Gears of War has become the poster child for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 ever since the original’s release way back in November of 2006. With this generation of consoles quickly winding down, it’s only fitting that Epic and Microsoft release one last Gears of War before focus shifts to whatever the next Xbox will be named. But still, even with that “fitting” nature, many people still wondered if Gears of War Judgment was necessary. But more importantly, with it now being a direct spin off from the previous games, would it acquire the same passion and care that the last three installments so eloquently flaunted?
The Locust invasion story has never been a particularly fascinating one in the Gears universe. It’s been the constant string tying all four installments together but the storytelling mostly relied on your care for the main four COG members: Marcus, Dom, Baird, and Cole. With the ending of Gears of War 3, it was abundantly clear that Marcus and Dom’s stories were over, meaning placing them in a subsequent sequel would feel forced and unnecessary. To avoid that, Epic and People Can Fly decided to delve into the previously untold backstory of Cole and Baird. It’s been alluded to that they were on trial before meeting up with Marcus and Dom but the actual ins and outs of that trial have never been elaborated upon. In Gears of War Judgment, all your questions regarding that trial are answered, although the answers may be much less interesting that you had once thought.
Judgment introduces two new characters that join Cole and Baird on their journey, Padduk and Sophia. These characters are given slight backstories but never anything that propels them up to what you already know about Cole and Baird. Despite some of People Can Fly’s efforts, Cole and Baird are the two characters you ultimately care about. I’ve always had a slight admiration for Baird, though I understand that isn’t the popular opinion regarding him. That being said, him and Cole are especially reserved this go around, never really exerting their standard “hoorah” bravado. The actual story is told almost exclusively in flashbacks from the four characters, with you taking control of that character each time they give their “testimony.” Sadly, the trial itself is incredibly uninteresting and never becomes anything more than a platform to propel the next gameplay section forward.
The Unreal Engine has been a staple of the Gears series for years, and it’s beginning to show. The same grimy nature of the enemies and busted buildings still exist. On top of all that, the color palate remains rather bleak, apart from some surprising use of the always allusive blue color near the end of the game. That doesn’t mean that there’s a complete lack of variety however as some of the more open areas flaunt some really nice scenic views. These shots are few and far in between but when they come up, it makes you want to stop moving and just examine this ravaged world.
One of the biggest question marks heading into Judgment was how in the world the developers could make this single player campaign engaging yet again. Epic managed to hold our attention for three straight games but at the end of Gears of War 3, I felt more than done with Gears of War’s single player. With development now shifting to the Polish studio, People Can Fly, odds were stacked against them in their hopes of making their first Gears campaign an interesting one.
But they’ve managed to overcome those odds mainly due to the addition of a “declassified” objective that is available before the start of every section. These declassified objectives can vary from forcing you to use certain weapons all the way to giving you a time limit that forces you to hurry through the current section. The time limit contrivance can be a bit annoying but every declassified objective manages to add an interesting layer that otherwise would not exist. Also thrown into the campaign are horde mode sections that force you to fend off two or three attacking waves of Locust. The additions People Can Fly installs into the single player work brilliantly in revitalizing what seemed to be a lifeless experience prior to release.
There are a few fundamental changes that Judgment inserts which were not in previous installments. For example, instead of using the d-pad for weapon changes, you now tap Y to alternate between your two weapons. It’s a tad frustrating at first due to the removal of one of your weapon slots, but you quickly learn to get used to the new Call of Duty esque weapon swapping. With this change, you now use LB to throw grenades, which led to me using grenades much more often than I previously did. Now instead of being forced to swap out of your weapon mid firefight, you can simply tap LB and let whatever modified grenade you have in your inventory fly. It’s a smart but subtle change that goes a long way in making the Gears experience more accessible and easy to handle.
The lifeblood of the Gears franchise has forever been its expansive multiplayer. I remember many of nights spent playing Gears 1 and 2’s online multiplayer until I could see sunlight creeping back through my window after long hours filled with Coca Cola and Cheese Puffs. That magic had worn off slightly when Gears 3 released but that didn’t mean the multiplayer was any less impressive. By far the most bewildering part of Judgment’s multiplayer is the lack of any kind of Horde mode. If you remember correctly, Horde was the wave based survival mode focused on upgrading turrets and barriers. It was a widely loved feature that somehow did not make it into Judgment.
Instead, we have received a mode simply called “Survival.” Survival is also wave based but instead of having fifty waves, it only has ten. Also instead of being able to upgrade barriers and such, you can simply repair them after the Horde does their damage. You begin Survival by choosing between four classes: Medic, Engineer, Soldier, and Scout. Each class has its own special ability such as the engineer can repair barriers whereas the soldier can throw out a grenade that refills your teammate’s ammo. Survival is an acceptable mode that provides a few thrills, but never anything on the level of Horde. Due to that, you’re left feeling immensely unsatisfied after each round comes to a conclusion.
Not all the new modes are unsatisfying however as People Can Fly combined both the Beast mode from Gears 3 and the aforementioned Survival mode to form Overrun. Overrun involves two teams taking turns at attacking emergence holes that have been covered up by COG soldiers. As the horde, you’re choosing between multiple classes and pushing forward in hopes of breaking down enemy barriers and ultimately opening up room for an all-out rush on the E-Hole. Once you do destroy the cover on the E-Hole, the COG falls back to another area and the process begins anew. Once you destroy the covering yet again, the COG falls back to their generator which is the last line of defense. If you destroy that generator, that round is over and you transition to the COG side as you try to fight off the invading Horde. It may sound a bit tedious, and it does become a little tiresome after multiple hours of playtime, but it’s still a very fun mode to dive yourself into.
The head to head multiplayer feels mostly unchanged in the grand scheme of things. The biggest change is due to the new way you switch weapons, it forces you to only have one main weapon. Thankfully, you do get to choose what weapon you want before the match begins and there are still larger weapons strewn across the maps. But it seems as if everyone selects the Gnasher Shotgun as their one weapon, leading to a mostly shotgun dominated multiplayer experience. Possibly my biggest complaint regarding Judgment’s multiplayer is in regards to the lack of maps. There seems to be around four maps that are played on religiously, which gives me the bad feeling that if you want more variety, you better get ready to pay for some DLC.
I’ve never been a fan of Halo nor the Call of Duty franchises, but for some reason I’ve always had a love for Gears of War. That being said, I did not expect Judgment to be the tight little bow I had hoped would wrap up this beloved franchise. I, like many others, felt like Judgment was simply one last cash grab from Microsoft before the Xbox 360 ultimately rode off into the sunset. Thankfully, I was wrong. While Baird and Cole’s story isn’t the most interesting, the gameplay mechanics surrounding it make up for the dull storytelling and the multiplayer remains interesting, if not a little dumbed down from previous installments. Gears of War Judgment overachieves, which is something many did not expect, but it’s become clear that the series deserves to be put to rest.
Bulletstorm 2, anyone?
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