(AP) - Blockbuster game franchises like Epic Games' "Gears of War" don't just fade away _ even if the primary antagonist, the voracious Locust Horde, was obliterated at the end of the initial trilogy.
Not to worry. With "Gears of War: Judgment" (for Xbox 360, $59.99), Microsoft takes players back in time to the beginning of the war between humans and Locusts. It's a hit-or-miss affair _ but those few hits manage to leave some bruises.
The story begins shortly after Emergence Day, when the Locusts surfaced from underground and attacked the humans on the planet Sera. The war is still in its early stages and humanity has yet to fully grasp the danger. Veteran characters Damon Baird and Augustus Cole, along with two other members of their squad, stand before a military tribunal accused of treason.
The four soldiers each get a chance to tell their version of events, and though it's no "Rashomon," you do get to play as each squad member. Spending some time with our old friends Baird and Cole sounds enticing, but they are not the lovable wisecrackers they were in the trilogy. The typically sarcastic Baird is dryly serious through most of the game, and former "thrashball" player Cole never invites anyone to ride the "Cole Train" _ a colossal disappointment for both characters.
Your mission prior to the trial was to help save the people of Halvo Bay and ... well, I was never quite sure of anything beyond that, to be honest. All you really know is that a fierce boss named Gen. Karn awaits at the end, and he does provide a meaty challenge.
But the story never gets a chance to sink in and resonate the way the trilogy did, thanks to constant starting and stopping throughout the campaign. Following each firefight the game pauses to show you stats and points you've earned, making the sections feel like a series of multiplayer maps glued together by a few hastily designed cut-scenes.
The great strength of "Gears" remains its cover-based shooting, which is still some of the best you'll find in this generation. There are a handful of new weapons to complement series mainstays like the chain saw-bladed Lancer, the Boltok Pistol and the One-Shot, and the pace of the gunplay is frantic and fun.
Epic subsidiary People Can Fly, the Polish studio behind the wildly insane shooter "Bulletstorm," has added some fresh twists, including an option to "declassify" some element of each mission. When you open these classified documents, a new wrinkle is added, such as decreased visibility, a time limit, weapon restrictions or increased enemy strength.
Once again, these feel more like the variables you can set up in multiplayer matches, but having the option to change your campaign experience is a good way to give the game a bit more shelf life. On difficulty settings of hardcore and above, it can get a bit harrowing to complete a declassified section, so series veterans will definitely find new challenges here.
All in all, "Judgment" pretty much offers more of the same for "Gears" fans. If you love the multiplayer aspects of the franchise, you may not find the weak story distracting. If it's a cohesive narrative similar to the one in the trilogy you're after, you'd be better served elsewhere.
Two stars out of four.
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