Release Date: March 19, 2013
Developer(s): People Can Fly, Epic Games
The Gears of War series has come a long way since the first game launched in 2005 and truly defined what next gen gaming was all about. Fast-forward to 2011 and the release of Gears of War 3, and we had a game that finally perfected both the single-player and multiplayer gameplay introduced in the original. It also concluded the story arc of Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad, wrapping up everything with an exceptionally satisfying ending. Fans wondered where Epic Games would take the series next, and the answer was a prequel, Gears of War: Judgment. With a new developer on board and a slew of changes to the established formula, the series is back to win hearts. For the most part Judgment succeeds in doing so, but it definitely stumbles on its way there.
Handing the reigns over to People Can Fly was a bold move for Epic, and the resulting experience is one that attempts to change what fans of the series have come to expect. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the game’s campaign mode. Gears of War: Judgment takes us back to an earlier time, 15 years in the past when the antagonists of the series—the Locust—had just arrived on the scene. But unlike the previous three games, Marcus Fenix and his partner Dominic Santiago are nowhere to be found. Instead, we play as the other two members of Delta Squad, Damon Baird and Augustus Cole. During this crucial time in history, they were part of Kilo Squad and were joined by two fresh new faces, Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk.
The game begins with all four being detained and brought before a makeshift courtroom. They are being charged with treason for committing an unforgivable act, and have one opportunity to provide their testimony before they are judged. This sets up the structure of the campaign, which cycles through each member’s personal account of what lead them to their current predicament. This allows you to play as each member of Kilo at least once, something which is new to the series. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really change things much as they all play in the exact same way. This new story structure introduced in Judgment is an interesting change, but it ends up creating issues with coherency. This is exacerbated by the game’s new scoring system.
The story in Gears of War: Judgment is broken up into various sections and each one scores you on how well you perform. Each section is introduced with a bit of dialogue or a well produced cutscene that sets up the scenario. After completing the objective at hand, you usually exit the level through a door and are ranked from one to three stars. The more headshots, executions, and special tricks you can pull off, the more stars you earn. It’s a fun arcade-like system, but it comes with a serious price; it ends up completely ruining any pacing or urgency the story has. Every time I completed a section and had to see the scoreboard pop up, I was consistently reminded that I was playing a game and lost all immersion. The end result is that the story of Judgment ends up being a huge blur.
The writing doesn’t help matters either, as Judgment seems to forget a very crucial aspect that made the other Gears games memorable: character development. Even though Baird and Cole are finally given the spotlight, I did not learn a single new thing about either by the end of the game’s campaign. I expected to see new sides to these characters, and was disappointed. Even the new recruits, Sofia and Paduk, are barely given any back story or motivation which is also a shame. And if you were excited to learn more about the history of the Gears universe or more about the Locust, then you should be prepared as Judgment adds nothing new in that department either. This game’s focus is on the combat, and in that regard it succeeds even more than the previous installments.
Gears of War: Judgment has refined the cover-based gameplay the series is famous for, while at the same time improving upon it in various ways. The first enhancement is also what I previously mentioned above, the scoring system. While it does end up crippling the story, it makes the gameplay a lot more interesting and adds plenty of replayability. Always being judged for your performance definitely encourages you to play at your best and work as a team, more so than previous games. I can’t tell you how many times I risked by life just to pull off a close-up execution or land the perfect headshot, just to make sure I got a three star rating. The game even lets you instantly replay a section if you feel that you could better, which further fuels you to perfect each encounter.
In order to help you gain stars even faster, Judgment also introduces a mechanic that tries to serve both a gameplay and story function. They’re called “Declassifications” and they help to propel the campaign to heights that the earlier games just couldn’t reach. During each section, you will see a giant skull (or Crimson Omen) on a wall that when activated will have your character reveal “what really happened” during that mission. This will either cause subtle changes or drastically alter how a situation is approached. For example, you might be forced to use a specific set of weapons or have a time limit imposed. Some of the best ones include having your vision impaired by a strange gas that makes you slightly hallucinate, and one where the wind is constantly pushing you in various directions while you’re trying to fight.
Sure, in essence they are similar to the mutators (modifiers) found in Gears of War 3, but Judgment takes the idea to such extremes that they end feeling rather unique. It just makes the campaign a lot more fun and interesting to go through, which is already designed with a lot more intensity in mind. In fact, this is actually the first game in the series to fully capture what it would be like to wage war against the Locust. In many instances, you and your teammates will end up trapped in a corner and will simply be overwhelmed with the numbers and ferocity of the Locust horde. You really feel like you’re being invaded and it’s quite satisfying when you successfully fight them off. The game does know when to let up, however.
