Today at PAX Prime 2012 in Seattle, I got to play Gears of War: Judgment’s new free-for-all mode. This is the first entry in the series that supports a FFA in multiplayer. The all-out battle was a tense ride, but the attendees of PAX scrubbed the floor with me.

The gameplay is identical to what we detailed in previous coverage of Gears of War: Judgment (check out our extensive online hub for exclusive online content). Weapon swapping is mapped to the Y-button, there is now an offhand grenade button, and the overall control scheme is more in tune with modern FPSs. The slightly snappier controls scheme allows players to make more on-the-fly combat decisions, which helps staying alive in FFA easier. 

The map I played was a sprawling, elaborate library archiving COG history. Vast shelves of literature and twisting staircases make up the arena. The rows upon rows of books makes line-of-sight a problem, resulting in close-quarters combat. The shotgun or lancer chainsaw is a good bet for this map. Players can also vault over or walk off ledges in Judgment, lending new importance to the Y-axis. Enemies can vault over you and attack from behind in an instant. The result is a faster and more frantic version of competitive Gears multiplayer.

FFA mode is a huge change of pace from the Gears series’ traditional team-based multiplayer modes. With no teammates to resuscitate you, felled players are dealt a swift death. There’s no crawling along the floor while bleeding out here. 

The overall gameplay is still much slower-paced and deliberate than the twitchy combat of Call of Duty or Halo. I had a hard time going toe-to-toe with the PAX attendees, and was routinely outmatched in any encounter. I’ll blame my penchant for Lancer chainsaw kills and poor use of roll-dodging. I earned my two precious kills with the shotgun, which is the perfect choice for the library’s cramped space.

Gears fans eager for a big shake-up to the series’ multiplayer formula should like FFA. Non-fans that have been previously turned off by the series’ sluggish gameplay won’t find anything new to love. I may be awful at it, but I’m glad to see FFA join the roster of exciting modes such as OverRun and the four-player co-op campaign. Gears of War: Judgment arrives on Xbox 360 March 19, 2013.