Gears of War: Judgment attempted to follow in the highly praised footsteps of its predecessors, but merely stumbled along behind it. Epic, partnering with People Can Fly, spent a lot of time tweaking the game so it would debut as a fresh idea to the series. The result was a game that felt too much like Gears to be its own unique title, with just a few too many tweaks that left it falling flat. The core elements of the Gears series are still there. High powered weapons, blood thirsty monsters, gore, death, and war. The main differences lie in the direction the game tried to take.
This time, the main protagonist is actually four characters, known as Kilo Squad. Damon Baird, the hilarious and sarcastic fan-favorite from the first trilogy, steps up and takes center stage. His aloof demeanor is a large swing from the original hero of the story, Marcus Fenix. The new character addition of Sofia Hendrick follows as a semi-confident cadet with something to prove but with a somewhat tarnished past. Garron Paduk, the scarred conscript from Gorasnaya, also debuts as a new character. Paduk fights against the locust but feels relatively little love in fighting for his old enemy, the COG. Rounding off the team is the charismatic and lovable Cole Train. Somewhat more reserved in this game, Cole appears to be struggling to come to terms with his immersion into a full scale war.
The game begins with Kilo Squad on trial for multiple crimes. Rather than follow a linear advancement through the story, Judgment plays out in fragmented flashbacks as each character describes the missions from their point of view. Each mission follows the same formula from the past games. The halls and rooms are filled with blood and debris while Locust pour out of e-holes from all different directions. Gore fills the area as bullets cut the enemy to ribbons, with the occasional chainsaw action. Also like the previous games, the story contributes very little to the combat and vice versa. The gameplay is about action and the story is relegated to the cinematics.
New additions to the campaign include a 3-star rating system and a concept of “Declassified missions.” The rating systems takes into account kills, gibs, executions & headshots, all adding up to a final evaluation of how many stars you have earned. Going DBNO (down but not out) results in subtractions from your rating, although with the amount of kills you have you will rarely dip below 3 stars. The “declassified mission” concept is merely an increase in difficulty. Restricting your weapon loadouts, reducing your ammo, removing health regeneration or obscuring your vision is the sum of the concept. The missions do give you a higher star rating, but the change is relatively small and unless you are playing on the higher difficulties, a minor inconvenience at best.
The story fails to really gain any traction and feels more like a filler piece to something larger. The villain of the story makes a short appearance near the beginning of the game for a few seconds and then is not seen again until the end. Couple that disappearing act with a very short boss battle and you have an underwhelming bad guy. Waiting for something in this game to make you get excited starts out as an expectation, then a hope, and finally an acceptance that it’s not going to happen. When the coolest part of a game is a few seconds of cinematic where a boltok gets put to head of a boomer and blows its brains out, something just feels off! There are no huge action sequences,no edge of your seat moments, there is just plodding along, clearing out room by room with an occasional long distance sniper duel.
While the story has always been an interesting one, the main drive behind the Gears of War series is the multiplayer. Hardcore fans have delighted for years in cutting each other up, or shotgunning their enemies into little chunks. Following the same rule as the campaign, Epic wanted to give the multiplayer a new look and feel, and just like the campaign, the multiplayer comes off as really familiar with just enough twists to reduce the overwhelming aspect it was in the first trilogy. The Locust have been removed and now features a Red COG vs. Blue COG approach. Traditional gametypes have been reduced to a mere three. Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Free For All. No elimination modes were shipped with the game, making it another first-to-? scoring system. With only four multiplayer maps as well, the gameplay can become stale fairly quickly.
Embracing the fans desire to bring the Gnasher shotgun into a more effective role succeeded, but not in the way it was intended. Reducing the loadouts to a primary weapon with a side-arm led to the vast majority of gamers choosing to pull out a shotgun without fear of stopping power as that was removed. The maps were designed with close quarters combat in mind, limiting the effectiveness of the rifles. Add to that the camera style shooting from Gears 1 and many players who adopted the game in the Gears 2/3 era are left in the dust.
Another addition that has caused a large amount of controversy is the ability to spawn with certain types of grenades. Smokes are now a rarity as players will spawn most often with one of two types. Frags, for their new ability to stick players and earn a kill, or stim nades which will heal a player as long as they are standing in the radius, ignoring all damage unless it’s a one shot kill.
The traditional Horde mode has been removed and replaced with a new version. Survival plays out in a horde-like fashion, requiring players to hold out against waves of enemies. The difference this time is not about player elimination, but in defending objectives. There are 10 waves rather than the original 50 in previous Horde modes. While it tries to give players a replacement Horde mode, its inclusion unfortunately doesn’t hold a candle to the original idea.
Where the game really shines is the new Overrun mode. A Horde + Beast gametype, players can choose class-based COG characters (Engineer, Medic, Soldier, Scout) to fight back and survive the onslaught of the large and powerful Locust horde, from tiny tickers to gigantic maulers complete with spinning shields of death. Possibly the most team-oriented gametype in Gears of War history, communication is absolutely necessary. Teams who do not have a coordinated attack plan will often find themselves wading hip deep through piles of their own corpses. Each team gets a chance to play as both sides and must either destroy e-hole covers and generators, or push back the attackers until the Hammer of Dawn satellites can be engaged. Locust are designed to win, and bar the rare occasions when the COG win a round, the game will come down to who was the fastest team to accomplish their goals. It’s a great addition, but not enough to keep a struggling game above water.
While innovation seems to have been this game’s goal, it focuses too much on alteration of its predecessors rather than new ideas. The visuals are great but don’t go above and beyond anything we’ve seen in the past, nor have the sounds been stepped up. Controls have been re-mapped to speed up gameplay and can easily be adapted to, but some changes felt unnecessary. Story concept had a large amount of room to breathe, but came across as a blend of smaller ideas rather than going all out. The game still retains a high re-playability but ultimately fails to hook you to it.
Overall the game adds in too many changes that doesn’t allow it to feel like a true Gears game. The multiplayer is fun but lacks the addicting aspect of previous titles. The campaign is enjoyable but lacks the passion we felt before. It feels more like Epic was aiming for a safe bet but hit just shy of the mark.