“New ideas and some slight refining tweaks skirt around Epic’s established formula, but People Can Fly’s unwillingness to stray off the beaten path, paired with a relatively inconsequential story, ensures Judgment is the weakest entry in the series to date. Ah, don’t make that face. ‘The Bad One’ was bound to happen sometime.”
Gears of War 3 ended on a bitter but satisfying note. Humanity triumphed but was left nearer to extinction, a few major characters punched their tickets in high fashion, the Locusts were seemingly obliterated, and our lead drank from a well of survivor’s guilt, forcing him to question if a trilogy worth of brutality was really worth it at the close. It was a better ending than most space marine sagas deserve and Epic knows it, so in continuing one of the most successful IP’s introduced this generation, the company decided to backpedal, pulling from Gears’ rich but woefully untapped lore.
Gears of War: Judgment, a prequel developed by Bulletstorm’s People Can Fly, chooses to set itself during the early days of the Locust invasion rather than debase the concluding efforts of Marcus Fenix and his squad. New ideas and some slight refining tweaks skirt around Epic’s established formula, but PCF’s unwillingness to stray off the beaten path, paired with a relatively inconsequential story, ensures Judgment is the weakest entry in the series to date. Ah, don’t make that face. “The Bad One” was bound to happen sometime.
Judgment picks up shortly after Emergence Day, when armies of subterranean freaks made a go at the surface of Sera (the “Not Earth” Earth of GoW). It’s been long enough into the war for the COG to give cute names to the opposition (like Wretches and Grenadiers) and for most of the locales you visit to already be decimated, which is a shame since it would’ve been more thematically pleasing for the game to pick up right when the shit reached the fan.
You’ll play as one of four members of Kilo Squad, including returning faves Cole and Baird along with two new faces, Paduk and Sofia. Stuck in a military tribunal, the narrative bounces between the four gears as they describe the events you’re thrust into. Character wise, Kilo is a dynamic team of misfits thrown together for the common good. Though coming from varied backgrounds – Sofia is a war journalist turned solider elite; Paduk defected from his nation’s army in order to battle the Locusts – and despite the story being told from each character’s perspective, they’re never given the breathing room to develop or flesh out.
Gears of War’s laurels remain fully intact in Judgment, retaining the third-person, cover-based action players have come to expect since 2006. Solid as that foundation is, it is starting to show some wrinkles. This game still has its surprises, though. Playing off the past tense, optional objectives, or “Declassified Missions,” become available to you during the course of the campaign. Reminiscent of Halo’s skulls, Declassified goals require you to fight your way through a stretch of the game with a handicap on like limited ammo, tougher beasties, or decreased visibility. Judgment nearly throttles the formula by sticking so close to it, which makes these side challenges a gracious shakeup.
People Can Fly also implements a scoring system in which you earn stars by racking up unique kills. Unlike Bulletstorm, a game that had you electrocuting, impaling, and flinging baddies into the air to take potshots at their balls, Judgment only really has headshots and executions to pad out your score, making the arcade-y addition feel redundantly tacked on.
Judgment’s action is a little more fast paced than its fore-bearers, and the developer doesn’t hesitate to throw bigger, meaner grubs your way from the get go. Small changes, like folding grenades and weapons away from the D-Pad and onto buttons FPS-style, help to ease you into the faster tread of things. Unfortunately, your gears’ mobility haven’t seen the same kindness, so expect to feel like you’re wearing bowling ball shoes as you try to dive out of harm’s way. The game also employs smart use of randomized waves of enemies, where even restarting a checkpoint during a section will see you fight at least a few new grubs, upping replay value.
A huge casualty in this outing is the disappearance of the big, hallmark set pieces this series is known for. Remember having to draw an enraged Beserker outdoors to soak in a Hammer of Dawn blast in the first game? Or raiding the Locusts’ underground base on the back of a Brumak in Gears of War 2? Or, in the same game, fending off attacking Reavers while mounted on one yourself? Judgment lacks anything remotely similar to these bombastically cinematic action pieces. The game revels in simple ground skirmishes while avoiding anything that’d lodge itself in your memory.
But how could it when it’s so painfully short? The great conflict before Kilo Squad is an oft mentioned but barely seen grub by the name of Karn going around and putting holes in cities. Spoiler alert: he shows up, you kill him, Kilo isn’t tried for war crimes. As a prequel, no insight is shed on the grand mysteries of the Gears universe nor are any revelations dropped regarding our cast. Then there’s The Aftermath campaign, unlocked after gaining enough of those arbitrary stars.
Aftermath takes place during the events of Gears of War 3 and follows Cole and Baird’s efforts to support Delta Squad from the sidelines. I felt elated going into it, hopeful that the rest of Judgment’s runtime would be found in the extra campaign. But it turned out to be a two hour tryst that accidentally reminds players the original trilogy had bigger stakes and more plot investment than the whole of Judgment. And the absence of the game’s one standout feature, Declassified Missions, hurts what feels like a forgotten expansion to GoW3.
For those of you looking to bury yourselves in the multiplayer suite…We need to have a talk. The chemistry of versus has had some slight but drastic changes performed to it. Fitting with the overall faster pace, your opponents no longer fall into a downed state, immediately dying instead. This means no more executions without your lancer’s chainsaw revved up. Active reloads also no longer allot you a damage boost and you can’t plant grenades on walls. Alongside instant respawns, I can see Gears’ more ardent competitors absolutely hating the shit out of these alterations.
Another bruise to the game’s package is the replacement of Horde Mode – the granddaddy Horde Mode of them all – with the less replayable Survival. Characters are now class based and come equipped with preset loadouts and specific skills. That part I dug on; having one teammate dish out ammo while another tossed health reviving stim-grenades is what co-op is all about. But Survival’s insistence that I defend E-Holes confined in tiny quadrants of what are typically big maps left a bad taste in my mouth. Gears 3 practically perfected Horde, so why the hell throw those innovations out the window? It’s like the jump Halo made from Firefight to Spartan Ops – where fun devolved to boredom.
Newly added Overrun Mode adheres to Survival’s structure but let’s players control the attacking Locusts instead of the A.I. Players are sure to get more mileage out of this objective focused, Left 4 Dead-ish mode, mainly because the Locusts – with their multitude of classes – are pretty damn fun to juggle between. A plethora of unlockable skins for your characters and guns tied to an adequate, if flogged, ranking system will keep fans who’re able to embrace Judgment’s revisions happy for some time.
Epic built the groundwork for a fantastic, genre defining shooter nearly seven years ago. Because of the formula’s inherit strengths, I can’t unconscionably call Gears of War: Judgment a bad game. It’s not. It works for the same reasons Gears has always worked: addictive combat, amazing graphics, and intuitive co-op. But it fails to take the concept anywhere new while also somehow diluting the things that have made this series great in the first place.
By itself, Judgment is a solid dose of third-person action that takes advantage of a higher-than-average budget. But in the greater scheme of the franchise, its predecessors cast far too long of a shadow over it for even its brighter spots to shine through.