Despite being a prequel to the events of the trilogy, Judgment works off the Gears 3 playbook of stronger storytelling and gender recognition. The levels of bro-tosity are tolerable with the soldiers of Kilo Squad, Judgment's protagonists. Kilo is lead by series favorites Baird and Cole, who are joined by a former UIR (enemy of the COG during the Pendulum Wars) major Garron Paduk and the book smart, but not yet battle hardened, Sofia Hendrick.
Judgment's story opens with the members of Kilo Squad brought in chains to a military tribunal of one, led by Colonel Ezra Loomis. Kilo must testify to and defend their actions that are played out through the game. Loomis is sleazy to the point of being a caricature, an old Pendulum Wars vet injected into a new type of war. With the game taking place a mere 30 days after Emergence Day, the implication is that Kilo Squad did something super bad to convene a trial as the planet Sera is overrun. The most immediate and recognizable change to the Gears standard in Judgment is a new control scheme. The old control scheme is gone – no, there is no option to have it back, I asked. The d-pad's services as weapon selector are no longer required, replaced with the Y button, like it is in most modern shooters. Also, weapon swapping is super fast. If you're a Gears vet, it'll feel like chunks of weapon-swapping animation have been removed. Grenades have also been mapped to the bumper for a quick toss, which can be depressed for aiming.
Epic says it's "trying to make [Judgment] the most intense Gears yet," and from the two levels of the campaign I played, the pacing is pretty relentless. Although you'll still have a mini-breather to find a dropped COG tag whenever you see the Gears emblem, most of the time Judgment will have you push forward through a hail of gunfire. There are moments of levity. Early in the game there's a shop sign that's a subtle nod to the doomed Carmine family of Gear's main trilogy: "Carmine Family Life Insurance – Protecting the ones you love."
Each level concludes with various calculation on how well the player did during the section and will award up to three stars. These stars are needed to unlock somethings that's referred to as the "aftermath campaign" and other bonuses. Extra points are awarded for completing sections of a level in a specific way based off Kilo Squad's account of events. Testimony variations are presented as big, red glowing Gears symbols that are impossible to miss and are activated by walking up to the logo. Although these are presented as optional rulesets during a specific section of a mission, I didn't come across a single one that felt like you'd reject it. These optional variations were simple things like destroying ten egg sacks or only using shotguns for a specific section. They weren't hard choices to make and offer a bonanza of bonus points toward your star score. In the levels I played, it didn't even make sense to ask if I'd like to do them. Perhaps it's a tougher choice later on, but the bonus points help the player swallow that jagged pill.
To create a higher level of replayability, Judgment uses the "Smart Spawn System" (S3), which will change up the enemy spawns each time a section is replayed. Meaning, if you fail a particular section, it won't spawn the same Locust upon reboot. This may not be necessary at the relatively easy "normal" setting, but for those redoing a section over and over again at higher difficulties, the S3 system should help keep the experience fresh with a random selection of Locust enemies.
Gears of War: Judgment's campaign is expected to be as long as previous installments in the franchise. The key takeaway I had from the preview experience is that Judgment doesn't feel like a lazy sequel. Although Epic and People Can Fly could have phoned this one in for Microsoft, effort was exerted to test new elements in the Gears franchise and I plan on playing it with a couch buddy and two friends on Xbox Live come March 19, 2013.