When a videogame franchise reaches its fourth full instalment, its creators start having to answer some very difficult questions. In creating a new entry to a series as popular, successful and important as Gears of War especially, it becomes a very, very fine balancing act as the developers attempt to satisfy staunch fans with something familiar, surprise these fans by introducing something fresh, and appeal to potential new fans with something different, all at the same time and all in one game.
With Gears of War: Judgment, I believe developer People Can Fly and franchise steward Epic Games have managed to strike a very good equilibrium between old, new and different. Even though the formula has begun to show its age, and some minor changes in the thin multiplayer modes will have potentially major consequences for hardcore competitive Gears of War players in particular, this fourth instalment in the series is an impressive package for fans and newcomers.
Gears of War: Judgment doesn’t continue on from the events of Gears of War 3, but rather acts as a prequel to the trilogy and follows the story of Lieutenant Damon Baird, a character we already know from the series as a genius, sharp-tongued engineer who helped get us through many a tense situation in previous games thanks to his quick wit and humorous quips.
Against the backdrop of a still fiercely contested war between the humans of the planet Sera and the recently emerged underground monstrosities, the Locust, the events of Judgment begin just as Baird and soldiers under his command, Kilo Squad, are brought to trial by one Colonel Loomis for war crimes punishable by death. What could Kilo Squad have possibly done to deserve such an end? And why would Loomis choose now – as war continues to rage literally outside the doors of the courthouse – to exact the sentence?
It’s with this premise that the story of Gears of War: Judgment is told in brief flashback sequences as each member of the squad – from Baird and previous sports star Augustus ‘Cole Train’ Cole, to elite cadet Sofia Hendrick and the Russian-sounding Garron Paduk – relate their version of different parts of the story leading up to when Loomis demanded an immediate examination of the facts.
All of the hallmarks of a Gears of War game are here, from the cover-based third-person shooter combat and chunky movement of the soldiers under your control (with chaotic roadie runs intact), to the epic orchestral soundtracks, larger-than-life characters (and their hilarious situational commentary) and extraordinarily detailed and military-inspired Victorian world (with the associated ‘destroyed beauty’ aesthetic). More so than ever it’s made clear that Sera is a world under siege as once grand cities and vistas are bathed in furious fires and plumes of thick, black smoke, plunged into devastation by a brutal foe, and the Pendulum Wars before the fateful Emergence Day.
Signature Gears of War gameplay touches are here, too, with welcome changes and tweaks to the norm. The relentless Locust army still comprises nimble foot soldiers as well as hulking, shielded monstrosities carrying flails, enormous cleavers and rocket launchers, while a few smaller (explosive) creatures fill out the ranks (tick-tick-tick-tick…), but new enemies and weapons have been introduced including the Markza sniper rifle (and its scope-less Breechshot counterpart), as well as the Booshka grenade launcher and Trip Wire special weapon that shoots out proximity grenades.
Gears of War has also learned some new gameplay tricks with Judgment, and while it may seem trite to mention that weapons are now swapped with the ‘Y’ face button and you’re now able to simply walk off of ledges down to the ground below, these are big deals in this universe. It also means that you can only carry two weapons at any time (as opposed to two and a pistol), while grenades are now thrown with the left bumper, instead of being treated as a distinct weapon that you need to ready. New to Judgment, too, is the chance to hold a rifle while slowly advancing with a shield, instead of just a pistol – handy against intense opposition.
These changes, however, do very little to disturb the ebb and flow of traditional Gears of War combat. Hunkering down behind a waist-high wall as bullets zip overhead, fellow soldiers will still yell in exhilaration and dismay as you mark enemies, aim over the shoulder and fire off volleys of your Lancer, before rushing in and ripping a grub to pieces with a well-timed chainsaw attack or a gut-rending Gnasher shotgun blast.
The bass-rumbling yawn of “Boom!” still ripples through the air as a behemoth trudges towards you with a promise of death, while gibs still explode just as violently and bloodily following the detonation (and sickeningly sweet fleshy sound) of a Torque Bow bolt. It’s a formula that’s very familiar – comfortable, even – for Gears fans, which is either a good or bad thing depending on your fill of the series.
Those selfsame Gears fans will be right at home in Judgment’s world, though, and might even find it more addictive as missions are split into much smaller segments, each with a special ‘Declassified’ mission to adhere to. At the beginning of each of these sections, you can choose to modify the conditions under which you must complete that part of the story (which in turn affects the narrative related to Loomis during the flashbacks), and if you choose, you’ll be tasked with achieving an objective in a limited amount of time, for example, or using only specific weapons, changing the weather and visibility conditions of the mission, dialling up the difficulty with more enemies, and more. What’s clever is that they’re all explained in a believable way in terms of the story so these extra conditions never feel contrived.
Sticking to the Declassified Mission conditions will let you earn ‘Stars’ more quickly, which can also be earned with general activities like executions, gibbing, saving an ally and other actions. Three Stars per mission segment can be earned and go towards unlocking extra customisation options and characters in multiplayer and a few tasty Achievements, as well as a bonus hour-and-a-half campaign mission, ‘Aftermath,’ which see Kilo Squad reuniting for one last adventure that takes place parallel to the events of the end of Gears of War 3.
