With the resolution of the overarching story-line in Gears of War 3 drawing to a conclusion the war between the COG and Locust forces, it was predictable that any future release in the franchise would have to be set either during or prior to the established events. So when it was revealed that Epic Games and People Can Fly were focusing their attentions on Cole, Baird and the rest of Kilo team following the events of E-day it didn’t exactly come as a massive shock reveal.
The plot in the series has come a long way since the first fist pumping, armour-clad, action-fest that was Gears of War, with attempts to bring relatable character developments into more recent releases. By no means are these as evocative as other more focused and plot heavy titles, but for a game with central characters who wouldn’t look out of place wrestling bears in their spare time, (and that’s just the women), developing an empathetic link was always going to be somewhat limited. Lets be honest here though, gamers typically don’t go to Gears of War for the emotive bonding with the protagonists.
Taking place in the months following E-day, the story revolves around the military hearing of Kilo Squad and the events that preceded them being placed under arrest. Each chapter of the story takes place as the testimony of each squad member is heard, and quite interestingly each character is the narrator for events that unfolded in their revelation of the facts. This goes somewhat to making the characters more relatable, as their inner monologue, dialogue from the trial and conversations during the events all play out to give you a deeper understanding of each squad members motivations.
Karn, the primary antagonist of Judgment is unfortunately rather subdued, and throughout the campaign you rarely feel the same trepidation you may have felt prior to the battles with Myrrah, Skorge or Raam who preceded him. The premise behind the character is sufficient but could never be called ground breaking. Considering they not only had to develop back story for the main enemy but also most of the lead characters, this is somewhat understandable.
Aftermath, a new chapter that runs parallel to events in Gears of War 3, explains the whereabouts of Cole and Baird when searching for reinforcements and links to both characters and locations from the prequels main story to the final battle against the Locust. Much like Road to Ruin in Gears 2, this additional content helps flesh out the characters and overall story running concurrently throughout the series.
Although a lot of emphasis has been made on recapturing the original’s fast paced action, thankfully the teams at Epic and People can Fly have looked to the most recent episode for its graphical styling. Judgment, for all intents is stunning. Its obvious from the outset that a lot of time and skill has been put in making this the best looking Gears game to date. Character models have been sharpened up with new visuals and a similar, more colourful approach than the first two games. The locales, during the early days of the war with the locust, still have that lived in look, and run counter to the state of dilapidation and ruin in which the world has found itself in the intervening fourteen years. Right from the offset, the destruction of this living, breathing city is a remarkable spectacle, with explosions ripping through buildings as the war between the COG and Locust rages around you.
Much like other popular series, the more a franchise reiterates, the more it has to innovate to placate the masses and remain relevant. Thankfully this latest Gears has not only changed up its main characters but also included quite a few new ideas to the standard formula. Each section you undertake now has a Judgment value based on how flawlessly you can navigate the level. Once you complete the level, the game tallies your headshots, gibs, overall kills and other stats before detracting your times “Down But Not Out” to give you your overall three star grading. This grade also takes into account another new feature in GOW: Judgment. Each level can also be completed with an optional “declassified” mission. These missions invariably make the level harder by either setting a time limit to complete the section, reducing your ammo, limiting your weaponry or buffing the enemies you must face. Taking the declassified option boosts the speed with which you gain your Judgment stars.
Adding to this, is the smart spawn system which introduces a new challenge to the game. Unlike previous games where harder sections or difficulty levels would see you memorising the enemy location, and overcome through simple repetition, with S3 this will no longer be possible. Smart Spawn randomises the type, location and quantity of enemies after each checkpoint. This refreshing change to what is a staple of the Gears franchise ensures variety to each and every playthrough. All of these new elements combined with the established Gears of War combat serve to keep things fresh in both this offering and the franchise as a whole.
Something that has changed which may split the community, is the new streamlined approach taken to weapons. Previously, you would have four weapons associated to each direction on the d-pad, but this is now a distant memory. In this iteration you are now limited to two weapons, including optional sidearm, and a single grenade type. In all honesty it did take me the first hour to truly get used to the new layout, including the initially cumbersome grenade tagging skill, but once I had become familiar with the new mechanics the fluidity of the new system is readily apparent. Changing weapons is now mapped to the face button, and once you have a handle on the dual button control for tagging you will be setting up ambushes and changing weapons on the fly with ease.
To accompany these changes to the combat the existing repertoire of enemies have some new Locust variants to challenge your progress, chief among these being the Rager. Appearing like a seemingly regular Locust, should you do enough damage without pulling off a headshot, they will transform and take on the characteristics of the Berserker. Thankfully, some new weapons have been brought into the mix to again add some variety to proceedings. The recently defeated UIR (Union of Independent Republics) from the Pendulum Wars have brought some new toys to the COG. These armaments litter the world with both standard and Locust modified versions from which to choose. The Booshka grenade launcher, Markza sniper and Breechshot variant appear destined to become some peoples weapons of choice bringing natural, balanced variety to how you approach your enemies.
To keep to the fresh new approach they have taken so far with the campaign the multi-player has been altered in new ways also. The new class system, which is directly reminiscent of the Battlefield 3 system, incorporates four basic builds : medic, soldier, scout and engineer. Though this may seem inconsequential, the actual implications are massive. In all three previous games, the scoring system has always been with a primary focus on enemies killed. With these new classes playing a support role is now truly a viable option. Points for shoring up defenses as an engineer, healing and reviving team mates as a medic, or spotting enemies as a scout are just as frequent and numerous as popping enemies heads as a soldier.
New game modes have made an appearance, and fit into the team based combat this title clearly focused upon.
First up we have the widely played OverRun, which pits five player teams against each other in objective based combat. With a similar approach to Beast mode, each team takes turns as both COG and Locust. When playing as COG, you must pick your class and defend your ground to ensure that you can hold back the ensuing Locust horde for as long as possible. When playing as the Locust, your sole purpose is to destroy your way through the COG defences and demolish their generator before the time runs out. The winner is the COG team that holds out the longest or Locust team that destroys the generator the fastest.
Next up, is Survival. A twist on the same objective based combat, Survival tasks your team of five COG with protecting key objectives from increasingly difficult swarms of Locust. Each point you defend is a spawn point for the enemies with the key objective to defend your generator throughout the entire ten waves.
Finally, the last group focused addition to the Gears repertoire is Domination. Other than the name, it also shares its primary objectives with the Call of Duty game mode of the same name. Teams are tasked with capturing and holding one of three zones in the map to increase your side to the maximum of 250 points.
Having tried out all of these modes, the new class based system appears to be finely balanced and allows for you to be able to achieve a decent score while supporting your more skillful shooter friends. All those obsessive collectors out there will be happy too, as numerous honours and collectables make their inevitable appearance in Judgment. A range of unlockable (and purchasable) skins for your characters and weapons, Badges for every eventuality and every action, COG tags scattered throughout the main Judgment and Aftermath campaigns, not to mention countless Ribbons for specific activities undertaken during matches.
Overall, Gears of War : Judgment is a well balanced title, that lives up to the expectation derived from a series such as this, and will hopefully please the die hard fans, regardless of the changes made. As possibly the last Gears title to appear on this current platform it does seem that Epic are going for the long game, with a new look at some old characters opening the door for more prequels to make their way to our Microsoft consoles in the future.
MLG Rating: 9/10 Format: Xbox360 Release Date: 22/03/2013
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Gears of War : Judgment for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of four days on an Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.