What to do when one’s wildly successful trilogy finishes, concluding its epic saga, but also leaving its many fans wanting more? Both George Lucas and Microsoft will tell you the same thing – there’s more material to be creatively and financially mined by going back to take a look at where the story started. And now hoisting itself up onto on the post-trilogy prequel bandwagon to sit next to Halo: Reachand Jar-Jar Binks is Gears of War: Judgment, the latest entry in the mega-hit game series that has so far moved the trifling sum of 19 million units worldwide.
Judgment takes place just after Emergence Day, when the subterranean forces of the Locust Horde popped up to well and truly ruin humanity’s afternoon. While things aren’t looking as gloomy for mankind as they are by Gears of War 3, they’re certainly already heading that way, with civilians scrambling to escape the slaughter and the COG fighting – and losing – a desperate defensive battle. In the midst of this rout, a by-the-book COG colonel named Loomis is nevertheless insisting upon a court martial of the game’s four protagonists, and Judgment’s missions take the form of one of the four giving testimony while in flashback the player tackles the described scenarios that landed them in hot water.
Things play out in a straightforward fashion with slight narrative detours appearing should declassified challenges be taken on. These temporarily bump up the difficulty, but also air facts and events of the Gears' journey that didn’t make it into the official trial record, such as “the Locusts used unusual tactics”, “there were odd environmental conditions”, and so forth. These challenges add some decent variety to missions as the player (and up to three friends on Xbox Live) make their way through the campaign, even if many end up being somewhat weird from a story perspective. It can be something of a non-sequitur when a narrating Baird explains “at this point, we only had shotguns to use”, when he just ran into the level carrying a fully-loaded Lancer, for example. It’s also not entirely clear why a fact like “it was very windy” would be struck from the official record either.
Still, opting in on the challenges also helps to award the player more experience points and achievements, tallied in regular summary screens which offer the option of immediately replaying the stage in order to try and improve one’s performance. This is nice for those gamers who are all about a perfect run, but does have the curious side effect of disrupting the player’s immersion in the story somewhat. This emphasis on style and skill makes Judgment somewhat reminiscent of co-developer People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm, and there’s just the slightest hint of that game’s resort planet setting in some of Judgment’s artwork and level design as well.
That’s a welcome change: while a Gears of War game is never going to be a riot of colour, Judgment is the least-brown Gears of War game so far. There are still a number of drab, brutalist industrial settings to battle through, however, so it’s the small differences that players may pick up on, as big ones aren’t really in evidence. For example, maneuvering previous protagonist Marcus Fenix around the battlefield always felt more lumber-y than a Canadian fir tree plantation, but a slightly faster pace is evident here. In addition, just two weapons (plus grenades) may be carried, but the binding of the latter to LB is a welcome change.
In the main campaign, there is just one new enemy. The Rager is a small unarmoured Locust trooper that when shot bulks up Incredible Hulk-style and charges the player to make damaging melee attacks. A new, pleasingly nasty grenade launcher called the Booshka comes in handy here, but most will happily settle for the powerful mid-range Markza rifle or its stripped down, larger-capacity Locust adaptation, the Breechshot.
Several stages in Judgment’s campaign take a cue from the now-absent Horde mode, and see the Gears squad in a defensive position with a limited time to prepare before waves of Locust lay siege. No matter the enemies thrown at them though, for much of Judgment players will be doing a lot of what they’ve done in previous Gears of War campaigns: hunkering down in cover and fighting room to room and across larger open areas against the familiar troops of the Horde. As always, combat feels organic, flexible and exciting at its best, with changing tactics up and wild improvisation in desperate circumstances often providing particularly satisfying results.
That also means that every so often the player, a couple of their AI squadmates, and three or four Locust troopers will somehow end up coming together in a meaty blob and flailing away at each other in something of an uncoordinated-looking, visually confusing mess. In these ways, Judgment is unlikely to get either fans or detractors of the series to change their minds, but generally speaking, it continues the tradition of what the series as a whole does well. The odd close-angle rugby scrum with guns aside, there’s plenty of excellent shooter action on offer.
The effects of the game’s touted “smart spawn system", designed to spawn enemies based on the player’s perceived playing style, are difficult to initially gauge. It is immediately evident upon replaying campaign sections that the enemy mix the player faces is often different each time they play the section though. Some of what seem like spawner tactics are in evidence too – put down a lot of tripwires for defence, and it seems that more often than not the first wave of enemies will be a bunch of sacrificial Tickers, for example. More often, though, the different mix of enemies simply serves to make things feel a bit less repetitive if replays of the same tricky section are required.
Judgment's story itself is so-so. It steers around much of the outsized emoting that is a staple of previous Gears games, and Kilo squadmate Paduk does a pretty good line in cynical Eastern-European gallows humour. There are still some weighty themes at play though, with the game exploring when exactly a soldier should decide to disobey orders, and whether it is right to sacrifice a few to save many. But then many of the facts and themes on which the story is built are seemingly undercut by a final boss battle – the first and only one of the campaign.
Those interested in seeing how things turned out for Judgment’s new characters in the war against the Locust can then play through Aftermath, a short epilogue to the main campaign that is set many years later, during the events of Gears of War 3. Aftermath returns to that game’s washed-out colour palette – a noticeable difference – and fleshes out Baird and Cole’s off-screen adventures. It’s a neat little “Where are they now?” capper for the new Judgment characters, but for an epilogue is left quite open ended, with DLC or sequels an inevitability.
Over in multiplayer, the most interesting mode is Overrun, which smooshes together the now-absent Horde and Beast modes with class-based team play, in the process making an unashamed move towards the lucrative eSports market. Those playing Locust may level up to control Cerapedes, Maulers, and the like, while the human team frantically defend a series of cascading objectives, in all probability while shrieking commands at each other. Each class has its own fixed weaponry and skills so teamwork is paramount, with only the human Scout feeling a touch underpowered and extraneous.
It’s truly joyous to burrow under a barrier as a Corpser though, emerging to pounce on hapless Gears and generally spread ruination, and Engineers will delight in finding ever-smarter turret placements to rack up their kill count while they are busy repairing defences. It’s a great mode that justifies its own set of well-designed maps, but it is a tremendous shame it comes at the expense of the popular Horde and Beast modes. Survival replaces the former, and is essentially Overrun against an AI rather than player-controlled Horde. It’s good enough, but at 10 waves long offers a sliver the entertainment that traditional Horde did. The other new mode is free-for-all, but although it will have its fans, plays away from Gears’ team-based strengths.
Gears of War: Judgment succeeds in what it sets out to do: provide some more decent Gears of War product for series fans to eagerly snatch up. While there are no vast improvements or radical changes to be found in the gameplay, the series’ core combat action remains as enjoyable as ever.