*Authors Note* Gears of War: Judgment is an Xbox 360 exclusive title. Spoilers relating to this game as well as spoilers relating to the other titles in the franchise are contained within this review.
The Gears of War franchise has been one of the biggest in gaming ever since it first hit the Xbox in 2006 with the original Gears of War game. Since then we’ve seen the trilogy concluded, the Locust destroyed and what little of the world that was left has been saved. So now, as many franchises have enjoyed doing lately (God of War: Ascension anybody?) we now get the prequel title exploring events that occurred prior to the story we have already witnessed. Gears of War: Judgment is set post E-Day but prior to the actions of Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad that begin in Gears 1.
Judgment plays out through a series of flashbacks from key members of Kilo Squad, lead by series favourites Baird and Cole. The flashbacks are on account of the fact that they find themselves facing judgement for crimes they allegedly wrought upon the COG. Each level is a recollection from a member of Kilo Squad, designed to retell the scenario for the hearing they find themselves in. Kilo Squad find themselves in this position because of Baird’s unauthorised use of a Lightmass missile, and they find themselves staring down the barrel of the death penalty. The narrative has been well developed and is quite enjoyable, however it suffers from the same issues that any prequels do… we already know the outcome, we know, based on the fact that Baird and Cole feature in the Gears trilogy that they MUST survive the hearing, and that their testimonies must get them off the hook. This is no fault of the script writers, but hopefully, it disincentives’ other developers from persisting with the prequel route, because it fails to engage the player as much as a sequel or new IP does.
While a number of strides have been taken to diversify the experience, this is still essentially the previous Gears titles at its core, tightly handled, third person, cover based shooting, with you fighting overwhelming numbers of approaching Locust as the emerge from holes in the ground. One thing that the developers at People Can Fly have done brilliantly is adding the ‘Declassify’ feature. In almost all the games missions you have the option to declassify it, and this means that rather than playing through the levels in their most basic format, your situation changes as Kilo Squad describe in full detail how the events transpired. This flows into the gameplay as your environment might become shrouded in gaseous fog or dust, you might be forced to fight with only select weapons, you may have to take on even greater numbers of Locust, or perhaps complete your mission within a very tight time limit. By successfully declassifying these missions you earn extra stars for each mission, with the stars unlocking a range of bonuses that can be used in both the single and the multiplayer modes, providing you with alternate character and weapon skins etc. The campaign (a little bit like Gears 3) seems geared towards the cooperative approach, with a range of levels spreading you quite thin and whilst the NPCs are mostly quite competent, having the aide of a friend is far more beneficial, especially in some of the games siege style missions. The campaign will likely take you between 6-8 hours, and that is before you hit the unlockable ‘Aftermath’ campaign, which provides another couple hours gameplay as your Judgment characters reunite in a side story that accompanies the final hours of Gears of War 3’s campaign. Aftermath is unlocked through the collection of stars from missions and is certainly the most important reason to accumulate as many stars as possible from each mission.
Multiplayer has always been a massive component of the Gears of War series and in Judgment we see plenty of old features, supported by some new modes to boost the replay factor. Overrun is the major drawcard here, with two sides, one the Locust, one the COG duking it out. The Locust are looking to take over the COG bases, with the COG players forced to fortify and defend their territory. There are a range of different human classes from Soldiers to Medics, and as the Locust do more damage they become more powerful creatures capable of doing extreme damage. It will keep all players on their toes, but if you’re going into this mode understand that success requires everyone to pull their weight, and a few stragglers or non-team players can bring defeat to even the most capable team. Despite not requiring levelling to unlock extra weapons, the feature is still present anyway, and it seems its only purpose is to create some sort of status for the Judgment Elite. Much of the multiplayer experience is the same as usual, and this should please the faithful franchise fans, despite a few relatively minor tweaks.
Judgment is definitely the prettiest Gears game we’ve seen. Since most a larger portion of the world lays intact compared with its story successors, the world of Sera in Judgment is far more colourful and peaceful, there is a lot of green and blue to be seen here, which is very much appreciated considering the multiple shades of brown and grey you see in the future games. Voice-acting is typically top notch but the soundtrack tends to go a little missing at times, a shame since past entries have been typically quite engaging.
Despite some minor tweaks, Gears of War Judgment is still much the same as its predecessors, raw, gritty, visceral action, with interesting characters and grizzly combat. It doesn’t do much to shake up the established formula, and whilst more could have been done to take things in a new direction, it does enough to keep the core fans happy while taking some baby steps towards a different path. Gears fans – Judgment is worth your money.
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