Changing Its Testimony, Gears of War: Judgment Remains True to Its StoryS

I'm no lawyer, but I've watched enough TV to think I know how to coach a witness. Mostly, shut up. Answer the question and don't say any more than you have to. Don't volunteer anything. It'll only make things harder for you later.

Cpl. Damon Baird—pardon me, Lt. Damon Baird—never learned that lesson. That forms both the main story for Gears of War: Judgment main story, and the manifold ways through which you'll be invited to replay it when the game arrives in March.

In the Xbox 360 game Gears of War: Judgment, each mission is a flashback, and each flashback is a Gears testimony—whether Baird's, Augustus Cole's, or two newcomers, one a deputized prisoner from the Pendulum Wars forming the story before Emergence Day, i.e. when everything went to hell.

Science fiction, by setting things in the future, has the luxury of tying off its characters' loose ends in the past while keeping the characters fresh. Gears of War: Judgment will seize the opportunity. At a preview event two weeks ago at Epic Games headquarters, I got to play two chapters of the game's campaign: Baird's opening statement, and then the testimony of Garron Paduk, an ethnic Russian who fought for the adversaries of the Coalition of Ordered Governments, before the Locust came to town.

Each chapter unfolds with voiceover narrative from the character you're inhabiting at the moment, whether that's Baird, Cole, Paduk or newcomer Sofia Hendrik. The mission plays out as the character relates its events to a kangaroo military court run by Col. Loomis, an antagonist brought in to try Baird's unit for treason and/or war crimes. It becomes evident, fairly early on, what the war crime is.

As each character relates his or her experience, you're given the chance to run a "declassified" version of the mission—which is essentially the same story segment run against a more complicated difficulty. For example, completing an operation in a pre-set time before a Hammer of Dawn strike occurs. Or finishing it with Locust weapons only, in defiance of COG orders, or discovering new variants of Locust foes that your witness relates to the tribunal.

It's a shrewd way to incorporate an alternate story into a broader canon, but it's not the only way Gears of War: Judgment's campaign will vary the experience.

For example, I have a note in my pad that says, "Cole doesn't get chatty until the third mission; what's up?" What's up is an 80,000 word script that still follows the same storyline, but doesn't serve the same NPC dialogue, at the same moments, as you're accustomed to hearing in other combat shooters of this type.

What was happening, as I was dying repeatedly, is that the game was cycling to dialogue options in the other characters more than it was in Cole. In another playthrough, it's likely I would have heard him more, talking about the wine cellar he'd made for his home as a Thrashball star before enlisting.

Changing Its Testimony, Gears of War: Judgment Remains True to Its Story

"That variability grew out of the fact that they knew people would die a lot (in campaign)," said Tom Bissell, who along with Rob Auten co-wrote the story and dialogue for Gears of War: Judgment. "They didn't want people to keep hearing the same shit over and over after they died and went back into the game."

Combat in the campaign mode moved largely from wave attack to wave defense to set piece, but again, thanks to a directorial AI that changed enemy spawns, never in the same way. Hanging back to snipe at the Locust from cover will spawn different adversaries and tactics (mostly flanking), for example. Most of the "declassified" missions, the higher-difficulty alternate testimony—were doable except for the timed missions, which may be owed more to my careful nature.

Surrounding all of this was a luxuriously shredded Sera, whose set direction ramped up the beautiful destruction of the original Gears of War (set 14 years beyond the events of this story) and made it something more recent, even current. Structures are on fire, loudspeakers spout public safety bromides, you'll hear the frantic whisperings of refugees as you fight building to building. This most gripping flashback the game supplies is the one surrounding all of the campaign: You're seeing the aftermath of Emergence Day, the watershed moment that started this story.

Gears of War: Judgment will be a different trip through the series' canon, but it doesn't set up as a side journey. You're still facing and repelling the same existential threat; the personality of the unit comes out at key moments. You're doing it with two new characters and two familiar faces, even if they still have long histories to explore.