Review: Gears of War: Judgment knows how to tell a story, but slips when delivering
“War, war never changes.” Soldiers fall below their authorities and their guidelines without question, while naysayers are deemed “weak links” and stripped of any past recognition. It’s a noble system, but what happens when one is faced with disrespecting their higher ups to save the very soldiers they fight alongside? This is Gears of War: Judgment, and EPIC has set out to reinvent their blockbuster series without their bulked hero, Marcus Fenix, and without a story that falls after the events of Gears of War 3. It’s a different path for sure, but an honorable one at that – one fans will welcome with open arms.
Yes, Gears of War: Judgment is a prequel, and yes it’s centered around the always-cunning Damon Baird and his thrashball-kicking squad mate, Augustus Cole, but it’s also so much more. Whereas most prequels fall prey to an unexplainable story that drags on far too long, including characters that try too hard to develop, Gears of War: Judgment arguably tells its most straightforward narrative that gives fans insight as to Sera’s demise shortly after Emergence Day with characters that interact with one another in an efficacious manner.
Judgment’s story actually begins near the end of the campaign, which gives explanation for Kilo Squad – comprised of Baird, Cole, and newcomers Sofia Hendricks, and Garron Paduk’s – arrest and military tribune for disobeying orders from the COG’s higher-ups. The narrative then unfolds through flashbacks that are used as testimonies during their trial. The idea itself isn’t revolutionary nor progressive, but it’s done so well that you’re inclined to care, especially in such a way for the Gears of War series. And as you’re presented with these personal testimonies from each character, done successfully through third-person takeover of the Kilo member giving their story, you’ll get sucked in to a plot that’s easily summed up as a “mission gone bad.”
The success within this formula is undoubtedly found in the interaction of each squad member, and how you come to cognize them. The camaraderie of the group isn’t found within friendship, but differencing obstacles each must pass, which in essence brings them closer by the closing credits. Sofia, for instance, is a young cadet who’s keen on following orders. Throughout the campaign she must fight her instincts to follow her COG commanders for the “greater good” that Kilo Squad’s after.
Success is also stressed by a completely titivated gameplay formula. Gone are the days of cover-based action first, guns blazing second. In Judgment, enemies will be thrown at you…lots of them, and you’ll have to utilize an arsenal of weapons, both new and old, to achieve success. Surprisingly, this fast-paced combat works well with the Gears name, and it’s made even better with the subtle, yet vital, changes of being able to swap weapons with the “Y” button and being able to lob grenades with “LB.” Unfortunately, these upgrades aren’t complimented with better AI. Teammates will oftentimes find ways to get in front of you, while enemies will focus in on one character in specific and run straight by you allowing you to dish out an easy kill.
However, several prominent issues plague Judgment’s campaign success. The antagonist, General Karn, is quickly called out in the story, but rarely makes a presence, and his impact on the story, including his exit, is never truly felt in a way that the trial Kilo Squad’s going through is, and it actually hinders how meaningful the entire story is in the long run. In addition, as fun and fresh as the combat is, there’s little variety within battles, and despite the campaign only running between 6-8 hours, it can begin to get tedious.
Thankfully, though, combat’s repetition is tossed up throughout the story with Declassified Missions. Like Halo’s “Skulls,” Declassified Missions alter the gameplay in some way that offers an extra challenge for an extra reward. Whether it’s fighting Locust scum during a violent wind storm, or having to fight through an academy before poison gas is released, Declassified Missions conquer exactly what they were designed to do, and it makes for some fun changes. And for doing them you’ll receive extra XP that’s calculated in game by stars during each section. Receive enough stars and you’ll unlock an extra mission from Gears of War 3 called “Aftermath,” though that endeavor is odd enough in that the section literally abandons every success in Judgment for Gears of War 3’s style. In all honesty, it just doesn’t mesh.
Gears of War: Judgment also features a multiplayer component that’s arguably EPIC’s focal point with the game itself. Gears fans will quickly notice an annoyance that is the menu’s structure, which is a literal clone from Gears of War 3, but thankfully the multiplayer itself is worth every penny, well, at least some of it. Overrun mode is finally here and it’s everything it’s been cracked up to be. A team of COG soldiers battle it out against player controlled Locust, in which the COG must defend three generators, while the varying Locust enemies attempt to destroy all three within a certain time frame. The action is incredibly intense with the addition of class-based multiplayer, and when done correctly, you’ll see just how cool console multiplayer gaming is.
Other impressive multiplayer additions are free-for-all and domination. The game types themselves aren’t groundbreaking, but EPIC’s focus on vertical-style maps makes these modes much more thrilling, and will likely keep players playing online for months to come.
Unfortunately, multiplayer in Judgment excludes a Horde mode, but incorporates a tower-defense-type Horde mode, Survival. While the gameplay itself is fun, and the idea works fine, it’s just frankly not as fun as Overrun, while being eerily similar in nature. Horde was all about setting up your own perimeters and going through trial and error for success. Survival takes that away from you and lets you defend a series of generators with obstacles for enemies to go through already in place. Survival is much like the rest of Judgment’s multiplayer: a rehash of Gears of War 3.
When it comes down to it, Gears of War: Judgment is a good game. It’s arguably the best Gears game in the ability to tell a story, but apart from the military tribune sequences, it’s arguably one of the weakest plots to date in the series. However, overhauled gameplay that’s lively and up in your face carries this weakened plot all the way home, and Declassified Missions prove to be much more than a cheap gimmick thrown in for retail. When you stack that up with a multiplayer component that includes some really sensational gameplay (e.g. Overrun), you have a game that’s more of an excellent shooter than it is an excellent story, and we’re surprisingly fine with that.