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Gears of War: Judgment review: As drum-tight as ever, if overly familiar

A true trial by fire

No mere expansion, Judgment is Gears of War, a fully-fledged sequel with an eight-hour campaign, all the multiplayer modes you'd expect, and two new ones. It's also a bit of a curveball. What represents a failure in proposal (case in point: we've just had to waste precious words reiterating that this game isn't an expansion) is a success in execution.

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A Fenix-less prequel set before the first game, Gears of War: Judgment sees blonde bruiser Damon Baird's Kilo Squad standing trial for treason. Flashbacks form levels, and within those levels you take control of Baird and Cole Train, along with new guys Garron Paduk (burly Russian type) and Sofia Hendrik (token female), each narrating missions through court testimony.

Difficulty modifiers change settings within levels, giving you a reason to replay

The trial is no mere framing device. Levels offer optional Declassify challenges, represented by glowing crimson omens on walls. They're essentially difficulty modifiers, triggered with a press of X, that change sights and settings within the levels. In one, Kilo Squad allege their vision was impaired in the Museum of Military Glory, so accept the modifier and it'll fill with choking dust. In another, they claim civilians in the sunny suburbs of Seahorse Hills had access to explosives, so you'll need to finish the level in four minutes or it'll blow up. Other Declassifications include heavy wind which blows you around; temporarily forfeiting health regeneration; only being given access to a boom shield and sawed-off; and having to deal with an extra Locust team flanking from behind.

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Modifiers are a novel incentive to try levels multiple times, but harder difficulties bring greater rewards. Earning stars (the maximum per scenario is three) unlocks ridiculous weapon and character skins: Tron lights, neon skeleton piping, clown stripes, animated flames, it's all here. There's even a cell-shaded effect which recalls Borderlands' aesthetic, albeit chunkier.

But there's a bigger prize. MILD SPOILER BEGINS >>> Earn 40 stars, which it's near impossible not to do before the end, and your grand prize is an extra 90-minute long campaign called Aftermath, a chunk of postscript fan service answering questions raised at the climax of Gears of War 3. Faces are older, frames a bit paunchier, but it's a solid chunk of Gears all the same, an interesting invert on a period you've played. <<< MILD SPOILER ENDS

BAIRD GRILLS

As expansive as this is, Judgment can feel compartmentalised. Imagine your standard Gears game, but with a loading screen after every encounter. While not as disruptive as in Hitman Absolution, a game from a series founded on freedom, it sometimes feels more like a series of loosely strung together challenge rooms. Missions have always boiled down to either clearing a bowl-shaped area or holding out against enemy waves, so Judgment simply drops the pretense and cuts out the walking in between. It's like a theme park ride: a few minutes of action before calmly making your way to the exit, not forgetting to pick up your photo (or you stars rank, in this case) on the way out.

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Defense scenarios are a constant crutch too, now more than ever. Those after variety may balk at the lack of zip-lining, Brumak-riding and Kryll-dodging diversions, but core combat always plays fresh, no matter how often it's leaned on. A typical level begins with a countdown. You've got a minute before all hell breaks loose, and in that time you can position turrets, plant boom shields and grab ammo. When it does, you'll not only fight waves of Locusts (usually about two or three, with a few dozen infantry a piece), but repair turrets and lure enemies into electric and barbed wire barriers. Everything is coolly predicated on Gears' reliable combat mechanics.

The game is less organic, perhaps a tad cynical in the process, but never tedious

By design it's less organic and perhaps a tad cynical, but never tedious. People Can Fly layer together different guns, grenades, enemies and items to tease out new combinations: a round against Bloodmounts and a Boomer plays drastically different to one featuring five Tickers and a Kantus. And it's not all defence. A D-Day-like landing sees you storm a sunny beach as Locust pelt the water with rounds, then later defend that same beach, now pounded by torrents of rain, against enemies arriving in organic, amphibious craft. Adding insult to injury, you can hop on the very same turrets that once pinned you down. It's a shrewd reuse of assets, but a smart one.

There's a good mix of environments. The beach is a vastly different space to the Seahorse Hills suburbs, where spacious balconies on luxury mansions allow Locust motor men to reign down fire, or the open Rooftops level, perfect for skybound Reavers to embark on bombing runs.

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Fresh armament helps here, and each of the three new weapons slot into the arsenal effortlessly. The booshka grenade-launcher, the tripwire crossbow, and the breechshot (a scope-less sniper) are impeccably balanced, and suit Judgment's defense bent. Fire a tripwire arrow across a doorway, for example, and then set up a position at distance with the mid-to-long-range breechshot, and watch from safety as the Locusts crumble.

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