As we approach the end of March, it seems undeniably apparent that the amount of reboots and prequel-based installments already crowding retail shelves may be a bit overwhelming for cash-strapped gamers in search of new experiences (especially so early into 2013). With Crystal Dynamics’ prequel/reboot of Tomb Raider and Sony Santa Monica’s prelude to the God of War series (God of War: Ascension) just recently released, onlookers waiting patiently for fresh, innovative IPs could just as easily assume developers are purposely squeezing every penny out of their fans during the end of this console generation by sticking to familiar franchises. On the exterior, Epic Games’ Gears of War: Judgment may seem like just another re-skinned, subtitled entry of one of Xbox’s most beloved franchises. However, you’d be hard-pressed not to recognize the bold steps made by co-developer, People Can Fly to rejuvenate the Gears of War series’ solid formula in a way that feels noticeably fresh, but strikingly familiar.
Developer: Epic Games, People Can Fly
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: Xbox 360
Release Date: March 19th, 2013
Diving into Gears of War: Judgment’s roughly seven hour campaign, easily one of the most prominent features that has gone under the proverbial knife has to be the series’ trademark, linear narrative. As opposed to a more straightforward storyline, Epic Games’ grub-exterminating prequel provides you with a story told mostly through flashbacks as Damon Baird, Augustus “Cole Train” Cole and the rest of Kilo Squad – new characters, Sofia Hendrik and bitter UIR member-turned Gear soldier, Garron Paduk – recount to Colonel Loomis the exact events that led to their arrest during a court hearing at a COG military tribunal. With the game starting more towards its conclusion, Gears of War: Judgment switches between each Kilo Squad member as they deliver their side of the story via playable testimonies unhindered by lengthy cutscenes. Thankfully, the careful use of in-game dialogue and sporadic narration delivered by each character sets the stage for the action-packed journey instead, adding some much needed depth to every bullet-spraying engagement while simultaneously allowing the campaign to continuously move forward at a steady pace.
Baird’s Declassified COG Survival Guide
While Gears of War: Judgment may showcase a unique narrative direction for the series, People Can Fly’s involvement truly shines through in the reinvigorated campaign layout. Presenting quite a structural change in the typical Gears of War formula, each of the six chapters’ various missions are divided into bite-sized skirmishes that usually focus on a specific battle being described by one of the four members of Kilo Squad during their testimonies. Ultimately, this allows story missions to be completed in short, quick bursts that help establish a stronger emphasis on replayability as opposed to the rather lengthy campaign chapters exhibited in the series’ past installments.
…People Can Fly’s involvement truly shines through in the reinvigorated campaign layout.
Thankfully, there are plenty of incentives set in place to keep your trigger fingers engaged far past when the credits roll, and one of them is linked directly to Gears of War: Judgment’s clever level design. You see, mission variety plays a much larger role in the core campaign experience than past entries in the Gears of War franchise, and relies on engaging you in defense-focused scenarios just as much as offensive-based assaults. While escort objectives help to add some much needed flavor to the typical point A to point B excursions, it’s the addition of occasional wave defense missions that incorporate both careful preparation and consistent battlefield accommodation into the series’ age-old gameplay routine.
Playing out more like mini-Horde modes rather than full-out missions, these wave-based defense objectives require you to strategically deploy automated turrets around a specific perimeter, and consistently utilize every weapon in your arsenal in order to survive. More so than in past entries, the clever placement of each potentially life-saving sentry gun proves essential not only due to the shear fact that they help eliminate the intimidating onslaught of bloodthirsty Locusts, but because you must manually load these precious tools of destruction yourself. As frustrating as reloading turrets may seem during an overwhelming gunfight, the integration of this seemingly minor feature ramped up the intensity of each vicious wave immensely. By forcing us to constantly leave the safety of cover in order to refill our depleted weapon’s ammunition, we continuously had to re-strategize our tactics and utilize swift, dive and rush maneuvers, when necessary, in order to retain the upper hand. Unsurprisingly, the initial challenge presented in these addictive, wave-based defensive encounters only further increased when the franchise’s brand new, “blood omen”-represented Declassified Missions were knowingly activated.
…wave-based defense objectives require you to strategically deploy automated turrets…and consistently utilize every weapon in your arsenal in order to survive.
Incorporating both the skills and experience they obtained from working on the well-received, “kill with skill” shooter, Bulletstorm, People Can Fly’s iconic, arcade-like action is perfectly exhibited in Gears of War: Judgment thanks to the welcome implementation of game-changing Declassified Missions. Serving as game modifiers that dynamically change each intense encounter, these addictive mission opportunities inject an additional challenge into the core campaign experience by including optional circumstances – such as restricted weapon usage, limited visibility or no health rejuvenation – into the traditional, Locust-slaughtering mix. Oftentimes, we found that the added presence of Declassified Missions actually presented a welcome layer of risk and reward to the Gears of War series, especially since they directly correspond with the new rating system integrated into the main campaign.
Based on how well you perform during the course of any given mission, you’ll obtain points for accomplishments – such as headshots, executions, and gib kills – that help fill the new three-star scoring gauge permanently attached to your HUD. At the end of each campaign segment, the amount of points received are taken into account and a final rating is slapped onto the entire mission itself. Essentially, this is where activating aforementioned Declassified Missions significantly pays off, as you receive the opportunity to drastically increase your chances of obtaining the maximum ranking possible for each level.
