Like it or not, Gears of War is one of the most influential game series to emerge this generation. It has been a series that on every subsequent release has raised the bar that much higher. With its polished gameplay, vibrant visual palette and robust multiplayer suite, Gears of War 3 effectively put that bar in the stratosphere. It was the ultimate entry to close the Gears of War book on. And then Epic announced Gears of War: Judgment.
Set shortly after Emergence Day, or years before the events of the original Gears of War, Judgment follows the exploits of Kilo squad, led by the snarky Damon Baird with bro-to-the-end Augustus Cole. These are younger, more toned down versions of the characters players have grown to love (or hate) throughout the series and as such both Baird and Cole sadly come off a touch boring. The two “new” characters fail to add a lot of personality as well. That said, the set-up is unique with the events of the game actually being testimony relayed at a military tribunal. Kilo squad finds themselves on trial for actions performed during Judgment’s campaign and the story slowly reveals itself as the game progresses. There are no huge twists or heavy emotional moments but from a Gears of War storytelling standpoint, it holds par.
In addition to the different narrative delivery, developer People Can Fly have played with many of the standard Gears conventions, some in very drastic ways. The biggest adjustment, and most noticeable for veteran Gears players, is the new control scheme, which sees Judgment adopt something more in line with genre-leading shooters like Call of Duty and Halo. The change makes Judgment feel alien at first but after a short re-learning period, I was right back to roadie running and slamming into cover.
This new button layout has meant the elimination of the third carryable firearm, leaving players with just two weapons and a grenade at their disposal. It might not seem like much but the loss of that third weapon has major ramifications for how the game is played, especially in the multiplayer space. Bigger ramifications though can be tied to the mapping of grenade tossing to the left bumper. Where before players had to make a conscious decision to toss out a grenade, potentially leaving themselves vulnerable in the process, now a quick button press can see grenades being tossed with reckless abandon. In the multiplayer space, this has seemingly been balanced by gimping frag grenades to the point where one needs to either be tagged with one or standing directly on top of it to die from a blast.
People Can Fly didn’t stop with just adjusting the controls of Gears of War though; they have fundamentally altered many other aspects of the series, both through addition and subtraction. Coincidentally the additions to the formula work as positives, while what has been subtracted mostly works as negatives.
On the positive side of things, People Can Fly have crafted a single player mission structure that allows players the option of doing the standard cookie cutter Gears level, or having an added challenge applied by declassifying missions. The declassified missions offer more interesting gameplay than the normal Gears level by putting players outside their standard comfort zone by forcing certain things to occur during play. These include conditions like forcing the player to clear a level using only pistols or adding a layer of dust to cut visibility to near zero. These are all mostly fun to do, although the timed missions are borderline atrocious. From a backseat developer position, I can’t help but feel that an opportunity was missed to make the declassified missions a new Game + mode and extend the life of the campaign, which is noticeably shorter than Gears 3.
Judgment’s campaign also holds the keys to unlocking the long awaited “lost” act of Gears of War 3, Aftermath. Aftermath follows the exploits of Baird and Cole as they went to find reinforcements for the assault on Azura. It features the same setting as Judgment, albeit with a totally different aesthetic, as well as the return of one of Kilo squad. Aside from the control scheme adjustments to that of Judgments, Aftermath is very much a piece of Gears 3 DLC that never came to pass and it is infinitely better than RAAM’s Shadow, the campaign-based Gears 3 DLC. Still, despite being quite fun, it feels like padding to flesh out a pretty sparse Judgment package.
The other thing that People Can Fly added to the formula is the wonderful new mode, Overrun. Overrun is a hybrid of Horde mode, Beast mode, and competitive multiplayer. Teams will face off against each other as either the COG or the Locust, each with a different objective to take on. The Locust team is attempting to breach the COG fortifications and destroy a pair of emergence holes and a generator, while the COG is obviously tasked with protection. Like Gears of War 3’s Beast mode, Locust players can choose from a tiered order of different Locust, ranging from lowly Ticker’s to mini-Corpsers. On the flip side, the COG have their own roles to fill as well, ranging from Baird’s engineer, who can repair fortifications, to Sofia’s medic, who can throw stim grenades to revive or heal teammates. It’s an interesting and highly fun way to play and the best reason to pick-up Gears Judgment.
For as great as Overrun is, too much has been deleted from the Gears 3 multiplayer suite to make it a great recommendation to anyone. Fundamental game mechanics like down-but-not-out have been removed from competitive play as have mine planting grenades (thus altering the core strategy of the game). Worse still, full game modes have been omitted (Warzone), reworked (Team Deathmatch) or replaced (Horde) with less desirable game types (Survival), and none of it, with the exception of Overrun, feels particularly like Gears. Honestly, it is a shame because if Gears Judgment had taken the Halo 3: ODST path, it could have revitalized the Gears multiplayer community. Instead the game has divided it.
I suppose Epic and People Can Fly looked at Judgment as a way to toy with the mechanics without making a big deal out of the alterations, but with a player base as devoted and loyal as Gears of War, every little change is a big deal. Sometimes change and innovation is good, in this case they went too far and mucked up the basics of the series. It is not a bad game, but it lacks that must-play feel that every other entry in the series has delivered. As this console generation draws to a close, that fact alone makes me sad.