A fitting end to the Xbox 360's generation.
Gears of War: Judgment Got Right
- + New mission structure
- + Tweaked control scheme
- + Optional Declassify missions
- + Fun multiplayer
Gears of War: Judgment Got Wrong
- - Very repetitive
- - A few glitches
- - A.I. teammates are sometimes useless
Gears of War was for me, like so many others, the reason I bought an Xbox 360. It looked magnificent, was a weighty exclusive and ushered in many traits of the console third person shooter that became stereotypical of the genre. It’s only appropriate that the first great exclusive many of us played on Xbox 360 will also be the last.
Spilt across two separate campaigns, Judgment first takes us back in time to Emergence Day and the Locust invasion that set the stage for the Gears trilogy 14 years later. Playing as all members of the Kilo Squad -- including Baird and Cole -- Judgment retells their transgressions against direct orders through flashbacks at the squad's tribunal hearing, while the Locust continue to ravage a path of destruction outside.
As bulk of the events are being retold, Judgment splits each chapter into smaller arcade subsections and places a much greater emphasis on replaying. Each section lasts 10 to 15 minutes and can be replayed immediately or later to either improve your star rating or change the course of events. The new star ranking is basic, yet effective, and will have a bearing on how you approach each confrontation. You’ll earn more stars for picking off headshots or killing multiple enemies at once, but you’ll lose part of your score if you go down.
Bests of all, the star system isn’t important. It doesn’t unlock new weapons for the campaign or allow you progress; the entire game can be played without giving it a second thought. Instead, it’s all about bragging rights. You can prove how awesome you are by flaunting your Gears prowess.
The Declassify mission system is like a new icing on the same Gears of War cake.
Your ranking and the events of the exaggerated narrative (but Gears and its giant biceps has never been known for strong acting) are determined by how you approach the “Declassified” mission structure. Each chapter consists of around seven arcade style missions. Each of those can either be played outright, or with a Declassifed modifier.
Turning on Declassifed will first make the upcoming firefight more challenging by introducing extra mortiferous enemies, adding fog to an otherwise clear sky or demanding you adhere to an ambitious time restriction. Aside from its gameplay influence, Declassifying a mission will change the course of events. Baird and co are retelling their side of the story as best they can to their commanding officer, but will choose to leave out some of the vital details if you play without engaging any Declassifed missions. The only way to get the full story is to complete each mission with the added challenge. The Declassify mission system is like a new icing on the same Gears of War cake.
Unpredictability is ripe through the Judgment campaign. The Smart Spawn System tracks your progress and delivers enemies accordingly. Restarting at a checkpoint means you’ll be faced with a different opposition on the second try, and it all comes down to how you’re trying to play. Running in guns blazing is often punished by a barrage of enemies ready to return fire. The average player won’t notice the new spawning system, but that only means it's working perfectly, and ensures you’re always kept on your toes.
On the surface, Judgement looks like yet another Gears, and in many ways it is -- it certainly doesn’t try and reinvent the wheel. Instead, it refines the gameplay to ask even accomplished Gears players to relearn how to ride a bike.
The core mechanics are the same, but say goodbye to switching weapons with the D-Pad. Epic and new co-developer People Can Fly have conformed to using the Y button to roll between two guns, and done away with selecting grenades by making them instantaneous on the left bumper. Being directed towards points of interest has been relocated to the now vacant D-Pad, which also guides you through the arcade-based mission structure.
These seemingly small changes are a direct result of the more intense pacing. There’s rarely a dull moment and the shorter mission structure and more accessible weapons allow for a constant barrage of relentless enemies. There’s little respite in the game itself; instead your momentary break comes in the form of a mission report and cut-scene -- a formula that will be repeated around the next corner.
For a majority of the six hour main campaign, the pacing works a treat. You know what to expect and it offers a break just before you’ve had enough of shooting mutants. However, most of the conventions become severely overused and the side effect of a campaign designed to be replayed for ranking points is that it all starts to blend together. You’re replaying a section to see a tweak in a story that isn’t really important or to earn a better ranking, not because you enjoyed it so much that you absolutely must have another go.
The biggest offender is a rebadged version of Horde Mode making its way into the campaign. On several occasions, you’ll have to fight off two or three waves of enemies (playing on normal) as part of the story, before doing the same thing during the next character’s testimony. Each time you’ll use mostly the same weapons and employ exactly the same tactics -- it becomes Judgment’s way of throwing an incomprehensible number of enemies at you just because it can.
While I enjoyed the campaign, I was also glad when it was over.
The campaign is designed to be played co-operatively with four people, and as is the flavour of the day, will push you into an Xbox Live party immediately, assuming you couldn’t possibly be interested in playing alone. Of course, just like real life, you don’t need friends to have fun, but it’ll give you someone to blame when everything goes horribly wrong.
However, if you're going it alone, beware; the A.I. teammates are next to useless when it counts. They hardly kill anything, are slow to revive you and often stand right where you want to be shooting.
Once you’re done judging Kilo Squad’s war-time behaviour, a second smaller campaign called “Aftermath” returns to the events after Gears of War 3. It offers a dash of closure and some much needed context for the prequel within the timeframe of the trilogy.
While the campaigns becomes a little too familiar, the multiplayer takes Judgment to the next level. Even with limited pre-release access, it’s obvious that the new OverRun mode is a winner, and something I might actually keep playing. OverRun is all of the best bits of Gears multiplayer rolled into one. It plays like a standard team deathmatch with the added mandate of a COG team defending against a Locust team who are trying to open emergence holes. If they do it twice and destroy a generator, they win. If time runs out, victory is bestowed upon the humans. It’s straightforward, simple and loads of fun.
The Final Verdict
Gears of War: Judgment is, simply put, a Gears of War game and a fitting end to the Xbox 360’s generation. It goes back to retell a story that isn’t all that important, but does so by sprucing up the gameplay with a more intense pace and a rankings system that forces you to rethink your strategy in an arcade mission structure. It’s repetitive and arguably the least memorable of the heralded Gears of War series, but with a fun approach and engaging multiplayer, Judgment manages to make the fourth game in a trilogy an essential binding force.