The Gears of War franchise practically defines the Xbox 360. The original came out in the system’s early days, and after the completion of that trilogy, Gears of War Judgment acts as a cap stone of sorts as the Xbox 360 slides toward retirement. As the fifth Gears of War game in six and half years (including the PC version of the original), Judgment will hopefully be the final one for a while and hopefully Epic and Microsoft will see that the series has gone as far as it can go in its current form. There’s only so much more that can be done with four people shooting guns in urban ruins at not-humans hiding behind chest high walls. There really hadn’t been a sticky-cover action-shooter to penetrate the market like Gears of War did, but now sticky-cover has been done to death and other, arguably better, ways to integrate cover into shooters have began popping up. So I really hope Gears of War Judgment is the final piece of the story for Marcus, Baird, Cole, Dom, Anya, and all the Carmines. I’d hate to see the life get stomped out of the franchise by spinning off every character that’s ever appeared into their own game. I don’t need or want to know Carmine 3’s back-story, or what Cole was doing before Marcus and Dom showed up to save him in the original.
It’s for those reasons that I was initially confused as to why Epic and Microsoft felt like we needed a game starring the awesomely-whiney tech-specialist Damon Baird. And now that I’ve finished the game, I’m still left to wonder exactly why I needed to know what Baird was up to during the early days of the war against the Locust - especially since, without revealing any spoilers, it seems to tread on ground the series has already tread on. Hopefully when you play it yourself, you’ll see what I mean.
As the game begins, set all those years ago, a fresh-faced Lieutenant Baird and the rest of Kilo squad are in shackles and being forced to testify for the overly-eager-to-execute-everyone Colonel Loomis. For the majority of the game, the levels play out as each gear’s respective testimony as it’s told to the Colonel. This testimony framing device leads directly to Judgment’s one real contribution to the Great Pool of Game Ideas. As you play through each gear’s testimony, you’re offered several chances to set the record straight with Colonel Loomis who doesn’t quite have all the facts. These “declassified” mission variants add a constraint to the upcoming section. It could be a time limit, tougher enemies, fewer and/or weaker weapons you can utilize, and others I’ll leave you to discover yourself. It’s a good idea, and I commend the developers for adding at least one innovative feature to Judgment’s 8-10 hour long campaign.
The other thing “declassifying” missions does is act as a score modifier for the new score-based star ranking you get at the end of each mission (called “sections” in-game). These star rankings are used mainly to dictate the threshold you need to reach to unlock a particular multiplayer character, skin, or whatever. You need 40 of them to unlock a second mini-campaign, called Aftermath, that takes place during Gears of War 3’s campaign. Clocking in at 3-4 hours, it’s not very long, and it’s missing the option to declassify missions and collect stars. However, it’s certainly a welcome addition simply as more original Gears of War content and I’d love to see unlockable mini-campaigns become a regular part of other games.
Another new addition to the singleplayer is actually taken from Gears of War 3’s Horde Mode. Several siege-style battles play out like mini versions of Horde Mode. You can place turrets, set up trip mines with the new Trip Mine Launcher, and tag walls with grenades if you have them. Occasionally you also have fortifications to aid you as well, but you can’t place or repair them. These section aren’t quite as epic as a good round of Horde Mode was, but they’re a nice change of pace. And that’s sort of the end of new ideas in Judgment’s solo campaign. Aside from a pair of new squad mates, three new weapons (variations on the old battle rifle, sniper rifle, and grenade launcher), and one new enemy, it’s the same old Gears of War people have been playing since ’06.
Scratch that; it’s not, really.
You see, starting with Gears of War 3, four-player co-op (which returns in Judgment) was catered to so heavily that it ruined the solo experience on any difficulty below Insane. Judgment follows that template, unfortunately. Your squad mates are deadly, hyper-active, and almost never fail to revive each other and you, should the need arise. It’s that revival feature that I hate. In Gears 1 and 2, battles were tense, relatively slow paced tactical affairs where cover, flanking, and accurate grenade usage was key.
