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Review: ‘Gears of War: Judgment’ just can’t match its Epic predecessors

Gears of War Judgment Review

Gears of War: Judgment might be a gore-filled game of shooty shooty chainsaw bayonet action, but it is also, surprisingly – and unfortunately – a lesson in economics. “Bigger! Better! More badass!” That was the pitch from former Epic Games boss and Gears overseer Cliff Bleszinski, back when Gears of War 2 was revealed in 2008. The sequel to the 2006 original realized that vision for the most part, and Gears 3 followed suit in 2011. The expectation then is that People Can Fly’s freshly released Gears of War: Judgment will ratchet up those three Bs even further.

Unfortunately, the reality of this spin-off prequel underwhelms. Make no mistake: there are fresh ideas in Judgment. Tweaks to play mechanics and underlying systems that will no doubt improve the quality of future Gears games to come. There is, however, something decidedly less-than about this new game, and it is here that we circle back to economics: you’ve got to give value to the customer. The $60 experience in Judgment doesn’t nearly measure up to the $60 experience in Gears 3.

Perspective Play

Gears of War: Judgment‘s prequel story is framed around Emergence Day, the canon moment in the series when the Locust emerged from the depths of Sera and attempted to wipe the human presence from their planet. Judgment follow the wisecracking Damon Baird and his Kilo Squad after they are placed on trial for allegedly treasonous actions. The details and motivations are made clear as each of the four Kilo squaddies offers testimony, with one account amounting to a full chapter’s worth of gameplay. The court proceedings are presided over by new character, Colonel Ezra Loomis, who stages his impromptu trial in a crumbling ruin while a pitched battle rages outside. 

Loomis is Judgment‘s most unevenly written character, a military man who flips back and forth between competent, by-the-book officer, and unhinged vengeance-seeker. He’s a caricature in a series built around archetypes, a cartoonish over-indulgence that shakes the story loose from its unsteady foundation. Loomis is too composed to be losing it and too unsteady to be the victim of stress and fatigue, swinging wildly in either direction to suit the particular tone of a given scene. Character arcs should serve the story, not be enslaved by it.

The Kilo testimonies feel more grounded, with each squaddie offering their own summation of what happened. It’s a chronological account, so there’s no parallel storytelling, but having different voices and personal perspectives helps to break things up in each new chapter. If nothing else, the fragmented delivery reinforces Gears of War: Judgment‘s replay-friendly design. It’s just too bad they weren’t written better.

Baird is his usual wise-cracking self, spitting out one-liners and laughing in the face of danger. Garron Paduk, a former C.O.G. enemy who defected and joined up with Kilo to fight the Locust, exists perfectly in the classic picture of a grim Cold War-era “commie” stereotype; fitting, given that his former allegiance to the U.I.R. faction is the Gearsverse analog to the Soviet Union. Judgment‘s take on Augustus Cole ‘Train’ is surprisingly muted, an odd choice given that the preceding three games so firmly established the former athlete as a loud, combat-loving tough guy. Finally, there’s Sofia Hendrik, the (unfortunately) token female squaddie filling the role of tough-as-nails she-warrior with a tender heart. As tender as anything can be in a Gears game. She is largely a blank slate as a character, little more than a vessel for spouting lines in a particular manner.

Gears of War Judgment Aftermath_2Look, Gears of War has never aspired to be more than blockbuster action. There was hope among some fans that Judgment writers Rob Auten and Tom Bissell would bring some fresh credibility to the series’ B-level stories, but it isn’t to be. This is status quo for Gears storytelling. That said, it’s not unreasonable to demand stronger characterizations from your fiction. It is entirely possible to render even one-dimensional characters in entertaining ways. That doesn’t happen in Judgment, and it’s a damn shame. These characters aren’t funny enough to enjoy and aren’t annoying enough to hate. They are simply there, spoutin’ their lines and shootin’ their guns.

Conflicting Accounts

Gears of War: Judgment‘s writing might fall far short of outstanding, but it’s the action that matters in a game like this. The overall structure is slightly different than it has been in past games, with much shorter sub-chapters – no more than 20 minutes apiece, and often less – breaking up each of the single testimony-driven chapters. The aggregate play time is roughly the same as it has been previously, but the bite-sizing of each section of play feeds into the game’s new-to-the-series focus on scoring.

