Prequels are a risky venture when they are part of an established series, especially if they feature core characters from said series. With so many trilogies reaching their final chapter lately, prequels have been popping up everywhere, either in announcements or store shelves.
The latest beloved series to receive this treatment is Gears of War, which fans may remember ended on a pretty high note a few years ago. With a series still ripe for the miking and plenty of potential for reworking the formula, Gears of War: Judgment is in the precarious position of reigniting a series known for its lack of diversity. Can this prequel teach the old dog enough new tricks to stay relevant, though?
While there’s no simple one word answer to that question, it is easy to say that Gears of War: Judgment does what the series does best, but with a few new additions to the gameplay to keep things fresh. These elements are implemented seamlessly into the experience, with only a few issues keeping this from being the best entry in the series.
As with the rest of the Gears games, story takes a back seat here, with the events taking place soon after the Locust first appeared on Emergence Day. Damon Baird, the hot-headed prick, is the leader of Kilo Squad, a team comprised of two new characters – Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk – and everybody’s favorite Thrashball player, Augustus Cole (“COLE TRAIN!!! WOOOOO!!!”). Kilo Squad is on trial for the unauthorized use of a lightmass bomb on a city under siege, and the gameplay serves to fill in the blanks.
Somewhere in there is a nasty bugger named Karn, who supposedly serves as the antagonist. During the ten hour playthrough, I can only remember seeing him a handful of times. If Kilo Squad wasn’t constantly repeating how terrible this particular Locust was, I would’ve forgotten about him completely.
Needless to say, character development in Gears of War: Judgment is severely lacking. With the exception of a few moments with the members of Kilo Squad, the characters are as static as they get. Baird’s grating personality has gratefully been toned down, introducing us to a young lieutenant looking only to do the right thing. Each of the other squad members have stories of their own too, but they can all be summed up in one line and never break any new ground.
But this is Gears of War! We’re here to shove a chainsaw in an alien’s face while smacking his buddy around with a grenade, not to hear COGs perform monologues on the errors of humanity. Thankfully, the action feels just as fresh as it has in the past three games. If anything, the flow is a bit faster paced than before too, thanks to the addition of People Can Fly to Epic Games’ development team. Having previously worked on the fantastic Bulletstorm, People Can Fly have brought a few tweaks to the series that make the experience feel somewhat refreshing.
For one, crouching behind cover is not the most effective survival tactic anymore. Grubs move much faster and work together much better than before to flank your team, presenting a welcome challenge to the established franchise. Gears of War: Judgment also streamlines the controls, adapting them to fit the quicker pace. COGs are limited to only two weapon slots, eschewing the control pad in favor of the Y button for switching. Grenades are finally easy to use too, having been assigned to the left bumper instead of their own weapon slot. Finally being able to use grenades in combat is something that the series really needed and I’m happy to see it included here.
Perhaps the biggest change to the campaign though is the new Declassify system. At the beginning of each section, a large COG symbol activates optional challenges that add a ton of replayability to the game. Serving as missing parts of the story, these tiny side missions add small variables to the gameplay. Some sections will take away Kilo Squad’s ammo, while others present visual barriers such as dust from bombings.
Every completed challenge awards players up to three stars, which are used to unlock multiplayer rewards and other goodies, such as trophies or ribbons. You can also unlock Aftermath, an extra chapter that takes place during the Gears of War 3 campaign. Although not as quick paced as Gears of War: Judgment, it’s still a nice prize for no additional cost.
The best thing about the Declassified missions though are that they are optional, so fans against the change can still get the classic experience. Despite these missions adding variety to the usual gunplay, the same challenges tend to pop up repeatedly. Whether it’s being limited to a few specific weapons or completing a section in a certain time limit, they get recycled more often than they should. The challenge summaries at the end of each section tend to ruin the flow of the action as well.
More or less, campaigns still play the same, with solo and co-op play both fun in their own ways. Friendly AI tend to forget to revive you when the action gets heated, but they’re otherwise much more responsive than some other contemporary games. As for the story, it isn’t quite compelling, and nothing much feels at stake since we all know how the series will end, but longtime fans of the series shouldn’t have any trouble enjoying the story for what it is.
It should also be noted that the game’s encounters are now all entirely randomized, which makes things a lot more difficult and challenging, but in a good way.
Declassified missions, for all the novelty they offer, give the game too much of an arcade-y feel. Every level is broken into sections, with predictable battles taking over. Some stages even give the team time to set up a defense before the Locust arrive, creating a Horde mode feeling in the campaign. It just doesn’t play like a traditional Gears game, and it loses some steam because of the smaller sections. Yet for all of its shortcomings, the campaign is still worth a weekend.
All of the new features don’t end there, however, as multiplayer has received multiple upgrades. The traditional modes have returned, with Versus multiplayer featuring COG vs. COG rather than the Locust horde. Locust only appear in the new OverRun mode, which is one of the highlights of Gears of War: Judgment. Teams switch between playing as the Locust and COGs, either trying to destroy a generator or defend it, respectively.
Antagonizing the COG as the Locust is a blast, and getting to play as Wretches, Tickers, Serapedes and other types of baddies provides for some of the best moments in multiplayer. Matches last for a very long time, making the proposition of defending the goal a daunting one for the humans. Luckily, there are various classes humans can switch between that provide tons of benefits to level the playing field.
As much fun as this mode is, the other new offering, Free-For-All, doesn’t quite fit into the gameplay style as well. Even though Gears of War: Judgment has a faster pace than the rest of the series, combat is still a bit too sluggish for this type of madness. It’s an addition that isn’t quite necessary since there’s already a wealth of better executed modes available for play. Domination, for example, plays as a more mobile version of Capture The Flag, and it’s the most fun after OverRun.
Gears of War: Judgment undeniably has a ton of replayability in its favor. The campaign begs to be replayed in order to earn more stars, with higher difficulties doling out gold and onyx stars, urging players to play through multiple times. Multiplayer offers a plethora of modes to play too, and even if Free-For-All isn’t all that great, there’s a multitude of other ways to play.
Yet for all of the new tricks and gameplay modes provided, Gears of War: Judgment feels much too familiar to serve as anything other than fan service. All of the elements of another great Gears of War game are there, yet there’s not enough fresh ideas to help Judgment stand on its own. That being said, fans of the series will still have their fun with it, and maybe some new fans will find their way into the series too, as there is a lot of fun to be had.
Unfortunately though, the arcade-y feel of the campaign along with the lacking story and overall unnecessary feel of the prequel keep Gears of War: Judgment from surpassing any of its predecessors. It still fares better than most third-person shooters, but fans won’t find the same level of immersion as they did in the previous games.
This review is based on an XBOX 360 copy of the game.