The lights are on
The Gears of War series seems to be in an awkward situation at the moment. The ending of Gears 3 (which I won't go into, as to avoid spoilers) hasn't left much on the table for a sequel, but the series simply makes too much money to just fade away. One of the more obvious directions for the series, is to journey off into the prequel territory. If Gears of War: Judgment serves as any indication as to the level of quality we can expect from future iterations...well the series might find itself stagnating.
As is tradition for the Gears series, the visuals are incredible and the cover mechanics remain the best on the third-person shooter front. The color palette has slowly evolved over the course of the series, with Gears 3 implementing some brighter, more neon themed coloration. Judgment takes it a step further and every area is covered in a somewhat heavier version of the series' aesthetic with deeper blues and browns.
The sound design hasn't changed much, which isn't really a bad thing. Guns sound and feel powerful, and there's a nice balance between character voices and music. I didn't find myself tinkering with the sound options (a tradition of mine) once.
What has become the most interesting part of Gears of War since the second installment is the much praised - and cloned - Horde mode. Horde mode for those of you who haven't played the Gears series, is basically a multiplayer game type, that pits four players against fifty waves of increasingly powerful enemies.
In what has proven to be a very puzzling decision, People Can Fly chose to leave the mode out. In its place is the new Overrun mode, which is essentially a mash up of Horde and Beast Mode (Beast Mode was introduced in Gears 3, and had players play as a diverse set of Locust (Locust are the big baddies in the series)). Overrun is fantastic, and will do a great job of bringing fans of Horde, as well as competitive multiplayer junkies together. That being said, I think including a dedicated Horde mode would have been a nice addition, as there are still many fans of the series (myself included) that miss the purely cooperative experience that it brought to the table.
The single player campaign stands out for all the wrong reasons. The story itself (Baird being put on trial for reasons that are slowly revealed over the course of the campaign through flashbacks) is pretty good, and might be the most interesting in the series...until the last quarter. Nothing (I'd write that in all caps if that type of thing weren't so unpleasant on the eyes) notable, or game-changing happens that will help to carry the series forward as far as story goes. The four main characters are shuttled from location to location, and I constantly found myself forgetting what the threat was.
I will say that the characters are likable, and fun. There's plenty of great banter between the foursome, and Baird proves to be a reliable leading man in the absence of series-lead, Marcus Fenix.
Judgment would have been a great game to introduce something that could have a lasting effect on the series. Maybe a villain could have been introduced that could have come back to haunt the citizens of Sera after the events of 3. Maybe there could have been some event or Easter egg that could have pointed out where the series is heading. Instead, we're left with a filler type story, and as far as villains go, Judgment's Karn is by far the weakest and most yawn-worthy addition to the series, and I can't stress how much that is saying.
Not only did the plot come off as forgettable and pointless, but the structure itself is implemented in such a way, that immersion (which for me has been a series strong suit) is broken up, and the game is reduced to a more arcade-like setup. Judgment discards the cinematic events that played out during each game, for a more competitive numbers-based system. Because there's only one boss in the game (Karn), or special event for that matter, it's mostly just a bunch of mindless shooting. There are no Brumak Rodeos, fights with the terrifying Corpsers, or scenes where you're cutting the heart of a giant worm out, and it's all capped off by a dissatisfying, whimper of an ending.
Fret not though! There's a DLC-styled extra campaign, titled Aftermath which chronicles what Cole and Baird did in Gears of War 3, while Marcus and Dom went on a mission to save Marcus' father. While carrying over Judgment's slightly altered controls - which do a nice job of speeding up the action - the aesthetic that pleased the eyes in the main campaign, is absent. It's not a horrible thing though as it lends a much more grim atmosphere to Aftermath's story.
On that note, the events in Aftermath overshadow Judgments main campaign quite a bit. Paduk (one of the four main characters) makes a return in Aftermath so his story can be tied up, and the mystery behind his strange - and almost hostile - detachment from Baird as opposed to their friendly demeanor in Judgments campaign proves to be quite intriguing. Unfortunately, one of the four receives a very weak end to their story arc (once again, I won't go into detail) and left me with a really bad taste in my mouth long after I finished Aftermath's campaign.
Gears of War: Judgment manages to carry on the series penchant for bloody, violent, fun, but too many other missteps are made in the process. There's plenty of content, and series fans should find some enjoyment as the combat and visuals are more refined than ever before, but I'd recommend turning expectations down a notch or two. Judgment is by no means a bad game, it just proves to be a forgettable one. I give it a 7.75 out of 10.
Excited to play this game. I started it but never got any further due to other games that I just couldn't stop playing.