March 17, 2013
It’s funny how different people have different takes on different franchises. For me, Gears of War has been just as much about the world, the story and its characters, than it has been about the slick third-person shooter mechanics. Take Lee – Mr Bradley – on the other hand though, he effectively said to me just the other day, “Yeah, I just like Gears ‘cause I get to shoot shit.” Two different people, two different views on a franchise, but both get the same outcome: enjoyment. With the franchise losing its number for this iteration and Epic co-developing for the first time with People Can Fly, can the franchise still appease both sets of fans? Well, yes and no…
Gears of War: Judgment takes place 14 years before the events of Gears of War 1, and throws Baird and Cole into the spotlight, along with new cadet Sofia Hendrik and the gruff Garron Paduk as their sidekicks. Told via a series of flashbacks, Judgment tells the story of Kilo squad and their rise to infamy. Delivered as a courtroom drama of sorts, COG Commander General Loomis listens to the foursome’s testimonials as he decides their fate after a series of disregarded orders. The game’s story though, effectively takes a backseat to the new arcade style gameplay.
At the forefront of Judgment’s experience lies this gameplay, with an arcade-style 3-star scoring system at the game’s core. At the core of that lies what Epic and PCF are calling “Declassified Missions,” allowing for players to accumulate stars faster whilst changing the gameplay somewhat. Declassified parameter shifts not only add a little more information to the story – not enough that if you don’t choose to do them that you’ll miss anything though – but it also changes the game, whether it’s by adding a time limit to a section, an environmental effect, adding ammo or weapon stipulations, or changing the enemy-types. It’s a mechanic that can often change how you fight or approach a situation, effectively meaning that the gameplay remains fresh from start to finish.
This arcade approach does break up the flow of the game though, making the game feel like bite-size arenas as opposed to one cinematic experience, effectively meaning that it has little to no immersion. It does have better pacing than Gears of War 3, however.
From a story standpoint, Judgment does some interesting things to keep players engaged throughout. Baird, as much as I love him as a character, isn’t really lead-character material, so to alleviate this, Judgment switches perspective between the four characters as if they’re each presenting their recollection of the events that transpired. It’s simple, but it works rather well in fact.
The significant improvements in the engine are subtle and boil down to control tweaks more than anything, the main one being able to switch weapons and throw grenades with just one button click. It’s amazing how something so simple can improve the flow of the game, but it does, dramatically. Factor in that the game dictates what enemies you’ll see dependent on how you’re performing – meaning you can get a different experience every time – and that there are new weapons (like the Markza, the Breechshot and more) and new enemies (like the Rager), it’s got everything you could possibly want from a sequel… or in this case, a prequel. The fact that the flow of enemies depends on how well you’re doing does mean that sometimes Epic and PCF’s way of making it harder for you is to simply overwhelm you beyond belief… so good luck for those moments! My favourite addition has to be the new mid-campaign Horde sections, which are a worthy addition and a great change of pace when they crop up.
If you’re after a more cinematic Gears experience, Aftermath should have you covered. Gone are the Declassified Missions and the scoring system, and in come some of the best moments from the entire game. There’s a great survival-horror esque sequence of events that will surely make you jump, for instance. The two-hour story, which takes place during Gears of War 3 – when Baird, Cole and Carmine disappear off to get backup – is classic Gears in the same vein as Gears of War 3, has an enjoyable story, some solid set-pieces and a fluency that the campaign lacked from a story and cinematic perspective. It’s an odd inclusion, and strikes us as something that might be better off as standalone DLC – mainly because it doesn’t have much to do with Judgment – but it definitely adds more value to the package and is a pleasure to play through.
Where Gears of War usually sets the standard though is online, yet Judgment seems like the lightest version in terms of options in the series thus far. There’s no Beast mode, no Horde mode, no Execution, no Wingman and so on. Instead you’re left with 4 standard versus modes – two of which are FFA (new to the franchise, but hardly worth noting) and Team Deathmatch, and one of those is essentially King of the Hill.
The fourth mode is by far the most interesting though, a mode called Overrun, which is essentially an attack and defend, class-based Gears of War mode. It’s basically Locust vs. COG in a battle to unlock Emergence Holes – if you’re Locust, choose from your eight Locust and trying to destroy the COG Emergence Hole covers, pushing them back far enough to destroy the generator. If you’re COG, you have four classes to choose from and your aim is to hold off the Locust for as long as possible. With preset fortifications, each class of Locust and COG having its perks and benefits, it’s a mode that actually requires more tactical nous and teamwork than any other mode in a previous Gears game. It’s genuinely a great addition.
Interestingly though, is the amount of content when it comes to the multiplayer. In Gears gone-by there’s always been a plethora of depth and content, and while there’s good depth in terms of customisation, unlocks and stats, albeit with only eight maps – four for each mode type i.e. four for slayer matches and Domination, four for Overrun – it won’t be long before you’re praying for DLC or moving back to Gears 3. The design of some of those maps are interesting too, for example, the Gondola map has a lot going for it, but it’s one of the most convoluted and confusing maps I’ve ever experienced – it probably takes a good hour or so to get used to it. Players can no longer start with a Lancer and a Gnasher either, it’s one or the other now, which will likely mess with the status quo of the online component.
Replacing Horde is a mode that goes by the name of Survival, which is effectively an amalgamation of Horde and Overrun. Players have to work together in this class-based system to defend their “E-Holes” from an onslaught of AI controlled Locust across 10 waves. Sure, it’s a great little mode on its own, but taking out the impressive progression-based fortifications system from Gears of War 3 means that it’s a shadow of what Horde 2.0 was. Quite why Epic and People Can Fly attempted to reinvent the mode at the expense of Gears’ classic mode is an interesting design decision, and one that frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense.
As for the achievements, the less said about them the better, to be honest. They’re like Gears of War’s 3 list – which we called “Boring, uninspiring and completely devoid of inspiration” – but actually more devoid of inspiration and incredibly bland. It’s a by the numbers list with no imagination. Try this out, try that out, win 10 matches in this mode, “re-up” (which is Gears for prestige) 3 times. Yes, they’re all that bland.
As Gears games go, Judgment isn’t the swansong that the franchise for this generation maybe should have gone out on. The disjointed nature makes it feel like a fractured experience, but despite that, the quality shines through and what we have is at its core an incredibly impressive game that is worthy of a place in anyone’s collection. It also shows that Epic isn’t afraid to mix things up every once in a while, although at times you have to question a few of their design decisions.
It’s a typical Gears experience with a classy score, some solid voice-acting and some stunning sound effects. That ‘arena cleared’ gong still sends shivers down our spine.
Still one of the Xbox’s shining lights when it comes to visuals. There’s a great diversity this time around too, with both vibrant locations and dilapidated warzones to boot.
Quite simply put, it’s the best Gears ever in terms of controls. It’s amazing how switching a few buttons around makes for a much better experience.
It’s a bit disjointed in truth. The 6-8 hour Judgment campaign is great, as is Aftermath, but the online modes seem a little light compared to Gears games gone by. Overrun and Survival are great, but they’ve come at the expense of one of the franchise’s staple modes.
We can’t help but think that Epic has lost its way with achievements. Bland, uninspiring and much worse than the unoriginal Gears of War 3 list… which is saying something!
Despite the almost fractured feeling that Gears of War: Judgment carries, it’s still a fine package and a must have for Gears fans. Two great campaigns, some innovative new modes and plenty of Locust stomping action. It’s just a shame Epic and PCF had to take away features from the title to add new ones.