Gears Of War: Judgement – Review

Title   Gears Of War: Judgement
Developer  People Can Fly/Epic Games
Publisher  Microsoft
Platform  Xbox 360
Genre  Third Person Shooter
Release Date  March 22nd, 2013
Official Site

For a series that’s practically defined HD gaming, there’s been noticeably less fanfare surrounding Gears of War: Judgment than previous instalments.  Is it because it’s too soon after the original trilogy’s closing act, is it because Epic Games have drafted in Bulletstorm developers People Can Fly to craft the campaign, or is it simply because it’s one of those oh-so-popular prequels, taking place a matter of days after Emergence Day and 14 years before the events of the first game.  True, Gears of War 3 is only just 18 months old (it would be longer if it wasn’t delayed, remember), but it seems fitting that Microsoft’s other flagship franchise, the one that helped kick-start the 360’s life, should be the one to send the console out with a bang.

True, series creators Epic are no longer handling the campaign (they are still in charge of multiplayer, though) but the talented and visionary bunch at the Polish based People Can Fly are more than capable of harnessing the power of Unreal Engine and doing the Gears brand justice.  If anything, their involvement is more cause for celebration.  And true, Judgment may be a prequel but, hey, that’s the trend these days.

Some high profile departures from both Epic and PCF helped paint an uncertain picture for the game’s welfare but we needn’t have worried.  In certain respects Judgment is the best Gears game to date, harking back to the original’s focus on core combat rather than the sequels’ obsessions with scripted “plays itself” set-pieces.  It’s a juxtaposition made more stark when you check out the bonus Aftermath campaign (more on that later), but in regards to the main event it’s thrillingly cathartic to play a Gears game that reminds us of what made Gears good in the first place.

That’s not to say there aren’t any set-pieces at all, but that’s not to say they couldn’t do with a larger dose of The Cole Train’s steroids.  The joys of the genre-defining cover-based action are more prominent than ever, reaching new highs thanks to the new Smart Spawn System (think Left 4 Dead’s AI director) adding an air of unpredictability to every single fight, every time you play.  But it’s a struggle to remember many major standout highlights from the campaign.  There’s nothing as pant-wettingly scary as your first encounter with a Berserker in Gears 1, nothing as preposterously amusing as cutting your way out of a giant worm from the inside in Gears 2, and nothing as expertly staged as defending Anvil Gate from a Locust siege in Gears 3.  But the proof is in the pudding.  Judgment’s skirmishes may be smaller in scale but they always manage to hit the right notes, while the more compact combat bowl arenas and surge in difficulty means they’re among the most intense the series has yet to offer.  When you’re in the moment Judgment shows Gears at the top of its game.  It just lacks a defining act.

It also lacks a good villain.  Big baddie Karn, for the total of his ten minute screen time (lacklustre and anticlimactic boss battle included), cannot compete with the intimidating authority of General RAAM or the menacing demeanour of Skorge: one’s a towering mountain of a beast who can command the piranha-like Kryll to his will, and the other’s an athletic warrior who wields a dual-chainsaw staff like he’s Darth Maul.  Karn’s talked up as a foe to be feared, but really he’s just a croaky old bloke who wears a silly outfit and rides an overgrown spider thingy.  He feels like an afterthought to be honest, forced in to direct your hatred away from Colonel Loomis who fits into the antagonist role much more comfortably, even though he’s not really the bad guy.

Wait a minute, who’s Colonel Loomis?  Well, he’s the chap charging Baird, Cole and the rest of Kilo Squad with treason, trespassing and anything else he bloody well likes for disobeying direct orders.  No doubt inspired by Black Ops, Judgment’s story is told via a succession of flashbacks detailing the events leading up to the squad’s tribunal.  It’s not the most compelling or engaging of stories, even by Gears standards, but it does manage to avoid falling into the same pitfalls previous Gears plots have.  There are no scenes smothered in hammy emotion for one thing, no overlooked plot holes like Gears 3’s fuel debacle, and it never pretends to be any cleverer than it actually is.  Writers Tom Bissell and Rob Auten have wisely taken a back to basics approach and penned a script that provides a basis for the action and enough context to link it all together.  Story really isn’t the priority here, and it just about works in Judgment’s favour.

The narrative’s flashback setup also ties into the Declassified Testimony facet.  Marked by a luminescent Crimson Omen at the start of each level, the Declassified Testimonies reveal extra titbits of information about the squad’s encounters that basically translate into challenges for the player.  Weapon restrictions, reduced visibility and running against the clock are recurrent examples.  You can choose to ignore the Declassified Testimonies if you want and still enjoy battling your way through the freshly ravaged city of Halvo Bay, soaking up some of PCF’s stunning talent for art design as you go, but then you’d feel like you’re missing out on something.  And around two thirds of the time you would be.  The timed runs can sod off, but having your sight impaired by smoke or movement hampered by blustering winds is better to fight through than it sounds.  Meanwhile, being forced to use certain weapons reminds you there’s more to the COG’s armoury than just the Lancer.  A scurry across rooftops armed with Longshots and Boltoks is one of the better instances, while new additions such as the Booshka grenade launcher and Marksa rifle also get a chance in the spotlight.

