There isn’t much to say about Gears of War that hasn’t been written countless times before. It’s undoubtedly one of the most beloved video game series of this generation, and went from being a relative unknown to one of Microsoft’s most important trump cards. Gears of War shifts systems and has returned for one final round on the Xbox 360. Can Gears of War: Judgment be the 360’s swansong before we usher in a new era?
The game takes place immediately following the events of Emergence Day, and opens with a well produced, epic, cinematic cut-scene. Accused of treason, familiar face Lieutenant Baird emerges from a Raven helicopter, bound by handcuffs and escorted by Colonel Loomis and a number of armed guards. In the background a city stands ablaze with the ever imposing Reavers circling overhead. It’s an impressive opening that really demonstrates the scale of the war, and kick-starts this latest installment with the kind of grandiose presentation that has been a hallmark of the Gears franchise ever since it debuted way back in 2007.
The absences of Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago (two of the primary protagonists from Gears 1, 2 and 3) are notable, although learning more about Lt. Damon Baird and and Pvt. Augustus Cole is refreshing and provides enough variation from Judgment’s predecessors to ensure that it succeeds as a stand-alone experience rather than an extension to the existing trilogy.
As Lt. Baird and Kilo Squad are about to begin their tribunal, the player is thrust into the action. Baird’s voice-over narration accompanies your first tentative steps into the war zone. This narration becomes a regular occurrence throughout the campaign, as Baird describes exactly how each mission and the happenings throughout have contributed towards the trial.
Lt. Baird is clearly the Marcus Fenix character this time around and the majority of the campaign revolves around his story, although we are given the opportunity to play as Augustus Cole and the other members of Kilo Squad, as each one is afforded the opportunity to give one's testimony to the court. Each mission is bookended by a cut-scene that brings us back to the trial at hand before ushering in a fresh set of allegations and tasks for the following mission to either justify or debunk. These moments break up the campaign into bite-sized sections that encourage repeat playthroughs to improve your score and increase your star tally.
‘Declassify’ missions crank up the challenge of the campaign by introducing a number of stipulations. These range from decreasing your health, increasing the number of enemies, reducing visibility or forcing you to use specific weapons that are less effective for the situation you’re about to face. As well as making the campaign more challenging and enjoyable, these stipulations also tie directly into the narrative; for example, a lack of ammo in one particular area forced Kilo Squad to implement tactics that are actively discouraged by COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments), which doesn’t bode well for their ongoing trial. Upon completing these missions you're award with stars based on how well you performed. There are a maximum of 3 stars per mission, and depending on the number you have acquired, additional content, characters and features are made available to you, the most notable being the 'Aftermath' campaign.
'Aftermath' is a short stand-alone campaign that takes place during the events of Gears of War 3 and lets players experience significant moments from a brand-new perspective. While ‘Declassify’ missions aren’t required to complete the game, 'Aftermath' provides ample incentive, and it should definitely be a priority for anyone intending to gain the ‘full’ experience of Gears of War: Judgment.
Even if you opt for the added stipulations described above, the ‘Normal’ difficulty never provides as much challenge as you’d expect, although Epic does recommend that war-hardened Gears crank up the difficulty to ‘Hardcore’ for the best campaign experience.
Epic’s flagship series has never been renowned for its story and Judgment does not break this tradition, with the narrative never straying far from the typical video game tale of Humans vs Monsters. It’s clear that Epic has tried to inject some charisma into these glorified grunts, but while Cole remains as entertaining as ever and Baird demonstrates some muscle with his leadership, they’re ultimately as meaningless as the army of generic Locust creatures you’ll encounter.
