The original Gears of War has the unfortunate mantra of being the standard by which every subsequent third-person shooter is measured. I say “unfortunate” for two reasons: first, because the fluidity of the cover-shooting mechanic works so well that any other third-person shooter that ventures outside these guidelines feels off; and second, because it left little room for any form of gameplay revolution in ensuing Gears of War games.
In fact, Epic Games -- a developer renowned for making games that favour gameplay over story -- decided to escalate outside of its comfort zone: it focused on characters and bleaker storytelling in Gears of War 2 and 3, in a move that divided fans as to how organic it felt for the franchise. I have a lot of respect for Epic’s risk of telling a character-driven story on top of an addictive gameplay formula and, despite the narrative shortcomings of Gears of War 2 and 3, still look back on the two story arcs with fondness.
But mostly, for me, Gears of War is all about the head-chain-sawing, torso-blasting, frag-impaling gameplay that forms the backbone of the series. In Gears of War: Judgment, the gameplay mechanics have been refined to the point it may make you wonder where they can possibly go next. Actually, the Epic Games/People Can Fly duo broke through the point of refinement on one particular mechanic and tried something risky that makes a lot of sense, but feels off in similar ways to when Bungie kept tweaking (read: messing with) the default controls of Halo.
The D-pad is no longer used to select weapons, and you can no longer carry the potent combination of two primary weapons and a pistol along with grenades. Instead, you’re only allowed to carry two weapons -- one of which may well be a pistol -- and grenades, with frags now controlled via the left bumper and weapons cycled by tapping Y. While this makes a lot of sense for multiplayer as there’s no funky thumb movements required that make you choose between movement and weapon selection, it does get a little clunky with the grenades. You can tap right bumper to blind lob a gren, but you have to hold the button down to activate the ability to melee-tag enemies or walls (to create proxy grens). This latter point is most concerning, and one I’m still not used to in the multiplayer arena; old habits, it seems, die hard.
Thankfully, the new weapon-switching system is complemented by an array of new weapons that are actually worth using. Even as a diehard fan of old faithfuls such as the Lancer, Gnasher Shotgun and Longshot Sniper Rifle, I found myself regularly switching to the newer death-dealers that are all fantastic inclusions. The Markza semi-automatic sniper rifle is an effective headshot machine at mid-to-long range, the Booshka grenade launcher is perfectly suited for getting kills around corners or on direct-hits to enemies, and the Tripwire crossbow is great for laying deadly defences.
There’s also the Locust BreechShot bolt-action rifle that boasts a powerful melee attack and deadly mid-to-long-range stopping power, and a particularly powerful multiplayer-only mini-gun that combines the Mulcher heavy machinegun with the stopping power of the Gnasher shotgun. This makes for an impressive all-round arsenal in Judgment that’s used to take down mostly familiar foes, with the exception of one or two new enemy types that slot well into the Locust ranks.
The campaign tells the prequel tale of Kilo Squad -- of which returning characters Baird and Cole are members -- who are being tried with a view to execution, despite the fact a battle wages just outside the courtroom. You get to play as each member of Kilo as they give their flashback testimonies of events that led to them landing in mutinous shit, which is a nice storytelling mechanic, but adds very little to the gameplay. Playing as each of the four characters is exactly the same experience, with the only difference being whose arse you get to look at; this may be part of why newcomer Sofia Hendrick is wearing such tight pants.
This is a missed opportunity, given the emphasis on class-based multiplayer that works oh so well and puts a new spin on the Gears of War formula (more on this later). In many ways, Judgment’s campaign is multiplayer training. The all-new Declassified modifiers let you activate or ignore individual mission challenges that not only help to keep each scenario fresh, they also act as a fantastic precursor for the necessary balance between offensive and defensive skills for playing across multiplayer modes.
Certain Declassified modifiers are as straightforward as, say, obscured vision, which adds a whole new level of intensity to firefights that become, by necessity, close-range affairs. Other modifiers challenge you to only use particular weapon types or play through a level with limited ammunition, while the sporadically occurring timed challenges offer the ultimate challenges that really test your abilities to kill against a tight deadline. Unfortunately, these timed challenges also highlight the short and fragmented nature of each level.