That’s because Judgment introduces a new way to throw enemies at you in the form of the Smart Spawn System or S3. The game will constantly monitor how well your team is doing, your strategy, position and other factors, and adjust accordingly to beef up the challenge (similar to the AI Director in Left 4 Dead). Rushing through the levels and not taking any damage? Expect more explosive Ticker enemies rushing you next time. Camping in one spot all the time? The game will start spawning enemies in other locations and will try to flank you. Or if you’re doing really badly, it will throw weaker enemies at you as well. It makes each playthrough slightly different and is a small, but refreshing change to the established formula. It’s also a better way to increase difficulty than simply giving enemies more health.
Adding all these new mechanics, along with new weapons and enemies does end up helping Judgment make up for its lackluster story and characters. It also doesn’t hurt that it looks rather impressive as well. Gears of War 3 looked good too, but Judgment pushes the Unreal Engine 3 even further and offers some breathtaking vistas and set pieces. The campaign also offers up an even more varied color palette than ever before; expect to see some very vibrant environments. Overall, you’re bound to have a great time, especially if you have a buddy tagging along for the co-op mode. But this wouldn’t be a Gears of War game without another crucial piece: competitive multiplayer.
Gears of War 3 had the strongest competitive multiplayer in the series when it came out, and that is still the case post-Judgment. People Can Fly has attempted to alter the formula and make Gears a more fast-paced shooter, but it just doesn’t feel quite right. No longer can enemy players be downed and executed—something that made earlier games unique—instead they simply die after taking enough damage. At the time of this review, they have added this back through a free DLC mode called Execution, but the rest of the modes still lack it and feel inferior. In another strange move, certain features were actually removed.
While in previous games you could always spawn with an assault rifle and a shotgun, here you’re forced to choose one or the either. This limits your effectiveness in many situations and forces you to constantly have to switch weapons upon death to keep up. It’s a bad design decision that makes you feel restricted. Another feature to get the axe is the “Active Reload,” which would give you a damage boost if you timed it just right. While it can still be found in the campaign, in multiplayer it seems to have been replaced by making every weapon more deadly by default. This results in players spamming you with bullets before you can effectively react.
The same can be said of Judgment’s new feature of letting everyone spawn with deadly grenades. Sure it’s faster and players will be dying left and right, but it’s not necessarily better and it doesn’t feel as fun as the third game. My biggest complaint against the multiplayer, though, is simply the lack of content. The game ships with just four multiplayer maps and three versus modes, which is just pathetic. They’re adding more through DLC, but for a $60 game I expected much more. Gears 3 shipped with 10 maps, and they were much better designed, more balanced, and simply more fun to play. Judgment also locks away the majority of custom player and weapon skins behind micro transactions, which doesn’t help things.
To be clear, the multiplayer in Judgment isn’t horrible, it’s just not really up to the “Gears standard” which is why I’m so hard on it. Regardless, I still enjoy playing it a lot more than other shooters like Call of Duty. And there’s another multiplayer mode unique to this entry that helps keep the experience fresh, “Overrun Mode.” Truly the highlight of the versus modes, Overrun pits COG vs. Locust in a tug-of-war where teamwork is of the essence. The Locust side is trying to destroy an objective, and the COG soldiers have to defend it with their lives. It is class based, so each player has a certain role to fill and strategy to follow.
On the COG side, Medics have to keep everyone healthy, while Engineers repair base defenses and spawn powerful turrets. The Locust team is even more interesting, having access to many of the enemies from the campaign like explosive Tickers and powerful Maulers who carry shields. Learning to master each class is crucial and matches will usually go down to the wire and can be quite intense. It’s one of the best additions to Judgment, and surpasses the “Horde Mode” found in previous titles. There’s even a co-op version called “Survival” which has you defending for 10 waves against computer Locusts, just in case you do miss Horde too much.
To summarize, Judgment is not a bad game by any stretch, sadly it just doesn’t fully live up to its pedigree. It provides a thrilling campaign with superior gameplay, but drops the ball in terms of story and writing. The competitive multiplayer mode is lacking in both content and design, but still retains the basic fun nature of Gears. Finally, Overrun Mode is a welcome addition to the series and will keep you addicted for a while. It has its issues, but Gears of War: Judgment is still a worthy entry in the series and proves that the franchise still has places it can go.
- Game looks amazing and is silky smooth
- Declassifications add unique twists to the gameplay
- Smart Spawn system adjusts difficulty to your playstyle
- Campaign mode is intense and scoring adds replayability
- Overrun mode is rewarding, tactical, and very fun with friends
- Competitive multiplayer mode is seriously lacking in content
- Odd design choices and removal of features in multiplayer
- Story is forgettable and characters lack development