Gears of War: Judgment is finally here, in all of its blood-stained glory. However, like Halo 3: ODST was to that franchise, Judgment arrives as an anti-thesis to the efforts we’re used to from Epic Games and even People Can Fly. The same all-pervading production values are present throughout and it could be argued that this is indeed the best-looking Gears of War till date on both technical and aesthetic fronts.
The same mix of brutality and tactical combat returns, buffed up by larger numbers of enemies and unique mission objectives in between chapters delivers a new challenge to veterans of the franchise. The same characters, with their mix of over-the-top macho heroism and gritty survivalist fundamentals, keep you engaged one minute with their witty banter and the next with their tragic circumstances. So it’s a new Gears of War game all right – but is it an entirely new game?
Not really, but the amount of content goes beyond the mere tag of “add-on”. In fact, it could be argued that it’s perfectly justified in its pricing, packing enough campaign and multiplayer material while expanding that ever depressing Gears lore further.
The game starts with Damon Baird, a lieutenant, being court-marshalled along with members of Kilo Squad. Told in flashbacks, you’ll be commanding different members of the squad and recalling the story through their respective POVs. Each new chapter consists of several segments – one could have you playing as Sofia Hendrick, a COG Onyx Guard cadet, while the next has you playing as Augustus Cole, the former Thrashball player turned insane soldier.
But the most interesting new character is undoubtedly Garron Paduk, a former URI soldier from Gorasnaya who joined the COG after the Emergence of the Locusts. Sure, he may stink of Russian stereotype but he turns out to be a rather solid grey character that you can’t help but root (and feel sorry) for.
We won’t spoil the story for you…heck, People Can Fly/Epic Games don’t want to spoil it either. Why else would they tell it in flashbacks? Of course, those flashbacks serve another meaningful gameplay purpose – they allow for certain “extra” testimonies to find their way into the actual mission. Known as “Declassified” segments, they have each member describing a unique situation or activity that occurred in their fight against the Locust.
Those activities manifest themselves in the gameplay. Each mission has one Declassified setting that allows you to significantly up the difficulty and change the circumstances of the mission. Perhaps you want to take on double the number of Locusts? Maybe switch the normal Locust out for a swarm of Ragers, a new enemy type that turns red and immediately charge you with berserker like strength and speed? Every kind of challenge and twist imaginable comes into play: a fog of war distorting your vision, reduced health regeneration, starting with no ammo, reliance on a set weapon (that may also have no ammo), and much, much more.
Toggling a Declassified setting has a deeper purpose – it helps in collecting Stars, which go towards levelling your character and unlocking weapons and such to customize your load out in multiplayer. It’s a great incentive and hardly ever feels like extra work. Just rewards on top of the already rewarding gameplay.
That doesn’t mean you won’t be facing your classic Gears of War watercooler moments. One moment you could be reliving Normandy; the next you’re trying to prevent a Normandy beach landing. Other moments include taking on an actual Berserker or targeting mortar locations. The game is definitely well-balanced and for all those times it can be tough, there’s always another strategy for success.
Of course, this is because every single mission has more or less been relegated to some kind of variant on Horde. You’ll be defending against enemies, holding a section off against enemies or just commandeering a mortar launcher against enemies. See a pattern there? The enemies are always coming to you, as you hunker down in a single spot and prepare to defend, at times more literally than others. Of course, you’ll still be barrelling down corridors and piloting a Silverback to tear through entire waves of Locust defences. But at its core, the game throws as many enemies at you as possible with the Declassified segments providing a little zest.
So the key question: Is it fun? Hell yes it is.
Whether you’re mastering the new URI semi-automatic rifle, which the Ragers modify into the Breech-shot, or taking advantage of a new grenade launcher or just laying into enemies with the Lancer chainsaw, Gears of War: Judgment has the classic gameplay down pat.
It’s amazingly intense and blood-pumping; the increased number of enemies helps add to the insane panic caused by the Locust forces during E-Day. On their own, Locusts with One-Shots, Boomers, Diggers, Ragers, Tickers, Grunts and Grenadiers may not be too tough but entire swarms of them? It’s as awesome as it is challenging.
Increased enemy numbers aren’t the only thing that Judgment does well. This is the apocalypse, and People Can Fly wants you to know it. Remember the destroyed beauty of the other Gears games? Here, you’re actually seeing civilization crumble around you. There are plenty of explosions, but you’ll also be seeing Sera in a completely new light.
For all its wars and tragedies, it’s much like our own world. And the complete and utter annihilation of humanity, as well as the slaughter of those who survived the initial attack, is emphasized far better than in any Gears of War game to date. Really, for all of its flaws, it’s amazing that Unreal Engine 3 can still crank out visuals like this so long after its initial introduction.
Now for the bad news. Remember how we said that it could be argued that the game was perfectly justified in its pricing? None of the other Gears games needed that kind of argument – they always went above and beyond with the amount of content provided. However, when you factor in both parts of the campaign, Judgment and Aftermath, you should be able to clear the single-player in less than 7 hours on Normal difficulty. Then again, playing on Hardcore didn’t make that much difference to length.
There’s also the fact the Horde is gone and replaced with Survival and OverRun. On the one hand, OverRun sounds exciting but it has to be played with friends. The single-player version of that is Survival, where you’re on the COG side and must defend objectives while repelling Locust attacks.
The different character abilities are cool but more than Horde, it emphasizes the fact that you need real team-mates and team-work to effectively succeed. If Horde mode relies on a no-holds barred approach and effective strategy coupled with supreme movement to defeat enemies, then Survival depends on how well you can defend an area.
And with bumbling AI team-mates, who try but ultimately leave it up to you to guard an E-Hole, and lack of upgrades or additional weapons, you can bet it won’t be for long if you go it alone. At its core, Survival is fun; it just sucks when that fun is cut short irrespective of your performance.
If it were any other game, we’d be wary in saying if the Campaign mode alone is worth the price of admission. However, by effectively combining great graphics with interesting mission variants and larger enemy numbers, not to mention overhauling multiplayer (just remember the “multi” part if you want to properly enjoy it), Gears of War: Judgment succeeds as a strong third person shooter that can teach most modern games a thing or two about compelling gameplay mechanics and controls within a short but sweet play-length.
Just remember: It’s not Gears of War 4 by a long shot. The sooner you get past that, the sooner you can enjoy Judgment for the side-story that it is.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.