It’s been two years since Epic Games thrusted its might behind the content-packed Gears of War 3. A glorious culmination of their past works, it brought the blockbuster trilogy to a satisfying close with a dramatic campaign and a fantastic multiplayer component that finally achieved it’s rip-roaring potential. Imagine plunging head-first into a throbbing cauldron of violence, testosterone and unintentionally funny dialogue. That is Gears of War 3.
Now we have Gears of War: Judgment. A prequel that hopes to shake-up old mechanics and provide a fresh experience with the established Gears formula. After the last title succeeded in refining everything we have come to love about the series, change seems like a welcome idea. However, Judgment proves that there is only so much you can do with a cover-based shooter before it all becomes familiar again. For better and for worse.
Set before Emergence Day and the Locust attacks against the human race, the Judgment story sees old favourites take centre stage alongside two new faces. The tightly-clad Sofia Hendrik and the hardened veteran Garron Paduk. Together they form the Kilo squad, a group that have been accused of treason by Colonel Ezra Loomis for activities in Halvo Bay during a tussle with the Locusts. The story is played out via each characters testimony to the court, with the player taking control of each individual in flashbacks as they recall different parts of the story.
This narrative spin isn’t the only unique twist within Judgment’s campaign. Whereas past titles mixed cover-based shooting, spectacular set-pieces and the odd vehicle section, Judgment brings the games focus solely back to the former. Turning the experience into a much more arcade style beast, where you hunt for high-scores and stars instead of the next ‘epic‘ moment. At the conclusion of each section, you are now marked and awarded with stars that unlock costumes, weapon skins and other bonuses.
What makes this premise more interesting, is the inclusion of declassified missions. These are optional alterations that stack the odds higher against the player, offering greater rewards at the end of each section.These modifications could include anything from tougher enemies, distorted vision, the required use of certain weapons or a timed sprint. It’s these missions (coupled with the ability to only carry two guns at one time) that give Gears of War: Judgment a much zippier pace. Blasting you from one confrontation to the next with new weapons and new circumstances to overcome at every turn.
However, whilst this works initially as a fresh experience. The structure of checking the declassified mission, clearing out the enemies and getting ranked, soon becomes repetitive. It also doesn’t help that the story fails to live-up to its promising concept, providing a fairly predictable narrative that doesn’t take advantage of its unique flashback premise. It all whizzes along at a pleasing pace and there is definitely some chaotic chainsaw-wielding fun to enjoy in four player co-op. It’s just a shame that it all feels very disposable, offering nothing to match the third act in Gears of War 3 or the giant worm of Gears of War 2.
Oddly, the game also comes with an additional short campaign entitled Aftermath. Separate from Judgment, set at the end of Gears of War 3. It is bizarre inclusion purely because it’s like you’re playing Gears of War 3 all over again. The big set-pieces, the sense of discovery and the slightly more engaging plot are all back and everything starts to feel right again. Its short duration reminding you how the gameplay of the original trilogy is simply more captivating than that of Judgments repetitive structure.
Thankfully, the multiplayer is still a riotous blast. Alongside the usual suspects like Team Deathmatch and Execution, are the welcome inclusions of Free-for-all and Domination which play as you would most likely expect. The most interesting additions however are Survival and Overrun, which introduce a class-based system into the Gears of War universe. Survival plays out like an equivalent to Horde mode but instead of fighting to stay alive, you’re trying to protect certain objects on the map. Overrun takes this concept and allows another team to play as the Locust hordes, who try and push back the opposing team across a series of waypoints. Whilst some may be disappointed by the lack of a ‘true’ Horde mode, Survival and Overrun both offer a unique alternative that emphasizes team-work more than any other Gears of War experience to date. It is perhaps the stand-out addition of the entire Judgment package.
As a whole though, Gears of War: Judgment feels like a fragmented and inessential entry into an otherwise great franchise. Whilst there is probably enough here to satisfy the die-hard Gears of War fan looking for his next Locust-slicing fix, it doesn’t really take any exceptional leaps to advance the series. The main campaign is enjoyable, the multiplayer is great and the giant Serapede’s are still terrifying. It’s just that it has been done before, and better in Gears of War 3. Now where is that beautiful cauldron of violence..