I am an unabashed Gears of War multiplayer fanatic.

I was immediately hooked by Gears of War and its intoxicating blend of third-person cover-based shooting. I struggled through the muddled mess that was Gears of War 2's launch, yet kept playing regardless. Gears of War 3 made up for a lot of missteps with the most solid multiplayer offering yet, and found in me a stalwart soldier for over a year.

So when Epic Games announced not only a new control scheme in Gears of War: Judgment, but a smattering of new modes and changes, I was a bit worried – as I'm sure some of you were and perhaps still are. Taking off the press cap and putting on the fan hat, I found my few hours in Gears of War: Judgment's multiplayer suite a reassuring slice of grandma's apple pie – a comfort food not entirely as I remember it, but still as rich and full of empty calories as I could hope.

Underneath that new paint and unlock system is still the dependable old chasis that I remember, the good and the bad – a vehicle for gnasher shreds, blistering fast-paced shootouts and slow, clunky marionettes that never seem to move with the urgency or agility the conflict demands.

Now, for most of Epic's changes benefitting the multiplayer side, the fact still remains that if you're not a huge Gears of War fan, Judgment probably won't sway you from your entrenched position. It's still a cover-based affair and doesn't do anything to stray from that foundation.

But what it does is finally accept that you want to play the Gears of War you want to play. Forever Epic Games has been fighting the dominance of the shotgun online, and have instituted new weaponry and features to try and push the online side of the franchise into more diverse areas. Everyone just likes that shotgun so much.

So now in multiplayer everyone spawns with one gun and one grenade type. Pistols are no longer the standard sidearm – there is no sidearm. You don't spawn with a Lancer and a shotgun anymore, you just pick what gun you want to start with and that's it. If you want to chainsaw guys, grab a Lancer. If you want to rock a double-barrel shotgun, go for it. It feels like finally Epic is willing to accept that you like the gun you like and you really don't want to use any others.

And grenades are now a much more present and deadly weapon. You can choose to start with a frag grenade, an ink grenade, a smoke grenade, a beacon grenade or a stim-grenade now, which seems like a small thing but it makes a big difference in the multiplayer side. You can be a battle medic now, with a distance weapon to keep enemies away and a stim grenade to heal or revive friendlies from afar. It adds a nice new wrinkle to the conflict, though at the price of being able to stick grenades to the environment. No more surprise proximity grenade deaths.

Epic favored more nuanced tweaks to the multiplayer modes in Gears of War: Judgment too. For instance, there's no Horde mode in the traditional sense, and Gears of War 3's Beast mode has received a considerable upgrade and is now called OverRun, which we're all familiar with. On March 19, Microsoft will release a free OverRun demo.

Survival feels a lot like the natural progression of Horde mode. In Gears of War 3, Horde mode had players building obstacles, unlocking different levels of turrets and the like, using in-game currency accrued through killing Locust. In Gears of War: Judgment, a lot of that management has been taken out in favor of class play.

There's an engineer, a soldier, a scout and a medic, each spawning with their own specific weapon set and ability: the soldier supplies ammo and has more health; the engineer maintains the fixed barriers across the map; the medic can throw stim grenades to heal and revive downed players from afar; and the scout can climb up to special perches and has a beacon grenade that spots and highlights enemies through walls, adding a damage buff to affected enemies. The game mode supports up to five players, so obviously there's going to be some class overlap, and if you die and want to respawn as a different class, you can easily do so.

Instead of surviving 50 waves of Locust enemies like before – quite the lengthy endeavor and, sometimes, just a chore – Survival tasks the COG with surviving 10 waves and protecting special E-hole covers. Each cover lost pushes the COG further back into the map, until the final generator that is apparently very vital and necessary to the war effort. For seemingly well-financed military, the COG doesn't seem to have the best infrastructure.

Survival mode itself was pretty tough on just normal, which came as a surprise to me – my team's first attempt saw us defeated before wave five. But the difficulty wasn't due to any inherent extra toughness of the CPU-controlled enemies, but rather due to my team's lackluster team work. Our second and third attempts fared better, the final go culminating in a win.

After Survival, we played some Domination – two teams of five constantly war over three persistent capture points on the map. It's a variation of king of the hill, which in previous Gears games would entail a ring that moves around the map every so often where two teams constantly just rushed and died over and over again. For what it's worth, I like king of the hill a lot in Gears of War 3, but this variation of the game type was a much more team-oriented exercise and less a closed loop of death and resurrection.


Free for all is a new mode to the Gears of War franchise, albeit not a very new concept in online shooters. Free for all works mostly because of the new character customization and weapon loadout features I talked about above. Since everyone isn't starting with roughly the same starting equipment, there's a real feeling of variety and strategy to free for all. If I see two guys in a room fighting, I can throw a grenade at them and take both lives instead of trying to steal a kill from across the map with a pistol.

Gears of War: Judgment's progression system is largely carried over from Gears of War 3, save for the prize box mechanic. Now instead of hitting certain level milestones to unlock skins and things, you unlock these prize boxes with randomized contents inside. During my few hours, I unlocked a Minh Young Kim skin, a cel-shaded armor variant, some skins for different guns and extra XP. The randomized lottery element of the prize boxes is a smart and simple addition to what has otherwise been a very barebones progression system.

After just a few hours with pretty close to final Gears of War: Judgment multiplayer, I'm confident that series fans will find a lot to appreciate here and will ultimately end up enjoying the distillation of loadouts and game modes because I certainly did. Competitive multiplayer purists can stick to their playlists, fragging away the live long day, but most of my enjoyment came from Survival and Domination, two modes that demand team work.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.