Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
When all else fails, do a prequel. It's always difficult to add new content to a series that has run its course, and much like God Of War: Ascension, Epic realised that the easiest way to push out another profitable franchise outing was to look backwards rather than forwards. It's the path of least resistance. As such, we've now got another excuse to return to Sera, this time in the younger armoured boots of Damon Baird, Cole and Kilo Squad.
However, Judgment feels very different from previous Gears titles, thanks mainly to its new management. Painkiller and Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly have taken the reins, and taken a Lancer chainsaw to the traditional Gears formula. You'll now only carry two weapons, switch between them with a jab of the Y button, and lob grenades by tapping the left bumper. Campaign structure has also gone under the knife, as People Can Fly have amputated lengthy cutscenes and long levels, replacing them with bite-sized set pieces built around score attack and accruing persistent 'stars.'
In many ways, Judgment feels like Gears Of War Arcade; a more accessible, compartmentalised and instantly gratifying take on the series. But has trimming the fat resulted in a muscular beast or a scrawny wimp?
On trial for mysterious war crimes, Baird and Kilo squad recount their pursuit of a Locust general (and a familiar McGuffin) in the early days of the war. As we'll discuss in more depth later, the premise is little more than an excuse to throw players into a madcap gauntlet of disconnected set pieces where netting high scores and stars is the order of the day.
Each of Judgment's five chapters is segmented into five to fifteen minute long sections that encompass one or two major firefights or a defensive last stand. Whether you're storming a beach in a landing craft, conducting a counter-snipe operation against a skyline full of threats or desperately trying to stop Bloodmounts from destroying your fragile robot, the sheer amount of variety is absolutely staggering. Judgment whips through its missions at a breakneck pace, unwilling to bog you down in exposition (or slowly dawdling while listening to your earpiece) and getting straight to the all-important action.
It's a raucous and intense experience, since despite not matching Gears 2 and 3 in terms of ridiculous spectacle, Locust are much more eager to get up close and personal as quickly as possible. New Locust varieties such as the formidable Ragers - weak snipers who transform into mini-berzerkers if provoked - close the gap with blistering speed, keeping you on your toes and constantly relocating to cover all angles. Some new weapons, including the fast-firing Markza sniper rifle and an insane bouncing grenade launcher, are well-suited to a variety of ranges and slot into the existing arsenal well enough.
You'll need to get the difficulty setting right to make the most of Judgment - or more accurately, ensure that you choose 'hardcore' instead of 'normal.' In an effort to cater for a new audience as well as Gears veterans, the default difficulty setting offers little in the way of challenge, which isn't helped by surprisingly dismal AI for the once-intelligent Locust. In the worst cases, grubs will often amble over to your squad and hang out for a while before running back to safety. It's also worth noting that squad AI is mediocre at best and window-lickingly brainless at worst, as evidenced by your allies' penchant for standing next to hostile turrets or breaking cover for no reason whatsoever. On the harder settings, you'll be too pressed to notice.
Gears Of War 3 attempted to make encounters more unpredictable with its disgusting fleshy stalks, but Judgment ups the ante thanks to its Dynamic Spawning system. Slightly different varieties of Locust respawn every time you attempt a particular section, making trial and error absolutely meaningless. To illustrate: after dying at the hands of a Mauler squad, I set myself up in an overwatch position, only for Bloodmounts to spawn instead who compromised my cover in short order. Replayability is therefore increased tenfold, and further expanded by the new Declassified Missions.
At the start of each section, you can optionally enable modifiers that drastically changes the way it plays out. Perhaps you'll have to race through a tough gauntlet against a tight time limit, battle through choking fumes that reduce visbility or face off against powerful foes using totally inappropriate weapons. Even the most straightforward firefights can become much tougher and more interesting when you're forced to use Boltoks and Torque Bows, or start without any ammunition whatsoever. It's a neat way of letting players choose to ramp up the difficulty on their own terms, and also vastly increase their scoring potential.
The stars system is a blessing and a curse, as it encourages skilful play while also breaking flow in the most obtrusive way possible. Getting all three stars requires players to focus on gibbing, executions and multikills, all of which delivers a steady supply of ribbons that add up to cosmetic titles for your multiplayer persona, and is as addictive as any scoring metagame. If you've ever played Angry Birds, you'll know that perfection is next to godliness. Yet, beyond unlocking a short Aftermath mini-campaign set after the events of Gears 3, stars literally do nothing whatsoever. Unless you're a sucker for achievements or bragging rights (even that doesn't work particularly well since Judgment erases any collected stars if you start playing on a higher difficulty setting), it's a poor excuse for dissecting the campaign into tiny chunks. Instead of an epic saga, the campaign feels bitty and disconnected, and much harder to fully immerse yourself in before being pulled out of the action by another summary screen.
