As a long serving fan of the Gears of War series I naturally jumped at the chance to get a hold of Judgment on release date. I’d tried Overrun mode months ago during the Eurogamer expo and absolutely loved the collision of Horde vs. Beast mode. Surely anything on top of this mode would be a bonus right? Well let me run you through my thoughts on the complete package.
Probably the easiest place to start my review is to look at the campaign. As a devoted follower of the series (and reader of all the novels/comics) I was eager to enjoy a good story mode set shortly after E day (Emergence day, when the Locust first attacked the surface). The campaign delivers a great merge of old and new ideas, but doesn’t exactly hit the mark on delivering a solid story.
Basically (as you may have already seen) Baird and his team are on trial and you play the game out as ‘testimony’ from the four character’s viewpoints. The problem I find here though is that when the game starts at its first chronological moment the four members of the team are already together with no explanation as to why they’re working together. Baird and Cole are members of the same squad. Paduk might have been a part of that squad for some time (they mention why he now fights for the COG, but never really say how long he’s been fighting for them), but Sofia is a mystery to me. She’s a cadet at the Onyx training academy who (I can only assume) is cut off from the rest of the Onyx guards/cadets and joins the team. Gears doesn’t usually explain much during the game’s story. It is part of the genius of the series, it gives you enough information (usually) to form your own ideas as to what’s happening/happened in the world around. That said though the other Gears titles do generally offer actual introductions to the characters within the game as opposed to just diving in ‘here’s your characters, just go and play’.
Meet the new squad of fearless Gears
This is slight nit picking really though as the campaign mode is set out to be more like the arcade mode from Gears 3. For those who don’t know the arcade mode was a score based run through of the campaign mode. Although some of Gears 3’s campaign sections were fairly lengthy, Judgment’s campaign is designed with smaller sections (or missions) in mind concentrating on the ‘earn a high score’ style of play. Four players can jump in from the start of the game and work towards earning the elusive three star rankings within each mission. Stars are earned through killing enemies. Performing headshot/execution kills earns a higher yield towards the stars and the ‘Declassified missions’ help fill the star meter up even faster.
‘Declassified missions’ are probably the most interesting new addition to the campaign. Basically near the start of every mission you’ll find a big glowing omen on the wall. Activating these will display the criteria for the ‘Declassified mission’ and begin the additional boost to the star meter. The missions offer a wide range of game changing objectives from lowering your ammo, adding more enemies or even making you use certain weapons. The one I enjoyed the most came up almost at the end of the campaign and forces you to use Boom shields and sawed-off shotguns. The thrill of having to get ‘up close and personal’ to some very high powered enemies certainly made that section feel very different to any other encounters I’d had with Boomers and such throughout the rest of the campaign.
In all the campaign is excellent fun especially if you tag along with some friends and aim to take on the ‘Declassified missions’ on a higher up difficulty. The story is rather lacking, but the more arcade style action element seems to make up for character relations (there’s a very weird bit at the end of the Aftermath campaign where a completely unmentioned character relation moment is dropped on you and my thought was ‘what?! When was that ever implied?’ Hopefully you know what I mean). Once you earn enough stars you get the Aftermath campaign that (although) adds play time doesn’t actually feel as good the regular story. This is partly due to the lack of the ‘Declassified’ type missions and the fact that (at least in my mind) it feels more like a DLC that should have been included in Gear 3 (as it does fill in some gaps in Gears 3’s story). The Judgment and Aftermath campaigns both feel very different from others Gears titles to the faster missions, two weapon systems and (obviously) the new weapons. The campaigns do hold onto some of the features of the series that I can’t understand why they were taken out though i.e. ‘Down but not out’ states and active reloads (neither of these features appear in the other modes, but I’ll write more in the other sections).
Look out for Omens like this throughout the campaign
Now this mode really confuses me. It is essentially Overrun mode stripped down and made to look like Horde mode. Whereas in Overrun you have human players controlling the Locust, Survival mode pits you against computer controlled beasts. The computers are absolutely ruthless. They come at you in greater numbers than you ever have to deal with in Overrun with a larger pool of beasts to choose from (i.e. Boomers and Bloodmounts make their appearance). You (as the COG) still have to defend the same three objective points, but with the added number/power of the Locust Horde the COG classes seem greatly underpowered. Going against a Mauler or two in Overrun in bearable with a Medic (or two), but massive groups of them (along with Corpsers etc.) smash through your fortifications in sections. Being able to build new fortifications or even pick up better weapons would make this mode so much more balanced, but then again perhaps the name ‘Survival’ is an apt name for such a punishing mode.
If you don’t mind constantly seeing the Locust crush your defences or are tired of defending against player controlled beasts you might enjoy Overrun, but in all honesty I think it is a poor co-op (horde wanna-be) conversion of Overrun. It lacks the co-op preparations and fun of Horde mode, but also seems too similar to Overrun although without the competitive action.
I won’t really go on about Overrun (partly because I’ve already spent so long comparing survival mode to it), but rest assured it is a brilliant multiplayer mode. Working with friends (or strangers) and picking out the right combination of COG/Locust classes to defend/attack the objectives is an absolute joy to play. The only real downside at the moment is the number of maps on offer. With only four maps currently available you may get tired of playing the same level over and over again. Hopefully there’ll be a decent DLC pack out soon with some more maps to choose from and add so more variety, but otherwise Overrun is the best thing Judgment has to offer.
