Having spent the last week going back in time with Gears of War: Judgment, I can honestly say that this was a much needed shot in the arm for the franchise, as this prequel feels fresh, polished and youthful.
Unlike in the previous Gears titles, Gears of War: Judgment focuses on a young Damon Baird and Kilo Squad, which includes Augustus Cole, Garron Paduk and Sofia Hendrick. What I enjoyed most about Kilo Squad, wasn’t just the banter between the characters, but the deeper storyline that not only delved into their personal motivations, but also blended the storyline together quite well. With the Planet Sera under attack by the Locust horde, we find out what exactly happened in the events leading up to the crew’s arrest and trial for an undetermined crime.
As Kilo Squad gives its testimony, we get to play as each character, with the added bonus of narration during certain parts of their area during the campaign. So rather than just heard Baird talk at the beginning of the trial, and then get hours of gun fighting, we hear him discuss what’s going on, so players are kept in the loop as to the team’s thought process.
Then there’s the new Declassify system, which I really loved. At the beginning of each mission, you’ll find a huge Gears logo that when approached and activated, will add a wrinkle to the mission, which in turn alters the story just a bit. These extras will essentially handicap Kilo Squad during each mission, such as making visibility low, adding more difficult enemies, sometimes more of them, limiting ammo or even adding a countdown by which you’ll falter (die), if you don’t complete it in time. This works seamlessly with the new scoring system. After each mission, you’ll get points depending on types of kills, which enemies you killed, headshots or getting ribbons. There are up to three stars total to collect, and the more stars you collect, the faster you’ll be able to unlock items, such as the Aftermath campaign.
There are two other areas of the game which impressed me quite a bit. For one, there’s the game’s art design. Unlike the last three games, Judgment feels a bit more colorful and alive, whereas Gears 1-3 were dank and dark, Judgment has a bit more life to it and each area of the game has a greater sense of scale. Then there’s the gameplay itself. I found Gears of War: Judgment to feel a bit looser, faster and smooth. Players move around quicker, weapons are swapped around at will and the cover system works well. In fact, developer People Can Fly also did a very good job with level design, as each area had not only advantageous cover areas, but also some that could come back to hurt you if you stayed put. You constantly have to keep moving around, as the Locust adapts to your positioning and attack and ultimately feels unpredictable. You’ll come across long hallways, control points and bottle neck areas that will put your strategy to the test. And just to keep things fresh, there are also sequences that feel like the old Horde mode, in which you setup turrets and try to defend either yourself, or an area during a given amount of time.
My only real beef with the campaign was the game’s villain General Karn, who makes only sporadic appearances and almost feels like an afterthought to the story. His exit from the game feels anticlimactic making the character feel forced. Here’s hoping some future DLC will give us a bit more of a worthy conclusion. I’d also like to point out that while some colleagues encountered strange A.I. behavior from teammates, I found no such thing. I was constantly being revived when I was down and nearly out, while they also helped each other out in similar situations. Maybe I just got lucky, who knows.
Now getting into the game’s multiplayer mode, there’s OverRun mode, which builds off of what gamers would expect from Horde mode (which is sadly gone), and Beast. In this mode, five COG soldiers try to survive an incoming attack from the Locust, who by contrast, try to destroy defenses and setup new spawn points. If a new spawn point is created, the COG will have to fall back and try to defend again until time runs out. The cool thing is getting to play as both sides after each round, so COG soldiers will soon get to see what it’s like from the Locust point of view. Back on the COG side, players will either be tasked with repairing defenses, deploy sentries, reviving allies or sniping. Team work is key and will either make or break your defenses.
Then there’s Survival mode, which adds 10 waves of AI enemies, rather than player controlled enemies. Think of Survival mode as the replacement for Horde, though, again, it’s more like OverRun by comparison. You’ll also come across Team Deathmatch, Domination and Free-For -All. Finally, there’s Aftermath (no, not Dr. Dre’s label, but rather an addition to Gears of War 3).
The Aftermath campaign, which you’ll have to unlock during the game, is an epilogue set during the events of Gears 3, which takes place at the same time as the story. You’ll essentially get to see what Cole and Baird were up to during that time, though by contrast to Judgment, Aftermath, which does indeed feel like Gears 3, seems a bit clunkier by comparison, which brings with it the older art style too. It’s certainly a nice addition though and I can’t complain with added content that fleshes out the older story.
All in all, Gears of War: Judgment is a treat to play, and while there may not be anything ‘groundbreaking’ in this entry, it feels like a step in the right direction. I would’ve liked to see Horde mode return and perhaps a slightly longer campaign, with a more present boss, but other than that, the game plays well, the story is interesting and broken down in nice little morsels and the mechanics simply work. It will be interesting to see what happens from here, but People Can Fly has done a fairly nice job with this highly anticipated prequel.