Like 2010’s Halo: Reach, Gears of War: Judgment takes one of Microsoft’s signature franchises back in time, serving as a prequel to the hugely popular Gears of War trilogy. Unlike Reach, which featured a cast of unknown characters, Judgement takes a pair of supporting characters from the original trilogy and puts them front and centre. While there are pros and cons to that approach, what’s not up for debate is that this new entry in the series from People Can Fly adds enough new bells, whistles, and colours to make this a fun and frenzied return (or technically, first trip) to planet Sera.
Gears of War: Judgment is the tale of Kilo Squad, a quartet of COG soldiers including series regulars Damon Baird and Augustus “Cole Train” Cole, joined by Onyx cadet Sofia Hendrik and former UIR soldier Garron Paduk. Their story is told through flashbacks, as the opening cinematic puts the members of Kilo Squad on trial for charges that are not immediately revealed to the player. The trial provides a novel and effective way for the action and story to play out, as each stage is told as “testimony” from the perspective of one of the Kilo Squad members.
Baird is the main character, but not the only character you’ll play in the game. With each chapter, the perspective switches between members of Kilo Squad. It works really well to keep the story moving, though in practice, there’s no difference in abilities, weaponry, or character traits between the four characters, meaning there’s no real gameplay difference between any of the characters, which feels like a missed opportunity.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with any prequel featuring characters whose fates are already known, is to create suitable drama, and that’s one thing that Gears of War: Judgment can’t do. Even with the interesting storytelling device, the game really is more about pushing through to the next checkpoint and enjoying the smaller character moments, than it is embedding yourself in a rich and compelling narrative.
After all, when you’ve already fought with and alongside Baird and Cole for three games, how invested in their survival can you really be in Judgement? And for the other two characters we’ve never seen in the future, aren’t you just expecting them to meet their maker at every turn?
As an M-rated shooter heavy on the violence and bloodshed, there’s going to be a whole lot of people and Locusts meeting their makers in Judgement. Clearly, Gears of War: Judgment is not a game for children of any age, and is questionable even for teens, since there are few mainstream shooters that are more violent and bloody. To the developer’s credit, there are options to turn off the gore and foul language, but even with those turned off, you’re still playing a game of hefty and intense military violence.
Along those lines, Gears of War: Judgment plays out like you would expect from a Gears of War game, with more cover-based third person shooting action against armies of Locust warriors, leaving blood, bodies, and bullet casings in your wake as Kilo Squad moves through Halvo Bay on Sera. The game is designed as a series of set pieces set up by each character’s testimony, that sees Baird, Cole, and company seek out a weapon to stop the Locust invasion.
What’s different and immediately noticeable though is colour. New series developer People Can Fly are best known for the deliriously colourful Bulletstorm, and their influence is immediate and welcome when you see the much improved colour palette in Judgment. The Gears trilogy has been one of the leaders and worst offenders of the grey/brown shooter colour palette movement, which makes Judgement’s natural blues, greens, and yellows feel almost psychedelic by comparison. That helps make the game feel fresh and new, and gives a brighter look to the different urban environments you’ll lead Kilo Squad through in the game’s six chapters.
Aside from basic survival, the goal in each mission is to earn stars and unlock customization items. The better and more effectively you play through each section (bonus points for headshots and executions), the more stars you will earn, with more prestigious stars earned for higher difficulty levels.
The best addition to the the game is the Declassify missions, optional modifiers presented as classified testimony that reveal more deadly details about each level. This can add a significant new challenge to your mission, such as stronger enemies, a time limit, or my personal favourite, limited visibility in an enclosed space. If you try to declassify the mission and succeed, you’ll earn stars at a faster rate, though you can just as easily skip the missions if you’d prefer. It’s a nice mechanic that adds extra replay value and more challenge on top of the existing difficulty levels, and best of all, they make complete sense in the context of the game.
On top of the main campaign, there’s an unlockable mini-campaign entitled Aftermath that acts as a bridge between this one-off prequel and the original Gears trilogy. Then, of course, there’s multiplayer, which discards the previous fan-favorite Horde mode for new Outrun and Survival modes. Post-campaign, it should provide fans with quite a few hours of added action, though the limited number of maps suggests a hefty amount of DLC coming down the chute.
The problem I run into as a casual shooter fan, is that gameplay in Gears of War: Judgment is fairly monotonous. It’s well done, and quite tense at times even on a reasonable difficulty level, but it’s pretty much just the same thing over an over again, whether it’s going on the offensive, or taking Horde-mode inspired defensive positions. Move forward, stop to engage a cluster of enemies, continue. Judgement doesn’t bother with puzzles or thinking about anything more than “how do I kill this batch of Locusts?”, and unless you are an absolute die-hard fan, that might prove too one-note for many players.
What helps counter that feeling is that each level has been chopped up into smaller segments, often lasting only 10-15 intense minutes. So if you are feeling like you need a break, you’re never too far from a checkpoint, and a chance to take a breather.
The GamerPops Recommendation
Gears of War: Judgment is a fundamentally sound experience that brings a few new tweaks to the established Gears of War formula, but doesn’t quite get to the same upper echelon of its predecessors. It does, however, maintain the series tradition of bloodshed and violence, which means parents should keep this one to themselves and far, far away from the kids.
A review copy was provided to GamerPops.
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