Gears of War: Judgment
Epic Games/People Can Fly/Microsoft Studios
In a game about soldiers with thick necks, oversized armour and giant guns equipped with chainsaw bayonets, “bigger is better” is a mantra so obvious it doesn’t even need to be uttered.
Yet Gears of War: Judgment does something new for this testosterone-oozing series about warriors on another world: it carves it up a bit, pares it back, slices off some of the fat. It’s a leaner, if no less meaner, Gears of War experience. And it works.
A prequel to the Xbox 360-exclusive Gears of War trilogy, Gears of War: Judgment is set 14 years before 2006’s Gears of War and just a few weeks after the subterranean Locust Horde has emerged onto the surface of the earthlike planet of Sera and begun destroying its cities.
Players take control of four soldiers – the so-called Gears – led by wisecracking Lieut. Damon Baird, whose soul patch hasn’t quite grown to the full neon-blond glory we saw in Gears of War 3. Joining him is a younger Augustus “Cole Train” Cole, as well as two brand new faces: Sofia, a by-the-book cadet, and a Russian... err, Gorasnayan veteran named Paduk.
Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the four are accused of treason for disobeying orders and using a valuable weapon to save a city under Locust attack. As they testify before a military tribunal, the perspective switches from Baird to Cole to Sofia to Paduk and then back to Baird, with flashbacks that detail the events leading up to (and beyond) the tribunal while fleshing out each character’s backstory.
Judgment doesn’t have quite the same epic scale as Gears of War 3, but it doesn’t necessarily need it. It reminds me of Halo 3: ODST, which also told its story through multiple viewpoints in a universe that was grand in scope yet somehow intimately familiar.
And it introduces an intriguing (if gamey) new gimmick by assigning a three-star post-mission rating to each sequence, with stars accumulated for headshots, executions and other bits of skilled play, such as earning a “Clusterluck” ribbon for taking out more than one foe with a single grenade.
Whether the Gears are setting booby traps in a sprawling courtyard to fend off a Locust attack or assaulting a beach like something out of Saving Private Ryan, players have the option before each mission of activating a modifier that boosts the rate of scoring while also adding another layer of difficulty: enemies are more powerful, or visibility is reduced, or the Gears are required to use specific (and often slightly exotic) weapons, and so on.
This risk-reward incentive adds a very welcome degree of replayability to Judgment, although if you’re the type of person who can’t move on from a level of Angry Birds until you’ve three-starred it, you could be in trouble here. Particularly if you play solo instead of teaming up with three friends for the game’s seamless co-op play.
Progressing partway through Judgment unlocks a bonus chapter called Aftermath, a side story that dovetails with the end of Gears of War 3. Here, Baird and Cole seek help from their old comrade Paduk, whom they haven’t seen in years. (There are also hints dropped about Sofia’s fate – don’t be surprised if future downloadable content fleshes out what happened to her between Judgment and Gears of War 3.)
Unfortunately, Aftermath feels quite plain next to Judgment. With the three-star scoring system absent, firefights lose much of their urgency. It’s actually a tad dull. So if Aftermath was included as a way of saying, “Look, the changes we made to Gears of War: Judgment makes it way more fun!” it certainly succeeds.
Online play in Judgment is classic Gears, which means instead of intense tactical firefights across environments ranging from the rooftops of a shopping district to a mountainside village (with working gondola), it’s essentially a battle to see who can dive-roll up to an enemy and kill him with a shotgun blast to the face first.
While this shotgun obsession taints the most of the game’s multiplayer modes, the new Overrun game variant is pure fun. Teams take turns attacking and defending three control points on a map, with one side controlling the human COG and the other inhabiting various types of Locust beasties, from the tiny kamikaze Ticker all the way up to the formidable giant spider called the Corpser.
My COG team lost one match in the dying moments when our frugal opponents, who had been spending their points on weaker units for most of the game, launched a final two-Corpser rush that chewed through our defences in seconds. I was too impressed to be angry.
I recently took a few swipes at the PlayStation 3’s God of War: Ascension for being familiar to a fault. Judgment is also very familiar, yet never tedious or boring. Epic Games and their Polish subsidiary studio People Can Fly (who made the underrated Bulletstorm) seem to have some sort of magic formula for avoiding the sense of repetition that can gnaw at extended franchises like this.
For all its larger than life swagger and cartoonish bravado, it’s actually kind of refreshing to see Gears of War take a less-is-more approach with this game. Size certainly matters, but what you do with what you’ve got counts even more.