At surface level, Gears of War: Judgment has a lot in common with the recently released God of War: Ascension. Both of them are exclusive to a specific console, can have the first three letters of their title abbreviated into GoW, feature brutal violence and testosterone-fueled manliness, have had rather quiet marketing campaigns from their publishers, hail from popular series that have become concluded trilogies, and finally, are prequels that take place during the earliest point in the timelines of said series.
What Judgment doesn’t have, at least primarily, is the same developer that worked on prior entries in its series. Helmed by Bulletsorm and Painkiller developer People Can Fly with franchise regulars Epic Games taking a backseat, Gears of War: Judgment has an opportunity to innovatively shake up the successful third-person shooter franchise in the same way Locust horde shook up the cities of Sera on Emergence Day, all while telling a significant and personal story that expands upon the characters and events of the saga. Did it succeed, or should it have been titled drudge-ment instead? Read on to find out.
Taking place before any other game in the series, Judgment tells the story of how iconic characters Damon Baird and Augustus Cole were arrested and court-martialed back when they were serving as part of Kilo Squad shortly after the Locust Invasion/Emergence Day. As the game begins, they and their squadmates, the female cadet Sofia Hendrik and the Russian-accented, COG-opposing Garron Paduk, are put on trial by a Colonel Loomis on the grounds that they disobeyed important direct orders from him. As the courtroom they’re in is gradually bombarded by the war going on outside, each squad member gives their testimony on the events leading up to the trial, at which point the game goes into flashback and lets you play through the preceding missions from their points of view.
The courtroom scenario as a framing device for the missions is an absolutely fantastic premise, which is why it feels utterly wasted on what ends up being a stale, by-the-number military adventure. You’ll learn absolutely nothing about Baird or Cole during the game’s plot, which never takes the opportunity to explore any facets of their flaws, friendship or even their general sense of place within the world of Sera. As one plot point after another is dryly conveyed, very little time is devoted to any kind of emotional resonance. What little character development there is seem to be reserved for Sofia and Paduk, both of whom have rather interesting backstories that are never given the time to blossom into anything worthwhile.
By the time the lackluster and muted ending rolls around, you’ll have no doubt that the tale is a pointless addition to the series. Given the notable advancements in storytelling that Gears of War 3 brought to the series with elements like Marcus’ relationship with his father, the tense romance between Baird and Sam and the nostalgic mindset of ‘Cole Train’, it’s disheartening to see Judgment take a step back in regards to fleshing out its characters. The lack of a strong central villain, something which the series has never lacked before, also stands out as a sour spot.
Thankfully, the lighthearted and often witty dialogue the series has always proudly donned is still here in some capacity, even if the characters are quieter than I would have liked. I’ll admit to having occasionally laughed at one of Baird’s snarky one liners or Paduk’s comebacks, and it’s this surviving layer of charisma, as slight as it is, that just barely saves Judgment’s story from becoming a total bore.
The most bitter pill to swallow, however, is that Judgment’s story probably wasn’t underdeveloped due to sheer laziness or poor writing, but rather due to the game’s conflicting design structure, which we’ll get into very soon.
It’s within the category of gameplay where Judgment has slightly more reason to exist. In a genuine attempt to innovate and expand upon the series formula, People Can Fly have adopted an arcade-like structure where missions are split up into bite-sized chunks focused entirely on a steady stream of combat, with a star-based scoring system in place to grade players after each level for things like headshots, gibs and surviving without being downed. Think Gears of War meets Angry Birds.
It feels like a comfortable fit for the developer, who seem to have lifted the scoring and segmented levels from their work on Bulletstorm and Painkiller, respectively. Combined with slight alterations in control, wherein the ‘Y’ button is used to switch weapons and there’s now a dedicated grenade button, and Judgment feels like a totally different beast compared to its predecessors, playing in a faster and more chaotic manner despite being mechanically the same and retaining the feeling of weightiness and reliance on cover.
