Review: Gears of War: Judgement
There is no real way to start this article without some kind of a pun about my judgement of this game, so let’s get it out of the way nice and early and just say that for those of you who may have been reserving judgement on the new Gears of War – here I am several months late to throw yet another opinion into the ring.
Gears of War: Judgement is an odd beast. It’s one of a certain breed of games that I have learned to be wary of – non-sequel sequels. Let’s face it, if Epic Games thought they had a great storyline and some amazing additions to the Gears of War series to go on – they probably would have just made Gears of War 4. Instead, they’ve decided that Marcus Fenix has had his time in the sun (and likely that humanity can’t come to the brink of destruction twice in as many titles) and to go with a strange half-prequel title using the equivalent of his dorky younger brother in Baird.
Apologies to any Baird fans insulted by that reference, but let’s face it – Baird is kind of the Chris Tucker to Marcus Fenix’s Jackie Chan; one takes down an entire pool hall using a couple chairs and a broken cue, the other one rocks up late and then makes a witty comment about all the piles of unconscious strangers in a (relatively) high-pitched voice.
Rush Hour parallels aside, Gears of War: Judgement was never going to be the sequel that long-time fans of the series wanted it to be – instead it plays out as sort of a mix between a new style of Gears of Wars game and a DLC project which spun way out of control, all too often straining between the two in a decidedly noticeable fashion.
Judgement takes place during the trial of Lieutenant Damon Baird (note: he was a private in the Gears of War series, which takes place after this prequel, so immediately you know he’s getting demoted for something) and his COG team. The levels are largely played out as testimonies by either Baird or one of his crew: the returning Augustus “Coletrain” Cole; a new female private, largely thrown in for gender equality (or so I assume,) called Sofia Hendrick; and a former Soviet Union (well the Gears version, I think it’s called the Union of Independent Republics) major, drafted into the opposite side by the pending alien apocalypse, named Garron Paduk.
The story is quite simple to follow, and is relatively low stakes compared to the more recent Gears games. Through recounting the events preceeding the trial level by level, you learn that Baird’s squad ended up stuck behind enemy lines in a place called Halvo Bay – where they discover a new general of the Locust who their higher-ups seem to dismiss as a threat, so it’s up to this mix matched squad of loose-cannons to take down what seems like an entire Locust army by traipsing from place to place while loosely following orders from higher ups and largely making their own plans to nuke the entire Bay to “prevent a great threat to the human race”.
Not exactly Oscar winning stuff, but then its Gears of War not Bioshock: Infinite, at best we are looking for an interesting excuse to take a chainsaw-rifle to some unoffending alien regiments.
Switching the main character between squad members as the game goes on is actually an interesting mechanic. Anyone familiar with the Gears of War games might understand that sometimes it can feel a little tired playing as Marcus Fenix, who basically has an emotional range which goes from irritated to furious and a penchant for gravelly comments which don’t add much to the discussion. It doesn’t add much as you spend the entire time with the squad as a whole, but if nothing else it breaks up the monotony of having to stare at Baird’s frosted tips level-after-level.
Of course, one of the main advertising points of Gears of War: Judgement was the Declassified missions – bonus difficulty modifiers which can be activated as you travel through the chapters, throwing in handicaps like “can only use shotguns” or “health doesn’t regenerate” as extra details in the report being recounted in the trial. These actually added a lot to flavour the otherwise dull levels and environments you traverse through the game, although equally they pull focus away from the storyline to the point that you might look up and realise that, yes you did manage to defeat the last area while completely covered in fog but no, you don’t have any idea where you are or what you were supposed to be doing aside from blowing apart a couple dozen Locust enforcers.
As with all new entries in the series, you can expect some brand new weapons – if not quite as many as you would get with a true sequel. Notable new weapons include the Breachshot, a half-step between a sniper rifle and a lancer, as well as a trip-wire crossbow and grenades which restore health to you and your allies instead of dismembering your foes. Surprisingly despite, or perhaps due to, the small amount of new additions, each felt like they filled a niche without adding useless filler to the game – and on the whole I was pretty impressed with these well thought out additions.
On the whole Gears of War: Judgement plays more or less like my initial expectations based on the premise and the lack of that all important sequel number in the title. It doesn’t quite feel like a fully-fledged sequel, largely due to the seemingly inconsequential plot (I mean, sure, the members of your squad act like they are all that stands between mankind and certain destruction, but wow do their superiors act like what you’re doing means jack shit) in the grand scheme of the Gears universe. Little to no backstory on any of the characters (noticeably Baird and Cole, who the game was supposed to be about) feels like a missed opportunity as well – but as I played it became more and more obvious that these characters were thrown in as a framing device and a marketing point in terms of familiarity more than by any real desire to flesh them out for the series as a whole.
But, as I had to keep reminding myself, Gears of War is not a game which puts story over gameplay. And the gameplay here is solid. If all you are looking for is another 8 or so hour detour into the Gears world, where linear levels and familiar choke points stocked with Locust to brawl your way through are more than enough substance to keep up your momentum – you won’t be disappointed. At best the declassified missions add a bit of colour to a series which has always been decidedly grey (I mean in that in both the literal and figurative sense), at worst this feels like an ODST-style DLC project which spun rapidly out of control and somehow ended up as a fully fledged title.
Gears of War, consider yourself judged.
Note: This review is based solely on the single-player campaign.