A meter fills up as you play through a sub-chapter, marked with milestone markers at one, two, and three-star ratings. Play better, fill the meter quicker. Earn enough stars in the campaign and you can unlock things like multiplayer skins and the Aftermath epilogue, an hour-long bonus chapter set during the events of Gears of War 3. The best route to three stars for a given sub-chapter involves the use of “Declassified” missions. These amount to optional modifiers along the lines of requiring you to use shotguns only or losing the ability to regenerate health, all for the length of the sub-chapter in question. It’s called Declassified because the modifier is always based on some unique observation in each character’s testimony.

Declassified missions add to the replay value to some extent, though they’re essentially a requirement if you want to net yourself three stars in a given sub-chapter. It’s really Judgment‘s new “S3” spawn system that effectively encourages repeat plays. It’s simple, really: anytime you play – whether it’s a fresh attempt at a new chapter or a checkpoint restart – the number and types of enemies that spawn in changes. There are scripted bits throughout the game that make fighting certain Locust forces a requirement, but even in those cases the scripted enemies’ supporting forces are subject to change.

“Unfortunately, People Can Fly felt the need to rewrite some of the basic rules of the Gearsverse on the user interface side”

You feel S3 much less when playing the game at lower difficulties, where failures are infrequent. On Hardcore or Insane, however, the new spawn system forces you to constantly think on the move and tactically evaluate your environment rather than the enemy that you’re facing in it. Each new playthrough brings a fresh tactical challenge, and one that changes immediately if you fail and reload. The flow of the game is still the same, and very much in keeping with that of past Gears of War games, but S3 is a welcome addition.

The same can be said for Judgment‘s newly expanded arsenal. Putting aside the continuity-related question of why so much useful gear wasn’t available in previous Gears outings, the new toys also flesh out the series’ firepower in much-needed ways. The Markza is a particular standout, offering a standard loadout, semi-automatic scoped rifle that stands as a powered down alternative to the Longshot sniper rifle. The Breechshot is similarly excellent, trading in the Markza’s scope and sizable clip for considerably more stopping power. Even older weapons see new tricks, such as the re-balanced (and quite powerful) Boltok Pistol.

Unfortunately, People Can Fly felt the need to rewrite some of the basic rules of the Gearsverse on the user interface side. The controls fall much closer now to Call of Duty’s, with weapon-swapping relegated to the Y button and grenades now chucked using LB. Tossing a grenade is now a slow and laborious process. You can tap LB to simply throw one out quickly – though considerable aim compensation is required as grenades always seem to fall short of their target – or you can hold LB to bring up the throwing arc and aim reticle. The latter option involves a seconds-long animation that only serves to slow down the fast pace of the action.

Gears J

The biggest shortcoming by far, however, is the absent sense of epic scale and spectacle. In many ways, Judgment‘s campaign feels like a hefty DLC expansion rather than a full-blown Gears game. The bulk of your play is centered around arenas and corridors, with a near-total absence of the sort of set piece moments that are synonymous with this series. You won’t ride an Assault Derrick into battle or tear a Riftworm apart from the inside or fend off an amphibious Locust from the “safety” of a small raft. You mostly just run, shoot, take cover, and then shoot some more.

The running and shooting and cover-taking is undeniably full of Gears-y goodness – and even moreso when you’ve got three other players along in co-op – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Judgment is fundamentally lacking. Some things are ‘better’ here and there, sure, but ‘bigger’ and ‘more badass’ do not factor into this spin-off’s equation.

OverRun And Underdone

Gears of War: Judgment also offers multiplayer and co-op that are separate from the campaign. In Versus, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are joined by Domination – a flag capture mode that amounts to an exact clone of its similarly named Call of Duty counterpart – and OverRun, which is  really the beating heart of Judgment‘s multiplayer content. It is a 5v5 objective-based game that is built around multi-role play, a series first. On one side is a team of C.O.G. warriors filled out by four different classes, each with their own loadouts and abilities. Soldiers drop ammo pickups, medics come packing healing grenades, engineers deploy turrets and fix fortifications, and scouts toss scan grenades out from sniper roosts that only they can access. 

