Gears of War: Judgment makes some pretty big changes

The beauty of creating a game based on a major franchise but outside of that franchise’s main storyline is that the developer can do whatever they want with the game, so long as everything is believable. For the first time in its history, Gears of War is branching out from its main trilogy with Judgment, a game that focuses not on Marcus Fenix, but on secondary characters Damon Baird and Augustus Cole.

Without Cliff Bleszinski, Epic Games is now attempting to make some pretty massive changes to the core of Gears, and while their intricate dynamics remain to be seen, we can tell you that the game, so far as we’ve heard, is very different.

On the story front, it sounds as if the game is borrowing a page from the Halo 3: ODST playbook, where the series of events you play through are actually flashbacks from the main storyline of the game. As Baird and Cole are tried in a military tribunal, you as the player are taken into different areas in the game to play through the moments the pair are testifying about.

Judgment takes place about a month after the first day in the original Gears of War, so there is a pretty sturdy foundation of a storyline here, but how far the team at Epic can stretch the original events to fit their new one will be interesting to see. It’ll be a much more fascinating trick to see the Gears storyline stretched and its fiction tested to allow Judgment to fit within it than it would be to do it the other way around, even though that would be much simpler.

Perhaps bigger than the storyline will be a major shift in the controls of the game. There are no ways to get the original control scheme back as Epic is trying to define this experience as something a bit more unique, and it seems that the controls are moving to a bit more familiar first-person shooter style of button mapping. The Y button will now be used for switching weapons, replacing the directional pad from the first three games. Weapon switching is also reported to be a heck of a lot faster, though that isn’t saying much because the original games felt like molasses when trying to swap out your armament.

Epic is attempting to make Judgment “the most intense Gears yet,” and Joystiq says that the pacing is “pretty relentless” based on the pair of levels they played.

Taking a page out of Angry Birds (okay, not really), each level in Judgment ends with a tabulation of your score and the game spits out a ranking of anywhere from one to three stars. These stars actually become a sort of currency in the game to unlock the “aftermath campaign” and other upgrades and bonuses. Points are also awarded to complete sections of a level in a specific way staying true to the original testimony of the characters. This kind of gameplay reminds us of the Assassin’s Creed series because of the way you’re tied to doing things a certain way. It also makes the game feel like it can only really go one way as opposed to branching out and letting you choose your path through the game.

Unlike Bungie’s original estimation about Halo 3: ODST, Epic Games is saying that Gears of War: Judgment is going to be as long as any other entry in the franchise. That puts Judgment around the 8-10 hour mark, if we’re being generous. All accounts of the game’s early preview is that the game feels like a Gears game and doesn’t feel like an entry in the franchise just to milk the dollars it generates, and that makes us even more excited about the game’s March 19th launch date. You know, assuming the world doesn’t end in five days.