In many ways, each mission feels like a Portal challenge room, many of which can be bested in less than five minutes. At the end of each mission, you’re presented with a multiplayer-esque stats screen, breaking down your achievements and dishing out stars that can be used to unlock skins and, more importantly, the 90-minute Aftermath campaign. Aftermath fares better than the core Judgment campaign because it’s presented as a side-story to Gears of War 3, which doesn’t have the disjointed end-of-mission stat screens and abandons the Declassified challenges altogether. Still, the dialogue, characters and storytelling all fall flat in what is the most forgettable Gears single-player experience, to date.
Then again, you’re never meant to really play Gears of War by yourself, which is why online four-player co-op (or two-player split-screen local) is exactly how the game should be played. You should also consider Normal difficulty to actually be a walk in the park, as it makes the campaigns laughably easy to best by yourself, let alone with others. Normal difficulty also highlights how absurdly idiotic both friendly and enemy AI can be so, unless you’re completely new to Gears of War, avoid it at all costs. There is, however, some merit for replayability in the campaign, given the Smart Spawn System that adds additional units based on player performance. This is even noticeable between deaths, in the way that the engine subtly and intelligently mixes up what enemy types and numbers it throws at you.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a universal experience system in place here, which sounds great on paper, but means you’ll be thrown into matchmaking at a higher level should you choose to conquer the campaigns before jumping into the multiplayer fray. Then again, at the time of review, there were very few local players available at launch: enough to experience the game as it should be played, but not enough across all modes to ensure that you won’t be joining an international game with sporadic latency issues.
When you do find a local server, though, the shortcomings of the campaign are more than offset by the addictive awesome of Judgment’s multiplayer. Old faithful modes such as Free for All, Domination and Team Deathmatch are fantastic for getting a feel for the game and cutting your teeth on classic Gears of War multiplayer. But they pale in comparison to the addictive nature of the two new modes: Survival and Overrun.
Survival is a horde mode that works well as COG training for Overrun. A team of five is tasked with defending particular points of interest. These areas are surrounded by certain defences that initially slow the enemy, but they can also be destroyed and the enemy can attack from multiple directions, which means spreading the five-person team pretty think to manage the waves of enemies. Best of all, this is where the class system comes into play, and you can choose between Medic, Engineer, Assault and Scout. Each class has unique skills as well as pros and cons, which forces you to work as a team to best a level. If you lose an area, you fall back to the next section of the map and repeat the process until there are no more points to defend. You die incredibly easy and enemies can take a mess of bullets to drop, which makes it all the more crucial to work as a team to ensure victory over the 10 increasingly difficult waves of Locust bastards.
In Overrun, human COG forces are doing the same thing, except the Locust team is now being controlled by players. Conceptually, it’s similar to Left 4 Dead in the asymmetrical ways the different factions are balanced, but the class system and attacking/defending requirements of each side makes it an absolute ball to play. Engineers can drop turrets and repair defences, Medics can throw special grenades that heal and revive fallen comrades, Assault players are responsible for ammo drops and dishing out heavy damage with the Booshka, while Scouts can access lofty points for sniping and also throw essential down proxy grenades that let the team track enemy movements.
On the Locust side of the fence, four creatures are available from the outset -- all of which play almost completely differently -- and four more can be unlocked as the level progresses, depending on how well your team is scoring points. There’s a lot of trial and error in finding the right classes for the right situation, but the small maps are really fast to learn and ensure that you never feel like you’re outside of combat for long at all. The emphasis on offence/defence and the ticking clock that ultimately compares one team’s attacking efforts against the other’s when the sides switch makes for frantic firefights and reactive tactics on both sides.
Gears of War: Judgment is far from perfect and falls disappointingly short on the single-player front. But almost everything else about the game is well worth a look and goes a long way to showing that the Gears of War franchise still has the kind of allure that’s worthy of its reputation.