At first, this complete shift in gears (ha ha!) when it comes to gameplay is a welcome surprise. It feels satisfying seeing your star meter gradually build up as you decimate Locust, and the inclusion of the randomized ‘smart spawn system’, as well as a significant increase in the amount of enemies you’ll face, makes Judgment feel considerably more frantic and involved than other games in the series. Those longing for the more difficult battles of the first game will find Judgment a nice return to form in this area.
Even better is the ‘declassify’ feature, which is brought about whenever a character claims that they were faced with circumstances more drastic than what COG intel claimed. The iconic red ‘Skull in a Gear’ insignia will pop up on a nearby wall whenever this happens, which you can then optionally activate. They’re essentially extra conditions you can choose to accept prior to each mission, which do things like alter visibility, downgrade your loadout or add a timer or secondary objective, rewarding you with more stars should you succeed in completing them. A lot of these are fairly imaginative and succeed in freshening up the gameplay scenarios as well as adding an extra layer of challenge, which again, longtime fans should find very welcome. If you want to skip them, that’s fine, though you’d be missing out on what are Judgment‘s most interesting moments.
So, Judgment can be an occasional hoot and a half, and the gameplay mechanics are fun overall. It should be said that your teammates’ AI is fairly good at reviving you when you’re downed, even if they do sometimes get in the way of your bullets during heated action. Unfortunately, the game’s segmented design philosophy for its levels end up doing more harm than good. You see, because the scoring system is in place, missions must consistently throw enemies at you in order to maintain point consistency, and as a result, they’re never allowed to be anything other than a series of rooms filled with enemies.
Here are examples of gameplay elements found in previous Gears of War titles that were not only fun, but helped to modulate the game’s pacing and added much-needed variety:
– Vehicle sections
– Boss fights
– Quieter story moments/character interactions
– Horror-themed levels
– Simple puzzles
– Running and chase sequences
– Background set pieces
Judgment has pretty much none of those. There’s a scene where you can optionally ride a mech for two minutes, an extremely lame final boss fight, and that’s pretty much it. The entire rest of the game is nothing but strung-together combat arenas, which while fun at first, quickly make the campaign feels like a, as a certain Locust would put it, “GRIND!”
That’s not to say the game doesn’t try to mix up objectives regularly. Sometimes you’ll have to protect a repair bot, contend with flying critters, or even defend a position armed with barricades and turrets in a manner similar to Horde mode, but these are all just variations on killing dudes. And killing this many dudes gets old fast, especially when the only new weapons are two variations of a sniper rifle, a very rare tripwire crossbow and even rarer healing grenades. The lone new enemy is the ‘Rager’, a scrawny Locust that turns into a thick-skinned hulk if shot anywhere other than the head. Unfortunately, they’re so erratic and twitchy that scoring a headshot on them is like trying to piss into a grounded shot glass from the top of the Eiffel Tower, so you usually have no choice but to tediously dispatch their bullet sponge form.
However, the most egregious offense the mission structure commits is not leaving any leg room for storytelling. Because the game is all combat all the time, there’s very little opportunity for the game to slow down and convey narrative like prior games did, be it through cutscenes, squad chatter or the environment. The game is in such a hurry to get you from point A to B that it utterly betrays the sense of careful pacing that leads to the kind of personal, smaller-scale moments that you’d expect from a story-based prequel that is focused on a small group of individuals. Funny thing is, Judgment isn’t particularly large in scope either, since the mission structure also prevents minimally combat-focused set pieces from becoming too prominent.
What you end up getting is just lots of combat with nothing terribly profound, big or small, surrounding it. There are a select few moments in the campaign, especially near the end, that feel like they may have been emotionally effective had there been more character development and buildup leading up to them. As it stands, most of the story shambles along doing the bare minimum a story can do, feeling as flat and lifeless as a grub’s curb-stomped head.
