Gears of War is easily the Xbox 360's flagship franchise, up there with blockbusters like the Halo games. Known for its gorgeous graphics, addictive third-person shooting style, and seamless "sticky-cover," Gears has sold millions of copies and created a loyal, passionate fanbase.
Gears hit a crescendo with 2011's Gears of War 3, which concluded the epic trilogy of humanity's ongoing war with a monstrous race known only as the Locust.
With Gears of War: Judgment, there's now four games spread out across almost seven years, so keeping things fresh has undoubtedly proved a challenge. Judgment acts as a prequel to the events of the Gears trilogy, telling the story of Kilo Squad, a collection of soldiers led by teammates from the other games. The members of the squad are standing trial, hence the whole "Judgment" thing.
What's unique about this setup is that while each squad member defends his actions, players are sent back to relive their part of a campaign, allowing for some character swapping.
Judgment really rewards the true Gears of War fan, diving deep into the Gears' universe and lore, following the stories of franchise favorites like Damon Baird and Augustus Cole.
Out of the gate, Judgment feels a lot like the three games before it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The campaign is a lot of fun to play through and is graphically stunning. But while all the usual suspects show up in Judgment, most of the gameplay stays the same, save for a few button changes. So how does Judgment separate itself from the trilogy?
Aside from the aforementioned focus on narrative, Judgment introduces a new star system that rewards players based on their in-game performance. Earning these stars can sped up by activating "Declassified Missions," which will alter a level, making it more challenging.
Stars get unlocked quicker here, but a death will also result in a total restarting of the mission. These "Declassified Missions" are totally optional, but there doesn't seem to be any reason to skip them unless you don't feel like being challenged.
There's plenty of incentives for earning stars. Not only do they unlock items, but collect enough and you'll get access to "Aftermath," a lost chapter from Gears of War 3.
Multiplayer and co-op are back in Judgment, offering up a wide variety of gameplay options to share with friends. There's no shortage of gameplay value here, and players can go back and try to earn more stars on different difficulty levels as well.
A few new gameplay mechanics and some fresh faces add some longevity to a series that has run its course over the Xbox 360's life cycle. We obviously won't see another Gears game on this platform, but things will need to change drastically for the franchise to stay relevant in the next generation.
CNET verdict: Best for Gears of War veterans
The fourth Gears of War game feels a lot like its predecessors, save for a few new characters, weapons, and unique way of storytelling.
It's tough to recommend Gears of War: Judgment as an introduction to the franchise despite the game's chronological location in the Gears universe. There's a heavy amount of backstory being explored here, so it's worth checking out the original trilogy first.
Visit our sister site, GameSpot, for ongoing coverage of Gears of War: Judgment.