With the Xbox 360 coming off a weak launch in 2005, Microsoft needed a big hit to energize its flagging console, and boy did they find it in Epic Games’ Gears of War. It was bigger, badder, and bloodier then any game that had come before. With five books, a comic book, and a whole trilogy of platinum selling games, the Gears series seemed like it had capped itself quite nicely in the waning months of 2011. That is until last week when Gears of War: Judgment hit the shelves. A prequel to the first game, Judgment marks the first time that Painkiller developer People Can Fly has helmed the series. Can the new guys maintain the same level of quality, or will too many cooks spoil the broth?
Let’s be clear, when I say “quality” I’m not referring to the series’ artistic integrity. The plot, story, and dialogue in the Gears series have been equal parts overdone and stupid, and Judgment is no different. The campaign takes place 14 years before the events of the main trilogy, focusing on the exploits of Kilo squad, made up of series regulars Damon Baird and Augustus Cole, as well as newcomers Sofia, and Paduk. The game opens with Kilo squad being tried for treason, in the middle of a battle between the COG army and the Locust hoard by the way, and the events leading up to the trial are told in flashbacks.
The framing device is the only really interesting part of the game’s narrative, as each chapter of the campaign is told from a different Kilo squad member’s perspective. The story itself though is very ho-hum, the squad spends its time gathering pieces of a super Magoffin to take down a big bad Locust, which you barely see. The story is just so inconsequential. There are only five characters in the whole game, whom could easily be described as, “Smart-Ass”, “Asshole”, “Black Guy”, “The Girl”, and “The Space Russian”. You already know the fate of the characters and the city you’re trying to save, since it’s a prequel, so what’s the damn point? The story is just a flimsy container for the gameplay.
Speaking of which, the single player gameplay is basically the same as previous games in the series, with a few extars. The core additions are pretty light, only two new enemy types and four new weapons, so the third-person cover shooting gameplay will seem familiar to series veterans. There have also been some small changes to the core controls, there’s now a grenade button, and the way you switch weapons has been changed. The horde mode has been incorporated into the main campaign this time around, requiring you to prepare an area for incursion, and defend it against waves of enemies. These parts can get can get a bit hairy, but if you don’t have a co-op partner, the AI will usually pick you up when you get knocked down. The minor additions result in a short campaign length, less then five hours, but there’s a few replay mechanics built into the campaign to encourage multiple playthroughs.
There’s now a three star rating system for each section of the campaign. Your score is boosted for unique kills, headshots, “gibing” enemies, and by “declassification”. At the beginning of each section, you can choose to declassify your testimony, which will add to your star rating, but also add a difficulty modifier to the section. This can include weapon restrictions, a time limit, even an environmental shift. Beyond these slight changes and additions however, the single player gameplay is basically unchanged from previous Gears titles.
The multiplayer is a different story. The Gears series has always been known for its multiplayer, which is why it’s so odd that some fundamental changes have been made. Likely due to People Can Fly’s influence, several features have been removed from the multiplayer in order to simplify and speedup the gameplay. Players cannot be downed anymore, extra damage active reloads are gone, you spawn with a grenade, and special weapons respawn much faster then in Gears of War 3. These changes result in a much faster, but significantly less tactical experience, even in the new horde and overrun modes.
Whether you like the new gameplay style is simply a matter of preference, but what you definitely won’t like is the brevity of the experience. Each mode has four maps, that’s it. Either the game was rushed, or content was held back for DLC. Combine that with the four and a half hour campaign, six if you include the unlockable “Aftermath” missions, and it becomes hard to see spending $60 on a game this abbreviated.
Look, is Gears of War: Judgment bad? No, it’s just unnecessary. Why was this game even made? The single player campaign doesn’t reveal anything worthwhile about the Gears universe, and the multiplayer could have easily been added to Gears of War 3. In fact, the whole game feels like a DLC pack that got turned into its own game. If you love Gears, here’s more of the same, but this is a rental, nothing more.
Story ------------ 1/5
Gameplay ------- 4/5
Graphics -------- 4/5
Sound ----------- 3/5
Replay Value --- 2/5
Overall ----- 3/5