After the success of the Gears of War trilogy, Microsoft has elected to fill out its first party catalogue with a prequel, Gears of War Judgment. Series founders Epic Games have handed duties to their subsidiary and Bulletstorm studio, People Can Fly. While maintaining the trademark cover-based gameplay of Gears franchise, the newly appointed developers have crafted both a stunning and immersive game that calls back to the original Gears of War‘s striking debut back in 2006.
Gears of War Judgment picks up the narrative in the immediate aftermath of Emergence Day and 15 years prior to the original game. Kilo Squad, comprised of fan favourites Damon Biard and Augustus Cole and newcomers Sofia Hendrick and Garron Paduk, are placed on trial for disobeying orders. The game begins with minimal explanation and immediately thrusts players into a flashback recounting of Kilo Squad’s actions. Previous knowledge of the Gears fiction is advantageous, as beginners may be left bewildered. Very few cutscenes or monologues interrupt the action, with emphasis placed on driving momentum forward through gameplay. The resulting pace is fast but fluid, constantly immersing the player.
Story has always played second fiddle to the action, and the developers seem to embrace that principle in Judgment. The writers don’t overtly thrust the horrors of war in your face or attempt to orchestrate a emotional scenario. Instead, the game simply relies on context and surrounding the characters in a world ravaged by conflict. Navigating the destroyed streets of Sera presents a breathtaking picture of the Gears universe, offering some of the most memorial scenarios from the series. The few moments of calm establish the narrative pillars adequately, and the characters are depicted less as meatheads but more as genuine soldiers. Kilo Squad is portrayed with some memorable banter and characterisation, especially as they grapple with obeying their orders or doing what they personally believe is right.
The game convincingly portrays the Locust as an overwhelming and horrifying enemy, but skimps in its depiction of the main antagonist. Outside of a fleeting appearance in a mandatory boss fight, the central villain really exists only in name, lacking the characterisation you would expect as the leader of a powerful army. My only other narrative criticism is the game finishes far too abruptly. Relying wholly on previous knowledge, Judgment‘s ending unfortunately lacks any context or finesse.
The finely tuned gameplay of the Gears series returns, albeit more polished than ever. Players will immediately embrace the flawless third-person cover system, with characters moving faster, more precisely and switching weapons at the simple tap of a single button. The overall gameplay improvements are subtle, but ultimately demonstrate why Epic can claim the industry benchmark for this genre. While retaining the high standard of gameplay, Epic subsidiary People Can Fly also bring a much needed freshness to a dry series. Good diversity in level design, intelligent and challenging enemy mechanics and solid fiction makes Judgment muchmore than your common franchise cash-in.
The drab post-apocalyptic visual aura of the earlier Gears is far less prominent in Judgment. Sera screams colour as we witness the affect of war on its bright and beautifully designed architecture. Kilo Squad quickly ventures outside the city, with players immersed in a number of chaotic warzone, minus the samey feeling that tainted Gears of War 3s. Clever level design also plays host to fierce and dynamic hordes of Locust. All the iconic units sighted in previous entries reappear, but in Judgment they work together as a more homogenous group. The Locust force players to change their strategies and scavenge for ammo as they consistently flank and coordinate their actions.
Several scenes require players to bunker down and repel waves of troops, just as you may have done in the trademark Horde mode. The game even offers you barriers and turrets – introduced in Gears of War 3‘s wave mode – as tools to aid your defences. These moments feel somewhat orchestrated but are nevertheless entertaining and offer some of the greatest challenges in the game. An AI director, similar to Left 4 Dead, also ensures enemy encounters are kept arbitrary. Different unit types spawn at random locations in each level, so skirmishes are rarely the same. This mechanic admirably break with the linear design of previous entries, all the while keeping players engaged and the pace varied.
If these refinements weren’t enough, fans can also explore the ‘declassified’ missions in Judgment. At the start of each chapter, players are given the option to activate a declassified part of Kilo Squad’s testimony. Essentially, missions trigger a modifier that somehow handicaps the gameplay. For example, players may be given a time limit, specific weapons or impaired vision for the length of the chapter, all against the backdrop of a narrative context. Activating the declassified mission raises the difficulty and offers an excellent challenge for the most hardcore players. Completing the declassified missions is highly recommended if playing in co-op.
The declassified sections also play into another of Judgment’s new features. At the end of each level, your performance is scored and evaluated out of three stars. Statistics such as deaths, executions and headshots increase your overall points. Turning on the declassified missions multiplies the score at the end of each chapter, while the game keeps an overall tally of stars collected. In a nutshell, the more efficiently and bombastic you play, the bigger the payout. Whether or not you are driven to reach the highest score, unlocking content as you bank stars – such as the Aftermath campaign – is a tasty incentive.
Much like its predecessor’s, Judegment offers multiple levels of difficulty and the option to play in co-op. The buddy AI is rather competent, but nevertheless, having a real friend by your side is always more entertaining. The campaign length is decent, with an average log of eight hours playtime – even more if you hunt down all the collectible dog tags. Earning the requisite amount of stars unlocks the Aftermath campaign, which recounts Biard and Cole’s whereabouts right before the finale in Gears of War 3. Aftermath gives an hour or so of gameplay very much in style of the third game, while resurrecting faces from the Judgment campaign. Aftermath is best enjoyed in a strict chronological playthrough with Gears of War 3. The gameplay pales in comparison to the prequel story, and is far too embedded with the third game to be played in isolation.
In the aftermath of the pioneering Horde mode, Judgment mixes Gears of War 3‘s Beast Mode to give us OverRun. The spin on the previous modes match Gears against Locust; one side of Gears is tasked with defending their spawn against an invading team of Locust enemies. If the Locust players successfully destroy a base, the Gears fall back to another spawn. If a third and final Gears base is destroyed, the Locust win, but if the Gears can defend their outposts until a timer runs out, the humans win. Essentially, OverRun is a Gears of War‘sversion of Battlefield‘s Rush. Humans and Locust switch sides at the end of a round, with teams essentially transitioning between what was previous known as Horde and Beast modes.
Teamwork and planning is an essential part of OverRun, as each side has units suited to a particular tasks. For example, Locust tickers are good for destroying barriers, and human engineers can repair damaged defences. Neither side is overbalanced, with the more skilful team usually emerging victor. OverRun is an entertaining take on the traditional survival mode and immensely enjoyable with friends, making up for the void left by Horde. After the campaign and OverRun, the usual Gears multiplayer mode awaits. The small number of maps aren’t revolutionary enough so Judgment simply feels more like an expansion of the last multiplayer offering. However, the small gameplay refinements from the campaign carry across to the multiplayer, making for a more polished experience. Gears of War multiplayer enthusiasts will certainly devour it up, but it isn’t likely to sway players of the other large multiplayer games for long.
Gears of War Judgment is a worthy successor to the Xbox 360′s most pioneering series. Developers People Can Fly have added yet another layer of polish to the classic third-person gameplay, while building on stunning visuals, solid level design, AI programming and a grounded script. Contextual issues and samey multiplayer aside, Judgment is a co-op ball in both the campaign and OverRun mode. Gears of War fans are guaranteed to recapture the adrenaline rush in Judgment they discovered back on Emergence Day.
Beautiful graphics | Polished gameplay | Solid campaign
Lacks context | Multiplayer is samey | Poorly executed villain