More than just a hollow scoring mechanic, the stars acquired from each mission feed directly into unlocking Gears of War: Judgment’s secondary campaign. Serving as a nice, hour-long addition set during the events of Gears of War 3, Aftermath focuses on Baird and Cole’s return to Halvo Bay in search of reinforcements for the small island of Azura: the last beacon of hope for humanity’s survival against the Locust Horde and the Lambent. Unfortunately, the features present during the core story missions are mysteriously absent from Aftermath. Perhaps People Can Fly excluded their newly integrated features to make this particular campaign feel more like past iterations, but omitting the ranking system and Declassified Missions from the experience after growing attached to them seemed dangerously close to backtracking. Even with this said, however, Aftermath’s a good addition to the core campaign and an essential unlockable for Lancer-wielding aficionados looking for more information pertaining to the series’ trilogy-concluding entry.
B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Boomstick!)
For those more accustomed to competitive multiplayer matches rather than story-based missions, Gears of War: Judgment incorporates just enough distinguishing changes to make online play feel fresh again. For instance, instead of waging chainsaw battles against Locust avatars during standard death match-based modes, matches will now focus on red versus blue, COG versus COG battles that offer up far more player customization to your chosen character than displayed in the past. While we did miss delivering precision headshots and devastating executions to our disgusting grub adversaries during online matches, modifying the small roster of selectable COG soldiers with our own multiplayer preferences and then brutalizing our opponents felt refreshing and, most importantly, like a step in the right direction for the franchise.
…Gears of War: Judgment incorporates just enough distinguishing changes to make online play feel fresh again.
While Gears of War: Judgment may include both a new frantic, fast-paced Free For All mode and a King of the Hill-replacing Domination mode, perhaps the biggest (and possibly most groan-worthy) alteration is the exclusion of Horde mode and Beast mode altogether. Instead, OverRun serves as a magnificent hybrid of the two, tasking those on the COG side to defend barricaded emergence holes while the Locust side desperately tries to destroy these barriers and unleash the human-devouring Kryll that reside beneath. Serving as a class-based mode, those on the COG team receive the chance to play as either a soldier (Cole), engineer (Baird), scout (Paduk), or medic (Sofia) while the Locust side allows you to pick more disposal variations – like Tickers, Wretches and Grenadiers – before gaining enough points to purchase heavy-hitters such as the Mauler, the Corpser, and the new short-tempered Rager (similar to the process seen in Beast mode). Utilizing class-specific abilities to their strengths, regardless of which side of the fight your on, and strategizing tactics amongst teammates proved essential when it came to achieving victory in OverRun, and the mode itself continuously proved to be a welcome addition to the Gears of War franchise throughout our playtime with it. Though Survival – a ten-wave, OverRun-like mode supporting AI enemies instead of player-controlled ones – may provide close to the same experience, it’s the focus on well-coordinated tactics and invaluable teamwork that truly makes OverRun an addictive, must-play multiplayer mode.
A Not-So-Flawless Victory
Despite all of People Can Fly’s success, Gears of War: Judgment does unfortunately contain some flaws within its otherwise solid structure. First and foremost, the short but sweet mission design present in the story-driven campaign fails to include any memorable, set-piece moments into the constant ambush of pop-in/pop-out gunplay. We have fond memories of hijacking a Brumak, battling against the nearly invulnerable Berserker during Gears of War, and even journeying deep within the confines of a gigantic, city-sinking Riftworm, so the lack of any unforgettable highlights during the course of the campaign was immensely disappointing. It should also be noted that Karn – Judgment’s main villain – seemed noticeably unthreatening, especially in comparison to the merciless nature demonstrated by General RAAM. For a general who not only organized Emergence Day, but also mastered the Shibboleth – a towering, spider-like monstrosity, it’s quite astonishing how little Karn’s presence was felt during the entirety of the story. Unfortunately, with only four competitive online modes and eight maps to play them on (with four saved exclusively for OverRun), the multiplayer options included also seemed relatively shallow in comparison to past installments. While each of the four COG versus COG maps display the series’ new focus on verticality (and believe us, dropping in on opponents is satisfying), the lack of multiplayer content seems both confusing and extremely disturbing, even with Epic Games’ release of a two-mode, six-map VIP pass (for $20/1600 Microsoft Points).
However, even amongst its slight hiccups, Gears of War: Judgment easily packs in enough new features and game-alternating tweaks to justify another excursion through Epic Games’ war-torn universe. Benefiting from a fast-paced gameplay approach and injecting more replay value into the core experience, Judgment does an admirable job as a prequel to the franchise’s highly-acclaimed predecessors while truly showing that People Can Fly’s success with Bulletstorm wasn’t just a one-hit wonder.
BOG’s Gears of War: Judgment Review Score
|8.2||Why so high?
High replay value, bite-sized campaign missions, challenging Declassified Missions, tweaked control scheme, excellent OverRun mode
|Why so low?
Forgettable story, absence of memorable set-pieces, lackluster antagonist, limited multiplayer maps and modes
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