What can I say, I like Gears of War. I've played all of the games, read (almost) all of the books and know a fair amount about the series. It might be more realistic for me to say, I like the premise behind Gears of War. The games...well, ever since the first game was released back in 2006, they haven't really been able to capture the same (or better) essence that made the original such a huge success. It's definitely one of the few (and maybe only) video games where I enjoy the books better than the games.

Thinking the Gears of War series ended with Gears of War 3, I was somewhat surprised and perhaps a bit disenchanted with the news of another game in the series. Yet, I purchased and played it (and finished it earlier this evening) and once again found myself disappointed with certain elements and entertained by others. For the sake of this blog, I'm only going to talk about the single player "Judgment" campaign (apparently the game also has an Aftermath campaign that takes place around the Gears of War 3 timeframe).

Set years prior to the events of the previous "Gears of War" trilogy, "Judgment" centers on Kilo Squad, a troop of soldiers led by Damon Baird and Augustus "The Cole Train" Cole. They are joined by newcomers to the "Gears" series Sofia Hendrick and Garron Paduk, as they attempt to save the besieged city of Halvo Bay from a terrifying new enemy.

What does the game do right?

Four perspectives - The first two thirds of the game you play in different intervals as each of the four characters. During your play of each character, you are providing testimony during an impromptu military tribunal for the events leading up to a controversial decision and violation of a direct order from a superior officer. Playing the game and hearing the testimony from each of the different characters was an interesting way to tell the story. I enjoyed it.

Diverse characters - The game features two new and two old characters. It was interesting learning more about Baird and Cole since they've been in the other games, but the two new characters (Garron Paduk and Sofia Hendrik) were compelling characters too. The voice acting, dialogue and character development was spot on, or so I thought.

Assorted weapons - Weapons are an important aspect of Gears and Judgment has plenty to choose from. Most (if not all) of the previous weapons are available, but there are some new (at least I think they're new) weapons and equipment to choose from. I happen to be a big fan of the torque bow and was glad to see it return.

Co-Op campaign mode - One of the best features of Judgment (all Gears games for that matter) is the ability to play through the campaign in a cooperative mode. What made it so good in this game is there are four main characters, so when Player 1 gets assigned to play a particular character, Player 2 gets assigned somebody else, but still a primary character. For example, if Player 1 is playing Baird, Player 2 might be playing Augustus "Cole Train" Cole. Halo could learn a lot about co-op campaign mode from Gears. Ouch, did I say that out loud.

In-game challenges - the game incorporates this feature called "Misson Declassification" - a system that lets players experience more challenging gameplay scenarios and achievements by uncovering critical information during the course of the campaign. Basically the way it is implemented...you see the Gears skull painted on a wall; you click it and it gives you a list of conditions you can accept or ignore. Should you accept it, it usually limits your weapon selection, restricts your visibility, impedes your recovery time, and a few other consequences. I thought it was a neat feature (especially how the characters implement the consequence into the story) that made the game a little more challenging.

What the game does wrong?

Ridiculous story elements - In order to not spoil anything I won't say too much, but having a military tribunal when you're being engaged by the enemy (never mind the world as you know it has been turned upside down) seems completely ridiculous. The fact the original Gears of War had a legal issue with Marcus Fenix being in prison for abandoning his military post and Judgment also relying on a legal issue as part of the story element seemed...unoriginal.

Copycat gameplay - Playing Judgment is just like playing any of the other Gears games. If you like that gameplay, then you won't mind; but if you're not a fan of it, then you're certainly not going to like Judgment.

Idiotic AI - There is one particularly annoying habit demonstrated by the AI that drove me absolutely nuts. In Gears of War: Judgment, I suffer the ole "down but not out" rather frequently. And thankfully my AI (and human partner) revive me almost as frequently. The problem is, you might be inches away from an AI player, and sometimes they won't revive you...but you can be on the other side of the map and get knocked down, and they will brave the incoming rounds to rush to your rescue (and sometimes get taken out in the process). It's so annoying to restart the round because you're crawling around on the ground and your teammate is practically tripping over you...but not reviving you.

Blue on Blue (Friendly Fire) - I dunno, maybe it's just me...but some of my teammates look strikingly similar to the bad guys...and I will shoot at them and shoot at them and shoot at them before I realize I'm being dumb. I don't know if this was intentional or not, but I wish my allies looked at least a little bit different than my enemies.

Lackluster ending - The game just sort of ends. It wasn't very exciting.

Final Thoughts:

If you're a fan of the previous Gears of War and you enjoy the mechanics and gameplay - you'll love Judgment because it truly is more of the same; if you don't like it, then you'll want to skip playing this game. If you've never played any of the other games, you may or may not enjoy what this game has to offer.

One thing I would like to comment on before I go, Gears of War: Judgment features a new female character - Sofia Hendrik. I thought she was a likable enough character, but early in the game there were a few scenes that struck me as odd. I couldn't tell whether I was being too sensitive with the scenes or if the developers had some hidden message or point they were trying to make. The other characters (both good guys and bad) kind of treat her badly and dismiss her contributions to the team. In this age where male/female equality in games and the gaming industry is such a hot topic, it just seemed kind of inappropriate, especially since it didn't really add to the story. I dunno, maybe I'm making something out of nothing, but I played the entire campaign with my son...and when it happened I wasn't going to comment on it until he noticed it and said something. So, we at least both noticed it. I'm wondering if anyone else thought so or not. It's kind of subtle and only happened a few times.

In closing, like I said in the introduction - I like Gears of War...what can I say? This game wasn't spectacular and certainly isn't a Game of the Year contender, but it is part of the historical lore of the series now, and therefore I must play it, good or bad.