The latest installment in the Xbox 360 exclusive franchise is back with Gears of War: Judgement. This time around the collaboration between Epic Games and the folks at People Can Fly take you back to the planet of Sera in a prequel that takes place fourteen years before the events of Gears of War. Can Damon Baird hold his own as the lead protagonist of a Gears game or will he forever remain in the shadow of Marcus and Dom?
Back to Emergence Day
For those unfamiliar with the mythology of Gears of War, a brutal civil war between the humans over control of Imulsion, the planet’s unstable and toxic fuel source, called the Pendulum Wars occured. The COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) became the ruling body with past enemy units being granted immunity to join. Years later the underground creatures, known as the Locusts, attacked the planet of Sera on what is now called Emergence Day or E-Day. The humans now fight for their survival against extinction.
Gears of War: Judgment takes place not long after Emergence Day, when the COG are still unfamiliar with not only the enemy, but their reasoning behind their attack. The events of this game follow Lt. Damon Baird and the members of Kilo Squad as they stand trial for war crimes, mainly disobeying a direct order. The cast of characters include Pvt. Augustus Cole, a former professional Thrashball player; Sofia Hendrick, a former journalist now COG Onyx Guard cadet; and Garron Paduk, ex-prisoner of war turned soldier in the COG’s “Open Arms” program that allowed former military combatants a chance to fight the Locust. Each act of the game are flashback missions as Kilo Squad testifies in front of a military court martial tribunal ran by Colonel Ezra Loomis who wants to execute all four members for treason, but is going through the formality of a trial.
Now while Judgment is a different story compared to the previous Gears installments, the core of the story could get a lot of comparisons to the original. Instead of a group of soldiers going from point A to Point B to acquire a Lightmass Bomb to kill General Raam and destroy the Locust in their underground tunnels, Baird and crew are going from point A to point B then back to point A to launch a Lightmass Missile to kill the main bad guy, General Karn as he holds up with his subordinate Locust at the Museum of Military Glory. Now while there will exist those similarities, this plot more plays like the movie A Few Good Men compared to The Expendables of Gears 1-3. What I liked was the background story of the universe I love, but I felt that the game lost the heart and soul of Marcus Fenix’s redemption and the emotional struggle of Dominic Santiago in looking for his lost wife. The game sort of felt that we were given the background of Gears of War’s third favorite character as he defends his dereliction of duty. I also felt that there was no real ominous “bad guy’ in Judgement. While Generals Raam and Skorge and Queen Myra of previous games were always on the heels of the good guys trying to stop them, you are only hinted at Karn, and then when you get the big reveal, it turns out to be a pretty weak boss battle. As much as I love Gears of War and everything about them, I felt this was the weakest of plots, even though it was better written and made more sense.
What I liked was the background story of the universe I love, but I felt that the game lost the heart and soul of Marcus Fenix’s redemption and the emotional struggle of Dominic Santiago…
What makes up in the emotional closure of Judgement is the bonus 7th Act called “Aftermath” as it takes place during the last 24 hours of Gears of War 3’s story. Baird and Cole run into Paduk on their way to Azura as they try to find a boat and reinforcements at Halvo Bay. It’s in this bonus act that you somewhat get that emotional closure that I felt the main game lacked. Aftermath could have easily been a DLC like GOW3’s “Raam’s Shadow,” but I commend the developers for including it for free in the main game.
A lot of the Same, but with Tons of Polish
I still consider Gears of War 3 not only to be the best game of the franchise, but one of the best games to own for Xbox with little to improve on its graphics and multiplayer. So what if anything could People Can Fly possibly do to make Judgment an influential stand alone game compared to the the previous trilogy? Well first off is the graphics. Let me be more specific the color palette of the graphics. The character and set location designs are still top notch, but this time instead of being flooded in drab grays and browns, a more vibrant collection of hues are used to make this game look fresher.
Another thing improved is the actual controls themselves, the biggest being the swap out from using the Y button and directional pad. Instead of selecting between a pistol, grenades, and two standard weapons like a rifle or shotgun with the directional pad, players now can swap on the fly between any two regular weapons just by hitting the Y button, like other games like Call of Duty or Halo, which was previously only used to look at points of interest. Now the directional pad will do that work. So where are grenades? That is now used with the Left Bumper. This allows to toss grenades on the fly instead of having to select the grenade, then aim it with the left trigger, then throw it with the right trigger. You can still aim whatever grenade you have in your arsenal, but the new controls make the process a lot simpler. Another thing this improves is the ability to tag someone like a sticky grenade a la Halo. No longer do you have to run up to someone and melee a grenade onto their body, even though you still can, but rather toss a grenade at a group of guys and hope it sticks, if not it still blows people up.
For those worried if their favorite chainsaw wielding Lancer is still in the game, you don’t have to worry. It is. It wouldn’t be a Gears game if you couldn’t chainsaw your way though the horde of enemies. Fans of the Gnasher and Sawed-Off (now with two rounds in the chamber) shotguns as well as the Retro Lancer will be happy in Judgment’s inclusion. Weapons have been updated and streamlined, especially when it comes to heavy weapons, most notably is the Boom Shield. In Gears 3, if you equipped the shield, you could only use an equipped pistol, now every standard weapon can be used in conjunction. So imagine being protected as you use use your portable cover to obliterate Locust with your shotguns. Other new weapons include a scoped semi-automatic sniper rifle with extended clip called the Markza and a grenade launcher that shoots projectiles that bounce off walls and delay explode called the Booshka.
Probably this biggest improvement to the main campaign itself is the inclusion of Declassified Missions. You have the choice to play the game the way it was originally intended or you can choose to play it as a modified one with different dialogue and parameters. One mission may have horrible visibility due to Locust enemies throwing smoke grenades or another is that you are only allowed to use specific weapons until the end of the chapter. Some of the tougher declassify missions are the one where you have to eliminate all the threats en route to the end of the chapter within a certain time limit. What makes the Declassified Missions a blast to play is that it adds a high level of reply value as you obtain stars to unlock achievements, characters and skins for your weapons and characters.
Multiplayer for the Casual and Hardcore
Whether you consider yourself a noob or hardcore multiplayer, there is a mode to keep you entertained. Whether you want to play in ranked matches against Gears elite players, or play private matches with friends, you can choose between 5 vs 5 Team Deathmatch, team king of the hill Domination, or the new ten player every man for himself mode, Free-For-All. If you have no friends or an online connection, you can even play against bots at whatever AI intelligence you choose. One thing players will immediately notice is that players no longer battle as COG vs Locust. Main multiplayer modes are Red COGs vs Blue COGs. So for those who really loved playing at Skorge, Therons, or Raam, you may be disappointed in their absence.
Another thing players may also be disappointed in is the absence of Horde mode which set a the standard for all major games to include some sort battle system that challenged players to survive wave after wave of increasingly harder enemy types like Call of Duty’s Zombie and Halo ODST’s Firefight modes. On the other side of the coin, the popular Beast mode of GOW 3, was also not included. Depending on your point of view, this may upset you, but fear not. Instead of rehashing the same gameplay and modes, Judgment is trying something different for its fans by including Overrun and Survival Modes.
The best way to describe Overrun is a combination of a class based system like Team Fortress 2 or Battlefield mixed with objective type battles like Halo Reach’s Invasion mode. You can be a medic, engineer, scout, or soldier. Each type has a specific job whether it’s supplying ammo, building turrets, or healing allies. It’s not going to be easy, because the other team is filled with players as Locusts trying to destroy specific targets on the map. So basically one teams defends, other team attacks, then teams switch sides. Winner is which team destroys all three targets the quicker or can defend the longest. Survival is almost like Overrun’s class based system, but you play ten waves against Computer AI in increasing numbers as you defend a series of objectives. Depending on the difficulty you set will determine the challenge.
For all Those Achievement Hunters out There…
Gears of War: Judgment’s achievements this time around are A LOT easier to obtain, especially compared to the ludacris amount of time needed for Gears of War 3’s Seriously 3.0 and Horde based achievements. The hardest achievements in Judgement are going to be based on the Declassify Missions, notably the Seriously Judgmental (Complete all Declassified Missions on Insane difficulty) and Superstar (Attain all Stars on Insane Difficulty) achievements. Multiplayer achievements can be completed in private matches with friends or against bots if you are the type of player that hates the potential of being matched up against the bigoted or ultra skilled. The last type of achievements are collectible based. Judgment went back to basics and just require players to locate the 48 hidden COG tags throughout the main campaign and Aftermath acts.
Gears of War fans will be pleasantly pleased with the new addition the franchise, but depending on their style of play, they may not like the exclusion of the Locust or certain Multiplayer modes or Arcade mode in Campaign. I personally wasn’t as emotionally attached to the characters like Marcus and especially Dom from the previous games and felt that Baird was not as strong as the next go-to-guy, but it made the most sense compared to a game all about Cole. What I hope is the next logical progression to the franchise prequels is either the backstory of the events when Marcus is arrested for abandoning his post or even a Real Time Strategy game about the Pendulum Wars. Gears of War: Judgment may not win over everyone’s hearts that are on the fence about jumping into the franchise, but it still remains strong in the evolution of the mythology.