The Declassified Testimonies help add a new dynamic to the tried and tested Gears formula but by no means is it a perfected structure.  There’s an overriding feeling that you’re playing through a string of challenge rooms rather than a fully-fledged campaign, a stat screen breaking the flow of the action to give you your Star rating after every bite-sized level further underpinning this perception.  There’s also not enough variety in the testimonies either.  Rather than dividing the chapters up into smaller segments with a testimony for each one, leaving the chapters whole and interspersing them with 3-4 Declassified Testimonies at key points would make them feel more special, while the lower frequency would mean the same ideas wouldn’t be recycled so often, if at all.  The Star-based scoring system, on the other hand, would really benefit from being a separate entity, similar to Gears 3’s Arcade mode.  Its inclusion is unsurprising, given the score attack nature of Bulletstorm, but whereas that game was designed entirely around earning high scores, here it feels cripplingly restricted by the limited ways you can kill Grubs.  It’s still a welcome addition, mind, and it at least has a worthwhile reward in Aftermath.

Remember back in Gears 3 when Marcus sends Baird, Cole and Carmine off to gather reinforcements for the assault on Azura, and how you thought you’d play that out as Baird similar to how you took control of Cole earlier on in the game?  Well, that’s Aftermath.  Reunited with ex-Kilo member Garron Paduk, the newly reformed squad returns to Halvo Bay only to find a nasty surprise in store for them.

Clearly, Aftermath was always intended to be part of Gears 3, if not shipped on the disc then as DLC.  Other than characters and setting, it shares little in common with Judgment, making it feel all the more at odds with the rest of the game even as an aside.  But it’s still fascinating to draw comparisons between the two: the level design, the scripting, the characters’ personalities.  Even if it doesn’t mean much out of context it’s a 90 minute reminder that Gears can work equally as well as a more set-piece driven experience, like here, and a more focused and taut shooter, as in Judgment’s main campaign.  Hopefully, a next-gen Gears can strike a balance between the two without resorting to separate campaigns.

Until then, PCF have done a blinding job in making the fourth game, a spinoff prequel at that, in a seven year old franchise relevant, even if they haven’t quite found their footing with the structure.  Judgment could very easily have been a lazy and shameless cash-in; instead, by homing in on the basics and adding some extra vigour, this feels all new again.  Unavoidably and understandably, some fans won’t be pleased with the new slant.  To them I say come back for another run-through, ramp the difficulty up to Hardcore (or Insane if you’re feeling extremely masochistic), bring some friends along for four player co-op and revel in the ensuing and supremely chaotic frenzy.  Only then will you fully recognise that Judgment actually had its priorities straight all along.  And this is only half…

Head over to multiplayer and those rejigged controls make even more sense.  Coupled with a bumped up movement speed, having grenades mapped to LB and weapon switching on Y means you spend less time fumbling with the D-Pad and more time in the thick of the action, leading to more fraught and frantic matches.  Such a small change makes previous Gears multiplayers feel comparatively stodgy, so what effects does the introduction of a new class based system bring?  Don’t worry.  Classes are only applicable to new modes OverRun and Survival, leaving Team Deathmatch, Free-for-All and Domination catering for those with more pure and traditional multiplayer tastes.  But while Survival is a poor substitute for Horde 2.0, you’d be unwise to ignore OverRun.

Essentially a hybrid of Horde and Beast with a few strands of Battlefield’s Rush DNA, OverRun sees the impeccably balanced four classes of COG protecting three successive points on a map from the Locust team’s attacks.  The Engineer class (represented by Baird) can repair defensive fortifications and deploy turrets to make up for his lack of firepower.  The Soldier (Cole) is the explosive weapons expert and can resupply teammates with ammo.  The Medic (new gal Sofia Hendrick) can revive fallen players from a distance with the new Stim Gas Grenades and get up close and personal with the Double-Barrelled Shotgun (now with two shots before needing a reload) while the Scout (Paduk) can climb to higher vantage points and use his Beacon Grenades to flag up enemy positions for the rest of the team.  During the best games there’s a definite sense of camaraderie between players, each one playing a pivotal role for the team, and mastery of the interplay between the different abilities of each class is key to success.

Play as the Locust in OverRun (in the wave-based Survival mode they are AI controlled across a short-lived 10 round match against COG players) and it’s more about bombarding the COG with escalating brute force.  Tickers and Wretches can nibble away at defences while Grenadiers provide covering fire and the new Rager, who can go all Bruce Banner and transform into a mini Berserker of sorts, can divert the enemy’s attention.  Graduate up to Maulers, Serapedes and Corpsers and you can more or less barge straight through.  The result: the single greatest addition to Gears’ online line-up since the original Horde.  It’s just a shame it couldn’t be bolstered by more maps, with only a total of eight on the disc, evenly divided between the class based and standard modes.  What’s here is good, more than good, but the stinginess means you’ll still want to keep a hold on your old copies of Gears of War 3 for the time being.

  • Killing Grubs has never been better
  • Narrative’s simplicity allows the gameplay to shine brightest
  • Aftermath feels out of place but makes for an interesting case study
  • OverRun’s destined to become a fan favourite
  • E-Holes are back! Quick, lob a grenade down them!
  • Structure needs another game’s worth of iteration
  • Set-pieces and villain disappoint
  • Not the complete package that Gears of War 3 was and still is

Neither evolution nor revolution, Gears of War: Judgment is a largely successful effort in freshening up a familiar formula. PCF have nailed down the essentials and thrown in some clever new systems to keep you on edge, while Epic have taken a gamble and created the finest multiplayer the series has yet seen in OverRun. It’s probably not the ideal place for newcomers to jump aboard, and the campaign’s restrained spectacle and multiplayer’s smaller selection of maps and modes is lamentable, but this is a smarter, more daring and refined take on the Gears experience and a tantalising glimpse of what the franchise holds in store for the future.

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