announcement planned for this year’s E3 from the Microsoft camp was for a new unannounced shooter, and as we learned days before the expo, it was for a brand new Gears of War game that serves as a prequel to the trilogy.

Gears of War: Judgment brings back fan-favorite characters Baird and Cole and adds a new characters to the series, taking players 14 years back before the events of the original game. We had a chance to run through a presentation of the game with Cliff Bleszinski from Epic Games and Adrian Chmielarz from People Can Fly to see what’s in store for fans of the series and what core changes are coming with Judgment.

Bleszinski prefaced the presentation by explaining the choice of direction for the fourth Gears installment by stating that the community has been very vocal about a prequel, and the challenge for Epic and People Can Fly was to find a time period that works. The Pendulum Wars for instance didn’t have “monsters” since it was before Emergence Day and hence, there were no chainsaws, the same goes for making the game take place on Emergence Day – The Lancer is the symbol of the franchise and it was important for them to keep the iconic weapon in the next game.

Microsoft, Epic Games and People Can Fly decided to focus their presentations and demos on a new multiplayer mode, called Overrun. Think of it as a mix of team deathmatch and Beast mode from Gears of War 3. The twist is that this new mode exemplifies some of the core gameplay changes that Judgment is introducing: classes.

Baird and Cole are the familiar franchise faces, but this time around they’re given roles. We’ve always known Baird to be the craftiest of Marcus Fenix’s crew when it comes to tech,  and so in this game, he falls under the class of ‘Engineer.’ Cole on the other hand, is a hard-hitting badass and without surprise he’s the ‘Soldier’ of the team.

Full four-player campaign co-op returns with Judgment and the other two roster slots are filled by two entirely new characters, never before seen in the games or the extended universe of the books and comics.

  • Garron Paduk (the Scout) is a Union of Independent Republics (UIR) refugee
  • Sofia Hendrick (the Medic), a COG recruit.

The class system is something Cliffy B always wanted to implement into Gears and each class comes with its own bonuses.

  • Engineer (Gnasher, Blowtorch) – can place sentry turrets and repair fortifications.
  • Soldier: (Lancer, Boomshot) – can deploy ammo creates for squad mates.
  • Scout: (Longshot, Snub Pistol) – can tag enemies, adding damage bonus for squad against targets.
  • Medic: (Lancer, Snub Pistol) – can heal and revive allies.

Gears of War: Judgment on the surface looks nearly identical to Gears of War 3 but there are significant changes that alter not only the multiplayer experience as we’re seeing with the new Overrun mode and class system, but with the gameplay controls and story campaign.

Gone are the D-pad weapon switching. Players simply can press ‘Y’ to switch between their two weapons. Grenades can be instantly tossed using the left bumper, not forcing players to holster their guns. For the campaign, the mantra from People Can Fly is to make players “fear the locusts” and they’re accomplishing this by increasing the intensity, number of enemies and the challenge. “You will die a lot.”

Another change to the campaign is an even greater emphasis on replayability. From a simple gameplay perspective, no two playthroughs are the same thanks to S3 (Smart Spawn System), a change to the game engine which has it constantly monitoring player performance and adjusting the challenge accordingly by adding more (and varied) units in different locations.

From a story perspective, players experience the journey of Baird, Cole and company through a series of flashbacks as told through a testimony of events from Kilo Squad who are on trial. They’ve been accused of treason for stealing COG tech while battling Locusts but of course, there’s a lot of mystery around what really happened.

This leads us to the ‘Declassification’ system, another important element of replayability which ties into how Baird is recalling the events they stand on trial for. Think of the testimony being the “black ink” recollection of events, with details that COG wants to keep hidden away not apparent. Playing the Declassified versions of missions opens up the “red ink” version of events and for players, this means new added gameplay challenges, from changes in enemies and weapon restrictions to changing how the missions play out.

Details on the new systems and whether or not the class system carries over into the campaign and other familiar and unannounced multiplayer modes remain vague and in some cases, Bleszinski stated that it’s yet to be determined.

Gears of War: Judgment comes early 2013 for the Xbox 360.

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