As of September 2011, The Gears of War trilogy had successfully bowed out on a high. It tore its hefty chainsaw-lancer through the wallets of gamers worldwide but in the process it seemed to reach its own limitations and exhaust how far Epic Games could take sci-fi third-person shooter genre. On a personal note, I was sad to see Gears come to what I believed was its end – not just because it was a series of highly entertaining, gorgeous-looking action games but because in 2006 it was the title that made me pick up an Xbox 360 console in the first place. The series had it all for me: consistent multiplayer, fantastic gameplay and some iconic moments that will forever withstand the test of time (who could honestly forget their first Berserker encounter!?) On an equal note though, I also understood there would only be so many times we could hear Marcus Fenix announce “Ah shit!” and “Dom! Radishes!” in his gravely, macho-man voice without it becoming stagnant. Therefore “Judgement” snuck up on me as a pleasant surprise – the marketing has been fairly quiet, the cover artwork reminiscent of ‘Les Miserables’ had it been directed by Michael Bay and overall the idea of a prequel was something I believed was only reserved for the ludicrous amounts of Gears of War fiction that seems to litter the shelves of any good book-shop currently in the UK.
Set years before the events of the original Gears of War trilogy (more precisely – in the early years after Emergence Day), “Judgement” focuses on a Kilo squad, a small troop of typically-dysfunctional soldiers who are helmed by the polarising Damon Baird and everybody’s favourite Michael Clarke Duncan look-alike Augustus “The Cole Train” Cole. Combined with the efforts of newcomers Sofia Hendrick (a cadet who constantly relies upon being known as a cadet as a means of excusing her poor errors of judgement) and GarronPaduk (a hardened soldier who resembles Harvey Dent’s “Two-Face” as a by-product of an unfortunate war-accident), Kilo Squad must save the besieged city of Halvo Bay from the terrifying new enemy ‘General Karn’. It’s the usual silly, over-the-top narrative that we’ve all come to expect from a Gears game and the new Locust threat isn’t particularly new in the sense that we’ve seen all the creatures before – however the game is so refreshingly paced in the guise of a ‘flash-back courtroom’ framing device that it serves to remind old fans about why they choose Gears campaigns above any other action series.
My initial fear about the game would come in the form of the two central protagonists. While the Cole Train had always been my favourite character in the series I had felt that towards the latter part of the franchise he and Baird were becoming the ‘stock’ comic relief characters. They were like two-class clowns that occasionally had moments of real character development, such as the ‘best touchdown ever’ moment in Gears 3, but on the whole they just turned up, said some funny dialogue, made a few goofs and bundled off like George and Lennie from ‘Of Mice and Men’. I’m happy to say their dynamic, along with the dynamic of the rest of the Kilo squad, is extremely well considered in “Judgement” and they carry the narrative fluently from start to finish. While the team is far less likeable than Delta Squad, they provide an entertaining alternative and for fans of the original series who just can’t look past Fenix and Santiago you’ll be happy to know that by playing through “Judgement” you can unlock “Aftermath”, a lost chapter with a ‘horror’ vibe that takes place during the Gears of War 3 timeline (now talk about value for money!) While the chapter is thrilling and will take a few hours to complete, it generally looks a little dated when played side-by-side with “Judgement” – and that speaks volumes for the way developers Epic Games & People Can FLy (of Bulletstorm fame) have approached the new title and refreshed it for the contemporary gamer. Good work, Gears!
