Epic Games is pushing the single player experience forward with “Gears of War: Judgment,” a prequel set 15 years before the original game. The latest title in the $1 billion franchise for the Cary-based company hits stores March 19.

WRALTechWire got an inside look.

I was able to play two levels of the single player campaign early at the company’s Cary headquarters – Museum and Mansion. Museum is the first chapter in the story, which unfolds with the initial cinematic that sets up the backstory of Kilo Squad being on trial for treason. The game unfolds as different members of the squad are asked to explain what happened to a military tribunal. Museum incorporates a tutorial that explains how to do things like mantle and change weapons. Kilo Squad needs to defend museum while Locust are attacking, but it unravels into something much larger that sends the squad throughout Halvo Bay. 

While Museum features close-quarters indoor action with some of the larger areas set up for the dynamic defense scenarios that interrupt the action with timed waves of enemies, Mansion serves up more outdoor areas in the rich suburbs of Halvo Bay. The action does go inside the mansions from time to time, setting up another dynamic defense scenario inside a huge home. In Mansion, which takes place further down the game’s story line, Kilo Squad decides they need to take out Karn, the main Locust enemy in this game, by getting strategic launch codes for a missile from a professor that’s living in one of the huge mansions.

Alan Van Slyke, senior producer, Epic Games, explained that the Cary team has collaborated with the Poland studio, People Can Fly, to improve the replay value of the franchise. The dynamic spawn system is one of the things that came from brainstorming between the studios.

“You think you have a water cooler moment, where you’ve been attacked by a certain set of enemies in a certain fashion but as you play through it again different enemies will come at you from different locations and different quantities and ratios,” said Van Slyke. “The entire dynamic spawn system is a big evolution from what we’ve traditionally had in Gears. Another big system that we introduced is called the declassification system. There are two ways that you can play through the campaign. One is the classified fashion, which is a very standard way to play through the mission, while the declassification mechanism changes the story, the circumstances, and the rule set by which you’re playing. It makes it more challenging and gives you more reward, so you can play through it multiple times.”

Epic has introduces a star system. The game’s campaign is broken into 40 sections and players can earn one to three stars for each section, depending on the difficulty level that you’re playing. This was designed for bragging rights, as well as a way for completionists to have new goals. If a player takes on a section playing Insane he can earn Onyx stars, whereas playing on Normal only reward him with gold stars.

“The more executions, the more ribbons, the more kills you do, the more stars you get,” said Van Slyke. “And then the declassification challenge will help players get additional stars, so all these things tie in. Do I want three Onyx stars across the board? There’s also the ability to unlock significant content components, which is another incentive to replay sections.”

It’s much easier to jump into the action, as well, thanks to the controller optimization. Switching between your primary weapon and secondary weapon is a snap and speeds up the process for the quicker pace of the action. The game still employs cover extensively, but the experience is enhanced with the quicker pacing. The hands-on was only single-player, but the co-op experience is something that should deliver an even more intense experience with four humans manning the guns. The bots in single-player did a good job of helping out with Locusts in the Normal setting.

One of the things gamers will certainly get when they pick up this game is a multidimensional villain. Karn, the locust general that’s invaded Halvo Bay, has a history with Paduk from Kilo Squad as a UIR soldier. He knows what kind of damage he’s capable of and helps shape the decisions when defending the museum early in game to go after Karn and take him down. Epic has had a lot of time to fine-tune Judgment and it shows.