Platform: Xbox 360
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Epic Games, People Can Fly
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
If you are like me, you are not a fan of subsequent releases to a franchise, especially annual releases.
Most of the time it is because the brief time studios are given to develop a game do more harm than benefit us. The developers do not get more accomplished within a decent time frame. It also bores us, the players, because it gives off a been-there-done-that-recently feeling, and therefore makes the game less exciting than it could have been with a few year’s break.
I love Gears of War. Even though I sucked at the original when I first played it at launch, I stuck beside it and it eventually became one of my favorite Xbox franchises. Each entry to the series saw fantastic improvements to what was already a great formula. The reason for this? There was spacing between development time and the games’ release dates.
When Gears of War: Judgment was unveiled at E3 2012, people – including me – were surprised to say the least. Gears 3, an incredible game with a plethora of content even without DLC, had previously released nine months before this announcement. People were not ready yet for a new title with a fresh one already present and hot on store shelves. Now fast forward a year and half later where Gears of War: Judgment acts as the most recent title to the series with Epic Games and sister company People Can Fly (the brains behind Bulletstorm) as the developers.
Set years before the events of the first Gears of War at the genesis of the Locust invasion, players find themselves at Halvo Bay during brighter looking days where series veteran Damon Baird, lieutenant of Kilo Squad at this time, is being tried as a war criminal alongside his squad. Inside a court room facing continuous bombardment from the Locust’s firepower, Kilo Squad is brought forth to explain the reasoning behind their actions, which unfold as you progress in the story.
As each Kilo Squad member presents their story, you will switch playing from character to character. Absent are character veterans Marcus Phoenix and Dominic Santiago. Instead, we have a Russian-accented solider named Garron Paduk and recently initiated Onyx member Sofia Hendrick.
In Judgment, series veterans will spot a couple of new yet welcoming changes to the control scheme. The “Y” button now switches between one of two weapons you may carry and grenades are tossed by either tapping or holding down “LB,” making the gameplay flow smoother.
Players have enjoyed using Boom Shields and Meat Shields since Gears 2, but the only accessible weapon while using these shields was your pistol. Now you may use shields with nearly every rifle, but it comes at the cost of slightly more exposure and reloading is performed at a slower rate. Tougher enemies appear more frequently to balance out the difficulty as well.
Of course, tougher enemies mean having new weapons, three to be exact. The Markza is a semi-automatic rifle with a scope and 10 shots in the clip. The Breechshot is the Locust’smodified version of the Markza, is a bolt-action rifle, has no scope and houses only four shots per magazine, but it packs whopping punch. Finally, Booshka fires grenades that either bounce off environments or explode upon the impact of an enemy.
Stim and Spot grenades are new non-lethal “explosives.” The Stim grenade heals anyone in its area of effect, while Spot grenades expose enemy positions within its blast radius. Each weapon is a welcoming addition to Gears’ already huge arsenal of firearms, especially my newfound love: The Breechshot.
In addition to new weapons, the COG have a new type foe on Locust’s side called Ragers. If you do not take down Ragers quickly enough, they shift to a red color, become tougher to kill and charge at you with no fear – almost like a mini Berzerker.
The series’ newly featured Smart Spawn system constantly keeps segments in the campaign fresh no matter how many times you play through it. Each time you boot up the campaign or revert to the most recent checkpoint, the enemies you fought before will not be the same. At one point you could be fighting a small army of Wretches, while another time has players facing 10 Boomers at once.
Locusts will often drop magazines granting you a small amount of ammo for non-power weapons. They will not give you as much ammo as directly picking up a weapon, but there are usually plenty of these magazines lying around from dead Locusts. If one or both of preferred weapons are bullet depraved, these magazines are invaluable. Additionally, new Onyx ammo caches fully replenish all of the ammunition for both of your weapons.
Your A.I. squad mates are reliable when you need to be revived and the occasional perfectly tossed grenade, but they are pretty useless otherwise.
There are segments throughout the campaign where you will have to hold your ground against a few waves of the Locust forces. With some prep time before their inevitable breach, you can strategically place turrets and other ordinances around you to create the best possible defense. These parts strongly resemble Horde, and while I loved it each of these segments, I felt disappointed because it reminded me of Horde’s absence in this entry.
Introducing Horde in Gears 2 set new expectations for games to include a similar defensive mode. Horde was then perfected in Gears 3 by including tower defense elements, its own leveling system for defenses, random enemies with each wave and bosses every 10 waves. As popular as it is, Horde seems like a no-brainer to include in the franchise.
