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When Epic Games first announced a new Gears of War game not developed internally there were a large number of skeptics, then there were those that were excited for anything Gears related. Thankfully the fine developers at People Can Fly, who also developed Bulletstorm for Epic Studios, were up to task in delivering another exciting chapter to the Gears saga. Gears of War: Judgment is a prequel to an extremely popular franchise, but just how well does a game that is set before the end of the main franchise, and without it’s main character, fair? Surprisingly well to be honest. Judgment feels like it was created for hardcore fans of the series, rather than pulling in anyone new or bringing back those that might’ve wandered off. And that’s ok because it works, and it works well. Where Gears of War 3 ended on a clean and clear note, it’s clear that Epic wanted to go back to the well for one more dip. This time though they had to really go back. Judgment takes place a full fifteen years before the events of the main trilogy, following a much younger Damon Baird and Augustus Cole as they lead Kilo Squad.
Judgment is framed through Kilo’s military tribunal where they stand accused of treason for detonating a lightmass bomb in Halvo Bay. The four members of the squad tell their side of the story through flashbacks that put you in the shoes of each character in turn. New characters are introduced, and a couple old ones show up as well. We’re even treated to a little easter egg of a certain Marcus Fenix at one point during the game, although he gets no screen time you can definitely tell he’s in action at Halvo Bay. As players progress through each character’s story segment, you’re exposed to a lot more of the Gears universe. The people that occupy it, the locusts that are trying to destroy it and the feeling of hope that still permeated in the air. Having the ability to play as four different characters allowed for an interaction between characters that you never really felt with the original trilogy. It was a welcome change. A couple of new additions to the series, and one that they will hopefully use in future Gears games are star ratings for each mission and the introduction of Declassified Missions.
Throughout each level of the game players have the chance to earn up to three stars which can be used to unlock characters, skins and other items to be used in the multiplayer mode. The stars are based on things like the number of kills, executions, and times downed during each level. With each action you take during the campaign, that score meter pops up in the corner of your screen. By performing the Declassified Missions, you’re able to rank up your stars quicker. Each level offers players a chance to perform the Declassified Missions so it’s not something that is forced upon players. Each Declassified Mission reveals something not included in the original report of the mission, like the appearance of an environmental hazard or the Locust using a particular tactic they don’t normally use. A favorite of mine flooded a level with dust, destroying visibility but giving everything an sheen that made the level beautiful yet scary. The Declassified Missions added another level into what was already a fun game. The Declassified Missions and their ability to help ramp up the scoring make it clear that replay was a factor into creating Judgment. The campaign isn’t much longer or shorter than any of the previous Gears titles, but it’s broken up such that it ends up feeling pretty zippy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re in it for replay the way the game seems to suggest. During the run up to Judgment‘s release a lot was made of the writing in the game and the crew behind it, particularly journalist Tom Bissell. In interviews, Bissell talked about wanting to get away from the simple stories of games and do something more interesting. It was a difficult endeavor since we already know how everything turns out, but Bissell still managed to make an interesting story that added a lot to the Gears of War mythos. With the introduction of two new characters, Sofia and Paduk, Bissell was able to integrate more into the story that helped explain future events and still give us something to revel in. Speaking of Sofia and Paduk, it’s a shame to say but only Paduk manages to leave any mark as a character. Sofia fills the role of feisty red-head in tight pants and doesn’t really break out of her initial stance. Her primary activities are to facilitate the story by opening a few doors. She quickly becomes and stays the token female that Gears’ later women grew beyond. A word of advice to players, make sure you play the Aftermath add on if you want to learn what happens to our two new members of Kilo Squad. Included as part of the game, but only available to play after completing goals in the main game, Aftermath is an additional quest that takes place during Gears of War 3. It tells the story of what Baird and Cole were up to when they went missing from the Gears of War 3 main story. Judgment‘s multiplayer is mostly the same as it ever was, with the notable addition of the new Overrun mode. Overrun adds objective-based team play, tasking the player-controlled human characters with protecting points from an endless horde of player-controlled Locust. Each side has a number of classes to pick from, four for the humans and eight for the Locust. Overrun is quite a bit of fun, and makes up for the exclusion of the Horde mode that became quite popular with a lot of the Gears enthusiasts. Overrun’s PvE equivalent, Survival, lets a group of players (or a collection of humans and bots) take on waves of Locust while defending various points of the map. One could say it’s the evolution of Horde mode, but it won’t have the staying power Horde Mode has shown, that’s not to say that it isn’t fun though.
Gears of War: Judgment has a lot going for it, and even more if you’re a fan of the series. More of what you love is here and done well. People Can Fly have done an excellent job taking control of the Gears franchise from Epic. The story reunites players with characters they love, and with familiar gameplay and a solid multiplayer feature Judgement is well worth the price for admission. I can’t wait to see what Epic has in store for Gears in XBox’s next generation.