Gears of War Judgment Review
GEARS OF A DIFFERENT COLOR
Gears of War. If you own an Xbox, you know the brand is synonymous with husky soldiers, berserk shooting, gory visuals, and booming reports. The Gears series releases that primal instinct in all of us: the need to shoot, to destroy, to absolutely decimate your enemy in the bloodiest of ways. No other game in recent memory comes close to giving a gamer this sort of visceral satisfaction. We get to hang out with the bro-mans, talk gruffly, and kill us some “grubs”.
The original Gears was a revolution to third person shooters, and pushed cover-system single player and multiplayer gaming beyond its then current plateau. Gears 2 expanded on the story, and presented functional advances in gameplay with meatshields, grenade tagging, and introduced the universally loved Horde mode. Gears 3 further refined all the gameplay elements from the first two games, leveled out the netcode, and heavily pushed the multiplayer aspect of the game.
And now we have Gears of War Judgment. No number attached to this continuation of the series, and with a new batch of developers who have implemented gameplay elements that arguably are the furthest departure of gameplay than the series is used to. Is it worthy of being a Gears successor, or should we throw it out to the COGhouse? Read on.
Set around almost right after Emergence Day, we are introduced to Kilo Squad, apparent dissenters of the COG forces. We are reintroduced (umm… for the first time) with younger and more audacious versions of conceivably the two most beloved characters in the Gears world: Lt. Damon Baird and good ol’ Pvt. Augustus Cole. They both are in company of two new characters in the series, Garron Paduk – a shady ex-adversary type with questionable motives – holding a gossamer-thin allegience with the COGs against the Locust – and Sofia Hendrik, an Onyx cadet fresh out of the academy. The team were split off from their fellow soldiers during an all out attack on Halvo Bay and discover a certain imperative that the Locust intend to carry out. Kilo squad, led by Lt. Baird, decide to countermand orders from Col. Ezra Loomis, and take matters into their own hands. The story in Judgment is not as grandiose as Gears 3, but still feels like it has some weight and was a major turning point for the characters involved. The story starts off with Kilo squad standing before an impromptu military trial, being accused of treason by Col. Loomis, and the gameplay episodes are actually recounts of the mission details by each Kilo squad member. It makes for a unique and novel way of narrating the story, especially after the fairly straightforward storytelling in the previous Gears games.
Baird’s story is well told, and tells of how he came to lead the ragtag group. The snarkiness is still as strong as ever, even in his younger self. Cole’s banter is surprising subdued this time. I guess because he is still relatively wet behind the ears, and is trying to become accepted as part of the team. He seems to listen more than he talks, but the trademark Cole Train humor is in full effect, at least in the few moments that you hear him talk in the game.
The story is given some closure in the Aftermath portion of the game, which is meant to be an epilogue of sorts, and takes place during the time of Gears 3. Not much can be said about this portion, since it is heavily dependent upon the story elements from the main Judgment campaign.
All in all, the story is decent and adds history to Baird’s character, if not too much to Cole’s. The campaign story elements will take you across a diverse range of locations, and it is quite an enjoyable ride.
To be honest, Gears has never felt this tight before. Epic and People Can Fly have fine-tuned the controls to perfection. Locking into cover, looking over and around abutments, aiming and firing your weapon, quick-tossing your grenades, and other gameplay and control elements feel very organic and intuitive. Even much more so than Gears 3.
The change to the controls and loadouts is also a departure in Judgment. The controls have taken on a more Call of Duty-esque scheme, conducive to quick input and actions. Quick throw a grenade with a tap of the left shoulder button, a single Y button press to switch between two weapons (usually a pistol and a main weapon like the Gnasher, Retro Lancer, etc.), and so on. The responsiveness and simplicity of these controls are even more evident in multiplayer, however, I do have some issues with the two weapon-only loadouts that People Can Fly have put into place (why can’t I have a shotgun and a rifle? Why do I start out with only one grenade of one type)?
I guess People Can Fly have done so to facilitate player movements to power weapons, in single-player, and more importantly, in multiplayer. You can still grenade tag walls and players in singleplayer (hold the left bumper, and press B), but you cannot do so in multi. I thought that was a step in the wrong direction. But they definitely added a good yin to that yang with thrown grenades now being able to stick to enemies/opponents. I can’t tell you how many times I have laughed out loud just watching my unfortunate and unaware stickee actually run straight into a batch of other opponents in deathmatch, and all explode in a magnificent display of gory fireworks. If this is what PCF has offered in the place of the old grenade stick, then I happily accept it.
The enemies in the game are various, with old favorites like tickers, wretches (lambent ones too), drones, kantus, boomers, serapedes, and corpsers, along with a surprise from Gears of War 3. The AI is as smart as ever, with enemies flanking you when you’re distracted, and retreating when their numbers are low. The fun quotient definitely goes up whenever you have an encounter with these guys.
There are also new mission types within the campaign called “Declassified Missions”, where each character gives up certain new information in the narration, which equals to slightly different encounters for us. The variety of changed encounters are many, and can be anything from low visibility, high wind, higher rank enemies, lambent versions, only locust weapon loadouts, etc. This definitely does wonders for the campaign as it keeps it fresh, especially with the game’s encounter director, which switches up enemies in every location. If you were fighting drones in a certain location and got killed, upon respawn there may now be kantus’ and boomers present. The fun factor with the episodic and unpredictable encounters definitely adds much to the singleplayer portion of the game (playable in coop as well).
