So the Gears of War franchise has been partially entrusted to a new developer after being the brainchild of Epic Games since the original game’s release in 2006. Seeing as how the Gears of War franchise is pretty much the flagship demo reel for Epic’s Unreal Engine technology, it’s no surprise that Epic Games are still very much involved in this People Can Fly co-production. I had a chance to play the first half hour of the game and also have a great chat Alan Van Slyke, Senior Producer at Epic Games at a recent X-Series event in Toronto.

The most notable difference in this installment of the blood-splattered, action packed sci-fi shooter franchise is how the campaign goes about telling its story. Player one in the game will play as franchise favourite Baird, who was a major player in the original trilogy. Since Judgment is a prequel to the previous titles in the series and takes place during the initial locust invasion, this gave the developers some unique storytelling opportunities with this title. Most of the storytelling comes from scenes at a tribunal where Baird and his fellow COGs are being tried for crimes against humanity, hence the Judgment subtitle. The story is sprinkled in between scenes of the tribunal and live narration of the courtroom during gameplay. It’s nice to see the franchise keep trying new things with its narrative, something that has always been acceptable but not fantastic in the previous titles. Don’t worry though, there’s still plenty of “HOORAH” space marine-type dialogue to be found too, including such gems as “this isn’t my gun, it’s my comrade.” Oh, and you’ll also get a chance to see fan favourite Cole as a fresh faced rookie right out of his Thrashball playing career.

Another unique wrinkle to the campaign this time is the addition of challenges. At certain points, the game will issue challenges to the player that affect how many stars you get at the end of the level, as well as how the story goes. If you take the challenges on, the story goes deeper as Baird provides “full disclosure” of the events, instead of changing his story. One challenge I encountered, for example, has the minor enemies known as Wretches turn into the ones that explode when they get shot or too close to you. Slyke promised some strong variety in these challenges as well as surprising story rewards for taking them on. Star ratings given at the end of each mission will allow players to unlock new guns, weapons, and perks.

Aside from those changes, Judgment plays pretty much exactly like every other Gears of War title, which I’ll leave up to you, dear reader, to determine whether that’s a bad thing or not. You’re still jumping from cover to cover, poking up for a few shots at horrific Locust enemies, and wielding some variations of shooter staples like shotguns, sniper rifles, grenades, pistols and the like. For me, the chainsaw equipped Lancer assault rifle still hasn’t gotten boring to play around with.

In my discussion with Slyke, he mentioned a few hints about what to expect with Judgment's multiplayer modes, which I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to try out myself. Slyke promised that the multiplayer modes have more streamlined controls and operate on a more vertical nature, simply meaning that the level designs offer a level of top to bottom strategy as well the horizontal aspect we’re all generally used to in most shooters. Slyke shared a few details about the game’s new OverRun mode, which introduces a class-based system to the tried and true Gears multiplayer modes. Players can take on classes like Engineers and Medics for a more strategic and engrossing mode, or at least that’s we’re told to expect. The mode will have five players per team and each player will play as a character from the campaign, ensuring proper game balance. For example, the player who plays as Baird is the Engineer; Sofia is the medic, and so on. The side playing as the Locust has their own unique abilities as well. There’s also a new Free-for-all mode that will make its debut with Judgment.

The game still looks great, taking into account the series’ trademarked Destroyed Beauty aesthetic. The framerate was really high in my play through, smoother in fact than any other title in the series based on my meager observations. It’s obvious that Epic knows what they’re doing with the Xbox 360 hardware and are squeezing every last drop of power out of the now eight year old console. Judgment simply looks and sounds great, which is to be expected considering the title’s pedigree.

We’ll withhold final judgment on the game until its release later this month on March 19, exclusively for the Xbox 360. Until then though, it’s a pretty safe bet that Gears fans have lots to look forward to with this installment of the insanely popular shooter franchise.