While it may not be as popular Horde, the enjoyable Beast mode – where players take control of the creatures from the Locust army on a quest to destroy the COG – introduced in Gears War 3 is MIA as well.
Instead, Horde and Beast are replaced with new modes Survival and Overrun respectively.
Survival pits you and four other players against Locust bots where you have to prevent the destruction of sealed emergence holes and generators within a 10 round period using one of four preset classes. I did not find Survival to be as much fun as Horde, but it gets significantly more challenging faster and arguably requires more teamwork than Horde. If you have nothing but Soldier classes and no Engineers to repair defenses, Medics to heal you or Scouts taking higher ground with their Markza, you will undoubtedly fail. Horde this is not, but if you enjoy defensive strategy modes in games, Survival will still whet your appetite.
Overrun blends Survival and Gears 3’s Beast mode, but you will play as either the COGs or Locusts. COGs will have to defend their positions against the Locusts and there are not as near as many enemies to for the COG to fend off compared to Survival. I actually found this to be more fun than Beast because the A.I. soldiers from Beast were not the sharpest tools in the shed, and it was a cinch to win. It is miles more fun and challenging fighting other human players.
Gears multiplayer fans: You may want to sit down for this one because there are numerous changes to the multiplayer. You may cry at the alterations. You may rejoice with tears. I am personally the latter (except I had manly tears) because of how well the changes balance the gameplay.
For starters, instead of choosing a rifle and shotgun, you now carry a primary weapon, a Snug Pistol acting as your secondary weapon and any grenade type of your choice. The primary weapons options consist of rifles and shotguns. While every weapon in previous games have been re-balanced incredibly well, the only problem lies within the Markza being one of the options for your main weapon. Not only does it take merely four body shots out of the 10 bullets in each magazine to take someone down at full health, it has near-perfect accuracy and zoom capabilities, not to mention you can hold a lot of ammunition with it.
Active Reloads have been removed from multiplayer to prevent cheap kills, which I applaud. The number of times people in a match would shoot off rounds so they could get an active reload and kill me with active shots induced a double dosage of rage-quit from time to time. It’s actually one of the reasons I stopped playing Gears 3’s multiplayer.
The other reason is because of downs, which are removed in Judgment’s multiplayer. I understand this and executions are trademarks for the series, but it is a welcoming change to me. I cannot tell you all how many times I would get a player down only to have them flee, get revived by someone else or have a teammate trolleying along to steal my hard-earned prey.
Weapons you pick up on the maps do not get their ammo replenished with ammo boxes, which was likely done so people could not hold on to a power weapon for the duration of the match. Grenades can no longer stick to walls since Frag Grenades can now stick to opposing players when they are thrown. For the first time in the series, players can now jump down environments by walking off the edge of a borderless area. It might be a simple addition, but it adds a surprisingly fun dynamic to the gameplay.
Experimentation, which is exactly what Judgment’s multiplayer feels like, does not come without questionable errors.
For whatever reason, humans now fight against each other instead of, I don’t know, the Locusts? While it does not immensely bother me, how Epic and People Can Fly came to this decision is beyond me, especially since it is a tradition of the franchise, and a sensible one at that.
Yet another unexplainable action is not being able to play as your preferred character when you join the middle of a match. This has been a strange error since Gears 3, and remains the only franchise where this happens.
Because players can now hold rifles and Boom Shields simultaneously, there are definitely some balancing issues. Sure, players reload slower and are slightly more exposed when using a rifle, but it still significantly overpowers the one holding the shield.
As fantastic as many of the new shifts to the multiplayer’s mechanics are, it is all nearly negated by including a measly four maps and three modes (excluding Overrun, which should have had its own selection like Survival). I do not care how well designed the maps may be, which they are. Multiplayer becomes tedious when you have a one-in-four chance of playing the same map over and over again.
To top it off, the three modes are Team Deathmatch, Free For All and Domination. These modes have existed pretty much since the first online shooter. Why not include at least some of the creative modes such as the alternate take on Deathmatch from Gears 3?
There are only four maps to choose from with Survival or Overrun as well. Again, they are nice, well-designed maps, but it does not immune the fact there are only four maps to choose from. Three modes and four maps make me question where the rest of my game and $60 went.
The Gears campaigns have been known for its bromance, cheesy but hilarious dialogue and some noteworthy moments in gaming’s history. The first Gears introduced us to the frightening Berserker and groundbreaking third-person combat. Gears of War 2 literally took us inside a city-sinking “GIANT WORM” while building upon the revolutionary gameplay. And Gears 3 made us realize Locusts were not the only species infected by emulsion, making the desperation of the human race’s survival further compelling.
