Developer: Epic Games, People Can Fly / Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language]
In 2006, Microsoft Studios launched Epic Games’ Gears of War as a console-selling phenomenon. Fast forward to 2013, and we have fought through an entire trilogy of Gears games in anticipation of the team’s latest, Gears of War: Judgment. Co-developed by Bulletstorm team People Can Fly, Judgment sets out to paint a more intimate story of Lieutenant Baird and Kilo Squad through diverse storytelling and enhanced replayabilty.
The product of this shake-up to the Gears formula is a more personal story that falls short of the trilogy’s epic scale, but succeeds in cranking up the intensity of combat far beyond its limits in Gears 1, 2, and 3. In addition to surprisingly bookending the franchise’s storyline and fleshing out its main characters, there’s also a gratifying new multiplayer mode that expands on Gears 3’s Beast Mode. In short, it’s a pretty respectable package.
Gears of War: Judgment is a prequel that takes place shortly after Emergence Day, the event when the Locust horde issued a swift, full-scale attack on Sera. If you’re lost already, you’ll be lost in-game. Even though it’s a prequel story, Judgment is hardly accessible to franchise newcomers. The story itself focuses on Damon Baird and Kilo Squad as they face severe war crime charges for their actions throughout the game.
The plot unfolds in stages, as each member of the team steps up to give their full testimony to the military court, wherein you play through the events they outline in real-time. It’s comparable to a sequential detective story, as you sift through the events mission-by-mission and unravel what exactly got Kilo Squad in such a predicament.
Along the way you uncover several declassified cases, where you have the opportunity to activate an extra layer of challenge in real-time if you want to. This is where the gameplay receives a breath of fresh air. Declassified cases alter the testimony given by the team member to a minor degree, but change the gameplay in ways that are challenging and very rewarding. You may have to deal with the Locust Horde using only pistols, or make your way through the level when all enemies have one-shot weapons.
Other cases may cut off the lights in a room, forcing you to fight in the dark with no regenerative health, or make it so enemies also approach from behind. These segments don’t last for long, but if you succeed with the challenge applied, you’re rewarded at the conclusion with additional XP that adds to your star rating.
This star system is implemented to give Judgment some replayability, which has you scored upon the completion of individual segments of the game on a three-star scale. Accomplishments like headshots, executions, and multi-kills reward you with a higher star rating, but going “down but not out” and having to be revived will deduct from your score. Playing on certain difficulties affects your score too, as you earn bronze, silver, gold and onyx medals for easy, normal, hardcore, and insane difficulties respectively.
Speaking of difficulty, this game is a heck-of-a lot harder, faster, and more intense than previous Gears games, even on Normal and Hardcore difficulties. The amount of enemies may incite small panic attacks, especially in co-op on hardcore or above, where every death resets you to a checkpoint. It’s gratifying when surpassed, but teasingly brutal otherwise. The fact that enemy types and layouts change every time a checkpoint is restarted means you can’t simply learn the patterns to get a jump on the locations after a couple of restarts. The game’s AI will catch you off-guard in a heartbeat, but the satisfaction that comes from conquering this dynamic is all the more elating.
Throughout the story, you have mission segments that involve defending areas in an almost tower-defense style. Enemies pour into your area through different paths, and it’s up to you to defend it by placing turrets, explosive tripwires, and barbwire barriers. It’s wholly intense and quite often hectic, as waves of massive enemies make way to an onslaught of smaller ones, both types dying to rip you apart. Alongside the fact that the frame rate doesn’t take a dive during the mayhem, it works as a great pacer for the less action-heavy sections of the game.
Once you’re done with the main story, there’s an additional mini-story to play called Aftermath. It features older versions of Baird and friends from the plot of Gears of War 3, and even goes as far as to flesh out major plot points of that game. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but it’s a fun, satisfying tie-in laced with some appreciated fan-service. In fact, this postscript could have easily been released as paid DLC post-launch, but it helps make for a much meatier package, resulting in about eight to nine hours of campaign content when combined with the main story.
Multiplayer in Gears of War: Judgment, however, is not as meaty as its predecessors, and much of that has to do with the smaller scale of the game, but it’s also because of a major addition: Overrun mode. Part MOBA, part tower defense, and part Beast Mode, Overrun pits five COG on five Locust in a battle to defend/destroy control points. The COG are out to defend the point, while the Locust are set on wiping it out. Each team is player-controlled and class-based, and each has its own benefits and drawbacks. The COG team has the engineer, medic, scout, and soldier, while the Locust bolster ranks ranging from ticker and wretch to grenadiers and corpsers. While the Locust Horde have their own unique attacks and advantages, the COG team sports one unique ability per character, assigned to the left bumper. Medics throw stim-grenades, scouts throw area-of-effect beacons that highlight enemies, engineers can repair defenses, and the soldier can drop ammo for the team.
What occurs each game is a multi-tiered battle of strategy that’s profoundly well-balanced and encourages rank experimentation on both sides.
Finally, there’s Survival mode, which is most comparable to Horde mode. Your goal as COGS is to last all ten rounds as you defend an area while fighting off waves of computer-controlled Locust Horde. It spikes in difficulty each round, and coordination among your party is just as necessary as ever. It’s no 50-level Horde mode, but it’s fun enough.
Other than that, there’s Team Deathmatch, the control point-based Domination and a series first, Free For All. They’re mechanically on-level with their respective offerings in Gears of War 3, but beyond that, not nearly as engrossing as Overrun. If you’re looking for a huge new multiplayer suite, stick to Gears 3. If Overrun sounds like a blast, then you’ll likely dig Judgment.
So, like I said, it’s pretty darn respectable package.
The difficult-but-fair single-player was very satisfying and well-paced, with extremely well implemented co-op, something rare in games these days. Overrun is a welcome addition to the Gears multiplayer suite, even if there’s little variety among the modes. If you’re a Gears of War fan anticipating more stop-and-pop, cover-to-cover action, cease reserving your judgment and pick up a copy of Judgment.