Gears of War: Judgment
As we reach the tail-end of this generation of gaming, the challenge for developers isn't so much to innovate as to keep things fairly fresh. The Gears of War series is one of the Xbox 360's cornerstones and, with a fourth entry released just months before Microsoft announces its new console, it's all about balance: sticking to the series' well-received run-and-gun formula while offering new novelties to make the purchase worthwhile.
Thankfully, the developers at Epic Games are decent high-wire performers: Judgment is a prequel that sets the clock back a couple of decades, with the title referring to a military trial where Lieutenant Baird and his Kilo Squad are facing charges of treason.
As each squad member gives their testimony, we flash back and play out the events from their particular point of view. Through the series' much-loved, shoot-anything-that-moves dynamic, gamers traverse this barren sci-fi landscape as a beefed-up detective, bashing their way through the various pieces of the story's puzzle to discover the answers.
It's an interesting alternative to the endless cut scenes that hinder many tentpole games, and one made all the more involving through additional improvements, the most notable of which is the smart spawn system. While the player would previously be sent back to a familiar map upon dying, now a respawn leads to things taking a turn for the unpredictable. Enemies approach from all angles, aliens are constantly morphing forms, and occasionally the entire layout changes altogether.
Unfortunately, it's when you're truly getting into this exhilarating other-worldly adventure - at about the six-hour mark - that the game abruptly ends. It's easily the shortest entry in the series, and the developers have attempted to appease with a couple of minor additions. The first is a mini-campaign that serves as an epilogue to Gears of War 3, where all the hallmarks of the first trilogy are brought back in a lean two-hour gaming time. The second is a series of additional multiplayer modes.
Both are fun in a classic Gears way, but after a gruellingly enjoyable half-day spent searching for answers while blasting away at ever-changing aliens, little can make you forget the addictive prequel. In that regard, Epic has flown too close to the sun here: it's found a balance of sorts, but possibly not the one we were looking for.