I have to admit that, before I even booted it up, I was preparing for a thumbs-down verdict on Gears of War: Judgement. Too many things about it set alarm bells ringing. It’s a prequel/side-story to the established Gears of War trilogy, focussing on secondary characters and created by a different development team. It comes in that worrying period where the platform holders are trying to squeeze one last game out of their biggest and best IPs, and it doesn’t help that it comes out one week after the disappointing God of War: Ascension.
Of course, the developer in question is People Can Fly, who bought us the brilliant but underappreciated Bulletstorm, and the successes and failures of one series on one console have nothing to do with another, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect Gears of War: Judgement to be anywhere near as good as it is.
Finding a new Gear
Judgement’s biggest strength is the same as its biggest weakness: faced with the task of following a game as epic as Gears of War 3, it doesn’t even try. Instead, it takes a different tack; one that means you don’t get the bigger and bigger set-pieces you might expect from a Gears of War, but you do get a game that feels fresh and less like a wholesale rerun. Judgement isn’t the biggest, most bad-ass Gears ever, but at least it brings something new to the table.
That new thing is an emphasis on challenging and skilful play, and it’s all covered very nicely by the premise. Gears of War: Judgement uses the framing structure of a court martial trial, following the actions of a squad of COG troopers, Kilo Squad, over a pivotal day in the initial battle against the Locust threat. Two of the squad, Damon Baird and Augustus Cole, will be familiar from the original trilogy, while two will not, but by following flashbacks of what happened earlier in the day, the game steadily reveals what happened, and each squad member’s part in it.
The result could have been another Halo: ODST, but People Can Fly uses it to mess around with how Gears plays. This is a game of brief ten-minute chapters, with simple maps and simple goals. You’re either moving through one area to the next, trying to take out a specific enemy, or defending a position against overwhelming odds. As you fight, ribbons and medals are doled out for specific achievements, and each chapter ends with a summary screen and the awarding of stars. In its own weird way, Judgement turns Gears from a brutal game of cover-based combat into something close to an arcade score attack game.
To help, it uses another ingenious idea. Each chapter has a trickier twin – a Declassified Mission – which players activate by investigating red COG emblems on a wall. Each one adds new Locust enemies or restrictions to the chapter, ranging from a time limit, to smoke or gas obscuring your vision, to having to complete the mission with specific weapons, like pistols or shotguns. These make the chapters more challenging, but they also boost your star rating.
The smart thing is that there’s no penalty for ignoring the Declassified Missions, while taking them on or getting higher star ratings doesn’t unlock content or give you any perks. Being able to choose which missions you play Declassified also allows you to embrace those challenges you enjoy – like tacking a locust horde with shotguns – while avoiding those you don’t (I’m personally not a fan of time limits).
Casual players can enjoy Judgement just like any other blockbuster shooter, but Hardcore players can collect stars and brag to their mates. In fact, the approach makes Judgement almost the perfect co-op game, because the only thing sweeter than trashing the Locusts is knowing that you did a better job of it than your friends. Judgement gives you proof in five-pointed form.
Reaching A Verdict
All this means that while Judgement doesn’t have the big action-movie moments or epic battles of Gears 2 and 3 – though there are a few – it’s fast-paced and extremely entertaining. And if the settings don’t do much to break away from the overexposed greys and whites of Gears’ grand architecture, there are more signs of colour creeping through, particularly in the baroque mansions of the game’s third section. Visually it’s as strong as Gears 3, and while not everyone goes for the series’ exaggerated muscle and devastated urban scenery, it’s hard to fault the sumptuous detail or the cinematic effects and lighting.
Win thirty stars and you unlock an extra campaign, Aftermath, set during the events of Gears 3. After the fast-paced, challenge-based action of the Judgement campaign it’s a little weird to play something that feels more like unreleased Gears 3 DLC, but at least it’s good unreleased Gears 3 DLC, and it all does a nice job of bringing the series full-circle.
If Judgement doesn’t quite top the best of Gears’ single-player campaigns, then it makes up for it by delivering the finest Gears multiplayer experience yet. Obviously there’s four-player co-op, as mentioned earlier, plus Survival, a new spin on the classic, much-imitated Horde mode. Domination is a control-point capture mode, while Free for All and Team Deathmatch are exactly what you might expect.
The jewel in Judgement’s crown, however, is Overrun. This was a lot of fun when I played it at E3 last June, and it hasn’t got any less fun since. Basically, it’s an evolution of Gears 3’s Beast mode, pitting a team of Locust players against a team of COG players in a battle to uncover emergence holes and shut down generators. The COG players have to erect defences and resist the Locusts, while the Locusts do their best to tear down the defences and destroy the covers or generators.
What makes Overrun work is its class system. COG players come in Engineer, Soldier, Scout and Medic varieties, each with some ability, like being able to climb to sniping positions or repair barricades, that will prove vital on the battlefield. Locust players start off with the simplest, weediest specimens, but unlock more powerful Serapedes and Maulers. It sounds like a recipe for mayhem – and it can be – but it’s well-balanced, frantic and a lot of fun. It’s early days for Overrun, but it deserved to be a hit on Xbox Live.
Gears of War: Judgement doesn’t make the mistake of dishing out more Gears of War. Instead it takes the series in a different, arcade score-challenge direction. With its fast-paced, bite-sized chunks the campaign lacks the epic sweep of Gears 2 and 3, but it’s tight, rewarding and as tough as you want it to be. The multiplayer options, meanwhile, are good enough to keep you gripped for months. Judgement might not be the best Gears ever, but it’s far more than the second-rate side-story it threatened to be.