Gears of War: Judgement

Not everyone digs the Baird.
Not everyone digs the Baird.

It’s a challenge which has reared its head throughout the current console generation: where do you take a franchise following the conclusion of a trilogy?

Set years before the events of the first game, Judgement opens with series favourites Damon Baird and Augustus Cole standing trial for an as yet unexplained crime. They are joined on the stand by newcomers Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk, the other members of the Baird-led Kilo squad. From there, the narrative quickly falls by the wayside, occasionally popping  up to remind you that you aren’t in a prolonged session of Horde mode. Traditionally, such a failing would be justifiable cause to crucify most modern releases, however it’s tough to hold it against Judgement when Gears’ gameplay and plot has always had such a tenuous relationship. There’s significant dissonance in a series which tries to shoehorn deep themes (e.g. the lost of a loved one) into a game where chainsawing scary monsters rewards you with a sexy pink weapon skin. People Can Fly’s decision to embrace the inherent silliness of Gears allows it to focus on what sells the game: kick ass gameplay.

Freed from the shackles of all that narrative malarkey, the developer has chosen to focus on several design changes which reinvigorate the familiar Gears’ formula. Each prisoner’s testimony forms a chapter of the single-player campaign, with each chapter further broken down into multiple encounter-sized sections. In-game actions such as head-shots and executions fill up a score meter represented by stars. In addition, players can choose to take on ‘declassified’ versions of sections which change certain mission parameters, such as lambent wretches replacing the vanilla version. Completing ‘declassified’ missions allows you to score more points, thus achieving  the top rating of three stars more quickly. These tweaks effectively turn Judgement into an arcade title, encouraging multiple playthroughs in pursuit of a higher score.

Other additions to the game serve to complement this new direction. One such change is the limit of two guns on the battlefield. This actually increases the pace of encounters by reducing the player’s available options. Faced with a drawn-out firefight due to unsuitable weapons, players must choose to either hunker down or rush the enemy in the hopes of bringing the encounter to a quick and decisive  close. Another significant design decision is the increase of enemies and their new-found desire to rush your squad’s position. All these changes results in the fastest paced Gears game yet.

Unfortunately, Judgement’s multiplayer offerings are a significant step back from Gears 3. The packaged modes include the self-explanatory Free-for-All and Team Deathmatch modes, as well as OverRun and Domination.

OverRun, is a team-based mode which features selectable classes such as a scout, medic, engineer, or soldier for the COG and… different types of bugs for the Locust. In each round, the COG must defend a sealed E-hole from the attacking horde of Locusts. If the Locusts succeed in destroying the seal on an E-hole the round moves to the next hole. This continues until all defended E-holes have been destroyed or time runs out. It’s a decent enough experience, but stumbles because of some class balance issues. Another baffling issue is that the mode shipped with a grand total of four maps. FOUR! That just doesn’t cut it in 2013. As for Domination, it’s just Judgement’s version of King of the Hill and offers no real surprises.

The 'destroyed beauty' aesthetic still has its moments.
The ‘destroyed beauty’ aesthetic still has its moments.

This late in a console generation, developers know all the tricks to eke out every last bit of power from the hardware. So it should come as little surprise that Judgement is the best looking and sounding game in the series.

Like its predecessors, Judgement is a showpiece for the aging Xbox 360 hardware. The developer has tweaked and optimised the existing engine, allowing for improved lighting and more enemies to be displayed on-screen. While the former’s impact is more evident, it’s the latter which has allowed People Can Fly to realise their vision. The ability to display larger hordes of Locust ratchets up the pace of firefights whilst de-emphasising the role of cover. This results in frenetic combat situations more closely resembling those in Gears’ multiplayer suite. In Judgement’s aracadey world, you either roll with it… or see your world bleed out.

Judgement maintains the series’ high standards in art direction. Sera remains a hauntingly beautiful world; equal parts wonder and horror. Although it has lost some of its ability to astound, the ‘destroyed beauty’ aesthetic is still capable of some jaw-dropping moments. Standouts include a devastated gated community and a victory parade gone horribly wrong. These environments owe their effectiveness to the fact that they continue to paint a more intricate picture of the Gears universe. It appears that seven years after we were first introduced to Marcus and company, there’s still plenty more to discover. The only knock on the game’s visuals is the persistence of clipping, an issue which has plagued all the Gears games. Looks like that’s one issue which Epic won’t be addressing till the next generation.

Fred Tatasciore (Baird) and Lester Speight (Cole) turn in solid performances as the lovable duo from past games. However, it’s strange that the traditionally boisterous Augustus Cole spends the bulk of the single-player campaign in relative silence. Considering the tone which People Can Fly has opted for, a chattier ‘Cole Train’ would seem like a foregone conclusion. Thankfully, newcomers Ali Hillis (Hendrik) and Chris Cox (Paduk) manage to wring a commendable amount of personality out of their one-dimensional characters. Cox even manages to inject a measure of depth to his portrayal of the cynical Paduk. His arc is one of the game’s few moments of character development and I’d love to see him pop up in future installments of the series.

Series veteran Steve Jablonsky returns to score the latest title and turns in one of his catchier riffs yet in the appropriately titled ‘Jacked’. The tracks are noticeably more bombastic, which works wonderfully with the game’s tone. Familiar sound effects return in fine form with chainsaw duels and shottie blasts sounding as intense as ever. If you heard it and loved it… chances are it’s back for another go around.

Gears of War: Judgement retains much of what made the series one of this generation’s most popular franchises. However, People Can Fly has chosen to experiment with certain elements of the gameplay and in doing so,  have distilled the formula to its purest form: an unapologetically silly and fun shooter.


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