These ingredients of the franchise are nearly void in Judgment. Baird is not the smart ass one-liner machine fans love (neither is anyone else) and there are no truly memorable moments nor character quotes. However, since Gears of War, we have only seen Baird as a private in the COG army, but as a lieutenant in Judgment, it is nice to see him mount a leadership role. While Paduk and Sofia are not as near as interesting as Marcus and Dom, they are still enjoyable characters.
Without these elements of the series, Judgment reminds me of my venture to Alcatraz prison in San Francisco. After it was all over, I stood there and thought “…Okay. What’s next?” Some of the sequences of Judment were a blast (pun intended), but when the plot concluded, no moment came to mind where I wanted replay a specific part in the game or rush to my friends and tell them they have to play it for both the story and changes to the gameplay like I did for the first three games.
Once you complete a section in the campaign, you earn stars depending on how well you fought in a battle based on different stats. It adds an arcade-like vibe to the game since you are, in a sense, trying to attain the highest possible score. Each difficulty holds its own stars as well, so collecting them all makes a great candidate for killing time.
Every section in the campaign has an option to accept Declassified Missions, which tells the story of what really happened during Kilo’s ventures by turning the upcoming battle into a more challenging task by adding specific conditions to complete. These conditions hold a surprisingly big variety from fighting tougher enemies to protecting an object to only using specific weapons, but the scope is broader and no Declassified Mission felt like the same scenario.
In fact, comparing Declassified Missions to what would normally happen campaign is akin to Ocarina of Time’s Master Quest. You are playing through the exact same story, but things are set up in a different manner to make it entertainingly unfamiliar while expanding the game’s replay value in a great way.
Accepting Declassified Missions have purposes other than shifting the campaign’s experience. Accepting a Declassified Mission makes the task of earning those three coveted stars breezier, but they can be quite the challenge, especially at higher difficulties.
By the time you have played through Judgment’s campaign, you will have likely earned the 40 stars necessary to unlock the Aftermath campaign. Aftermath covers a story arc from Gears 3 where Baird and Cole return to Halvo Bay 24 hours before Adam Phoenix released the emulsion cure. It may not be a lengthy campaign at a 1.5 hour length, but it is a nice way to explain a side story from Gears 3.
Judgment’s collective campaigns run shallow at a seven-hour completion time, but new additions such as the Smart Spawn system, star rankings and Declassified Missions will certainly motivate players to give the story another go.
No matter which mode you are playing, whether it is offline or pitting yourself against players via Xbox Live, you increase your chances of earning prize boxes letting you unlock weapon skins, new characters, new armor skins and additional experience points. Different prize boxes are earned by simply killing enemies, earning ribbons and leveling up. It is quite a rewarding system, especially since prize boxes can be earned whether you are online or not, making it an everybody-wins scenario. Unfortunately, a majority of the weapon and armor skins can only be bought via Xbox Live, leaving out potential replay.
As expected when utilizing the Unreal Engine 3, the game boasts fantastic visuals, but they are slightly under par when compared to Gears 3. Things may look a little brighter since the game takes place near the dawn of the Locust invasion, but the textures in general roll off the grainy side of the bed. Either way, it is not saying much, as the game still looks stunning while boasting impressive lighting features.
“Go drive to your local game shop and by Gears of War: Judgment. With new mechanics to the campaign that maintain a fresh feeling and shifts made to the multiplayer creating a balanced experience, it is a no brainer you should buy this game…” is what I should be saying. However, with the amount – or should I say little amount – of included content, the game screams the need for more development time. With only four multiplayer maps, three modes, Overrun and Survival only having four maps themselves and the absence of simply including Horde, calling this a full retail title is a near farce. A big, experimental expansion is more appropriate. It is also difficult to say whether or not fans of the series’ multiplayer should pick it up due to its changes. I found most of the shifts exalting, but I can see many not feeling quite as fondly. Wait until Judgment drops down to $30, maybe $40, and you will get your money’s worth then.
- Declassified Missions expand challenge and replay of campaign
- Overrun is better than Beast mode
- Same gameplay you know and love
- Smart Spawn keeps campaign fresh
- Fair and welcoming multiplayer changes
- Only four maps and three multiplayer modes
- Short campaign
- No Horde
- Some inbalancing issues in multiplayer
- Campaign absent of trademark Gears elements