The lights are on
When I initially heard about Gears of War: Judgment, I immediately wrote it off. Why not leave it at 3? To most rules there are exceptions, but since Gears of War ended on an excellent note (and the fact that it is my favorite video game series in a head-and-shoulders way), I didn't think a prequel was necessary. Then, when I learned about the plot, I thought it was even more unnecessary. I shouldn't have been surprised, however, as developers often persist with prequels to milk a great franchise, including God of War (which had some of the best video game prequels ever), Uncharted, and Halo to name a few. While People Can Fly's Gears of War: Judgment does provide a great story, showing Baird's pre-desensitized period and an interesting telling of events, it fails to provide the thrills and superior multiplayer that the previous games did.
Gears of War: Judgment immediately shows Damon Baird, Augustus Cole, Garron Paduk, and Sofia Hendrick being taken to a trial to testify for allegedly doing something under Baird's command that they weren't supposed to. Damon Baird and Augustus "Cole Train" Cole were in the previous games, as partners, and provided some very humorous dialogue. Baird was a sarcastic, selfish jerk, while the Cole Train was an enthusiastic, energetic jock. This game doesn't see those personalities, as Baird is still a green and naïve young soldier, as is Cole. Paduk is comical as well, if irritating to all present at the trial, and Hendrick's relationship to the judge (he's her father) allows for a deeper story. The relationships between the four soldiers, who all have varying levels of experience, are shallow, but Judgment presents the growing relationship between the duo that is Baird and the Cole Train.
The method of storytelling is also very intriguing. Throughout the seven-hour campaign, all four soldiers give their accounts of what happened. Accordingly, Baird will give his account first in the introduction and then the judge will ask the next future-prisoner "then what?" Within these accounts, the character giving the account will be narrating the experience as it happened. One of the best parts about this campaign is that, as in the other Gears of War games, there are sections within all the chapters. At the beginning of each section, an option exists in which the player can walk up to a wall with a Gears of War omen on it which, if the player desires, will activate a challenge beginning with the character giving his/her account, saying something along the lines of "we were then attacked by ____" or "our next objective was to ____." These challenges require a greater amount of effort. When activated, the player will have to complete the challenge as efficiently as they can. This system offers an unconventional challenge not seen in the other Gears of War games. For example, if you decide against initiating these challenges, you will go into a generic (but excellently entertaining) firefight with Locust drones, grenadiers, etc. If the challenge initiated, you will run into unconventional enemy types, such as nemacysts. Along with encountering different enemies, the challenge will occasionally involve a timer or some form of defense being confiscated. These challenges don't change the ending, but they interestingly change the game flow. There is an addition to the Gears of War 3 campaign, focusing on a period in which Baird and Cole were absent from the action. It provides for more Gears of War greatness, but it is certainly not necessary.
Gears of War: Judgment still proves that the Gears of War franchise is the best third-person shooter franchise in the industry. The combat mechanics remain largely unchanged. The main difference is that the d-pad no longer changes weapons. Instead, it's they Y button. People Can Fly, as opposed to Epic Games, developed Gears of War: Judgment. I feel a need to mention this because Epic, despite their involvement, would not make a change like this if they were at the helm. I saw no need for the change. I only sided with every other hardcore Gears of War player in the argument that People Can Fly wanted to make the controls a little more like Call of Duty. Along with this, as opposed to using the d-pad to switch to grenades, the left bumper is used for that purpose, which is actually a very nice change. Other than this, the third-person shooting remains exactly the same and just as satisfying. In Gears of War: Judgment the squad will run into small skirmishes at random points, with the Smart Spawn system, and the firefights are just as intense. However, because of this, there aren't as many memorable moments as the previous Gears of War games. Nothing in this iteration matches the Brumak, Kryll, or worm moments of the previous games. The final boss fight with Karn was also disappointing with the "shoot at its weak point" pattern. I digress. The gameplay, frame rate, and cover-system still remain head-and-shoulders above all other third-person shooters.
Gears of War has always been the graphical powerhouse of the Xbox 360 and, while Gears of War: Judgment still has graphics and production values on par with Gears of War 3 above most Xbox 360 games, it doesn't improve upon its release date predecessor. Character models look the same, even though, in accordance with the Gears of War mythos, the squad wears older models of COG armor. Urban environments look familiar, but detailed and beautiful, but most other aspects of the campaign remain the same. However, despite my anger, I still believe that Gears of War: Judgment still has some of the best visuals on the Xbox 360.
