This time last week, I decided that I was finally sick of saving the world. I’m only 23 years old, and I must have defeated the alien menace, won the war, and rescued humanity from imminent peril at least a hundred times by now, if not a thousand. I didn’t want to blow up any more hive minds. I didn’t want to kill any more confusingly sexy space queens. I wanted a vacation from bravado and heroics.
And I found one—in, of all places, a Gears of War game. I know, I was as surprised as you are. A franchise that built a billion-dollar empire on men with biceps the size of small nations and chainsaw guns isn’t exactly the first place I’d think to look for nuance, but the latest entry, Judgment, isn’t exactly your daddy’s Gears of War.
Developed as a collaboration between Gears creators Epic Games and their Polish subsidiary People Can Fly, Judgment is a prequel, set just 30 days after war breaks out between humanity and the alien Locust. That war, for the record, won’t be finished for another 15 years, so it’s clear from the very first moments of Judgment that you’re not going to be singlehandedly winning anything—or even making any sizable dent in your opposition. Instead, the focus is more on surviving the front lines of battle, no matter what it takes.
As it turns out, what it takes is disobeying direct orders and a whole lot of borderline criminal activity. The bulk of Judgment‘s action actually takes place as a series of flashbacks, as the four main characters that make up Kilo Squad testify about their past actions in front of a military tribunal. It’s an interesting twist on the formula that allows each of the protagonists—returning fan favorites Baird and Cole, as well as newcomers Sophia Hendricks and Garron Paduk—to have their own chance in the spotlight. The result is a story that feels much more grounded and human than anything in the original trilogy, with smart, sardonic dialogue that always keeps things moving along at a fair clip.
Of course, I don’t want to make it sound like Judgment has abandoned the franchise’s flair for action in favor of storytelling. You’ll still be ventilating your fair share of Locust with all manner of weapons, but there have been some dramatic changes on this front as well. There’s a much greater emphasis on repeated playthroughs, with each act broken up into several short levels comprised of two or three combat encounters apiece.
It’s a fun change of pace from the standard Gears experience, but it really begins to shine when you factor in the game’s new dynamic enemy spawns. While previous Gears games relied on pre-planned battles, Judgment can actually switch up the mixture of enemies on the fly in response to what you’re doing. The first time you play through an area, you might fight off a horde of Boomers. The second time, they might be replaced by Maulers, and you’ll need to adjust your tactics accordingly. The system works surprisingly well in most instances, ensuring that no two playthroughs will ever feel exactly the same. Every so often, though, I felt like I only managed to get past a particularly difficult segment because I died enough to eventually luck into an easier batch of enemies.
Fortunately, if you ever feel like Judgment isn’t delivering on the difficulty front, you can quickly remedy that fact with the new optional objective system. In every level, you can choose to activate Declassified Testimony—essentially additional constraints that make your mission far more challenging. You might be limited to a specific set of weapons or be forced to complete the level within a time limit, for example. There’s a surprising amount of variety, and they really help to mix up the rhythm by constantly introducing new challenges. To my surprise, there wasn’t ever a time when I felt like it was a mistake to activate them, even though a few segments were brutally difficult as a result.
The benefit to this added challenge is that you’ll get a sizable bonus in the new star ranking system, which tracks every kill, headshot, gib, and execution your squad makes and assigns you a zero-to-three-star ranking at the end of the level. While I was initially skeptical of being judged on my gunfights like they were levels of Angry Birds, I quickly came to realize that the constant feedback it provides is hugely satisfying.
The star system is mostly there for bragging rights, but there’s a handful of content you can unlock by earning a particular number of stars during the campaign, the meatiest of which is Aftermath, an epilogue set during the events of Gears of War 3 that reunites the members of Kilo Squad for one last hurrah. The mini-campaign is similar in scope and structure to an individual act from the original trilogy, with no star system or optional objectives and longer sections that flow seamlessly into one another. Diving into a mix of old and new enemies and weapons is entertaining enough on the surface, but Aftermath mostly made me realize just how much I really enjoyed the ways Judgment shakes up the franchise formula. As I fought my way through the now-desolate streets of Halvo Bay, I couldn’t help but miss the star system and the faster pace of the quick-hit levels.
Unfortunately, a consistently great single-player experience can’t make up for the fact that Judgment features the series’ most anemic online multiplayer suite to date. While there are four brand-new gametypes—OverRun (a class-based, objective driven Locust-versus-COG mode), Domination (a three-capture-point mode similar to the Call of Duty gametype of the same name), Survival (a co-op only blend of OverRun and the waved-based Horde mode), and Free For All—these newcomers are only joined by a single returning mode, Team Deathmatch. What’s more, the game features a grand total of eight multiplayer maps—four exclusive to OverRun and Survival, and four for the other three gametypes.
There are only a handful of reasons I can think of as to why the selection is so pitiful. One, Epic and People Can Fly decided that working on other multiplayer modes is a waste of time, since Team Deathmatch will inevitably be the runaway favorite. Two, they’re withholding maps and modes so they can be released down the road as paid DLC. Three, Judgment‘s mostly about keeping the seat warm until Gears can make its triumphant next-gen debut.
While I can understand the logic behind the first possibility, it’s still a slap in the face to anyone who’s a devoted fan of the original trilogy’s wide variety of gametypes. And if it’s option two or three, well, that’s just plain depressing.
It’s a real shame, too, because Judgment has the potential to be the most fun and accessible multiplayer offering in the franchise. With the removal of the Down But Not Out system and an increased emphasis on mobility and weapon balance, matches take on a much faster pace, and combat is considerably more satisfying now that the Gnasher two-piece is no longer king. The new modes are all pretty enjoyable, too, with OverRun being the clear standout of the lot.
In the end, though, after two entries focused more on introducing new options than killing off old ones, it’s almost inexcusable how little made it onto this disc. Is the game still worth picking up for the streamlined campaign? Yep. Is OverRun a worthwhile addition to the franchise’s multiplayer stable? You bet. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Judgment will also be a little disappointing for diehard Gears addicts who were itching for their next big multiplayer fix.
While the emphasis on fast-paced replayability and a more intimate, nuanced narrative do wonders for Judgment's single-player campaign, the game is ultimately held back by its surprisingly meager multiplayer offering.
Epic Games, People Can Fly
M – Mature
|Gears of War: Judgment is available on Xbox 360. Primary version played was for Xbox 360. Product was provided by Microsoft Studios for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.