The C.O.G. force is tasked with defending a series of capture points from the other team’s Locust horde. Unlike the class-based setup of the C.O.G. squad, Locust players select what they’ll play as by spending points that they’ve earned; more dangerous Locust cost more points, much like it was in Gears of War 3‘s Beast mode. You don’t have access to as many Locust types as you did in Beast, but the cutback is at least in the service of balancing out the uneven distribution abilities of the two teams in PvP.

The C.O.G. troops defend their three locations that the Locust are tasked with destroying. It all happens sequentially, so there’s only one objective to attack or defend at any given moment. A full match gives both teams a chance to play as each faction. In situations where both manage to overwhelm the C.O.G. and destroy the final generator, the winner is the team that accomplishes the task in the shortest amount of time.

OverRun is, by far, the the strongest new element introduced in Gears of War: Judgment. When you manage to get a full squad working together, the tactical play is superbly rewarding. The maps are designed in such a way that firefights tend to flare up along a series of parallel lanes. Constant communication between teammates is critical as forces move and adjust around changing threats. The two factions play very differently as well. This is the most tactical that Gears of War multiplayer has ever been.

…a diminished experience is nothing compared to the frustration of seeing eye-catching new content walled off behind microtransactions.

OverRun also inspires Judgment‘s lone non-campaign co-op mode, Survival. This five-player variant pits a player-controlled C.O.G. squad against 10 increasingly challenging waves of Locust. With the exception of the timer being removed, Survival is functionally the same as OverRun. Bots are used to swell the C.O.G. ranks when fewer than five humans are playing, but the mode is at its best when you can bring a full squad of friends along. Survival doesn’t trump Horde though, and the removal of the fan-favorite co-op mode – along with the also-absent Beast – is extremely disappointing, and speaks directly to the diminished experience that Judgment offers in comparison to past games.

Still, a diminished experience is nothing compared to the frustration of seeing eye-catching new content walled off behind microtransactions. Gears of War: Judgment introduces a new feature in “prize boxes,” with players earning Normal, Rare, and Epic variants of these for scoring kills, earning ribbons, and leveling up, respectively. Each box spits out either an XP bonus or a weapon/character skin. It’s a great idea with an offensive finish. You can find a wide assortment of skins listed in the game’s Character Setup menu, but closer inspection reveals that only some of them – a significant minority, in fact – actually come from prize boxes. The rest? You guessed it: microtransactions, and only microtransactions. So much for a sense of investment.

Gears FFAThen there’s the final insult: a paltry offering of maps. You’ve got four apiece for OverRun/Survival and Team Deathmatch/Free-for-All/Domination. Eight maps in all, split in half between two separate game types. Compare that to the 10 that shipped with Gears of War 3 or the 10 that shipped with Gears of War 2, all of which could be played in any multiplayer or co-op mode. There’s an argument to be made for OverRun/Survival requiring a very different kind of map build, but that is besides the point. More will eventually come from DLC packs that you can purchase, further adding to the frustration – and that’s not the only place you’ll feel this. During the Aftermath campaign, the characters raise a few obvious questions regarding the loose threads of the Judgement missions. The answers are vague and unsatisfying, suggesting that the resolution may be saved for further DLC you’ll have to purchase. 

Whatever the reason for the cutback on maps and plot resolutions, it contributes to the less-than feeling that accompanies Judgment at every turn.

Gears of War Judgement ReviewConclusion

This is a sub-standard Gears game, simple as that. It’s just as enjoyable to play as it has ever been (barring some minor UI headaches), but there’s been a definite step back from the “bigger, better, more badass” attitude of the Cliff Bleszinski era at Epic Games. People Can Fly deliver a first-crack Gears game to be proud of in Judgment, make no mistake, but check your expectations at the door.

This $60 Gears is not at all equal to the $60 Gears that was released in 2011, or the one that preceded it in 2008. It falls short. Considerably. There are great ideas for sure, new bits that could strengthen the series in years to come, but even if Gears of War: Judgment is the necessary backwards step for forward progress, that doesn’t mean you have to like it.

Score: 7 out of 10

(Gears of War: Judgment was reviewed on a retail Xbox 360 console using a copy of the game that was provided by the publisher.)

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