The fourth outing to the thick necked, huge shouldered, chainsaw gun armed, blood and guts world of Gears of War is here. And it’s a strange beast. It’s still the Gears of War we all know and love, but also very different at the same time.
First things first; considering the main story was wrapped up neatly in the previous game, with the Locust menace finally beaten and peace coming to the planet of Sera, Judgement take us back some 15 years before the start of the original game, and instead of the reliable protagonist of Marcus Fenix, we’ve got previous bit part player Damon Baird as our main character this time, along with another old friend Augustus ‘Cole Train’ Cole (you know, the one that goes ‘Woooo’ every so often) and well as newcomers Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk rounding out Kilo Squad. Judgement employs a neat little narrative trick in that we are playing the majority of the game in flashback as Baird and the rest of Kilo Squad are retelling their battlefield exploits during their court-martialling in the present. Each act puts you in the boots of a different member of the squad, as you fight your way through various enemies to reach your objective.
The mechanics of the game are the same cover and shoot mechanics we’ve become so accustomed to throughout the series, but new developers People Can Fly have tweaked a few of the core controls to make Judgement a faster and more intense Gears experience. For instance, instead of changing weapons using your D-pad as before, a tap of the Y button lets you switch between your primary and secondary weapon much faster than before, and grenade throws are also much faster than before with just a press of the left bumper needed to fling explosive death at your foes. Both of these little changes speed up your ability to adapt to changes in the many gunfights you’ll be engaged in, and you’ll definitely be thankful for it, as the AI has been greatly improved as well. No longer will you be able to hide behind a chest high wall (Yes, they return. C’mon, it is a Gears game after all) and fire until all enemies are beaten. In Judgement, the Locust will flank you constantly and you’ll be moving from cover to cover more often than you ever have before and some of the newer tougher enemies will really make you work to progress, especially on the higher difficulties.
Another addition to the series is the star rating system, which takes into account all of your kills, headshots, explosive kills as well as whether or not you chose a Declassified mission (more on this later) and gives you a star rating out of three at the end of every mission. These stars can be used to unlock certain content from the menu screen as well as giving an extra incentive to play certain missions again to get a higher score. Because the Judgement “campaign” more than any other Gears game feels less like a campaign and more like a series of mini gunfights and Horde battles; there’s no progression from point A to point B and then gunfight C, cut scenes take the place of A to B and the whole game is a collection of C’s, which despite all of the improvements made to the combat can become a little repetitive. However, that’s not to say the missions themselves aren’t good; in fact, some of them are among the best Gears moments I’ve had, including a WW2 themed beach assault, and a manic fight with not one but two Berserkers. It’s just a shame the campaign as a whole feels very stop and start.
But in another effort to add a little replayability, a new Declassify option has been added. Basically, at the beginning of every mission you’ll have the option to make the level a little bit more difficult for yourself in exchange for extra stars upon completion. These Declassified missions can range from reducing your visibility, to adding more enemies and giving you less ammo, to my own personal favourite, giving the enemies one shot rifles that cause instant death. These missions give the player more of a challenge than simply shoot everything until it dies and are a welcome addition.
[Also, once you’ve gathered up enough stars an extra campaign chapter is unlocked. Aftermath takes place during the events of Gears of War 3, a sort of missing chapter of that story with Baird and Cole separate from Marcus and Dom. It’s short and after playing the Judgement campaign feels like a step back, using as it does the controls from Gears 3 and not the newer ones. It’s an odd inclusion but is a nice little postscript to the main Judgement campaign.]
Multiplayer hasn’t been given a complete overhaul and is more or less the same Gears multiplayer you’ve played before, but with the faster controls which again provides a faster, more intense online experience. Usual multiplayer mode Team Deathmatch and Domination are all present and correct, (as well as Execution via some free DLC) but Beast and Horde mode have been removed entirely, and kinda sorta combined into new MP mode, OverRun in which one team defends an objective while the other attacks. If the first objective is destroyed, the COG fall back to a second objective and then a third final one if needs be.
New to OverRun is the class system which has not been a part of any Gears game to date; as the Locust you can pick any variety of monster once you’ve earned enough points to unlock them, but if you’re playing as the COG you can either be a soldier (who can throw out ammo boxes), a scout (able to reach high vantage points for sniping), an engineer (able to set up turrets and repair fortifications) or a medic (who throws out health grenades to revive fallen players). It puts a new spin on the standard Gears multiplayer format and is immensely satisfying if you’re working well as a team. Also, a Free for All mode has been added which is even more hectic than the team based games thanks to at least ten players running about with shotguns. However, as there are only a handful of maps on which to play on you’ll get bored of them quickly with future DLC the only option for newer maps if you’re sticking with it for the long run.
Naturally being the fourth game in the series it looks absolutely incredible, even on the aging XBox 360, and although Gears of War has always being a game that uses every colour in the brown spectrum it’s still achingly beautiful at times, the sound design is fantastic (who doesn’t love the pleasingly squishy headshot pop noise?) and the voice cast is top notch even if the script continues the Gears of War tradition of being both unintentionally hilarious and po-faced, but overall it still feel like a stopgap and not a full game in it’s own right.
Three and a half nerds out of five.