Gears of War: Judgment Hands-On Preview – Trials and Tribulations
Written Monday, March 04, 2013 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
From revving up the chainsaw on your Lancer to curb-stomping a Locust's head, gazing at inky red skies as Kryll circle above, observing the 'destroyed beauty' around you; there's something iconic about Gears of War. It's hardly surprising then that Epic and People Can Fly are choosing to play it somewhat safe with Gears of War: Judgment, eschewing any broad changes in favour of a few neat new features and interesting asides. As Dan noted in his preview a couple of weeks ago, this next instalment isn't looking to reinvent the wheel, but it is looking to be another robust, content-laden title with a compelling campaign that bookends the series.
Telling the story of Kilo Squad as they undergo trial for war crimes, the story is told via a series of flashbacks narrated by Damon Baird himself as the action unfolds. At certain junctures – usually at the beginning of a chapter – you'll have the chance to add modifiers to each mission with Declassified parameter changes that affect conditions and difficulty as you strive to attain a perfect three-star rating on each of the game's missions. It's a neat new spin on the structure of the typical Gears of War campaign, changing the way you play and approach each chapter.
It sounds like a small thing, but it does go a long way towards differentiating Judgment from the rest of the Gears franchise. Variation seems to be the watchword here too, with the narrative flitting between Baird, Cole, Paduk and Sofia, while the optional Declassified stuff keeps you on your toes should you choose to accept their parameter shifts and challenges.
Our demo has us taking up the Lancer of Augustus Cole, who's still every bit the bulky, wise-cracking Thrashball player you know and love. This section sees us reliving Cole's testimony, storming the beach of Onyx Point like the D-day landings in Normandy during World War II, except with Locust manning the gun emplacements in the bunkers. Grabbing a conveniently placed Longshot on the shore, we're able to take out the manned turrets, before targeting the Theron Guards stalking the steps leading up into the overrun COG base where the Locust have taken up residence.
It takes two attempts before we successfully assault the Locust's stronghold, amply demonstrating the game's new 'smart spawning system', or what Epic and PCF call 'S3' for short. Essentially, the system is something akin to Left 4 Dead's AI director, spawning different enemies each time you play, in different positions each time. That means that you'll probably never play the same game twice during the single-player campaign, and for our frenetic sandy battle, we're presented with Maulers the first time around and an aggressive defensive line of Theron (or Charlizes, as we like to call them) the second time. It forces you to change up your tactics on the fly, and keeps things fresh, or at least fresher than usual. The 'S3' is a nice touch.
As we move deeper into the COG base in an effort to clear out the invading Locust within, we helpfully locate a Silverback mech slap-bang in the middle of an open courtyard, which helps us make light work of the Boomers, Grenadiers, Theron and Grinders taking up positions all around us. The optional Declassified goal restricts us to using certain weapons, including the Hammerburst, again adding to the challenge, while accelerating the rate at which you earn that elusive, all-important three-star rating.
Roadie-running through the Central Base, the Declassified objective in the following chapter involves surviving the battle with adverse weather conditions affecting visibility, movement and the trajectory of your projectiles. With howling gale force winds and torrential rain pushing Cole to the side as he walks, we muddle through the section, stylishly curving some frag grenades through the air. A run to a cliffside elevator while One Shot-packing Locust snipers line the high ground across a ravine ensues, ahead of our infiltrating a lab facility where a lightmass missile sits dormant.
Looping back around to the beach where the mission commenced, the objective shifts to defending the shoreline from amphibious Locust transports. We're given 90 seconds to set up Gnasher Sentinel turrets and tripwire bolts using an adapted crossbow to make life a little easier, before the waves of Locust attack. Four or five waves later (we weren't really counting), and we're free to escape Onyx Point and celebrate a successful mission.
Next up, we briefly delve into the bonus Aftermath campaign, which is a set of missions set during the events of Gears of War 3, unlocked by acquiring all 100-odd stars available from the main campaign's missions. This sequence of chapters slot into a section of Gears 3's campaign, filling in some of the gaps in which Baird and Cole were absent, collecting resources. This part plays more like Gears 3, devoid of the Declassified goals and so on. It's a neat extra, and an added incentive to nail all of Gears of War: Judgment's episodes by gaining all three-stars.
Rounding off our lengthy hands-on time with Judgment, we take on seven of the ten waves presented in the new Survival Mode (it's all we could manage), which takes Gears 3's Horde with its fortifications and whatnot, and adds class-based characters and an objective to keep an eye on. Playing on the Estate map, we're tasked with guarding an E-hole cover from Locust, with a team of five each fulfilling one of four class-based roles.
A Mechanic is equipped with a repair tool to maintain fortifications, a Soldier packs plenty of firepower and can drop ammo boxes, while the Scout can climb, pick off enemies with his UIR Markza sniper rifle and deploy beacons to reveal enemy positions. The Medic meanwhile, can throw out stim-gas grenades to keep the team fighting fit. Each role is important, but the Mechanic is especially invaluable, as once a fortification is breached and destroyed, it's gone for good.
Each time you lose an E-hole cover under the duress of Locust attacks, you're pushed across the map until you end up at the final defence point. In this case, it's a generator that has to be protected. If it's destroyed, your struggle to survive ends and the Locust emerge victorious. This is all playable from the Locust side too, so you can be attacking the E-hole cover, taking on the COG. Survival is a nice twist on the standard Horde/Beast Mode game-type, serving as a sort of 'best of' Gears of War Horde mode. It's good, messy fun.
Going hands-on with Gears of War: Judgment's main campaign, its bonus Aftermath campaign and the new co-op Survival Mode has shown us that Epic and People Can Fly are certainly looking to cover all of the bases and ensure that the series goes out with a bang on Xbox 360. There's enough new or rejigged stuff in here to coax us back once again, and at the end of the day, it's Gears of War, so you can't go far wrong.
Gears of War: Judgment is out on March 19th in North America and March 22nd in Europe.