Soon, it’s hard not to see the entire game as a repetitive series of challenge rooms, complete with clearly defined entrances and exits that make mission feel predictable and pre-packaged. It probably would have been best if People Can Fly left the original gameplay formula well enough alone and simply used this whole arcade scoring shindig in only a few of the missions, since it simply doesn’t have the legs to support a full 7-8 hour campaign. Perhaps they could have crafted it into a downloadable title, a bonus mode, or even a smaller, separate side campaign.
“Smaller, separate side campaign, did you say?” says a voice that you can hear after collecting 40 stars. “That’s me, Aftermath! I’m a bonus campaign that you can unlock, developed solely by Epic Games and taking place during the events of Gears of War 3, where Baird and Cole set out to get that boat they inexplicably found in the game. They’ll do this by revisiting a location from Judgment many years later and finding out the ultimate fates of certain characters from that campaign.”
You ready for a concentrated dosage of irony, guys? This 2-3 hour mini-campaign is actually better than the whole of Judgment. Here, the score-based hoopla is ditched for levels that flow organically into one another and feature creative layout, distinct and dynamic set pieces, and opportunities for the game to slow down and convey story, all while retaining the more frenzied combat feel of Judgment. Why did this mode get the short end of the stick while ‘arcadius scorius’ over there got to eat from the full-length campaign tray? If anything, it should have been the other way around. Despite a cop out of an ending that feels unready to tie up some loose ends (Gears 4, b*tches!), Aftermath is a memorable, varied and colorful romp that’s probably the best reason to play Judgment. I dare say the game is worth renting just for this segment alone.
If nothing else, Judgment at least looks terrific. Epic Games has once again shown their mastery of the Unreal Engine 3 by putting almost every other developer’s efforts with the tech to shame. Although very similar in visual horsepower to 2011’s Gears of War 3, it still manages to impress with gorgeous lighting and texture work, fluid animations, and a framerate that doesn’t dip once throughout the game. It helps that the game has also borrowed GoW 3’s more colorful and vibrant art style, leading to some particularly pleasant sights in the game’s final chapters. It’s truly delightful to see such pretty visuals this late in the console generation.
The game sounds pretty fabulous as well. Cranking up the volume will suitably rock your socks off with impactful explosions and gunshots, as well as the brutish battle cries of the Locust. Voice acting is well done too, even if the game doesn’t come close to using it to its full potential. Composers Steve Jablonsky and Jacob Shea return to compose the game’s score, which while not especially memorable, still works well in complimenting the wartime chaos.
Gears of War: Judgment’s campaign is an interesting experiment that just didn’t pay off. In an attempt to freshen up the game’s progression and combat flow with an arcade-like mission structure, People Can Fly have sacrificed much of the pacing, variety and scale that single-player fans of the series have come to appreciate, not to mention the design philosophy actively works against the story that’s being told.
That being said, there’s still undeniable brutal fun to be had with the combat, and I commend the developers for at least trying something new with the formula, even if it did lead to a more repetitive, fragmented experience that’s easily the weakest in the series. Ultimately, Judgment is an enjoyable but completely disposable shooter that just so happens to have an interesting bonus mini-campaign which Gears aficionados will greatly enjoy. Most people probably won’t lose any sleep from never having played it. Therefore, I hereby sentence the game to a lukewarm recommendation for fans of the series and an easy pass for everyone else. Court adjourned.
(The Judgment campaign, by itself, would score a 7/10, but thanks to the Aftermath campaign, the final score gets bumped up to a 7.5/10)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 5/10
Gameplay/Design (Judgment) – 7/10
Gameplay/Design (Aftermath) – 8/10
Visuals – 9/10
Sound – 9/10
Lasting Appeal – 6.5/10
Overall – 7.5/10
(not an average)
Platforms: Xbox 360
Developer: People Can Fly, Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Ratings: Mature (ESRB) 18+ (PEGI)