Gears of War: Judgment Xbox 360 Review
Same machine, new parts.
SRP: £39.99I know what you're thinking. After Marcus Fenix removed that famous du-rag at the end of Gears of War 3 and shocked the Internet by revealing that he actually had hair; what more could the franchise possibly have to say? What burning questions could be so important that it warranted brushing off one of Microsoft's most popular properties since Halo? The cynics amongst us might guess that this title is being driven more by those in the boardrooms than those in the cubicles but regardless of motivation Gears of War: Judgment is here and it's time to pull on that starter rope and rev up the old Chainsaw.
Judgement knows the score, acknowledging pretty much from the word go that this is going to be a largely known quantity. A screen prompt asks you if you know what you are doing and then forgoes certain tutorials and hand holding to get you straight into the action. It's clear People Can Fly (PCF), a wholly owned subsidiary of original series developer Epic Games, are acutely aware of the scepticism surrounding this title and are actively trying to challenge it by making some bold changes and leaving their mark on the franchise.
Judgment stars series regulars Baird and Cole with two new characters Sophia and Paduk who shortly after "Emergence Day" formed Kilo squad. At the beginning of the game Kilo squad are on trial, as they give their testimonies you play through their actions via flashback and experience the story unfolding first hand.
If there is one thing People Can Fly know; it's how to mix up a shooter. underneath Bulletstorm's vulgar exterior was an innovative system which tried to put a twist on a stale format and break players out of a cycle of apathy which exists around a lot of todays shooters. Gears is certainly one of these properties, like many others I was ready to mindlessly jump straight in and "Pop n Drop" grubs behind chest high walls for 6-8 hours with the occasional snarky comment from Baird and the mandatory "Yeah Baby" from the Cole Train.
Before you can even begin to start sleepwalking PCF throw a bucket of cold water on your face with the "declassified" mechanic. At the beginning of each combat encounter you are offered the option to "declassify" the mission, doing so will modify the gameplay slightly perhaps restricting weapons load outs, imposing time limits or introducing harder enemies. It's neatly framed as the narration will throw in a contextual line of dialogue which justifies the reason for the change in gameplay.
Each section awards you stars depending on how well you play. Assassinations, executions and reducing enemies to "gibs" all increase the amount of stars and accepting the declassified parameters will make stars easier to obtain. At this stage most people will be very comfortable with their play style, probably sticking with the all purpose Lancer and picking out head shots one by one until that "you're done" chord plays and you move on. The incentive of stars and modifying the gameplay so you have to use for example; the ridiculous shotgun that has massive damage at a criminally short range, forces you to adjust your play style and explore aspects you would have previously neglected. It's essentially a challenge mode woven directly into the campaign which you can activate to spice up the gameplay whenever you please. Stars don't really offer any tangible rewards apart from unlocking extra content like characters, achievements and the Gears of War 3 mini campaign "Aftermath" which follows Baird and Cole on a side mission we missed out on last time around.
Like an editor on a coffee high the changes keep on coming, the control scheme has been "modernised" which is to say bought closer to standard shooter control scheme which is now second nature to anyone who has held a controller in the last 7 years. Grenades are now mapped to a shoulder button and can be launched with just a tap, weapon switching moves to the Y button and is executed with almost inhuman speed. The changes don't exist to simply stick a wet finger in the ears of the old guard, they are necessary for the changes in the combat. With the addition of some new enemies and it's frequent insistence on providing relentless waves of opponents Judgment requires the urgency of control the new scheme delivers.
Horde mode was obviously a huge success for the series and it has now been added to the campaigns feature deck and they play the card time and time again. Gears has always moulded the story around its gameplay, "emergence holes" were just an a smart replacement for monster closets which they neatly folded into their narrative, there is often no such elegance displayed here with the on screen prompts counting down the next wave of enemies allowing you to setup turrets and trip wires in preparation. Regardless of its over use the horde element remains entertaining, figuring out the correct combination of weapons and gun placements takes on a puzzle element and the difficulty certainly poses a challenge on Hardcore especially if you tackle the declassified versions.
It's in the midst of the chaos you realise why they had to make the changes to the control scheme, as enemies pour out of every corner and you are managing reloading turrets and reviving teammates, it's almost essential to be able to fall back on the reflex of switching weapons or instantly throwing grenades rather than fumbling with the D-Pad. The escalating action would simply have been move frustrating had it not been offset by the improved controls. Replayablitiy has also been considered with the S3 (Smart Spawn System) ensuring "no two play throughs are the same" as it changes up the enemy distribution depending on player performance.
Clearly the mechanics of a shooter and incentivising players to change up their play styles are PCF's forte, but just like Bulletstorm where they stumble is with the characters, rather than the almost intentionally obnoxious style of their previous work, they almost completely reduce the characters to Gordon Freeman levels of personality. For our newcomers this is less important. Paduk was a solider in the UIR; the army on the other side of the Pendulum Wars to our COG regulars and can be succinctly summed up with the phrase "Space Russian", his personality boils down to a few off the cuff remarks about his dislike for the COG. Sophia is a fresh faced recruit who is there to offer little more than a moral balance to the rest of the teams "whatever the costs" attitude.
