Gears of War: Judgement reinvents Epic Games' sci-fi shooter franchise by integrating alternate challenges and Horde mechanics right into the campaign.
The Xbox 360 exclusive arrived at E3 last year as something of a surprise. The critically-acclaimed Gears franchise wrapped in 2011 with Gears of War 3, and developer Epic Games appeared to be focused on pastures new.
But you can't keep a good COG down, and the series is back in 2013 with a prequel, co-developed by Epic Games and acclaimed Bulletstorm studio People Can Fly.
Judgement is a fully fledged Gears of War instalment, with a campaign mode that supports four-player co-op and a full multiplayer suite. After going hands-on with the campaign we discover this is Gears, but not quite as we know it.
Flash from Gears' past
Gears of War: Judgement is a prequel, set 14 years before Marcus Fenix emerged from his prison cell and embarked on the original Gears of War adventure.
The story is told in flashback from the perspective of be-goggled engineer Baird, who is being tried for a war crime that will be defined over the course of the campaign. There are old faces, such as Augustus 'Cole Train' Cole, but also a few new ones too.
On first look, this is trademark Gears, from the stocky characters to the heavy duty weapons and forever-grumpy Locust horde.
From what we saw, it is also shaping up to be a beautiful looking game, packed with all the gothic and eerie atmosphere of the other instalments, but taking players back to a time just after the fabled Emergence Day (E-Day).
Dare you go Declassified? What's new in Judgement
But after playing about an hour of the main campaign in a level based around a museum, we can report that Judgement is also a significant break for the series, that plays in a very different way.
First and foremost, levels can be played in different ways depending on the challenge you want. As this is Baird's story, you can either follow the 'official' version of events, or go 'Declassified'.
At certain points there is a glowing Omen sign on the wall. At this juncture, you can choose Official to just continue playing the game as normal, or select Declassified to see things as they really happened.
Declassified essentially injects an additional challenge for more adventurous players. In one level, it tasked us with killing all the Locust in a certain area within a four-minute time limit, before a Hammer of Dawn strike came down.
One section involved having to kill glowing Wretches, while another tasked us with only using the rather inferior Locust weapons.
If you take on the Declassified challenge and beat it, then you earn more experience points (or Stars, in this case). Fail, and you have to restart the entire checkpoint.
It's the classic risk-reward mechanic. You can play the entire campaign without doing any of these extra challenges, but Epic clearly hopes that they will increase replayability, appeal to more players and put more focus on earning stars.
There are some welcome control changes, such as Y now changing weapon, and grenades being thrown with a button press rather than manually selecting them. But also, the cover-based gameplay has changed too, and it's hard to say at this stage whether that is a good thing.
Seeing stars and Horde comes to campaign
As with many other shooters, Judgement wants you to be ranked and rewarded for your performance. Every level ends with a totting up of the stats and an awarding of stars up to the level three - ranging from Silver on normal to Onyx on insane difficulty.
Past Gears games had stars and ribbons, but Judgement puts this system much more front and centre.
Taking a lead from Gears 3's Horde mode, certain points in the campaign task you with holding a particular space.
This gives a set amount of time to set up defences, such as remote guns, and then it's about staving off a wave of enemies of increasing sizes and strengths, before another strategic pause to replace defences.
In a sense, the introduction of Horde into the campaign shows that Judgement is a very different game.
As strange as it sounds, the game is not really a pure cover shooter. Everything just comes at you at once, and you never feel safe to hang around in one spot for long.
A section inside the museum was a prime example. We tackled the initial onslaught of Grenadiers, Tickers and Wretches, but before long had Kantus, Mulchers, Boomers and Butchers all right in our face.
Despite playing an early section of the game, we also had to fight Serapedes in the basement of the museum, and saw Reavers criss-crossing the sky outside.
That is all fine, but there is a slight concern that the excellent Gears pacing may be sacrificed for all-out and rather frantic action. Previous games in the series ramped up the enemies gradually, but Judgement seems to be much more gung-ho in its approach.
Can new blood do good on an acclaimed franchise?
Epic Games and developer People Can Fly have clearly decided to do something different with Gears of War: Judgement - both in the campaign and multiplayer.
The fact that series helmers Cliff Bleszinski, Rod Fergusson and even studio president Mike Capps have moved on from Epic is perhaps significant in that.
There is nothing wrong with looking to move the series on, but hopefully the developers have also remembered what made this such an incredible franchise in the first place.
Gears of War: Judgement will be released on March 19 in North America and March 22 in Europe on Xbox 360.