Gears of War: Judgment Review
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Gears of War is one of the defining series of the current console generation, and is now perhaps as synonymous with the Xbox brand as Halo. Due to Microsoft’s next console likely being announced at some point this year, Gears of War: Judgment is almost certainly the final Gears game that we’ll see on the Xbox 360, and as such stands as a bridge between the series’ history and the anticipated focus on social gaming that we’ll see with the next generation of consoles. Judgment is a prequel to the previous Gears of War trilogy, and tells the story of Kilo Squad, a quartet of soldiers who, at the start of the game, stand trial for their role in what appears to be the commandeering and unauthorized use of a massive COG weapon, the Lightmass Missile.
Throughout the course of Judgment, players get the chance to play as each member of Kilo Squad, some of whom will be more familiar than others. Starting with Damon Baird as he tells his testimony, the action then goes on to depict Sofia Hendrick as she relays her part of the story, Garron Paduk, previously of the UIR, and finally Augustus Cole, before returning to Baird for the final two chapters. Disappointingly, each character controls in an almost identical manner, and there aren’t any discernible differences in the strengths or weaknesses that come from playing as any individual member of Kilo Squad. As you play through the story, speech comes from both the trial and the squad chatter reacting to what’s happening on-screen, and the triggering of Declassified Missions can add a little extra background to what’s happening.
Whilst there are only six different chapters spread through the main storyline, each chapter is broken down into six or seven sections, with 42 being the final total. The length and focus of these sections are where Gears of War: Judgment shows its hand as a third-person shooter with a co-op emphasis, as each section usually lasts between five and ten minutes, and focuses on one or two intense firefights, making them perfect for a quick burst of drop-in/drop-out play. Whilst the sections themselves are quite short, the over-arching chapters that they fit into are fairly sizeable, and take place over a variety of locations around the town of Halvo Bay. The main campaign takes between seven and eight hours to complete on an initial playthrough (on Normal difficulty), and most of the Stars (discussed later) can be obtained in a single playthrough, depending on how well you perform. The Aftermath campaign structures levels more similarly to what’s been seen in Gears of War before, with six sections that are noticeably longer than Judgment’s offerings, although that campaign can be finished in about an hour and a half if you take your time.
What keeps each of these individual sections fresh is the inclusion of Declassified Missions, a first for the Gears of War series. Whilst there is some variation in the scenarios presented in Judgment’s campaign in vanilla form, such as being required to storm a beach or hold a series of rooms, Declassified Missions are where players should head if they want a different, constantly changing experience. Essentially acting as gameplay modifiers, Declassified Missions are triggered by activating a glowing COG symbol which is usually found towards the start of a section. Some of the parameters of these missions include replacing certain types of Locust with a more powerful strain, restricting Kilo Squad’s weapon types or ammo capacity, and sometimes adding a timer to the level, ensuring that you don’t spend too much time in cover. Declassified missions add a little bit of extra spice to the game, and ensure that the campaign doesn’t get too stale by constantly making the players switch up tactics and forcing them to use weapons that they may not otherwise have used. This is added to by the fact that when you reload a particular section (whether in a Declassified Mission or not), weapon locations and types and enemy varieties are altered, meaning that a particular firefight is never the same twice.
Whilst the Declassified Missions allow players to experience a little more narrative depth when it comes to Kilo Squad’s testimony in the present day, they don’t really serve to change the storyline, and instead the main reason of their existence is to accelerate the gaining of Stars, which are the main currency of Judgment’s bonus offerings. Stars are earned by performing a variety of tasks, mainly concerning the types of kill that you get, and can be depleted depending on how often you are revived. Stars are used to unlock the optional Aftermath campaign and different characters for the multiplayer modes, and also serve as bragging rights. Depending on the difficulty that you play through the main campaign on, you earn different levels of Stars, from Bronze in the Casual mode to Onyx if you attempt to tackle the game on Insanity difficulty. Restarting the game on a higher difficulty resets the Stars that you’ve amounted to zero, but doesn’t relock items that you’ve already earned, which almost puts them in the range of the prestige trophies in the Call of Duty series, proving ultimately pointless, but being fun to earn and show off nonetheless.
The one particular downside of Gears of War: Judgment’s campaign being restricted to a series of short, focused battles is that it causes an already flat storyline to feel even more broken up and lacking in any form of narrative punch. Whilst Judgment is billed as a prequel to the Gears of War trilogy, there wasn’t much here that I felt was highly pertinent to what I’d already seen by playing through the first three games, and I didn’t walk away with any sense of a new perspective on the events that I’d seen before, either through foreshadowing or any other narrative device. Whilst Judgment will be a perfect jumping-on point for newcomers to the series, already-existing fans may be a little disappointed by the lack of further exposition to the Gears universe. Even the extra Aftermath campaign, which takes place during the Gears of War 3 timeline, fails to inform players of anything more than what a couple of fairly minor characters were up to whilst off-screen. Story-wise, Judgment is a little bit of a disappointing swansong for Gears of War’s Xbox 360 era.
