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Gears of War Judgment preview: A step back in time for the story, but a leap forward for the franchise

A lot has happened at Epic Games since Microsoft afforded the independent developer additional time to fine-tune the fourth installment in the Gears of War franchise. The main spokesman for the company, and one of the visionaries behind the Gears franchise, Cliff Bleszinski, left after 20 years. Rod Fergusson, the long-time executive producer of the franchise, left to work on Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite. And People Can Fly co-founder Adrian Chmielarz, left the Polish developer for a new venture. Most of the work on this game was already completed by the time these major cogs left, but all three are major influences on the game.

Epic Games introduced a host of faces new to the media for a Gears of War: Judgment event at its North Carolina headquarters, which featured hands-on time with two campaign levels (Museum and Mansion), a newly revised multiplayer OverRun mode, and a brand new Free for All multiplayer experience.

Alan Van Slyke, senior producer on Judgment at Epic Games, promised that the new game will deliver a more intense Gears experience with fresh and new Locust beasts. And, at least in the two solo levels on display (co-op wasn’t offered at the event), this is a more streamlined Gears experience.

The Museum level is the first chapter in the story, which takes place 15 years before the events of the original trilogy, and just 30 days after Emergence Day. This level offers the initial cinematic with the backstory on Kilo Squad going on trial for disobeying orders. It sets up the context of what’s happening in the story. There’s also a built-in tutorial that explains the streamlined control scheme on how to do things like mantle and change weapons. In this level, Kilo Squad needs to defend a museum while Locust are attacking, but it unravels into something much larger.

The Museum level starts in a city under attack by the Locusts and eventually moves into a massive COG museum where several artifacts are on display. This offers plenty of glass to break through, as well as a variety of cover areas. It’s in this level that you first experience the new Dynamic Defense Scenarios. Players are given a short amount of time to position movable gun turrets, or sentries, throughout an area between waves of attacking Locusts. There are different types of sentries, including machine guns and flamethrowers. These guns run out of ammo and have different firing ranges, so there’s a strategy in how far away you place them, and in co-op, making sure they’re replenished to take out the incoming monsters. It’s a fun diversion from the normal shooting action in this level and Mansions, which also has a Dynamic Defense Scenario. It’s a familiar gameplay tactic that’s reminiscent of the defense system in Gears of War 3‘s horde mode, but expanded on.  

The Mansion level takes place farther down the game’s story line. The premise behind this mission is that Kilo Squad decides they need to take down Karn, the new Locust General who’s leading the assault. In order to do this, they need launch codes for a missile, which a professor in the upper crust area of Halvo Bay has.

“The Mansion is set in the suburbs where the affluent people of society lived,” said Chris Wynn, senior producer here at Epic Games. “They had the bigger houses and the nicer stuff. There are also a bunch of other locations you’ll go to that are all very unique and very interesting and different. So while we’re set in one city, we wanted to keep changing things with a lot of variety. We wanted to build areas where you have big vistas and see big chunks of the city. We wanted to be intimate and be in alleyways and then we wanted to be indoors and outdoors. We had to look at all these different kinds of locales and figure how to mesh them together through flow and pacing to make it all feel new and interesting to players.”

The campaign mode gives players the opportunity to unlock additional information by choosing the Declassification Testimony, a mode that offers a more difficult mission by changing the rule set while facing certain enemies, and limiting areas with certain weapons. This changes the way you play and changes the testimony story a bit. It also unlocks more content for the Star Scoring System.

Each game section (there are about 40 in the game) is scored from 0-3 stars based on difficulty. At end of the chunk you’ll see the task that you did – executions, kills, etc. — and fill up the stars to show you what you did well. The campaign offers the ability to instantly replay a section to improve your star rating.

Replayability is also enhanced with the new Smart Spawn System (S3), which ensures that Locusts will spawn different enemy types (maulers and kantus, tickers and wreckers) at different locations each time you play to create different “water cooler” moments in the campaign.

Epic unveiled a new OverRun map called Junkyard, which is a mix between an interior and exterior map. The OverRun game mode is similar to “Rush,” in the Battlefield games, with teams assigned to either attack or defend, and each success by the attackers opening up a new section of map. The map shown recently, Junkyard, takes place in a factory, industrial-style junkyard area. There are two lanes — a left lane and a right lane. The way that has played out through development is that Epic made several maps — and Junkyard is one of the ones that came through pretty quickly because it was very simple and easy to understand.

“The multi-tiered objectives that we have in OverRun are very simple. You have the attackers, which is the Locust team,” said Quinn DelHoyo, multiplayer lead on Gears of War: Judgment. “They try to get what we are calling the Emergence Hole, or E-Hole for short. That’s where the Locusts come out of in the fiction of Gears of War. The Locust team is trying to destroy this cover that the COG have put over this hole to keep them out. Once they take that over, the Cog gets pushed back and the map opens up new areas. The maps are long in OverRun, but each play space is really tight. Once you get the first objective, you move to the next area, which is another E-Hole cover. The final objective is a generator, which is the COG’s last stand. They’re holding out to keep the Locusts from destroying the generator. Each objective is worth one point with three points total per map. If both teams happen to get all three objectives, then it comes down to the time it took. So you always want to go as fast as you can. It’s a very fast-paced game.”

There’s a lot of communication necessary to win in this mode. There were ac vents in the walls that tickers can run through and sneak in to avoid the barriers. Each section of the map is different. The first objective is outdoors, then you go inside, and the final objective takes you back outside again. A strategy that works in one area may not work in another, so it keeps your team on its toes.

Epic also debuted the new Free For All multiplayer experience, a traditional “every man for himself” mode found in most other shooters, but new to the Gears universe. The map being shown, Streets, offers a downtown section of Halvo Bay, which includes a butcher shop, body shop, steel works, and a book store. There’s also a roof top with a water tower for more vertical gameplay. The default rule is first player to 25 kills wins the game, but it’s completely customizable.

“The fans and the communities – especially the competitive eSports communities – in order to warm up before their matches, or even online if you want them to be really good and practice your own skills, they’d get a bunch of friends to go on a King of the Hill and turn on friendly fire and just blast each other,” said DelHoyo. “You can get really good at your movement and your shotgun and your lancer skills. Now we’ve just built that into the game with Free for All. You don’t need to do any type of weird game manipulation. And if none of your friends are online, you can play Free for All and not worry about anything.”

DelHoyo said fans didn’t love playing as the locusts, so they took them out of the competitive game, and replaced them with red and blue COG teams. For the multiplayer, dedicated servers are back, and Epic has added loadout choices to let people play they how want by choosing weapons. There are also interactive environments in each map, including a secret bookcase in the librarythat players can find and utilize.

There’s going to be a lot of replay value in this game when it ships. And Epic has made good use of the extra development time with an experience that will be familiar, yet new, for fans of all skill levels.

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