When Gears of War: Judgment's Overrun Mode was unveiled last year, fans were simultaneously delighted and dismayed. Delighted because Overrun is essentially Gears of War 3's Beast Mode with a player-controlled COG side - or in other words, a version of Beast Mode that actually has some sort of long-term entertainment value. And dismayed because the introduction of Overrun appeared to have come at the cost of Gears of War 2's brilliant, much-revised Horde Mode, which has had almost as much impact on the action genre at large as the original's cover system.
On this front, I bring gladsome tidings. Firstly, Horde isn't actually gone - it seems to have endured in the form of Survival Mode. I've yet to lay eyes on the latter, or receive official confirmation from Microsoft, but there's plenty of evidence to this effect. For one thing, it's a wave-based affair, as these Achievements reveal. For another, one of Microsoft's product managers referred to it as "Horde Survival" during today's campaign hands-on. Reasonably watertight, I'm sure you'll agree.
Secondly, the principles of tactical self-expression that guide Horde Mode have infected the rest of the game. Thanks doubtless to the input of Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly, Judgment's campaign has shifted from the usual monolithic, checkpoint and setpiece-driven affair to something relatively fragmented, freer and more experimental. As you hopefully know by now, the storyline is told in retrospect by the characters themselves - "Lieutenant" Baird and Kilo Squad are hauled unceremoniously before a military tribunal as the game begins, and players then re-enact the events that led to their arrest. This frame narrative allows the designers to play around with the scenarios and challenges involved, creating optional versions of the same sequence of incidents.
These "Declassified" variants are triggered in-game by interacting with giant purple omen symbols - poke one, and Baird might recall fighting a new breed of Wretch in the area ahead or with the added pressure of a Hammer of Dawn countdown, hiking up the difficulty a few notches. It's not just a question of challenge factor, however. In order to accommodate Declassified missions without branching the story off in an impractical manner, Epic and People Can Fly have made the campaign design more modular - each area is now a tailored sandbox with its own combat criteria and completion star ratings, nudging the feel a little closer to a score-attacking brawler like Bayonetta.
Rather than burning through the plot without pause, you're encouraged to think about each scrap with the Locust as more of a standalone endeavour - to be replayed and mastered rather than forgotten the second it's over. The ingredients of which these sandboxes are constructed are mostly second-hand, with only one new Locust type and a couple of new semi-automatic rifles to write home about at present, but the playful savagery with which they're mashed together goes a long way.
At one point my computer-controlled comrades and I are ordered to cut a bloody swathe to the doors of a museum through endless waves of hard-hitting Boomers, the telepathic Kantus healers, kamikaze Ticker bombs and the ubiquitous but formidable Grenadier rank and file. With Oneshots pounding down from the top balcony, Kantus perpetually reviving Grenadiers right under our noses, and Ink Grenades flying all over the place, it's a rough-and-tumble fight indeed.