It's a crying shame that stars don't unlock interesting lore items, bestiary entries, cutscenes or even new Declassified missions.
As a prequel, Judgment had a golden opportunity to flesh out the events of Emergence Day and show us the early stages of the horrific war against the Locust. An opportunity that has been sadly squandered. Beyond a few subtle nods to the Pendulum Wars, Jugdment clatters through a throwaway plot that expands on very little. New squadmates like Sofia Hendrick and Paduk are introduced and sidelined far too quickly to get to know them, let alone like or care about them, while even the oddly subdued Cole sleepwalks through his section without making an impact. The new big bad isn't foreshadowed or introduced properly, making your pursuit feel slightly hollow. There's no great "WTF?" revelation or reveal to chew over, even in the Aftermath unlock.
Some will argue that criticizing a Gears Of War title for its story is an exercise in futility, but personally, I always found the narrative to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the Gears experience. Sera has a real sense of place and history, delivered both via cutscenes and the 'destroyed beauty' of the level design, and Judgment's unwillingness to delve into that history is disappointing. More to the point, if Gears lore is rich enough to support a freaking novel, a prequel ought to have been ripe with potential.
The unsatisfying storyline, coupled with the segmented campaign structure, makes Judgment feel a little thin as a solo outing. Visceral and entertaining to be sure, but bare-bones compared to the superlative Gears 2 and the solid finale. Seven to ten hours (including Aftermath) might will also be on the flimsy side for many players. However, all that changes once you get a few mates involved.
When played (and replayed) as a cooperative romp, Judgment makes sense. Those small challenge areas are a perfect bite-sized canvas for some hectic teamwork, especially when you ramp up the difficulty to maximum. The dynamic spawn system ensures that you'll never experience quite the same engagement twice, while the stars always gives you something more to shoot for. Gears has always been better when played with your friends, but in Judgment, it's practically essential.
It stands to reason that the multiplayer suite should be brilliant, then, and it's certainly fantastic fun. Alongside some traditional team-based deathmatches, free-for all and domination modes (all of which handle as you'd expect), the new OverRun gametype serves as a high point of the series thus far. Teams of COGs and Locust brawl over objectives, buoyed up by a simple but effective class system, putting the focus squarely on tight teamwork and communication. Survival mode adds these new features to Epic's horde mode, making for a seriously frantic cooperative experience that's both familiar yet surprisingly fresh.
The eight maps, split equally between OverRun/Survival and traditional competitive modes, have been well designed with an eye to providing a variety of ranges, open ground and interiors. Balance also seems to be broadly spot-on, a far cry from the shaky starts we're used to from the franchise. An addictive progression underpins the whole thing, both in the campaign, survival and online, granting you skins and bragging rights rather than balance-killing new gear or situational sidegrades. With luck, the netcode will hold up once the floodgates open.
But, if you do the math, there are essentially only four maps. Four. Though a season pass is already on offer, it's difficult to shake the feeling of being short-changed in terms of on-disc content. Since Crysis 3 was willing to deliver a dozen solid maps, and even God Of War: Ascension offers several on top of free DLC map packs, it's clear that Judgment probably should have offered more bang for our buck.
At least we'll get another two free maps on April 2nd.
- Frantic and accessible cooperative fun with unmistakeable Gears flavour
- Optional declassfied missions add variety and replayability
- Outstanding OverRun gametype and solid traditional multiplayer modes
- Throwaway storyline, questionable AI, flimsy characters and segmented campaign makes for an unsatisfying singleplayer experience
- Stars system will be pointless and flow-breaking for many players
- Nowhere near enough multiplayer maps on-disc
The Short Version: Judgment's breezy campaign is a varied and unpredictable cooperative romp, but ultimately the most forgettable outing from the series thus far. Strong multiplayer and progression are hampered by a lack of maps, making what should have been a comprehensive package feel more than a little undernourished without a season pass.
It's as fun, hectic and solid as you'd expect from a Gears prequel, but you'll need some friends to fill in the blanks.