The mismatched but heroic foursome at the heart of Gears of War: Judgment is pleasantly diverse.
How much of a good thing is too much? That's the question I found myself asking while playing Gears of War: Judgment.
As I wrote in a recent preview, co-developers People Can Fly and Epic Games have tried to perfect the classic formula by increasing pacing, mixing up the combat, and generally making the gameplay feel more energetic and fun. Even so, the whole experience feels very familiar, and what changes there are amount to little more than tweaks.
Whether you consider this to be a good thing or a bad thing depends on how much you liked the three preceding Gears of War games. If you loved them and want more of the same, then get yourself down to the preferred game retailer now and grab a copy of Judgment. If you liked Gears but were starting to feel a bit fed up with it by the end of the third game in the series, Judgment is unlikely to revitalise your interest. If you always hated Gears, this new game is not going to change your mind.
Some might question the choice of the sarcastic Baird as the primary hero.
Myself, I love a bit of Gears, and I have played the entire series campaign in split-screen co-operative mode with the same multiplayer partner. This has given me a very consistent baseline experience throughout the franchise, which in turn allows me to compare series entries on a level playing field.
In all honesty, I was a bit fed up with the series by the end of Gears 3. That third game in the franchise felt forced and tired in many ways, as third games so often do. As such, I have been somewhat surprised to find that I have enjoyed most of Judgment more than Gears 3. I still think Gears 2 is the quality peak for the series, in terms of level design, gameplay, character development, and story, but Judgment is a very solid entry that feels like it belongs in the series.
Judgment takes players back to Emergence Day, that chaotic first battle between the subterranean Locust and the surface-dwelling humans. Rather than the usual protagonists, Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago, the prequel's lead is the series' resident sarcastic bastard Damon Baird, accompanied by a very young Augustus Cole and two new characters. The newcomers are a young female special ops cadet named Sofia Hendrik, who learns the hard way that going by the book is not always possible in the field, and a grizzled old Russian-analogue soldier named Garron Paduk. They are a pleasingly diverse bunch, a welcome change from the usual roster of white American men in most games.
The transforming Rager is one of the game's new enemies.
The framing story shows the four of them on trial in a makeshift battlefield tribunal, with the threat of summary execution hanging over their heads if their explanations are not deemed satisfactory. The game's levels are flashbacks to the events for which they have been put on trial, as their simple orders get messed up in the chaos of battle, and their ensuing improvised tactics earn the ire of their superiors.
As a storytelling device it's fine, but it is used unimaginatively. I would have liked some Rashomon-style retellings of the same sequences from different perspectives, but instead every witness is perfectly reliable. At the beginning of 3ach chapter, you can choose to enable Declassified Mode, which adds elements to increase difficulty under the guise of "what really happened".
My only major issue with the format is how segmented it is. Rather than feeling like you are progressing through a long, continuous section of the world, the episodic framing makes it feel very much like a series of short, discrete game levels. it really killed my immersion in the universe, and made it feel a lot more game-ish and less of a comprehensible story. The levels are so short that the entire experience felt oddly like a mobile game.
One of the best new features in campaign mode is the way that enemies are randomised in each level. Every time you replay a level, enemies enter the level in different places and in varying numbers, and different types of enemies appear. This is especially noticeable if you die in a level and have to reload a checkpoint; suddenly that frontal assault by a pair of Boomers is replaced by a Bloodmount attacking you from behind.
While the Judgment campaign is relatively short (my co-op partner and I got through it in around eight hours) it is a solid Gears experience. Significantly more value is added by the addition of an entirely new flashback event from the other end of the war. Titled Aftermath, this campaign fills in a "lost chapter" from Gears 3, showing what happened when Baird, Cole, and Carmine went off to find a boat and somehow ended up coming to the rescue with helicopters.
The additional campaign reverts back to the classic Gears format of one long level, rather than a series of short levels. I was surprised by how much of a difference it made, and I found myself enjoying Aftermath a lot more than the main Judgment campaign. All of the new enemies and weapons from Judgment are blended with the classic elements from the rest of the series, resulting in diverse and well-rounded gameplay. It does feel like a sequence that wasn't finished in time for Gears 3, but it still offers some welcome variety.
I have not played any multi-player with this full commercial release, but my experience with the free-for-all deathmatch and the new Overrun mode (essentially class-based Horde) at a preview event a few months ago was extremely positive.
Long-term Gears players who love the formula and don't want to see it changed too much should be very pleased with Judgment. Those who have never played the series but are tempted to pick it up may do well to make Judgment their first stop, as it has more standardised controls that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played other popular shooters on console.
Overall, I would have liked something a bit fresher and more original, but this newly-tweaked version of Gears is still quite enjoyable. Even so, I hope that Epic gives the franchise a rest and works on some new projects for a while, as I think a fifth game would just grind the whole series into the ground.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez