Gears of War: Judgment advocates change more than any previous Gears of War installment. While Epic Games fleshed out the framework through features like Horde mode, weapon executions, a four-player co-op campaign, and multiplayer loadouts, People Can Fly’s deviations create a shooter accessible enough for newcomers and diverse enough for fans. Alterations range from improved controls to larger maps to the absence of stopping power, and the outcomes beget faster online engagements. The developers do maintain many of the adjustments made to the franchise over the years, but the removal/merging of several key modes leaves this prequel a bit short on value.
The differences surface the moment players select their first multiplayer match. To some dismay, several game types ‒ Free For All, Domination, and OverRun ‒ replace Warzone, King of the Hill, and Execution. A refreshing surprise nevertheless, Free For All offers ego-boosting triple kills to anyone frustrated with thoughtless matchmade teammates. If only People Can Fly solved the issue of kill stealing. Judgment overlooks points earned through assists. Instead, the first person to amass 25 kills wins. For the gamer with actual friends, however, Team Deathmatch returns from Gears of War 3, rounding out the narrow list of modes.
The maps have been similarly limited. Only four of the eight maps may be played on TDM, FFA, and Domination (the other four being exclusive to OverRun). Though the quality does exceed quantity here, every prior Gears of War shipped with ten, all present and accounted for within multiplayer, Horde, and Beast. In that regard, Judgment seems diminished of value, but the scope of the maps eliminates spawn killing entirely. Likewise, the developers explore the series’ vertical potential for the first time. Past Gears of War levels were despairingly flat, where a staircase or two signified the sole forms of high ground. Now players have the freedom to vault over ledges and roll off rooftops to surprise opponents on the ground, two stories below. With competitors having to watch their corners and their heads, such versatility expands on the gameplay’s unpredictable flow.
Multiplayer has been reduced to COG vs. COG, but the Locust were only cosmetically different.
The finite number of maps will undoubtedly push some fans overboard, but several multiplayer corrections should drown their pessimism. Whereas the online scene became inaccessible to late buyers previously, People Can Fly honored the community's wishes, removing unsightly gameplay features that left professional players untouchable. Grenades cannot be tagged to walls, floors, or other surfaces; active reloads refill weapons faster without a damage boost; rifles may be used with Boomshields; and the developers abolish DBNO (Down But Not Out). Also, gamers automatically pick up ammo for their starting guns. The biggest change, however, stems from the refined controls. The D-pad no longer swaps firearms; People Can Fly map that ability to the Y button, just as they have moved grenades to LB. These modifications reduce user errors and streamline inputs significantly. Before, players needed to remove their thumbs from the analog stick to switch firearms ‒ a death sentence when engaging multiple adversaries.
Several of these improvements do not appear in OverRun ‒ a marriage of Horde and Beast mode ‒ because of the class system. The Locust players control Ragers, Serapedes, Corpsers, and other subterranean big-bads as they open emergence holes and destroy the human team's generators. Meanwhile, the COG team rallies to keep the E-holes closed with four character archetypes: the engineer, soldier, sniper, and medic. Although less varied than the Locust, each class factors into the COG’s success. The engineer repairs barriers and constructs sentry turrets, the sniper climbs atop perches and marks targets with beacons, and the medic revives downed allies. With four classes split between five players, the competition rewards well-rounded parties. Rolling with five soldiers keeps teams brimming with ammo, but once barricades have been destroyed, they cannot be rebuilt.
As you assault enemy fortifications with Tickers, Grenadiers, and Maulers, OverRun seems very much the realization of what Epic originally thought Beast should be. However, People Can Fly delivers a system shock to fans by cutting out Horde and Beast completely. Instead, Judgment’s wave-based Survival substitutes the Locust players for mentally challenged bots, and the time limit with a wave counter. Survival functions identically to OverRun, but defending stationary points using prearranged countermeasures seems less fulfilling than going on the offensive. After playing an hour for review, I never want to touch the Survival again ‒ damning from someone who logged hundreds of hours across Beast and Horde.
Tickers tend to be overpowered in OverRun, as their explosions deal a good 15 percent damage to COG fortifications.
For anyone still on the ropes, though, I recommend the four-player campaign. While Baird takes the center stage from Marcus in this prequel, Judgment tells a novel story, summarizing the events that led to Kilo Squad’s tribunal 30 days after the Locust erupted from below Sera’s surface. Along with Sofia (an Onyx Guard in training) and Paduk (a former Gorasnayan of the UIR), Baird and Cole find themselves in hot water after disobeying their colonel's orders not to engage the Locust general responsible for much of the scenery’s frivolous destruction. As other soldiers rarely questioned the heroics of Marcus and Delta Squad, it is a welcome twist to witness a time where the COG still preserved military order.
Fans of Baird’s trademark smartassery, however, will find his less sarcastic commentary a letdown, whereas Colonel Loomis ‒ judge, jury, and executioner to Kilo Squad’s hearing ‒ remains the most convincing character. As he listens to each person's testimony, the narrative proceeds via flashbacks, featuring enough plot development to legitimize Baird and company's actions.
The campaign has been separated into almost-independent chapters, but the resulting gameplay celebrates Gears of War's unparalleled environments and combat. The first game depicted Sera’s destroyed beauty; Judgment heralds the devastation firsthand. Kilo Squad is inexperienced in the cruelties of war, unaccustomed to the Military Academy's massacre, Sera's mansions being utilized by Locust, and municipalities that once symbolized government power burning to the ground. People Can Fly fill the world with more color than Gears of War 3, too. The Locust and Lambent's defeat is another 15 years away, meaning mother nature has yet to reclaim the planet with her earthy melancholy hues.
The campaign introduces a couple Gorasnayan weapons, like Baird's Markza (sniper rifle) and Paduk's Booshka (grenade launcher).
Although Locust and the environments have it out for Kilo Squad, the combat focuses on the fun of defying overwhelming odds and less on one's survival. As players repeatedly overcome Locust advances, the arcade scoring ‒ a separate feature previously ‒ doles out points for assists, gibs, headshots, and executions. Your point total then fills your star meter, unlocking added characters, achievements, or the supplemental Aftermath campaign. Players also earn stars faster if they accept each chapter’s “Declassified” mission.
Declassifying a mission might swap out Kilo's equipment for Boomshields and Lancers; trigger poison gas that kills your squad if the countdown reaches zero; or drain your ammo, reduce the speed at which you recover health, or cloud the room with dust and hinder visibility. The diversity prevents Gears of War: Judgment from being another by-the-numbers shooter. Most of all, the system works because People Can Fly allows you to set your own pace and difficulty. You will not miss out on the larger story should you refuse a bonus mission, yet these objectives reveal information Colonel Loomis excised from Kilo Squad’s testimonies.
Never faced a Reaver with the Boltok pistol before? Try Judgment's Declassified missions.
The Aftermath campaign does not include campaign scoring, nor the Declassified objectives, but through rockslides, a zipline sequence, and set-pieces that strike you left and right, this Kilo Squad reunion sheds light on Baird and Cole’s mission to find reinforcements while Marcus and company were off infiltrating Azura. The narrative donates little to the canon, though, and the shootouts do not feature People Can Fly’s Smart Spawn System. In Judgment’s campaign, the Locust composition deviates after each checkpoint restart. In one chapter, you are tasked with retaking a bridge from Theron Guards and their volatile Torque Bows. On repeat playthroughs, Longshot-wielding Snipers take their places. Along with the Declassified missions, the Smart Spawn System forces you out of your comfort zone, to use weapons you have never tested, and to adapt to ever-changing challenges.
People Can Fly’s innovations make their mark on the franchise. Epic’s trilogy told a succinct character arc with Marcus and Dom, but until Gears of War: Judgment, the 14 years before the first installment had only been explored by the novels and comics. The Smart Spawns and Declassified missions also represent meaningful additions to the series’ cover-based shootouts, and it amazes me how much faster, how much fairer ‒ how much more fun ‒ the multiplayer can be when players are not caught by active Lancer fire or gibbed by mini-nukes masquerading as grenades. Gears of War: Judgment only feels repetitive after the multiplayer cycles the handful of maps, though the gameplay changes are what really matter. For that, any fan should be thankful.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: People Can Fly
Release Date: March 19, 2013
Number of Players: 1-4 (Campaign), 2-5 (Cooperative), 2-10 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed)