Gears of War: Judgment is yet another example of what happens when a console generation drags on too long. We start to see subtitled games, instead of fully numbered sequels. Squeezing every last bit out of a franchise that was neatly wrapped up may feel like a milking the cash cow a bit too hard (and I am not saying that wasn’t the intention here), but Judgment does something so bold it is difficult not to appreciate it. Love it or hate it, Gears has become one of the staples of the Xbox brand, and this latest entry further proves that sometimes a fresh take on a solid formula is all that’s needed.
One of the brilliant things about the Gears series is its narrative. It has never been emotionally compelling or superbly written, but it has always been fun. Watching the hijinks of these big, dumb characters over time has caused me to remember them, care about what happens to them and most importantly, keep me interested. Judgment continues that by focusing on a new set of protagonists, with a couple familiar faces.
Judgment is a prequel to the original trilogy that follows the events of Kilo Squad, casting fan favorites Damon Baird and Augustus “Cole Train” Cole in a whole new light. Joining these well-known characters are Garron Paduk, a bitter member of the losing side of mankind’s last civil war, now teaming up with his former enemies against a much more devious threat. Also in the mix is Sofia Hendricks, an ambitious soldier hamstrung by her disobedient nature. This cast works well together, but feels nothing exceptional. It is the delivery where Judgment really excels.
The entire game is told through flashbacks, as the squad recounts events during their trial for war crimes. We begin the game near its conclusion and are told the events leading up to the trial through playable sequences. Cut scenes are minimal, and instead characters dole out dialogue during the action that sets the stage. The game constantly switches the playable character to coincide with the testimony, and it all feels really well constructed, mixing just the right amount of narrative in with the action. Again, the story isn’t anything special or compelling, just really well delivered.
What really sets the campaign apart from previous Gears games though, is its design. Judgment is the first game developed outside the usual team. Developer People Can Fly, who created the quirky Bulletstorm, were at the helm, and their sporadic, more arcade-style action really shines through. Judgment’s campaign seems like any normal Gears endeavor on the surface until the introduction of the “Declassified” portions of the mission. These are basically modifiers that change up the dynamic of the upcoming encounter. These include limited ammo, restricted weapon types, added mission timers and completely handicapping vision with dust during the fight. They are all tied into the narrative, and add a nice layer of challenge. They also tie into the new scoring dynamic of the game.
Metagames are fun, and People Can Fly proved that well with Bulletstorm. Judgment brings that to the table with a star-scoring mechanic to the campaign. Throughout each section, scores are tallied based on various aspects including executions, gibs, explosions, melee and more. At the end of each segment, scores are tallied up, and one to three stars are awarded based on performance. Activating the Declassified missions enhance this score significantly, and are crucial to maximizing end of mission rankings. The form of competition this spawns is both addictive and refreshing to the core Gears experience.
Earn enough points, and new skins and characters for multiplayer become available, as well as a secondary campaign called Aftermath that takes place during the events of Gears of War 3. This is a really cool addition that ties in Baird and Cole’s experience with Judgment. Sadly, a lot of what makes the core story missions so unique and interesting is absent from Aftermath. The Declassified sections have been omitted, and the level design seems to revert back to the claustrophobia found in previous games. If People Can Fly’s objective was to make Aftermath feel like past iterations, it achieved that on multiple levels. It isn’t that it is bad; rather it feels like the experience regresses.
It is also worth noting that the control scheme has been redesigned to feel more like other shooters. The changes are minimal, but effective. For example, the weapon switching system has been moved from the d-pad to the Y button, while grenades are now handled with the left bumper. Active reload remains in place on the right bumper, as does the contextual-sensitive A button for cover and roadie-run, while B still serves as a melee initiator. Like I said, the changes are minimal, but will take some getting used to for veterans of the series.
No Gears game is complete without its online additions though, and Judgment does deliver on this aspect in very different ways than in previous iterations. First and foremost, deathmatch modes are now all COG versus COG, meaning players can no longer select Locust avatars. Instead, the developers have opted to go back to classic red versus blue mentality, allowing deeper customization of the small roster. Sure, that means it is possible to have a whole team of blue Coles running around, but it also gives players more choice overall. I actually missed being able to play as the Locust, even if it was always purely cosmetic.
The gameplay matches the fast-paced changes People Can Fly have made. This is most evident in the new free-for-all mode that finally allows players to kill or be killed against everyone else. The new mode is fast, frantic and tons of fun once things get going. It has quickly become one of my favorite modes to play.
The other major change is the removal of Horde Mode in favor of two, similar attractions. The first is called OverRun, and it may be the best thing to come to Gears since the series’ inception. This is the one mode where players can play as Locust, and it is a symmetrical mode of offense and defense. The COG side is tasked with protecting barricaded Emergence holes, while the Locust are tasked with tearing down said barriers. This is a class-based mode that gives players the option of soldier, medic, scout and engineer when playing on the human side, and tiers of monsters on the Locust side. Racking up points opens up new tiers for the Locust, while the COG have access to all classes, with each one performing their own specific duties.
OverRun is addictive, and truly the best addition to the multiplayer portion of the game. The other mode to replace Horde is called Survival, and it’s essentially OverRun, but against waves of enemy AI as opposed to human opponents. I like to think of this as the lonely man’s OverRun, but it is a nice distraction when friends aren’t around.
It is hard not to appreciate what People Can Fly has done with this revered franchise. When we consider this is the fourth game in six years, it might be hard to imagine it still having any steam left. While the changes make all the difference, they don’t sacrilegiously alter the core mechanics; in fact I found them to be refreshing in almost every sense. I wish Aftermath was an interesting complement to the campaign, and I am disappointed that the competitive multiplayer isn’t more refined and advanced, but the sheer volume of content still manages to impress. The fresh take on the series is a much needed one.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.