The other verses modes are rather different. As I mentioned earlier Judgment does away with series staple features such as ‘Down but not outs’ and active reloads and it really shows what a difference it makes in the verses modes. In Gears 3 defending an area with your team was fairly easy. If for some reason you took too much damage you would be downed and able to crawl around waiting for a team mate to revive. Judgment does away with this completely and kills you off as soon as your on screen omen completely fills. I see there are advantages to this approach in that its now impossible for anyone to ‘steal’ your kills by shooting at someone you’ve downed, but at the same time removes a strong feeling of team work being there to help your friend back on their feet. You may die easier, but you can now get back into the action faster using the respawn now button during your death cam. It certainly cuts down the waiting time between deaths, but leads to a few new annoying problems.
Library offers a deadly, but fair run to a power weapon spawn for both teams.
One absolutely major problem is that the maps (again only four to start off with) aren’t designed to be nice and symmetrical like those in previous Gears titles. This added with no set spawn points for entire teams to appear on (and switch) means you can spawn in faster after death, but there’s no guarantee you won’t be spawning away from the enemy team. I can understand this happening in the new all vs. all mode, but on TDM and domination it just seems strange there aren’t set spawns for the teams. Another problem with unsymmetrical maps in that one team generally spawns closer to a power than the other team giving one side a massive early advantage on the map. The map Gondola sees one team spawning on a side of the map with over three different weapon spawns, while the other team gets the Breechshot. As trusty/annoying as this new sniper rifle is, it doesn’t really compare to the combined fire power of a Torque bow, Longshot and a Booshka (a new bouncy grenade launcher). Even the Scorcher is difficult to obtain and that seems to be set in the middle of the map. I just don’t think verses was really tested out for fairness of weapon spawn placements or even amount of power weapon spawns on each map. Other Gears game have roughly three weapon spawns on a regular map (maybe five on a large map) making the fight to get to and then control the spawn worth the effort. A player with one of these weapons could feel like a god, but now there’s more than just a wealth of weapon spawns to deflate that feeling.
You’ll need to watch your back out there at all times
It has been building up over the past few titles now what you can choose to start off with going into a match. What rifle you’d use from a choice of three and what shotgun you’d rain death with. Now Judgment messes things up a bit and says ‘rifle or shotgun?’ and ‘what grenade would you like to go with that?’. Now I’m a massive fan of the Hammerburst. I loved using the Hammerburst in every Gears game (with 3 being my absolute favourite), but the one in Judgment has far too much kickback for me to get used to (seriously more than the Retro Lancer) and what is more stopping power has been removed from all assault rifles. Yes the stopping power they put into Gears 3 to help overcome the endless waves of Gnasher users just got completely thrown out the window for Judgment. This means that the whole choice of weapon system is a bit redundant since the only way you will stand a chance of surviving is fighting fire with fire (or more Gnasher with Gnasher). You will notice every game is filled with Gnasher users that have absolutely no personal space issues. They throw themselves at you constantly meaning there is virtually no time to try out the new or altered guns unless you want to spend most of the match looking at the death cam. The only thing you have in your defence wielding other weapons (not including Lancer/Retro Lancer) is the ridiculous melee. Mashing the B button when someone comes running at you will help you get out of some scrapes. This is mainly due to the fact melee hits are often faster than shooting at someone and two hits will kill an enemy player. Again it makes me feel that verses modes weren’t really that well tested as that and virtually every weapon in the game seem to have really unbalanced firepowers (the Scorcher is insanely powerful). They do seem to be fixing these issues throw patches though, so hopefully soon they’ll find the right balance for everything.
Now I mentioned grenades earlier. You get to choose which grenade you start off with now. Yep, no more fighting for the one precious frag spawn on the map anymore. Everyone gets a piece of the action from the moment they spawn in. Every encounter you make with an enemy seems to start off with frags being hauled at you and if they don’t stick to you (they no longer need to be melee stuck to a player, they just have to make contact whilst thrown), they’ll generally weaken you that much that the group of attackers can kill with a single sprayed pellet from their shotgun from an absurd distance. Players not opting for frag grenades can choose from a few other deadly options (strangely the flame grenades aren’t available for load outs, I have no idea why they aren’t and frags are) ranging from Inks to Stim-gas. Most give you a distraction, but the Stim-gas is a complete game changer to one-on-one situations. Basically most players using Stims will throw them ahead at the player they are going to engage. When they draw closer to the enemy the Stim-gas will instantly keep bringing them back up to full health every time they take damage. This means that essentially unless the enemy makes and instant kill shoot on you, you are almost invincible during the grenade’s effect period. It was always going to be a strange device to throw into the regular verses modes and many have shown their annoyance to it on the EPIC forums already. The only modes it works for are campaign, Survival and Overrun. Giving verses players brief invincibility is madness.
Gears of War Judment offers a wide array of different game modes with styles to suit most types of players. The campaigns will keep you (and possibly some friends) busy for a good while especially if you want to earn all the stars on each mission. Overrun will (if you’re like me) keep you playing for a long time even with the current lack of maps available. The sheer tactical fun and the joys and blowing up the best player on the COG team as a ticker will keep you coming back for more night after night. Survival mode is something that I feel needs to be altered. It needs to be made into more of a Horde style mode, because as it stands at the moment it is basically just playing Overrun with a punishingly difficult computer controlled Locust team (that breaks the rules by using Boomers).
I do have very mixed feelings about the verses modes mostly because I love playing Gears of War games online and Judgment’s verses modes don’t really feel like Gears anymore. The faster paced action is really the problem I have with, it is just a lack of staple features I’ve come to know the series for over the years are completely missing now. There’s barely any maps to play on and the ones there don’t really seem like they’ve been created with the tactical/symmetrical placements of weapon spawns that are at fair distances to both teams. I really hope that the DLC maps are more finely crafted and I can put this nagging feeling of the game being rushed to be Xbox’s first exclusive of the year to rest.
As it stands at the moment I would still recommend Judgment. I would just warn fans of the series that it is quite a different animal to the previous titles and not all of it for the better. Here’s hoping that VIP season pass pays for itself in the next few months.