For being pretty much the only Xbox 360 exclusive coming out this year, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hype surrounding Gears of War: Judgment. Perhaps the departure of Cliffy B had a lot to do with that, or maybe Epic Games didn’t feel strongly about how the final product turned out. Whatever the case may be, it’s out now for all the good and the bad that entails.
The only thing I really knew about the game going in was that it was a prequel and the primary focus was on Baird as opposed to the series’ normal protagonist, Marcus. While I’m not opposed to the idea of prequels, as they have the potential to showcase some truly fantastic moments that previously only got a passing mention during earlier games, their execution have been anything but fantastic as of late. We only have to look as far as the recent God of War: Ascension for examples of prequels that tell largely unnecessary stories as an excuse to punch out another game that really doesn’t do anything to drive the franchise or the genre forward. Unfortunately, Gears of War: Judgment is also one of those games.
The game opens with Damon Baird and his fellow members of Kilo Squad standing trial during a COG military tribunal. He, along with comrades Augustus Cole, Sofia Hendrik, and Garron Paduk take turns recounting the events that lead up to the trial as their superior Col. Ezra Loomis listens intently. You learn that the reason they stand trial is related to a Locust leader named Karn, and the measures they had taken in order to deal with such a threatening foe. And honestly, that’s about as deep as the narrative goes.
Having the story told in this way works fine enough within the confines of the narrative, though the game doesn’t do a very good job of emphasizing the importance of the events leading up to the trial. In fact, once you reach the conclusion, you soon realize what a waste the entire journey actually was. Even if we put that aside, the only thing we know about Karn is that he was a Theron Guard and a large threat to any COG he has faced in battle. Disregarding his penchant for success in battle, what is the significance of removing him? Does it turn the tide of the war? Is he impeding the progress of a key military strategy? All we know is that he needs to die and compared to the stakes of the last three games, that just isn’t good enough.
It doesn’t help that the plot itself is just not as well written by comparison to ANY of the other three games, much less the well done Gears of War 3. The big appeal of both the Baird and Cole characters is the fact that they were the comic relief of the series. They occasionally will throw out a one-liner here and there, but none of the usual witty commentary is present. The other two characters, Sofia and Paduk, we learn very little about over the course of the game and are largely forgettable save for being slots for a player three and four to fill. Much potential was lost in the main campaign.
There is a second mini-campaign of sorts that can be unlocked known as Aftermath, which takes place during the events of Gears of War 3. It plays much like a lost chapter for that game, as it documents Baird, Cole, and Carmine searching for a ship and reinforcements with which to stage an attack on Azura. The experience is like night and day compared to the main campaign, as the dialogue is much better written and the significance of the events are further emphasized. It’s a shame that it’s so short.
While the visuals are as visceral and gritty as ever, there seems to be a slight disconnect in character designs between the two games. Namely Cole Train and his significant change in appearance between the Judgment and Aftermath campaigns. The visuals in Aftermath are pulled right out of Gears of War 3, whereas Judgement has its own design (which is fitting given the time lapse). However, Cole looks so much smaller in stature in the prequel content, to the point where he is barely recognizable. Did he get roided up between this title and the original Gears of War? What the hell happened?
That aside, the game is still a visual treat. The executions are as gross as ever, things animate well, and the engine generally seems to keep up with everything that’s going on. The content filter is still there if you need it, but I would still suggest keeping the kiddies away from this one. Likewise, the same voice actors reprise their roles for Judgment, including characters that aren’t predominantly featured (expect to hear radio chatter from Marcus) and are excellent in their delivery; even if what they have to say isn’t all that interesting. No cheesy rap song for the closing credits this time though, guys. Sorry.
The gameplay during the core campaign is largely unchanged for the most part from the previous games, though there are a few sticking points that may take some getting used to. Key things such as using A to stick to cover, B for melee, and the triggers to aim and shoot are still there. Also, using right bumper to perform active reloads is still present as well. However, unlike the previous games where you were given a sidearm, grenades, and two main weapons to wield, you now get just two weapons and grenades. So now, if you want to fling a grenade, you tap left bumper (or hold it down to see the trajectory) and the Y button will alternate between your two weapons. This change alone makes the title feel more like Halo, as now grenades are infinitely more useful while sidearms are a waste of inventory space. But wait, there’s more.
