Epic’s Gears of War franchise has been a landmark series for the Xbox 360. When the third game in the trilogy proper closed out the story of Marcus and the COG’s war against the Locust, many wondered where the series would go next.
Enter People Can Fly, who took the opportunity to craft a game during the opening of the massive war that ended up ruining the planet. Gears of War: Judgment would be more than just another story in the Gears of War universe though, as new twists on the familiar formula were added, giving Judgment its own identity. Despite having a weak story, the gameplay elements are incredibly reliable, making Judgment another worthwhile entry into the series.
Gears of War: Judgment follows familiar faces Lt. Damon Baird and Pvt. Augustus Cole, as well as newcomers Cadet Sofia Hendrik and Pvt. Garron Paduk, as they recall the events of Emergence Day to an impromptu military tribunal. A different member of Kilo Squad delivers each of the campaign’s chapters, which means you’ll play as all four characters throughout the story. While the varying perspectives provides a unique way to experience the narrative, each mission is broken down into smaller segments that don’t have a natural flow, which ends up disrupting the actual story. These bite-sized bits would have been better suited in a mobile or handheld game. Here on the console, they feel out of place.
There’s also no real growth or arc for any of the characters involved, and some of the more introspective moments fall flat thanks to their delivery. After some of the bigger heartfelt moments in the past few Gears titles, it’s kind of a shame to see Judgment’s story as merely an excuse to move from location to location shooting things. Over the course of the first three games, Epic had seemingly worked hard to turn the franchise into more than just a few dudes killing some monsters, but with Judgment, that plan of action seems to have been disregarded. Judgment tries to tell another meaningful and interesting story, but squanders the opportunity presented by this new area of Gears canon.
Even if Judgment doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors in the campaign department, People Can Fly’s new gameplay tweaks make the series feel fresh and new in a fantastic way. The story may never change during replays, but the action on screen will thanks to the new AI that randomly generates enemies throughout the game. Most of the time, no two encounters will play out exactly the same way. Emergence holes will spring up in different locations. Bigger, tougher enemies may appear on the first playthrough, but a second attempt may yield different results. This feature really makes the game feel alive and like a war zone. With no idea what’s waiting for you around the corner, there’s an air of nervous anticipation you don’t often find in a shooter. It also adds a great deal of replayability, and helps stave off boredom and repetitiveness.
The only time the same scenarios will play out is during Declassified missions. Declassifying a mission basically means you’ll have some stipulation to completing a particular segment such as tougher enemies, low ammo, or no regenerating health. These modifiers are completely optional, but enabling them does help break up the monotony of constantly walking and shooting and walking and shooting. That’s what Gears of War is, but this new wrinkle makes us appreciate the game even more now that it’s really set itself apart from its predecessors. Combat is still weighty and intense, and People Can Fly really delivered the core of the Gears experience. By adding some variation though, the developer prevented Judgment from becoming stale, and gave us a new way to enjoy the same old game.
Multiplayer also received a drastic overhaul in Judgment. People Can Fly included two new cooperative modes (Survival, Overrun), along side competitive modes like Team Deathmatch, Free-for-All, and Domination. Survival and Overrun are tremendously fun, even if their inclusion means Horde mode is no longer a part of the picture. In both co-op modes, the action is class-based. There’s an engineer, a medic, a soldier, and a sniper class. The Locust have these classes too, but have the added benefit of throwing Boomers, Maulers, and Corpsers into the mix. Survival pits four humans against waves of computer-controlled Locust as they must defend three objectives on several maps. Overrun plays the same way, save for both sides of the fight being under human control. Gears multiplayer hasn’t been this much fun in a long time, which isn’t to say the standard multiplayer modes aren’t enjoyable. Squad-based combat is what Gears has always been about, and both Survival and Overrun are the natural evolution of that sentiment in the multiplayer arena.
A lot of longtime Gears players may be disappointed to find the “Down but not out” mechanic is no longer a part of the competitive modes. When you’re down in Deathmatch or Domination, you’re dead. Everyone now also gets only one primary weapon, with other armaments scattered across the map. It really changes the dynamic quite a bit from the older games, and it isn’t uncommon to play for lengthy bouts of time with everyone exclusively using shotguns. With the multitude of multiplayer shooters on the market, it can be hard to remember just how enjoyable the space is in Gears of War. After a few matches, that feeling comes back, and the satisfaction of cutting down the opposition feels tremendous. Again, the weighty combat is what really sets Gears apart in this particular department, and People Can Fly really delivered another strong effort, even if it did remove a crucial strategic element.
Though the story was a bit of a disappointment, playing Gears of War: Judgment was not. The game has a great many improvements on Epic’s successful formula, which gives Judgment a life all its own. It’s not quite the best Gears of War game that’s been made, but it certainly outshines Gears of War 3 in almost every area. The strong multiplayer component makes up for the oddly paced and disappointing campaign, and the Declassified options do stand out as a strength. There are a lot of good ideas presented in Judgment, even if they aren’t all fully realized. Whatever Epic does next with the franchise, they would do well to build on what People Can Fly did with this entry.
This review is based on a retail copy of Gears of War: Judgment.