Game Review: Gears of War: Judgment [Xbox 360]
Back in 2006, Epic Games released the original Gears of War, which was the first Xbox 360 game to really showcase what the console was truly capable of: high-end graphics, competitive third-person multiplayer and, for its time, innovative gameplay mechanics. It was highly successful and brought about one of the most acclaimed trilogies in this generation of gaming. Gears of War 3 was the pinnacle of the series, it was bigger in scope, had the most cohesive campaign, most polished multiplayer and had the most fluid and responsive controls. One year later and Gears of War: Judgment was announced; this time players would take control of Kilo Squad led by Baird, comprising of Cole and newcomers Paduk and Sofia. Unfortunately, the bar was raised too high with Gears of War 3 and whilst Judgment is still fun to play, it feels as though the series has lost its sense of identity and, instead of pushing the series forward, it seems to have taken a step backwards.
Gears of War: Judgment takes place 30 days after Emergence Day and follows Kilo Squad through a series of flashback events. Kilo Squad are taken to a courthouse to answer for their crimes and each act plays as a testimony of one of the characters. Unquestionably, it is an intriguing premise for a Gears game and whilst the story has never been at the forefront of the Gears experience, there was some hope that this would change with Judgment. In the end, however, it’s a shallow story with no twist or turns and with characters that lack any kind of personality – and yes, that even includes the charismatic Cole Train. Nothing significant really happens during the story and the finale is foreseeable from the outset. In the previous games there was always one main villain that was supposed to intimidate players the first time they witnessed them in action, eventually leading to a substandard boss fight. Judgment is no different and the Locust you face this time is Karn, however fear is not something that he exuberates, for you never see him in action – you only hear about what he is capable of. The inevitable boss fight does fare better and is probably the best seen in a Gears game; this is not saying much, though – it’s still not a brilliant boss fight.
The real reason why people play the Gears campaign is for its intense cinematic action and incredible set pieces, all of which are played through a linear set structure with each enemy encounter being the same the next time you played through. Judgment mixes this up quite a bit by infusing a mission-based system that rewards you by the way you play, (i.e. get a headshot and your star rating will increase) with a random enemy spawn system found similarly in Left 4 Dead. Each act is split into different chapters and within each chapter you can accumulate up to 3 stars by performing different actions such as a headshot, execution, earning ribbons and by taking on Declassify missions, which are in each section and tell you how aspects of the story really went down. These act like game modifiers that completely change the way you approach each section, for example, in one situation the Locust use smoke grenades, which greatly reduces your visibility, causing you to constantly move around and blind-fire whenever you see a figure in the smoke. Another situation might see you up against the time forcing you to act fast. There is enough variety in these to keep things interesting and some of them will definitely make the insane difficulty even more of a challenge. These are, of course, optional but I would highly recommend that you try them out; it provides more of a challenge and mixes the combat up so it feels fresh every time.
Trying to get three stars on each mission greatly improves the replayability of the campaign, but so does the new Smart Spawn System. Every time you approach a combat scenario you will never know what to expect and it will change every time you play it – you might have 10 Boomers one time but the next you might be facing 5 Corpsers, along with the standard array of enemy types. Having to constantly change your strategy to keep up with the fight is what makes the unpredictability in Judgment fun to play. Whilst these new elements make the game fun to play it is missing those epic moments that the series is known for.
As previously stated, each act is split into chapters and each one can take up to ten minutes to complete, when you come to the end of a chapter you will receive your stats and your star rating, then you proceed into the next section. As a result of this happening, every ten minutes it breaks the pace of the game tremendously and gives it an arcade feel rather than the triple-A blockbuster feeling Gears is associated with.
The controls have always been precise in the series but Judgment manages to refine them even more and provide a much smoother experience. Getting in and out of cover feels better, most importantly changing weapons is now even simpler and greatly benefits the fast paced action of the game. No longer do you have to switch weapons with the D-pad, it’s all done with a simple press of the Y button. It sounds like a small change, but trust me – it is definitely for the better.
Graphically, the game looks great with vibrant colours and fantastic art direction but it’s not quite as gorgeous looking as Gears of War 3 was with its much more varied locations. The soundtrack, however, is very generic and is quite frankly forgettable.
Overall the campaign is fun and exciting to play but can’t quite reach the heights of the original trilogy. The multiplayer, however, is what makes Judgment a great game. Currently there are only four game modes available (Team Deathmatch, Domination, Free for All and Overrun) but two more unknown modes will be available at a later date. Execution mode will be available as a free download shortly after the game’s release. Team Deathmatch no longer consists of each team having only 15 lives; instead it’s done more traditionally and is now the first to 50 kills. Domination is a mode that most people will be familiar with, as this style of multiplayer mode is in most shooters today. It’s a great mode to play, but it’s not quite as intense as King of the Hill. Free for All is completely new to the Gears franchise and whilst I was skeptical at first considering that Gears has always been a team based game, it actually surprised me and goes hand in hand with the fast paced movement and action of the game. Lastly, we have Overrun which, in my preview, I was not as impressed as I had hoped to be but now that I have had the chance to spend more time with it, it is by far the best addition to Judgment. This essentially combines Horde and Beast mode together in a 5 vs 5 game type, where one team plays as the COG who have to defend objectives and the other team play as the Locust who have to attack the objectives. There are 4 maps that are designed specifically for Overrun and each one is separated into three segments that contain an objective to defend, if the COG fail to protect the first objective within the time limit then the next section of the map opens up. This is a class based mode and players can pick from 4 COG and 8 Locust, each class complements one another well and it’s vital to use them in conjunction with each other (i.e. you don’t want 5 Soldiers or 5 Tickers) It’s an exciting and tense mode that rewards players who use teamwork. The map design in general is excellent; they are much bigger than previously seen and offer more tactical movement due to the vertical design of the maps. Players can now drop down from ledges to get behind enemies or to escape from them. It’s a shame that there are only 8 maps available (4 for Overrun and 4 for the other modes), after a few matches you will likely get bored of playing the same maps over and over again.
Other notable additions to the multiplayer is the exclusion of ‘Down but Not Out’ so players can no longer be revived if shot, also meaning that executions can now not be performed in multiplayer (apart from when Execution mode arrives). Being able to perform executions was greatly satisfying in previous installments so it’s rather odd to see them excluded. The loadout system has also changed, previously players would start off with a Lancer, Hammerburst or Retro Lancer in one slot and either a Sawn Off or Gnasher in the other slot, now though you can only choose one of these weapons as the other weapon slot is reserved for a Snub Pistol. Having to choose just one of these weapons limits your combat style, as you now have to choose whether you want to fight from range or close up.
Horde mode, introduced in Gears of War 2 and a major influence on many other franchises has gone and is now replaced with Survival mode. Not quite as catchy a name, but still just as exhilarating. It basically works the same as Overrun but there are a lot more Locust and there are 10 waves that you have to survive. There is still the class-based system so teamwork is even more vital than it was in Horde mode. To put it simply it’s fast, it’s intense and it’s a challenge from the start.
Gears of War: Judgment is a great third person shooter and is a worthy addition to the franchise, and whilst it’s great to see a series take a chance to innovate itself, it’s just not as exhilarating to play as it’s missing those epic moments from previous installments The pacing makes it feel more like an arcade game than a blockbuster experience. The multiplayer, however, is fantastic and will keep players entertained for quite some time. Still, even though it’s not the best Gears of War game yet, you will still be hard-pressed to find a better third person shooter on the Xbox 360 this year.