The campaign feels far more fragmented than it did before, as each section of the game will tally up scores at the end of it, awarding points based on performance while docking them for getting knocked down. Based on your score, you can be awarded up to three stars, which will unlock various rewards and achievements, as well as boost your rank for the multiplayer modes. Declassified missions can be accepted in each section that will offer some form of handicap, such as only using specific guns or losing the ability to regenerate health, which offered a neat challenge beyond the standard difficulty settings. While stopping after every major firefight to tally scores was a bit jarring, I will say that I actually enjoyed having campaign performance be factored into the ratings used in multiplayer. I don’t really get too involved in the competitive multiplayer much, so it’s nice to still be able to earn rewards in that way.
The game’s A.I. doesn’t strike me as all that smart though. At least, the ones that are on my team. Numerous times I have found myself on the brink of death, only to have my comrades practically standing on top of me not bothering to help me up. Fortunately, the enemies seem to make wise tactical decisions so far as I could tell.
Probably one of the biggest disappointments for me is the absence of the Horde mode from previous games. Save for the main campaign, that was probably one of my favorite modes to play. In its place, we have one called Survival, which while it has some good ideas, does not offer an effective replacement. As the COG, you get to choose between one of four different classes that have their own abilities and loadouts. Engineers can throw out turrets, medics can heal, scouts can reveal the locations of enemies, and soldiers can replenish ammo. The idea is to defend an e-hole until breached, which can only happen twice before they attack your main generator. They hit that and it’s game over. There are defenses already setup for you that can be repaired as necessary, though once they are gone, they are gone for good. Unlike Horde, there are only ten waves. Ten. Not to mention only four maps which to play it on.
Another similar mode is Overrun, which has the same concept in mind, except is a five versus five match against other players (though you can have bots fill in). Playing as the Locust is much like the Beast mode from Gears of War 3, in that your kills and other mayhem earn you points which can unlock more powerful creatures. Especially fun is the new Rager Locust, which is also found in the campaign, that acts as sort of a precursor to the Berserker. There are also modes for Free For All, Team Deathmatch, and Domination (where you try to hold territories). All of these modes also only have four maps which can be played on, with an additional Execution mode and two maps that were just recently released as DLC (which I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to try out prior to this writing).
Further changes I’ve noticed during my play sessions: there doesn’t appear to be any bleed out time, so not only can you not help teammates up, there are no executions. You can also opt to skip out of the respawn timer, so penalties for death are pretty much as non-existent as they are in the Call of Duty games. It’s also no longer COG vs Locust, but rather COG vs COG, which is… odd. And while many of these things seem minor, especially as someone who’s spent a minimal amount of time playing competitively in these games, I’ve invested enough time into them to say that they all add up to something that doesn’t feel like a Gears of War title any longer. Between that and the downsizing of both modes and maps, it makes you wonder what exactly your $60 is actually paying for.
For what it’s worth, Gears of War: Judgment does come with a downloadable code for the first game, which if you’ve never played it before is arguably better paced than this one is. Although, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with the game. The core cover-based shooting action is still present, and if you share the experience with friends, you’ll likely have a good time. I would recommend waiting on a price drop, as the quality just isn’t there as it was with its predecessors and despite the free DLC that has been trickling out, there is an alarming shortage of content here; though there are many convenient ways to spend real money on XP and skins.
Short Attention Span Summary
Gears of War: Judgment is a classic example of the old adage “one step forward, two steps back.” The concept of a prequel game holds a lot of potential, but the opportunity is squandered by a forgettable plot and sub-par writing, while the short Aftermath campaign that feels like a Gears of War 3 expansion steals the show. Some ideas, like the class system used in the Survival mode are genuinely good, though are overshadowed by the short ten wave length of the mode. Also, many of the modes that have become standard for the series have been chopped out, such as Horde. With only four maps available on disc for each mode, and only half of the modes of the previous games, the entire experience feels like a phoned in effort and does little to justify the $60 price point. Especially during a release calendar with so many worthwhile alternatives. If you’re a Gears of War fan, you’ll likely enjoy it, but finding it on the cheap is highly recommended.