If you purchased Judgment for three-dimensional characters and a narrative that rivals Orson Welles then you’ve come to the wrong place. Gears of War is all about high-octane action and a solid gameplay experience. Judgment delivers the action with some of the best pacing a video game can muster; the quiet periods provide just enough time to catch your breath before another relentless onslaught from your enemies. The combat is built on an engine that randomly selects the enemies you encounter from countless possible combinations, and those enemies attack from different directions, spawn in different areas, and ensure that each battle is unique. You can gear up to face a Boomer only to have some other abomination cross your path, leaving you entirely unprepared. It’s an approach that games like Left 4 Dead have utilised brilliantly, and it’s baffling that it has taken so long for other developers to cotton on and implement similar systems.
The Gears of War cover system was revolutionary upon its arrival in 2007, with countless titles imitating and replicating the mechanic, and the same solid system has been fine-tuned and honed for its return in Judgment. It’s rare that you’ll find yourself stuck in the open due to a button press that wasn't registered or some other malfunction, leaving unprepared co-op partners with fewer excuses when you’re replaying an area due to their untimely death.
Alongside the great cover system, Epic has tightened up the controls this time around; changing weapons is seamless and requires a simple button press rather than the d-pad scrolling of previous installments. Despite the improved controls, Epic Games still seems reluctant to improve on a few jarring animations that have been prevalent throughout the series. Jumping over objects still requires entering cover before launching yourself over, when a more natural animation after double-tapping ‘A’ would be a welcome improvement. Sure, it’s nitpicking, but surely a developer the caliber of Epic could have addressed such a minor imperfection after six years of working on a AAA franchise.
Gears of War wouldn’t be complete without its myriad of devastating weapons, and all the old favourites return this time around. The iconic, chainsaw-laden Lancer is as gruesome as ever and the Torque Bow still packs an explosive punch. New weapons are also introduced, like the One Shot, a gun that (as its name suggests) can destroy practically any enemy you come across with a single round. The game does a good job of balancing its more effective weapons; heavy ammo is sparse and infrequent, leaving you to pick your targets appropriately and ration rounds in preparation for the climactic shoot outs that close most chapters. AI throughout is adequate and enemies never seem overtly stupid, but your teammates will regularly obscure your line of fire, inexplicably leave you for dead when you’re down, or simply stand over your lifeless body as you bleed-out in the midst of a firefight. It’s not irritating enough to ruin the experience or break the game, but it’s definitely a noteworthy flaw.
Visually, Gears of War: Judgment is as brilliant as ever. Taking a moment to admire the quality of textures on the wall, or the detail in the sprawling city-scapes you’ll encounter makes you really appreciate how much work has gone into this title. One stand-out moment sees a large black cloud slowly encompassing a devastated city, a glance to the left and the Endeavor Naval Point enters your field of view, a glance to the right and a giant aircraft carrier lies broken on some nearby rocks, bobbing and swaying precariously. While we’ve surely reached the limits of what the Xbox 360 can accomplish in terms of visuals, revisiting the original Gears of War after seeing this really demonstrates how far we’ve come in seven short years; Gears of War was no slouch, but Judgment is in a different league.
While Gears of War: Judgment offers an impressive campaign, the experience feels like a ‘cut-and-paste’ job from the previous three games. Some of the missions are among the best the series has to offer, but there are no iconic moments or big action set-pieces that could rival the likes of the Brumak Rodeo from Gears of War 2.
If you’ve played a Gears of War game then you know exactly what to expect with this outing; everything from the sound effects to the way characters handle remains untouched and, while it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel, the departure from the lineage of the original trilogy could have seen Epic attempt to refresh the experience for the adventures of Baird and Cole.
There's no doubt that Gears of War: Judgment is a great game and one that will probably be used as the standard to which other third-person cover-based games will be measured. It's as solid as ever and the top-notch pacing makes it an exhilarating campaign to play through.
That being said, it's hard to overcome the 'been-there, done-that' feeling it inspires. If you're a die-hard fan of the series then it's definitely worth completing the story and experiencing Emergence Day through the eyes of Lt. Baird. For casual fans that have played any of the previous Gears of War games, there isn't really anything new in Gears of War: Judgment that makes this worth the £40 investment.
New to the series? Then this is the perfect introduction to one of this generation's landmark series.