However, the way in which Judgment’s story is presented, in both audio and visual fashion, is top-notch. From the opening cutscene through to the in-game action, the visuals are impressive, the environments are well-realised, and the audio does a good job of both scene-setting and informing the player of gameplay wrinkles. There are some particularly stunning vistas inserted into the story, most notably of the Halvo Bay Military Academy and the town of Halvo Bay itself, viewed from a distant island. However, these visuals do come at a cost, with mild, if annoying frame-rate drops occurring sporadically, especially towards the end of the game. Some of the Declassified Missions do an admirable job of showing off the game’s visual flair as well, ironically in the levels that reduce the characters’ and the player’s visibility. This is because certain parameters result in levels being covered in dust or toxic gas, reducing Kilo Squad’s sight to just a few feet in front of them, but with the dust particles floating through the air, and the swaying of the screen under the effects of the gas, the game is almost pretty enough to prevent you from caring.
On an equal note is the audio, with crumbling masonry and collapsing buildings from the start of the game, through to a particular robot’s beeping speech patterns, on to the climax’s booming explosions. Judgment’s audio often proves to be of a similar level of quality to its visuals. Voice-acting is solid as well, even if the script can be a little ham-fisted and cliché-riddled. Perhaps most impressive is the use of audio triggers to inform the players of what’s happening outside of the field of vision, and to alert Kilo Squad to particular actions that need to be taken, such as reloading a defensive turret of protecting an otherwise defenceless ally. At certain points you almost feel as though you don’t even need to be watching the screen to know what’s going on, with your fellow squadmates informing you of enemy movements, and the game itself doing its best to keep you on top of things.
One area in which Gears of War: Judgment’s campaign disappoints is with the AI of the Locust forces, and sometimes of your own squadmates. I experienced plenty of instances of Locust troops running into the vicinity of grenades that they’d just thrown, non-melee units running right into the middle of Kilo Squad, enemy soldiers attempting to take cover behind the same piece of masonry that I was already occupying, and even my own allies stepping into my targeting reticule as I was in the process of emptying a magazine in the direction of the enemy. Whilst these problems may seem minor, they do a lot to remove the sense of immersion in the Gears world, and almost smack you in the face to remind you that you’re playing an artificial creation.
Multiplayer has always been a crucial component of the Gears of War series, and Judgment makes a strong claim to drag people away from Gears of War 3. Perhaps the biggest draw is the inclusion of two new game modes, Overrun and Domination, with Overrun being perhaps the most enjoyable mode I have played in a Gears game. Essentially acting as an extension of the Survival mode, Overrun sets up two teams of players as the COG and the Locust, with the Locust aiming to destroy a series of points that the COG soldiers hope to protect. Whilst the COG team play in an almost identical manner to Survival, those playing as the Locust have an initial choice of four different units (Ticker, Wretch, Grenadier and Kantus) and aim to perform as much damage as possible to COG defenses and soldiers. The end product of this is that Locust players earn enough points to unlock the ability to play as more powerful units, such as the Mauler or the Corpser. Once you’ve unlocked these units though, you need to be careful with them, as once they die, your points are lost and you have to start from scratch again, building up your points in order to once again unlock them.
Domination is the other new mode within Judgment, and it will prove a little more familiar to players who’ve experienced other shooters’ multiplayer. Three different points are set up within a map, and two different teams need to fight to hold as many positions as they can, scoring points up to a limit of 250. Other than these two modes, Free For All, Team Deathmatch, and Survival make up the rest of the game’s offerings, allowing for a decent amount of game mode variety.
The only disappointment is that outside of the games themselves, there isn’t a whole lot to encourage players to keep playing. Whilst you are able to level up, the only unlocks you can earn by doing so are character and weapon skins, and these are earned by opening Prize Boxes, which leaves obtaining them to a random chance. Prize Boxes are earned for performing different tasks, such as levelling up or earning ribbons and medals (awarded for feats such as a number of kills with a certain weapon), and come in three different levels: Normal, Rare and Epic. It’s an interesting way of unlocking things, but I can’t help but feel that if there were more enticing incentives and rewards for increasing your level, players would stick around for a bit longer.
Gears of War: Judgment is an interesting study in how to sign off on one of the most popular series of a particular console generation. As a Gears of War game, it does enough to satisfy existing fans of the series, even if the storyline does fall a little flat. On the other hand, though, it also serves as a perfect entry point for newcomers to the series, as no prior knowledge of the Gears universe is required to enjoy the game. The end of a console generation may seem like a strange time to get newcomers into the series, but it gives players ample time to become more familiar with the previous Gears of War titles, and may just prove enough to ensure their loyalty to the Xbox brand for the next console generation. Although Judgment isn’t the strongest entry in the Gears of War series, it far from tarnishes the name, and offers up a great chance to get four friends together for a co-op blast through the streets of Halvo Bay. Whilst it’s a shame that there aren’t enough incentives to get the more fleeting of gamers to stick around past the conclusion of the campaign and a brief foray into multiplayer, Judgment is an admirable effort to conclude Gears of War’s legacy on the Xbox 360, and should be enough to convince fans of the series to stick around until the inevitable next Gears entry on Microsoft’s next console.
Gears of War: Judgment scores a 4.25 out of 5
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