STAFF REVIEW of Gears of War: Judgment (Xbox 360)

Monday, March 18, 2013.
by Adam Dileva

Gears of War: Judgment Box art The Gears of War trilogy wrapped up Marcus Fenix’s tale of his plight against the Locust with a definitive ending. So what was next for the Gears of War games if the main protagonist’s story has been concluded? A prequel of course! Rather than start a new Trilogy, instead we go back in time to shortly after Emergence Day happened and follow Gears of War veteran Damon Baird and his command of the Kilo Squad during this time period. If you’re unfamiliar with Gears of War lore, Emergence Day is the day that the war between Humans and Locusts began when the Locust invaded the planet Sera from beneath. Gears of War: Judgment takes place very shortly after Emergence Day but long before the original Gears of War.

As I’m a fan of the Gears of War series, I was curious to get ahold of Judgment as I wanted to learn more lore about the COG, Locust, Emergence Day, and all of the main characters we’ve come to love over the past three games. There were two things that made me unsure about how Judgment would turn out though. The first being that it was now developed by People Can Fly, best known for the lukewarm Bullet Storm (though with Epic Games’ help), and that series staple Cliff Bleszinski was no longer at the helm of a Gears of War title. So did People Can Fly capture the essence of Gears of War and create an engaging new tale in the series, or is it a new take on the series with different design choices? As it turns out, a little bit of both.

Gears of War: Judgment takes place many years before the original Gears of War and just shortly after the pivotal Emergence Day event that reshaped Sera. Judgment is experienced through the perspective of Kilo Squad, led by Lieutenant Damon Baird. If you know your Gears lore, the Lieutenant title before Bairds name might seem odd, but there’s good reason for it and it’s explained why he is a private in the era he’s best known for with Marcus in the trilogy as well. Baird leads Kilo Squad which consists of himself, fan favorite Augustus Cole, and two new members, Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk. They are tasked with saving Halvo Bay from a then frightening new enemy, the Locust.

Baird joined the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) on Emergence Day and he is now leading Kilo Squad after only being a lieutenant for a week, and he is still the cynical and humorous engineer we’ve come to love. Cole was a Thrashball star a mere few months ago, but now he’s a private under Baird’s authority. While this is a long time before Cole turned into the Coletrain, you can see the start of his persona and he still brings the Cole type of intensity to every battle. Sofia Hendrik was assigned to Kilo Squad and likes to play the voice of reason within the squad. Garron Paduk was originally a member in the UIR during the Pendulum Wars but ever since the Locust destroyed his homeland, he wants revenge and coins the COG for that sole reason.

Gears of War: Judgment starts out with Kilo Quad going to trial for something they’ve done. Colonel Ezra Loomis is holding the trial against Baird and his squad for the actions they’ve committed against the COG’s wishes. Judgment then plays out through a series of flashbacks from each of the characters each retelling their story and what ‘really’ happened for them to make the actions and decisions they did. It seems like Loomis has already made up his mind about the fate of Kilo Squad, but he continues to ask each member what happened and to explain themselves. War rages on right outside the trail room’s doors but Loomis is determined to get to the bottom of what happened and give his conclusion and sentence to this trial.

As you progress through the main campaign of Judgment, before each section you’ll see a glowing iconic Gears skull on a wall. Here you’re offered a chance to play a slightly more difficult version of the upcoming section and tell Loomis what ‘really’ happened. If you declassify a mission, your testimony will tell exactly what happened and slightly change the course of the campaign. Sometimes this involves using different weapons (or very specific ones), having time limits imposed on your actions, increasing the number or difficulty of enemy Locust, or even greatly reduce your visibility from sand storms.

You’ll get to experience each member’s own parts to the Judgment story throughout the campaign and while it was enjoyable to see each side of the storyline, each character plays the same way and doesn’t alter it in any way. What I didn’t expect though is that the core gameplay feels much quicker paced and fluid in general. I don’t know if this is something purposely designed by People Can Fly or simply a byproduct of going back to basic gameplay, but either way it works and feels like natural Gears of War with more action.

After you complete the main Judgment campaign you’ll actually unlock a bonus campaign title Aftermath. This unlockable campaign takes place during the events of Gears of War 3 and focuses on Baird, Cole, and Carmine on a mission to gather reinforcements before Azura is invaded by the COG. While it wasn’t expected, Aftermath was a welcomed change of pace when compared to Judgment, as it plays more like traditions Gears of War 3 and bookends a few of the looming questions you may have had when Baird and Marcus split up in Gears 3.

