The Gears of War franchise is one of the biggest game series to hit the 360, and through Gears of War 3, the futuristic, human inhabited planet of Sera had finally been saved and the blood thirsty trilogy came to a well-fought end. With the conclusion of the trilogy, it seemed uncertain as to where Epic Games could take the franchise, but thanks to two fan-favorite characters, Damon Baird and Augustus Cole, Epic Games has managed to pull another action-packed title out of the bag. Gears of War: Judgment follows Kilo Squad, featuring Baird and Cole, almost fifteen years before the setting of the original Gears title, as the locust plague first breaks through the surface and begins to terrorize humanity. There was a good possibility that this title could have faded into obscurity, being marked as an unnecessary rehash of a series that should have been left well alone; yet, through some ballsy changes and additions, Judgment feels fresh, exciting, and even new.
One of Judgment’s best features can be found in its character choices. Baird and Cole very quickly became fan favorites in the Gears trilogy, but very little was revealed about their back story. Baird’s sarcastic and cynical nature combined with Cole’s brutishly enthusiastic domineer makes for an interesting, and entertaining, relationship. In this title they are both young men, Baird as the leader of his first squad and Cole as a once world famous Thrashball player attempting to grow accustomed to his new way of life. Epic Games has added two new characters to the roster to help pad out Kilo Squad and add a new dynamic to the in-game relationships. The new additions include Garron Paduk, a bitter and resentful civil war soldier who only joined the COG to exact revenge on the locusts that destroyed his home, and Sofia Hendrik, a by-the-book ex-journalist assigned to Kilo Squad to keep an eye on the rebellious Paduk. Both of these characters add a new and interesting dynamic to the game play. The whole ‘brothers in arms’ ethos of the COGs is really embodied in their relationship, as these two once fought against each other, but now stand united with the common goal of ridding the locust threat.
The Gears of War franchise quickly set the bar for the third-person shooter with its simple yet effective take on combat. To be perfectly honest, the game play didn’t really need tweaking for Epic Games to warrant making this prequel, but they went ahead and did it anyway. The main change comes from the option to change game play as you go. This can be done through the choice of delivering ‘declassified testimony’ from the playable characters. This can change anything from the visibility on the battlefield to the time you have to complete an engagement, or even the amount of ammunition you have at your disposal. This helps keep combat exciting and more competitive than ever before. Epic Games has introduced a scoring system based on XP and kill style at the end of each declassified modifier, leading you to attempt to match your Xbox Live friends or co-op partner’s score – but it does very little for the overall story.
The storyline itself is as good as any of the other Gears titles. The game opens with Kilo Squad standing trial for an unspecified crime, thus the game play is a recollection of the events leading up to their trial. This is a real change to the usual Gears storyline. Gears was once a franchise built on an uncertain end in the face of impending doom. Judgment, however, is based on the complete opposite. With Judgment, the player knows how the game ends – this title is the discovery of its beginnings, which is a refreshing change of pace. The story is told in two ways, through narration during the trial and squad dialogue during game play. This means that cut-scenes are few and far between, a welcome change in a day and age where cut scenes sometimes dominate game play. However, it does take away from the story somewhat – it feels jittery, even clunky, as the narrative edges forward rather than rolls. But at the end of this modified campaign, the player will unlock the ‘Aftermath’ campaign which follows the classic Gears setup. This campaign is set during the events of Gears 3, but it never really rises to the lofty success that was the final installment of the trilogy.
As ever, multiplayer sets this title apart from its competitors. As far as the pace, style, and overall awesomeness of the multiplayer experience goes, the game remains relatively unchanged. The main changes come in the form of Survival and Overrun modes. These two new game modes replace the tried and tested Horde mode. Admittedly, they too fall short of the enjoyment that can be found in the other Gears titles. Survival mode sees four user-controlled COGs frantically trying to defend three objectives from ten waves of AI locust enemies. Players must utilize the different classes – the engineer, medic, soldier, and scout. The engineer is able to repair fortifications and place turrets, whereas the other classes throw ammunition, health, and grenades that allow for increased enemy visibility, respectively. Overrun mode is much of the same, but the locust enemies are controlled by human players rather than the computer. True, this is a fun game mode with some longevity, but it never seems to replicate the enjoyment of Horde mode, no matter how hard it tries.
As its own game, there’s a lot to enjoy about Gears of War: Judgment. The changes keep the franchise feeling fresh and new, if a little different. It’s this underlying difference that separates it from the Gears of War trilogy, and, even though it makes it its own game, it also makes it a lesser title. It’s glaringly obvious that this title is in the shadow of those that came before it, and that’s a real shame.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Gears of War – Judgment by Epic Games distributed by Microsoft Studios.