Where the deficiency really shows is with the characters we know well, both Baird and Cole are virtually stripped of all the personality we have become used to, if you are here to see how the "Cole Train" left the station you are in for a shock as the service has been indefinitely cancelled. I can count the occurrences of "Yeah Baby" and "Woooooooo" on one hand. It's a tongue in cheek reference but it demonstrates how much PCF concentrated on the mechanical elements and then simply bolted on the Gears exterior. Gears of War has never had the deepest of narratives but to remove what characterisation it did have and simply use it as a vehicle for what is essentially a challenge mode in the form of a campaign is a rather disappointing.
A focus on mechanics bodes well for multiplayer though which has no need for the pesky narrative restrictions of the campaign and the changes introduced there seem relatively small in comparison to the risks taken here. The big news is the class system, new to Gears but not exactly new to the genre; characters now come with inherent abilities and weapons load outs. They pretty much do what they say on the tin, Engineer deploys turrets and wields a shotgun, the soldier is the standard Gears load out with a
Rocket LauncherBoomshot and can dish out ammo, Scouts pack the Oneshot rifle and can mark enemies for extra damage and the Medic can heal and revive as expected.
Again the change does have roots in necessity as the class system which is ripped straight out of EA's finest shooter is only implemented in Overrun; a brand new objective based mode where the human COG team must Rush to defend a series of objectives from the Locust; with the front line moving through the map as objectives fall. Strangely Overrun is the only place the Locust feature in multiplayer with the rest of the modes including the new Free-For-All and the staple Team Deathmatch and Domination pitting COG vs COG. The cuts start to get close to the bone as Survival replaces the wildly fleshed out and successful Horde mode from Gears 3. Far from just a rename Survival strips back Horde to a co-op version of Overrun, removing all the elements of Horde such as building, upgrading, and repairing defences, purchasing the powerful Silverback mech and surviving the 50 waves of co-op fun. For all the brave but ultimately valid changes PCF have made here, Survival steps over the line, if ever there was a legitimate reason to copy and paste features, Horde was it.
When you pop the hood you begin to realise that the "out with the old in with the new" design runs quite deep, two of the most series defining elements are missing, starting with two main weapons such as a Lancher rifle and shotgun and the mechanic of remaining "Down But Not Out" (DBNO) are both confusingly absent and made me double check the box art to confirm it was actually a Gear of War game I was reviewing. Gamers can be hard to please, changing just enough to make something fresh but also leaving enough that it maintains it's identity it's a balancing act I do not envy. PCF do both; the control scheme and class changes feel like a step forward for the franchise together with Overrun they manage to give the series a quicker paced feel to the gameplay with much more depth and teamwork, However the removal of Horde, active reload damage bonuses and DBNO chip away at the core of what many love about GOW and flies dangerously close to alienating their fan base.
A possibility made even more likely when you realise it has been confirmed that more maps and modes including the DBNO inclusive Execution mode will be added via DLC to supplement the anaemic out of the box offering of just 4 environments for Overuun and Survival and 4 for the remaining modes. The weapons and character skins system are a never ending pit of paid DLC and the VIP season pass splits the community by matchmaking VIP's in their own separate pool and offers a mind boggling permanent double XP boost. All of which paints the picture that perhaps the motivation for a lot of these elements came from a boardroom rather than a bedroom.
- New control scheme
- Declassified modifiers
- Overrum multiplayer mode
- Watered down Gears characters
- Replacement of Horde with Survival
- Poor selection of maps out of the box
Gears of War: Judgment Xbox 360 Review
Gears of War: Judgment works really hard to justify its existence. In a lot of ways it succeeds, the campaign gives GOW fans a genuine reason to care, providing a challenge and forcing those open to change to try something new in a series with which they are intimately familiar. Being a subsidiary of Epic means they inherit the skills which allow them to squeeze every inch out of the Unreal engine graphically and although it retreads old ground seen in GOW:3 the ground remains spectacular. Even the fundamental change to the controls and the new class based multiplayer work in its favour making it feel less like just a stop gap for the franchise. However each positive change appears to have an equal and opposite negative one. The campaign barely even pretends to be little more than a vehicle for PCF to remix the series gameplay, Horde is inexplicably missing and the paltry offering of maps, the VIP double XP and matchmaking plus the inevitable long DLC tail which promises to add back in removed features and modes will do nothing but leave a bad taste in many people mouths.
Gears of War: Judgment is a worthwhile product, People Can Fly are a talented developer who endow the series with some good ideas which do make this worth playing. It's just a shame they removed a lot of elements which could have made this a more complete and fun game and not just another average yet profitable entry in the Gears of War portfolio.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £39.99
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