The staple of Gears of War gameplay has always been about the cover based system and the awesome weaponry (to go along with the active reload system), both of which are still the mainstay in Judgment. All your favorite weapons return; the iconic Lancer, Retro Lancer, Hammerburst, OneShot, Shotguns, and even more alongside some new additions. Even weapons and equipment that weren’t in the series until the later games return, like the Silverback, even if so ever briefly which kind of confused me on how it fits into the canon.

As referenced above, the campaigns Mission Declassification challenges are one of the big new features in Judgment and offer a little more insight into what happened as Baird is on trial. The challenge of these can vary wildly, carrying to anything from simply more Locust to fight, to only being allowed to use specific weapons. There is a reason you’ll want to attempt these challenges though, as accepting and succeeding in these challenges will greatly boost your score in the new performance indicator at the end of each section and chapter. The higher the score the more stars you unlock, the more stars you unlock the more bonus content you gain access to in multiplayer like new skins. Some of these mission challenges are quite fun, but there are others that will take much practice and patience, especially the timed missions on the harder difficulties. While I liked that it was an option to accept it or not, it felt like it was a way to simply arbitrarily lengthen and make it more difficult rather than simply throwing more enemies your way.

Speaking of throwing more enemies your way, this is one big issue I had with level design. While each chapter is broken up into smaller bite sized segments, the all seem to end in the same way. Sure, Horde mode is gone from Judgment (more on that later), but it seems they wanted to keep the spirit of it alive and at the end of almost every chapter, you’ll have a few minutes to set up camp and defenses before waves of enemies come randomly hurling at you, ala Horde mode of past. I kept waiting for some cool boss fights or amazing set pieces to start playing out, but it never seem to come until the very end. While this makes the Gears gameplay quicker and fluid (aside from the Horde-like endings of chapters), I was disappointed with the campaigns flow, not story wise mind you, but gameplay instead. I keep wanted something cool or memorable to happen; it didn’t.

So how is Kilo Squad going to take on the devastating Locust, as these new COG recruits are nowhere near veterans in the war yet and still have a lot to learn. New weaponry is introduced in Judgment and surprisingly, they are all quite memorable armaments that I hope stick around whenever the next Gears title releases. First is the Booshka, a UIR grenade launcher that not only will explode with a direct enemy hit but it can also lob its shells off of walls and other obstacles for added strategy. The Markza is another UIR weapon that’s a fantastic semi-automatic rifle that has a large ammo capacity and a decent scope range. The Locust also have new weapons as well, as it seems they got their hands on a Markza and then modified it by having a larger barrel to inflict even greater damage, but in doing so they lost the scope ability; oh and they fit it with a blade on the stock as well. When you are setting up camp for the Horde-like sequences, you’ll even find a new Tripwire Crossbow that allows you to setup your own trip wires wherever you think the ambush will take place. Lastly are two new grenades, the first being a Spot Grenade that will give you the ability to see opponents that get within its detonation range for a short period of time. The last new useful tool is the Stim Grenade that is going to be a godsend to those that love playing support and medics for their team. When thrown and detonated, medicinal gas will heal anyone in its radius and even revive fellow teammates as well.

Multiplayer returns to Judgment, though it might not be completely like you remember in the previous games. Judgment ships with a total of eight maps, four of which are playable in OverRun and Survival modes while the last four are played in the Free For All and Domination game variants. If that seems like a low amount of maps for specific modes, it’s because it is. Classic modes like Team Deathmatch and Domination return, but gone is the fan favorite Horde Mode and is replaced by something, well, different. OverRun and Survival are new to the series, though simply just variants of the core gameplay we’ve already known.

OverRun is essentially Horde Mode combined with Beast Mode; this is essentially your new Beast Mode, but bigger and better. OverRun pits two teams of five against each other but it is all class based gameplay. Each team has objectives like destroy or defend and the team with the most points at the end wins. There are four main classes you’ll choose between: Engineers, Medics, Soldiers, and Scouts. Soldiers can take more damage and drop ammo boxes for the team. Engineers repair fortifications and have access to a turret for defense. Scouts use Spot Grenades that will help locate enemies for the team while also being able to snipe from specific perches, and Medics can use Stim Grenades for when they are needed. With class based gameplay, you’re going to need to coordinate and have communication if you want to win. With five versus five gameplay and Locust versus COG, things will get intense, especially once the more devastating Locust enemies start to appear like Corpsers and the new Rager enemy type.

