No Baird soars too high
Gears of War 3 may have seen an effective end to the war between the COG and the Locust, but in the game industry, a story isn't over until games stop selling. While Epic Games works on an inevitable sequel, it's joined up with People Can Fly to plunder the past. Yep, it's prequel time!
Cynical though I may be, my respect for the Gears of War series is such that I'm still not quite satisfied with what I have, especially following Gears 3's slightly less riveting narrative. Armed as it is with a unique style of story campaign, as well as two interesting new multiplayer modes, Judgment makes changes that some fans have found controversial.
Ultimately, however, they work surprisingly well, keeping Gears fresh and familiar all at once. Who could ask for fairer?
Gears of War: Judgment (Xbox 360)
Set in the early years just after "Emergence Day," Gears of War: Judgment tells the story of Baird -- Delta Squad's forever caustic complainer and arguably the best character in the series. Judgment explains why he was a lowly private during the events of Gears of War, despite having served as Lieutenant, and introduces us to Kilo Squad -- comprised of Sofia Hendrik, Paduk, and series favorite Augustus "Cole Train" Cole.
As a story, Judgment is largely forgettable -- a bit of a shame for those rare freaks like myself who actually quite enjoy Gears' silly-but-entertaining narrative. Despite claiming to reveal Baird's past and pit him against a terrifying new Locust threat, Judgment doesn't really provide much in the way of compelling information. Baird disobeys authority, fights a bad guy, and that's about it. It's not poorly written, and the Kilo Squad is a likable bunch, but it is by far the least memorable of all Gears campaigns in terms of pure story.
As far as delivery goes, however, Judgment shakes things up in a big way. Set during Kilo Squad's military trial, campaign chapters are presented as flashbacks, each member of the squad taking turns to retell their story. At the beginning of every section, players can select to "declassify" the testimony, allowing characters to reveal more information about the events that took place. What this amounts to in gameplay terms is choosing optional extra challenges that change the way a section plays out.
To declassify a mission, players simply approach a Gears logo painted on the wall and confirm the mission condition -- be it reduced visibility in a room, the presence of elite Locust troops, or a lack of ammunition. Some of these extra challenges are damn tough, and can significantly alter the feel of a mission. However, playing the game under these difficult conditions leads to a better star rating upon completion -- which in turns leads to unlockable content.
Judgment places a heavy emphasis on star and ribbon acquisition, encouraging players to kill opponents by gibbing or executing them, and completing various tasks on the fly to obtain commendations. As players earn ribbons and kills, they level up, and as they level up they get to earn Prize Boxes which can award anything from an experience boost to a new character skin. Player progress is retained throughout all modes of the game, meaning players constantly feel like they're working toward an end goal no matter what they do.
This focus on leveling and winning things leads to Judgment's campaign having a lot more of an "arcade" feel than prior installments. Missions are very short, lasting a few minutes at most, which leads to the already basic story feeling segmented. However, the trade-off is a faster, more chaotic, more varied solo and cooperative experience which, coupled with the declassified extras, leads to an altogether different type of Gears that players are used to. Whether fighting in a room covered in thick dust and full of sword-wielding Therons, or defending a position with sentry bots and turrets, Judgment constantly switches things up on the player, and the bite-sized nature of individual missions leads to a feeling of greater replayability.
As always, the game can be experienced cooperatively, which is as simple as jumping into -- or having someone else jump into -- a game and just getting down to business. Once again, the segmented structure of the campaign makes co-op a more enjoyable option. For those who prefer to play solo, however, the allied A.I. seems to have received a bit of a boost this time around. They're more competent as they're less ready to wander aimlessly, and they tend to be quick at reviving you -- a crucial requirement, since staying in "down but not out" status for an extended period of time can cost you progress toward stars.
After unlocking thirty stars, a shorter, more traditional campaign -- Aftermath -- becomes accessible. This is a little side story taking place during the events of Gears of War 3, and sees Baird return to Judgment's Halvo Bay in order to acquire a boat. While only brief, Aftermath is a neat little chapter that plays with a horror atmosphere and adequately wraps up Kilo Squad's story.
Multiplayer is, of course, the main attraction, and it's where the majority of controversial changes have been made. Most importantly, classic team deathmatch no longer pits COG forces against Locust players. Instead, regular multiplayer modes will pit red teams against blue teams, with any player free to select and skin their favorite character. You could ostensibly have a team of four blue Bairds against four red Bairds if you want.
An advantage to this decision is that players get to feel more personally attached to their character of choice, giving them a unique look and feeling more like it's their avatar. However, since Judgment goes so far as to pit COG against COG, I don't think it would have been too jarring to allow for mixed teams, and let players select either COG or Locust characters to fight alongside each other. It would have been no weirder than seeing Cole chainsaw his doppelganger in half.