All the weapons from the previous games have returned (more or less), and Judgment also has some new weapons that have some tactical potential as well. The Booshka (a Boomer wannabe), the Markza sniper rifle, and the breechshot, which is a Locust-modified Markza. New grenades like the stim-gas (healing) and beacon (tracking) grenades have also been introduced. The sawed-off shotgun wasn’t safe from any changes either, in that you can now fire twice before you have to reload.
This is the most beautiful version of Gears yet. The Xbox 360 has been pushed to its max with the latest Unreal Engine 3 tech, and it shows. The open environments are breathtaking and massive in scope, and the tighter corridors are rich with atmosphere and detail (with a definite feel of the first Gears).
The world is the most colorful of all the Gears games, and does much to convey the early years of the war, when Sera was still not quite destroyed to ruins. You can tell that civilian and COG bodies are fresh on the ground and the war has just started. You can see the gradual (and doleful) fall of Sera over the course of the campaign and in the multiplayer maps as well.
The characters’ in-game and cinematic animations are top-notch, and convey just how much equipment, armor, and weapons the soldiers and enemies carry. The lip-syncing could have used some work, but overall, I am very impressed with the look and feel of Judgment.
Ahhh… the meat of the game. The multiplayer is really good. There are 4 multiplayer modes in the game and 1 coop, besides the coop singleplayer.
Survival takes the place of the much loved Horde mode, In Survival, each member of your 5-person team is assigned a role to play. An engineer can place turrets and repair barriers, a medic can throw stim-gas grenades to heal teammates and revive them if they are down, a soldier can provide ammo to the team, and the scout can throw beacon grenades and climb up to lookout points to snipe. You have to protect the emergence hole covers (2 of them) and a generator from being destroyed by AI locusts. You’ll have to work together to stave off the horde, so-to-speak, and are given 10 rounds to do so successfully. Survival is definitely tougher than Horde, and is more easily digestible with the 10 round limits instead of the 50 exhausting rounds that existed in Horde mode.
Overrun is exactly like Survival, except that each team takes a turn being the Locust/COGs. The same rules as Survival apply, where the locust team tries to destroy the two emergence hole covers and the generator, and the COGs have to do their best to stop them from achieving that.
It’s more like a mix of Horde and Beast mode, from Gears 3. Overrun can get frantic and exciting, and matches where both teams are strategizing and properly coordinating attacks against the other, are just about the closest we can get to the bloody and visceral version of chess in Gears. Great mode.
Domination is a take on King of the Hill, where two teams of 5, each have to battle it out to control 3 separate points on a map. Resources definitely get stretched thin in this frantic mode, because to properly get to 250 points, you do have to split your team up to allocate to control points.
Team Deathmatch is standard fare from Gears 3 and is a joy to play with the new control and gameplay mechanics. Free-for-all is a new gametype that the Gears world sorely needed, as it is fast-paced, unexpected, and an absolute blast to play through. Most of the laughs and giggles that I’ve had playing this game this past week have absolutely been exclusive to this mode. Try a few games, and tell me you didn’t giggle at least once while playing it. It’s a surprise around every corner.
Experience points come in through various accomplishments (in singleplayer as well), and you get them by completing matches, getting certain kills, and through unlocking progression tickers for weapons, gametypes, achievements, etc. The ranking system is also in full effect here, as it is in Gears 3.
By hitting certain progression intervals and special kill markers, you will also unlock prize boxes, which can contain a variety of items like weapon skins, costume skins, and experience points. By the way, the weapon and character skins in this game are outrageous. Playing through any one of the competitive multiplayer modes, you’ll feel like you’re stuck in some surreal Barnum and Bailey’s level. It’s bananas.
4 Multiplayer maps. 4 Survival/Overrun maps. This blatant attempt by Epic to try to push DLC content heavily on the consumer is outright sickening. We do get 2 free maps and Execution mode (you heard me right, Epic pushed the staple Execution mode of Gears to DLC material) in April, courtesy of Maxim Magazine’s sponsorship.
The additional season pass is available for $19.99 (or 1600 MS points), and gives you two unannounced game modes, a few new weapon and character skins, and 6 upcoming maps. The fact that all this material was not already in the box to begin with, Epic seems to be nudging the fine line between logically held back content and exploitation.
Not much in the way of extras, besides being able to collect dogtags in campaign and re-doing the levels in single-player at different difficulties and encounters.
If you bought the game in its first printing, you do get an Xbox downloadable code to redeem the full copy of the original Gears of War from Games on Demand.
Gears of War Judgment is fun. The singleplayer gives you plenty to play around with; the declassified missions in every level, the game AI directed encounters, and playing coop locally or with a friend online. Some gamers might have issues with Epic playing the DLC card heavily (again), as the multiplayer map content is barebones for now. But, the updated multiplayer is an outright blast, and to be honest, a completely unexpected and pleasant surprise, attributing to the number of changes done to the gameplay and controls. This is definitely not your father’s Gears, but it is easily another worthy entry to the franchise. Play it.