How Do You Plead?
Gears of War: Judgment has an unusual opening for the fourth entry in a series that has defined itself through a particularly muscular brand of machismo. Rather than the expected camaraderie and quips, we meet our heroes in chains, hauled before a military tribunal and charged with committing an act so heinous that a death sentence hangs over them.
Not much room for cover-based shooting and chainsaw antics there, you might think. Judgment has a trick up its sweaty sleeve, however. As the trial progresses, we flash back to the events that led to this situation, experiencing the story through the eyes of Kilo Squad's four members in turn as they recount their testimony.
Not only is Judgment played in flashback, but it's a prequel as well, set in the immediate aftermath of Emergence Day, when humanity's war with the Locust horde began. Fresh from the Pendulum War, supporting character Damon Baird is now elevated to the hero's chair.
The Louder You Scream, The Faster We Go
This isn't a series you'd expect to change radically, and it's true that much of Judgment feels familiar. You'll crouch and run to take cover behind crumbling walls, peering over the top with your Lancer rifle to take down the monsters that approach. If they get too close, you'll rev the chainsaw that's slung beneath your weapon and gut them from gizzard to groin. For those who only want the reassuring taste of Gears, everything you want is here.
But that taste has been cleverly changed by new developer People Can Fly, best known for the cheeky first-person shooter, Bulletstorm. Just as that cult hit was driven by a meta-scoring system based around the flair with which you dispatched enemies, so Judgment has taken on arcade qualities that result in a lighter, more accessible experience.
The game's six stages are broken up into seven or eight sections, each of which can last only five minutes or so. Taken together, the whole campaign still lasts well over seven hours, but it's far more replayable than any previous Gears title. Skirmishes are fast and bloody, and driven by a leaderboard mentality that ranks your progress using a three-star rating based on difficulty and performance.
Improving your star rating often involves undertaking optional "declassified missions". These are based on contradictions in your characters testimony and act as gameplay modifiers. You may be told that, actually, the following encounter was complicated by additional enemy forces, limited ammo or even high winds that made movement difficult. Accept these limitations and you'll score higher, but face a ramped up challenge in return.
These may seem like minor changes, considering the core feel of the game remains identical, but they make all the difference. This is a game designed from the ground up to be played and replayed, solo and in four player co-op, on multiple difficulty settings, and with or without the modified conditions.
The punchy bite-sized structure means that it's easy to dip back into favourite battles in search of better accolades, or just to enjoy the experience. Enemy spawns are randomised throughout, so no matter how many times you play the same section it will never be exactly the same.
There's a bonus campaign as well, unlocked when you earn 40 stars in the main campaign. Called Aftermath, this is a more traditional Gears experience with longer gauntlets of enemies to face down and no modifiers. Not only does it help to tie the story and characters of Judgment to the events of Gears of War 3, but it acts as a handy way to compare and contrast the difference in style between the two games. You may even find that the old way now feels a bit stodgy when played alongside the whipcrack action of this latest game.
There's multiplayer too, of course. You'll find the more traditional free-for-all and team deathmatch modes, along with Domination rounds where you hold and defend capture points against opponents. There's also a new Survival mode, an evolution of the Horde mode in the last game, where a team of human players must last ten rounds against wave after wave of Locust creatures.
All are great fun and well balanced, but it's OverRun that makes the package hum. This is a lop-sided match where you'll control both COG and Locust forces in turn, trying to push the other team back by opening or defending sealed E-Holes. There's a wonderful push and pull to these matches, and the chance to play as various outlandish monsters - from scuttling exploding Tickers all the way up to the thunderous spider-like Corpser, mean you'll discover new routes and tactics on the game's maps every time.
You'll level up in both campaign and online modes, but this isn't a game where veteran players are given an unfair advantage. There are no unlockable weapons or skills. Your level is simply there to show off your skill, reflected in the dozens of ribbons and medals you can earn for successful play. When so many shooters can be off-putting to those who haven't put in the hours needed to earn the best toys, there's a lot to be said for Judgment's ruthlessly level playing field where a Level 50 player has no more benefit than a Level 1 newcomer.
So while Judgment may technically be more of the same, it couldn't feel more different. The mechanics are familiar but everything around them has been shuffled, remixed and shaken up. It's a faster, gutsier, more inviting game and one that works just as well in a ten-minute burst as it does in an all-night session. Far from being a late and cynical addition to the franchise, it's the freshest sequel yet.
- The Gears gameplay you love with an arcade twist
- One of the best looking games on the Xbox 360
- OverRun is one of the best multiplayer modes in any shooter
- Aftermath campaign is a little thin
- XP is pointless if you're not interested in showing off
- Fragmented structure doesn't do the weak story any favours