Sticking to human players only will likely disappoint many players (I personally miss being able to play as a Theron Guard), but the alteration is purely cosmetic, and the game itself is familiar as always -- players are all still rolling around with shotguns and sticking grenades on each other, so don't worry if you feel the game's changed too much. Domination also returns, the familiar capture-and-hold based game type that has always been a long-standing personal favorite. Those eager for traditional Gears gameplay will get their fill here, but it's the new content that really draws my eye.
The disassembly of the COG/Locust dynamic paves the way for an all-new competitive mode, free-for-all. For the first time in the series, all players can fight for themselves in a mode that dismantles teams and lets personal combat reign free. I actually enjoyed this mode a lot more than I thought I would. No longer having a team relying on you is a rather freeing experience, while having death come from anywhere provides a level of pleasant anarchy matching that of the campaign. While I don't expect many of the hardcore Gears players to migrate away from their beloved team dynamic, the free-for-all option is a great one to have.
The second new mode is OverRun, a mode I have fallen completely in love with. This gametype is the sole source of COG vs. Locust action, pitting teams against each other in a class-based battle of attack and defense. As humans, players must defend barricaded Emergence Holes for a set period of time, while the Locust team must fight their way to it and destroy the barricades.
Played over three rounds, the whole game is over should the players hold out at any stage, but if the Locust can open two E-Holes and eventually destroy a power generator, they win the game. In a manner similar to Left 4 Dead, the advantage lies with the monsters, and it's more a case of seeing which team can hole out for the longer rather than who can stay alive until the timer drains -- though it's entirely possible to do so.
When playing as COG, participants can select from an engineer, scout, soldier, or medic, each with their own pre-set weapon loadouts and combat roles. The engineer is perhaps the most important, able to repair damaged fortifications and slow down the Locust progress, while erecting temporary sentry turrets to score kills. The soldier is based around high impact weapons and can toss an ammo grenade to replenish allied weaponry, while the scout uses long-ranged firearms and a grenade that locates and debuffs the opposition. Finally, the medic does as you'd expect, armed with conventional weapons and stim-gas grenades that heal or revive teammates.
The Locust get a lot more options, and judicial use of all the beasts on offer is key to victory. The first tier of monsters allows players to be explosive Tickers, fence-jumping Wretches, deadly Grenadiers, or (my personal favorite) healing Kantus Priests. As Locust players deal damage and wrack up points, they get to unlock more deadly creatures from a second tier -- consisting of the transforming Rager, tank-like Mauler, slithering Serapede, or outright terrifying Corpser. Using these creatures well is not only important, but immense fun.
Sending waves of Tickers out, or having a Mauler and Kantus team up as an unstoppable force, is just fantastic stuff, and the panic felt as the human team, when a pair of giant spider monsters start digging their way under barriers, is pretty exhilarating in its own right. I'm a fan of class-based multiplayer in general, and have to say I'm immensely impressed by what Epic and People Can Fly have done with OverRun. Even when I had to get on and test the other multiplayer modes, I struggled to tear myself away from this one. It's a stupid amount of fun, and something I plan to keep playing for quite some time.
Once again, Gears of Wars' commitment to content is laudable, with a full campaign, co-op, and scads of multiplayer options to choose from. I'm a little turned off, however, by the fact the majority of character and weapon skins are gated behind extra purchases, which seems to diminish the importance being placed on level progression and Prize Box acquisition. Knowing some of the better unlockables must be paid for rather than earned reduces my interest in the entire system, and while Judgment does more than enough to justify its asking price, it's a bit of an own-goal to undermine the value of what would otherwise be a fantastic ranking system.
That quibble aside, Epic's latest is still a very worthy purchase for fans of the series, and does enough new things that the previously uninterested may consider looking into it. The campaign is light on story, but heavy on replay value, with an invigorated new approach to solo play and a nice twist on the idea of optional difficulty. The core multiplayer modes are preserved, but competitive play truly comes back to life with the addition of free-for-all and the stellar new OverRun mode.
Gears of War 3 was still a great little game, but represented the kind of step down indicative of a series that's running out of steam. Gears of War: Judgment puts paid to that impression, proving there's plenty of vitality in Epic's flagship yet; provided it's willing to try some new spins on its established formula. OverRun alone is worthy of praise, but there's just so much stuff going on in this package, there's something for all followers of the series. A few of Judgment's experiments may not be as fondly received as others, but overall it's hard to complain about a game that tries so much, and succeeds in almost all its endeavors.
This is Gears of War back, unquestionably, on the winning path.
THE VERDICT - Gears of War: Judgment
Reviewed by Jim Sterling