The Gears of War trilogy has been a resounding success for both Microsoft and Epic over the years, so it was no surprise when the two companies announced that they were continuing the franchise beyond its conclusion in Gears of War 3. To do so, Epic turned to its subsidiary, People Can Fly, to create a prequel story that occurs shortly after Emergence Day and before the events of the original game.
In order to avoid treading on established story, Gears of War: Judgment doesn't focus on either Marcus Fenix or Dominic Santiago. Instead, the new game delves into the background of Damon Baird and Augustus Cole and their time in Kilo Squad. The two are accompanied by new characters, Sofia Hendrick, an Onyx Guard cadet, and Garron Paduk, a former member of the UIR who joined the COG after Emergence Day.
As the game begins, Kilo Squad finds itself hauled in front of a military tribunal, accused of war crimes. The primary story in Judgment is told via flashbacks, as each of the four characters relates the events of the past week to the colonel who is sitting in judgment.
Gameplay is standard Gears fare, with each level offering up a series of intense firefights separated by short walking segments where story bits are revealed in conversation between characters. Combat is cover-focused, just like the previous games. Basically, if you've played a prior Gears game, you should know exactly what to expect here.
One element that is new is declassification. Near the beginning of each section, there is a glowing Gears logo. By selecting it, you can opt to play through the next segment with an artificial constraint. Doing so is supposed to reveal more of the story, though that element is superficial at best. In reality, all it does is provide an additional challenge. Declassification options typically do one of the following: impose a time limit, add more powerful enemies to the mix, limit your weapon selection or decrease visibility.
If you're playing through the game for the achievements or want the maximum challenge, then declassification is for you. If you just want to experience the story, then it's something you can easily ignore.
Story has never been the strong point of the Gears of War games, and Judgment doesn't break any new ground. It provides enjoyable insight into what makes Baird tick, but it doesn't really expand on the overall Gears universe. After spending most of the game building up to the trial, the climax of the story ends up feeling like a bit of a cop-out. In some ways, it feels a lot like the story in Gears of War 2: a lot of good ideas and foreshadowing that are ultimately ignored in favor of a short, anticlimactic ending.
"Short" also applies to the campaign. Experienced players are likely to finish the campaign in four to six hours. In addition to the main campaign, Judgment also features Aftermath, a mission that occurs during the events of Gears of War 3. This stand-alone mission features a loose connection to the events in Judgment, though it is best thought of as a "missing" level from the third game.
One new feature in Judgment is the "smart spawn system," which is supposed to ensure that encounters vary between attempts. You don't really notice it when playing through the game the first time, but it becomes obvious when replaying levels. In one mission, the weapons available in a locker changed, while in another, the droid you are tasked with protecting takes a different route through a courtyard. Unfortunately, the system isn't perfect, as it did fail spectacularly on one section. In this area, the fight was capped off with a Berserker, which can only be injured by setting it on fire. The problem was that the game didn't spawn a scorcher-toting Locust. A quick reload fixed that issue.
The other main drawback to Judgment is the AI. Despite the fact that you play the game with a full squad, your three teammates can be rather dumb. For example, during the escort missions when the droid is getting attacked, the other members of your squad are happy to tell you that the thing is getting shot up, but they don't bother to do much about it. Locust enemies also seem to be aware of the fact of which character is human controlled, as they tend to focus on you. On more than one occasion, we attempted to flank a Reaver. Without fail, it would track the player character and ignore the AI members of Kilo Squad.
Multiplayer returns in Judgment, though most of the modes are new to the series. Performance–wise, it seems on par with Gears of War 3, so the elements that make it stand out are the new modes. The biggest of those is OverRun. Essentially a class-based mash-up of Beast mode and Horde mode from the prior games, OverRun is both immediately familiar and fresh at the same time. This is likely where most players are going to spend the majority of their multiplayer time.
Free-for-all is what it sounds like, but it's is limited to COG forces. There are no Locust. Team deathmatch is classic Gears combat, with two teams of five each going at it and pulling from a shared pool of lives. Domination has two teams fighting for control of three rings on the map, and Survival pits you against 10 waves of Locust.
As in Gears of War 3, multiplayer features a number of skins that are available for purchase. These are cosmetic only and don't impact gameplay. More annoying is the inclusion of VIP mode, which offers XP bonuses and guarantees use of all DLC content but is limited to those who purchase the VIP pass (AKA season pass). It is only selectable if all members of your party have purchased it.
When all is said and done, Gears of War: Judgment offers up exactly what it promises on the cover: a romp through the world of Sera. Aside from the multiplayer modes, Judgment doesn't really bring anything new to the table. As a result, it ends up feeling more like an expansion pack than a full-blown sequel. The Gears faithful will no doubt enjoy it on day one, but more casual players should opt for a rental or wait for a price drop.
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