The sound remains as epic and fitting as ever. Orchestral pieces accompany all the firefights and dead silences are well-timed. The sounds of the weapons are unchanged and are still in-tune with what actual firearms sound like, also making for some satisfying kills. Voice acting is still well-done and occasionally cheese-tastic. The Cole Train is as funny as ever and, while Baird is more naïve than Gears players have known him to be, though he does allow sarcasm to shine through every once in a while. In fact, Baird's naïvety made me a little sad because his sarcasm in the previous games have provided some of the best laughs I've had in gaming. Here's to future games where Baird gains back his ability to make quip-y and cutting remarks.
After you're done with the campaign, or maybe both campaigns, multiplayer is still waiting to be played. There exists the same selection of modes seen in Gears of War 3, with Team Deathmatch, Warzone, Execution, King of the Hill, etc. With multiplayer, I can see why the changes were made, as the quick weapon-change button allows for faster reflexes. I cringed when I died for the first time without having a chance to crawl over to a teammate to be revived. This immediately took the feeling of teamwork out of the fold. Along with this, actives no longer exist. For non-Gears players, an active reload was the ability to increase the effectiveness of bullets by pressing the right bumper in a small space after pressing the right bumper, which led to the reloading of a weapon. Personally, I did not like the change, but I suspect it was for a matter of fairness.
People Can Fly has added a Free-For-All mode. The rules are self-explanatory. Every player is on their own and must use whatever tricks they have up their sleeve to their advantage. The requirement for winning is to obtain 25 kills. I had a lot of fun playing the mode and I enjoyed the new, corridor-filled maps with intelligent weapon placements, but it felt shoehorned in because the Gears of War series has been known for its teamwork-centered multiplayer. I felt no breaths of fresh air with this mode. Instead, most of the time I found myself asking "where'd all my teammates go?" It was entertaining, and I got very skilled at the multiplayer (because I have experience), but it was as if the lead designer at People Can Fly came to my house, threw me out of my chair, and abruptly left. It made me uncomfortable and took me by surprise.
In the last game, there was a bevy of characters to unlock as the player leveled up. Gears of War: Judgment does not have this and, thus, does not include as many characters to choose from for wrecking other players' avatars, but the level-up system does offer some reward. With more points, you will gain a box. There are three different types of boxes, which include a Normal box, which simply rewards you with more points or a boring skin for your weapon or avatar. There is a Rare box, which grants you an even cooler skin. Lastly, there's the Epic box, which offers you such an awesome skin, that faces will be melted off. Realistically, though, it felt like a really lame level-up system. To unlock the rest of the skins, you have to purchase them on the Xbox Live Marketplace for unrealistic prices, which I admittedly invested, but it is entirely not worth it.
Gears of War 2 began a craze with its integration of "Horde." Gears of War 3 then improved upon the formula. Gears of War: Judgment sheds away that mode and now adds an "Overkill" mode. It combines the best of the Beast and Horde modes in Gears of War 3 and summarizes it into one mode, with players on both sides: COGs and Locusts. On the COG team, there is a class system for the squad. For example, there is a scout-like class, which will have you playing as Paduk. On the Locust team, as more points are gained, you can buy more cost-heavy Locusts, which are more effective against the COG team. This was where teamwork really kicked in, but I am against it. Perhaps sentimentality is getting the best of me, but I prefer the simplicity of "Horde" mode infinitely more, without the restraining class system. I can understand the appeal, but it did not appeal to me.
Gears of War: Judgment may have largely the same presentation as previous Gears of War games, but it does not come nearly as close in quality. Coming only a year and a half after Gears of War 3's release and, not to mention, made by a different developer, I had a bad feeling, and that feeling came to be. It may have offered an interesting story, but it certainly did not have any memorable moments along the lines of "the worm." My itchy trigger finger was scratched, but the gameplay too closely resembled other shooters that much of Gears of War's identity was washed away. The multiplayer system felt less intuitive and "not what Gears is all about." The Overkill mode may seem like a successful mixture of Horde and Beast mode, but I ended up longing for the simplicity of Horde mode. Change isn't always better, and Gears of War: Judgment embodies this saying to a tee. If anything, Gears of War: Judgment was a sufficient swan song for the Xbox 360's lifecycle.
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