Even when you think you’re done with the four-player co-operative Gears of War: Judgment campaign, found every secret there is and Declassified each mission for maximum stars, you’ll have the game’s multiplayer component to enjoy. After choosing your character, customising their skins, weapon appearance and emblem, and unlocked any Prizeboxes you’ve earned in the campaign (which earn you extra experience points, skins and more), you can dive into the ‘Versus’ or ‘Survival’ menu options for some distinct, but familiar, online play.
In Versus, you’ll find Free For All, Team Deathmatch, Domination and OverRun, each of which offer unique challenges. In Free For All, it’s you versus nine other players online as you use every ounce of skill to reach the score limit before everyone else by racking up kills and winning the match. Team Deathmatch will similarly see two teams of five working together to reach a score limit by taking down opposing team members, as opposed to whittling down the number of opposing players available in reserve as seen in Gears of War 3. In Judgment Team Deathmatch, you’ll continue to respawn until that overall limit is hit.
Domination, meanwhile, takes the place of King of the Hill (KotH) and tasks teams with capturing three points on a map that can be held or lost throughout the match, but the more rings you’ve captured the faster your score will tick up until you reach the limit. Unlike KotH, these points are always available for capture rather than becoming available over the course of a game. King of the Hill is my personal favourite mode in Gears of War 3 and Domination does a similarly good job of moving players around a map and giving players multiple objectives to think about.
I’ll need more convincing for Domination to replace KotH for me, though, but for now it’s a fun mode made more enjoyable by the range of maps currently available for Gears of War: Judgment multiplayer. Each level has been realised in fantastic detail, containing memorable landmarks like the staircase spire in Library (so you don’t get lost), special attractions like the cable cars of Gondola, and very diverse environments and colour palettes – you won’t mistake the gloomy city in Streets for the sun-drenched metallic world of Rig.
While each level is very well designed with special attention paid to my favourite multiplayer map elements (like varied elevation and opportunities for flanking and movement), there are only four maps available at the moment, with a fifth coming soon as a free download, and while we know we’ll get many more arenas in months to come as paid content, rotating through four levels is sure to get a little dull for avid players.
A brand new team and class-based multiplayer mode, OverRun, will shake things up a bit with four maps of its own, each of which will give players the chance to defend and destroy three map objectives in sequence, either as the Locust or humans. As a Locust player, you can choose from eight different character types each with their own distinct skills and uses, while the human COG are given four classes to select – Soldier, Medic, Scout or Engineer – who also have their own uses, from healing and repairing defences, to throwing down turrets, revealing enemy positions and providing ammunition.
OverRun, I’m predicting, will become the quintessential competitive Gears of War: Judgment team-based mode and even while playing with strangers it’s plain to see how deep, varied strategies of play can form in order to best the opposition. Every character and ability seems to have been designed to benefit and complement the rest of the team and if you think your abilities will let you play solo, you’re going to be cut down very quickly. Only working together can you be successful and I’m looking forward to seeing how hardcore players take full advantage of each character.
Lastly, Survival has been separated out as its own mode altogether, although it seems to be a spin-off of OverRun and an evolution of Horde mode, as a group of five players defend against ten waves of increasingly difficult enemies while protecting objectives. It’s inclusion is rather odd and I would rather have seen Horde make a return to more fully round out the multiplayer package.
Those campaign changes we spoke about before are also present in multiplayer, while interesting tweaks include an auto-sticky frag grenade (which attaches itself to enemies if thrown correctly), as well as stim-grenades (that heal allies) and beacon grenades (to out enemy positions), while the ‘Down But No Out’ (DBNO) system has been removed completely (not counting medic revives in OverRun or team-mate assists in the campaign). Once you’re dead, you’re dead. Again, the ability to step down (and leap) from ledges mustn’t be overlooked as it changes the face and pace of Gears of War multiplayer quite drastically, especially in Deathmatch modes. Just don’t fall from too high…
Even though the story of Gears of War: Judgment isn’t award-winning material and reaches its conclusion all too quickly, the way it sets up the game’s progression serves as a basis for a fresh new approach to the tried and trusted Gears of War formula. The gunplay is just as satisfying and the explosions just as crushing, however, and while Epic Games and People Can Fly have made some smart tweaks to the gameplay that series fans may be wary of, all of the reasons that drew you to (or put you off of) the franchise in the first place are just as lively and distinct as you remember them.
Judgment’s multiplayer offering may be hampered by a small initial offering of maps and modes, but with a new game type (Execution) and new map on the way soon, and all of the post-release support we’ve come to expect from Epic, you won’t be looking for new content for long as you get to grips with the new tricks, combat options and abilities at your disposal.
Gears of War: Judgment manages to walk a fine line between keeping things familiar and recognisable while introducing something fresh to the comfortable formula to keep the franchise exciting, and if you’ve never played a Gears of War game before, it’s the perfect place to start.