Gears of War 3 changed that by allowing for unlimited revives, then providing your AI squad mates with enough artificial intelligence to consistently do it. Then and now, death is no longer something you need to fear. Consequently, the battles have become chaotic melees where knife-fight range combat, and executions are key. I routinely found myself getting into mosh-pit punching battles with Boomer-class enemies and dying every two seconds, only to be instantly revived and killed again two seconds later. That’s so far away from what the combat in Gears of War was originally about, it makes me sad. Luckily, there are no PC revives on Insane difficulty (you can still revive your squad mates, however) so it plays like the old games even if your squad mates still run up to enemies and try to melee them to death. It’s too bad that if you’re like me, you have to play through the game once just to get there.
There’s one other issue that I want to get off of my chest. It’s not unique to Gears of War Judgment or even the franchise itself. All shooters do it, but it’s particularly egregious in Gears of War Judgment. That issue is swarming melee enemies. I hate them, and Gears of War Judgment offers three different swarming melee enemies - two in Judgment and a new one unique to the Aftermath mini-campaign along with the other two. Explain to me how a gear in full armor who has survived being shot, set on fire, and who knows what else can be downed or even killed by being slapped three or four times by what often amount to the weakest enemies in the game. There’s just something about those enemies that make my blood boil and I’d love to see them expunged from existence, not just in Gears of War, but every game ever made.
So it’s not perfect, but the singleplayer campaign is exactly what you’ve come to expect in a Gears of War game. It’s still fun, for now. Judgment also happens to be the best looking Gears of War to date. The cinematic cut-scenes could pass for an animated film, while the in-game cut-scenes and gameplay aren’t quite that strong, but still look fantastic. Never before has the ridiculous amount of detail on each gear’s armor and guns looked so crisp. It also pretty much abandons the gritty color palette of the previous games. There’s still a lot of rubble, shattered glass and masonry, fire, and death, it’s just more colorful this time around.
Of course, for many people, Gear of War isn’t about the singleplayer campaign or the four-player co-op, it’s about competitive multiplayer or the co-op wave-based Horde Mode. Both return in all-new forms in Gears of War Judgment.
Gone is the old Horde Mode. In its place is Survival. In Survival, you must protect an area against ten waves of Locust assault troops. You’re given pre-placed fortifications and turrets that can be repaired but no longer placed and/or upgraded. Should the Locust destroy the e-hole cover you’re protecting, you’re forced to fall back to another e-hole cover. Should that be destroyed as well, you’ll fall back a third and final time to a generator. Once that’s destroyed, it’s game over.
Before each round you have to choose a class (assault, engineer, sniper, and medic). Each class has their own specialties, and abilities. The assault class gets an assault rifle and can toss out ammo crates, the engineer gets a shotgun, a repair torch (which can fix turrets and fortifications) and a deployable sentry turret, the medic tosses stim-gas grenades that boost health and can revive downed gears, and finally the sniper can climb to otherwise inaccessible areas and throw spot grenades that makes enemies visible on the radar and causes them to take more damage.
There’s also the brand new OverRun multiplayer mode. It also utilizes the new class system and pits two teams of five against each other in what amounts to a horde mode identical to Survival where the horde is another team of people rather than AI enemies. Teams take turns as the COG and Locust in an effort to either destroy or protect e-hole covers and generators.
Beyond that, it’s your standard mix of oldies yet goodies like Domination (capture and control areas to earn points, first team to 250 wins - in case you didn’t know), Free-for-All (now COG versus COG rather than COG versus Locust), and Team Deathmatch.
Despite the fact that Gears of War’s multiplayer is the one I’ve played the most, and the one I’m most comfortable with, I’m hesitant to pass subjective judgment on it. I feel strongly that all multiplayer has become far too subjective for any one opinion to hold any weight, so I’m not going to tell you whether Judgment’s multiplayer is good or bad. I had fun, and I’ll leave it at that. Also, the servers are just too empty in the days before the game’s official release to get a proper game full of flesh and blood humans. Pretty much every match I played had at least one bot. I will say that I didn’t see or experience anything to make seriously worry about it being broken or an epic failure of ideas or anything.
Overall, Gears of War Judgment gives fans of the series exactly what they were probably expecting. The campaign is solid and the declassification system and star ratings add a new dimension, but it’s still just the same old cover-based shooting from Gears of War 3, which is just a more chaotic version of the combat seen in Gears 1 and 2. The multiplayer, on the other hand, continues to grow and change. Together, they present a familiar package to long-time Xbox 360 owners and shooter fans. Gears of War is a familiar face in an increasingly crowded videogame environment. I just hope that when the next generation hits, Gears of War can become something more than just a familiar face.