The graphics haven’t come a long way since Gears 3, although to my eye there seems to be a Crackdown-esque ‘cel-shaded’ approach during times within the game and environments definitely look more vibrant and varied thanks to the use of a new ‘non-brown’ colour-palette. Generally it’s all well and good in this department, although I honestly found for the first time ever in the series I was having trouble distinguishing between my team and the Locusts during large fire-fights; obscured vision meant I occasionally wasted ammo blasting away at my own team-mate while a Grenadier was behind me chewing on my heels. Frustrating, but I put that down to my gung-ho attitude more than the fault of the game. The real significant change here is in the core gameplay mechanics. While the fundamentals are definitely still the same (you can roadie-run, crouch behind chest-high-walls, chainsaw, use meat shields, impale with a retro-lancer and so on) a lot of the game has been generally stripped back and it’s a new approach which I feel works really well: keep it simple. Cycling through weapons is now as easy as pressing the “Y” button, locating your team is just “down” on the D-Pad and the linear narrative is now broken into bite size chunks (formerly known as “parts”) that record your general details such as time taken, kills, accuracy, head shots, number of times downed etc. The final result gives you a star rating out of 3 and compares your score against other Gears gamers around the globe. To me, the whole thing is very reminiscent of the latest Hitman game in so much that the better you fare during each segment, the better you score – and while that’s a very arcade-like approach to take to a game like this it definitely pays off dividends.. To ramp up your score (but to make life significantly harder) you will often encounter large Gears logos spray-painted onto walls. By approaching these you will be offered a decision into accepting an interesting new feature called “Mission: Declassification” – at its core it’s a means of making your life harder (it usually adds an additional challenge to your objective – whether that be by reducing your visibility, handicapping your weapons, protecting an area for a certain amount of time etc.) but in the long-run its a neat way of bumping up your overall score, unlocking some extras and allowing Kilo squad to divulge further information on their mission in retrospect. A very welcome addition to the Gears of War franchise and, should there be more in this upcoming generation, something I’d happily like to see implemented again.
A key aspect of any Gears of War game is its incredible multiplayer and I’m happy to say “Judgement” does not skimp out in the slightest, right down from its overhauled customisable avatars down to its independent competitive modes. Co-Op is stronger than ever and supports 4-players online, which definitely ramps up the aspects of skill but significantly decreases the difficulty. While I’ve yet to do this – I imagine playing with 3 talented friends on Insane mode is the way forward for any enthusiastic Gears gamer (if you’ve done this already, let me know how you fare…) Co-Op is only half the story, however, as the wonderful competitive modes that provide so much longevity are back in full swing – this time with the welcome addition of OverRun, a Left 4 Dead inspired mode that develops further on Gears 3′s underwhelming ‘Beast’ game-type. Played over three relatively lengthy rounds, gamers take turns to be either COG or Locust in a classic binary battle between attack and defence. Both teams have their advantages and weaknesses: with COG you are limited to the pre-set weapon loudout defined by your character choice (engineers, scouts, soldiers, medics etc. all feature here) but you are revivable by teammates and you can erect sentry turrets and build fortifications to cripple the Locusts progress. Alternatively the monsters are fare more enjoyable to play as and, once you hit the “big bucks” by causing maximum damage, you can unlock some truly horrifying creatures from upper tiers such as the Serapede or the Corpser. Overall, it’s a competitive multiplayer game mode worthy in its own right to be its own standalone game just as Horde once was (which I must say returns here again – also with a significant makeover!) For the first time in a Gears game there is also the option of a ‘Free-For-All’ mode whereby it’s every man for himself. It’s nice being able to rack up the kill-counts without having to rely on your team to be equally as talented as mauling the enemy. Overall, multi-player choices here are definitely less varied than previous entries to the series (I miss Wingman…) – but the new game modes are so addictive and welcome that you’ll be hard pressed to pull yourself away from them when it comes to heading back to the main campaign.
Overall, like a batch of glowing Wretches the game oozes that old school Gears of War feel whilst implementing some significant changes that completely revitalise the approach. Despite all it’s positives (and there are many!) for some reason “Judgement’ still strikes me as a game I wouldn’t want my friends playing if this was to be their first Gears of War experience. It definitely lacks the camaraderie and charm of 1 & 2 and the campaign comes across as rather “dumb” and tongue-in-cheek, however it more than makes up for that with its addictive multiplayer modes, well-paced firefights and varied, arcade-like combat. It’s a must-own game for fans of Gears and for fans of the third-person genre in general – if you felt Dead Space 3 was an entertaining sci-fi action romp wait til’ you get a load of this! You haven’t seen anything yet. As the Cole Train would say, “it’s go time baby!” and I must do exactly that – from the laptop to the Xbox, it’s Judgement time.