While OverRun may be the evolution of Beast Mode, Survival Mode is definitely the new iteration of Horde Mode. While Horde Mode had you trying to survive fifty waves of enemies that could easily take hours for a single game, Survival instead challenges you to simply survive ten waves of oncoming Locust attacks while protecting Emergence Holes. Instead of saving up money to buy fortifications like in Gears 3 multiplayer, it’s all based around the class play, like in OverRun, instead. Luckily if you decide you need to change classes at any time, you can do so quite easily to help the team with what’s needed the most. You’re going to need communication here if you want to survive. Ten waves might not seem like much, but the difficult ramps up pretty quickly if your team doesn’t have a game plan or isn’t communicating.

Free For All Mode is new to the series as well, and while this may not seem like a big deal, it works mostly because of the new setup and weapon loadouts for multiplayer. Everyone now spawns with one gun and one grenade, no more forced Lancer and Pistol combo, so learn quickly what your gun of choice is going to be. It’s a nice change to see that I’m not forced to start with the same default weapons everyone else is, and the same goes for grenades too. Pick whichever one suit you best, as I almost always chose the Stim Grenade so I can be support for my team. One thing that I noticed almost instantly though while playing online is the inability to stick grenades to the wall. I thought I was doing something wrong, as you can still do it in campaign, but it’s been nixed from online play. Sure this lessens the random deaths taking a corner, but it would have been nice to learn that somewhere as opposed to dying while staring at a wall, trying to get my grenade to stick.

As you progress online and in the campaign you’ll level up just like previous Gears titles. The difference in Judgment though is that there are now certain milestones that when achieved, net you prize boxes that contain random contents inside. You’ll unlock new skins for your weapons and characters or some extra XP. It almost felt like how Mass Effect multiplayer awarded you with boxes of random goodies inside, except there’s only skins to be had here for multiplayer.

Everything isn’t as brown as it was in past Gears games and the campaign had a great way of telling its story, it was really only the design choices for level flow and pacing that let me down. Judgment also suffers from the same problem the previous games had, where they don’t setup the main bad guy nearly enough, as he essentially gets no face time in Judgment saves for his boss battle, much like General RAAM and Skorge previously.

If you’re a Gears or War veteran you’ll almost instantly notice how much quicker pace Judgment is comparatively. Baird and his crew are younger and not as bulked up compared to the sequels, so it makes sense. The new weapons are great to use and the optional Declassified Missions are a fun distraction if you’re looking for a real challenge, though it did at times simply seem like an arbitrary way to lengthen gameplay and harden the difficulty. Drop the Microsoft Points for the VIP Pass and you’ll be granted with six new maps when released, two new modes, five exclusive weapon skins, four armor skins, two character skins, permanent double experience and even a VIP-only playlist that also grants higher XP returns.

To be honest, I struggled a little trying to score Gears of War: Judgment, as I loved the new innovations to multiplayer (though I still wish traditional Horde Mode was still included), and I enjoyed how the plot is told through flashbacks and in smaller segments, but a few missions in and it became apparent that it was the same thing over and over again without the grand set pieces that previous Gears of War games always included. With no big action sequences and a campaign that feels like it’s stringing you along, trying to make you believe something big and cool is going to happen, you’ll keep waiting for it, even after the credits roll.

Judgment did its job of making me warm up to Baird a lot more than previously (I was always a Marcus Fenix guy) and it was entertaining learning about his back story, I simply wasn’t overwhelmed with the campaign in the slightest and there really wasn’t that much memorable about it. Truth be told, I enjoyed the Aftermath chapter more than the whole of Judgment campaign. I don’t know if it’s because it had more traditional Gears 3 gameplay, or because it had the Baird and Cole that I’ve known for three games now, but I feel like I should have enjoyed Judgment’s six to ten hour campaign much more than the single hour of a Gears of War 3 add-on. The multiplayer will keep you hooked, make no mistake about that (albeit 8 maps is nowhere near enough on disc), just don’t expect the over the top exhilarating sequences from Gears of War 2 and 3 to return. I’ll leave the judgment to you.

Overall: 7.7 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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