The Gears of War franchise returns with its fourth installment, shifting the focus from the incredibly powerful Marcus Fenix to the unassuming, yet quirky and foul-mouthed Damon Baird. The fourth game, which takes place just after the infamous Emergence Day, is a story about Kilo squad and their persecution for trying to save a human settlement. As always, defiance is at the heart of the matter, with the trait being the reason for Marcus’s incarceration and Baird’s (along with his entire squad’s) persecution. Gears of War: Judgment, as a new trilogy has a lot to live up to, as the original trilogy casts a pretty damn big shadow. So, how does the new game fare? Well, we got an early review copy, stocked up on an illicit amount of bullish energy drinks, junk food and locked ourselves away to provide you with an answer.
Gears of War: Judgment is set in the time just after “Emergence Day,” and follows Kilo squad as they try to save Halvo Bay, a city of much prominence on Sera during the time. The main protagonists, Marcs Fenix and Dominic Santiago are replaced in this series by the smart-ass, foul-mouthed Lt. Damon Baird whose wit and sarcasm is balanced throughout the game by Pvt. Augustus Cole’s level-headedness. With two others, Garrun Padock and Sofia Hendrick, they make up Kilo squad, which is going through a trail for the crime of stealing top-secret COG technology.
The game opens with a cut-scene of the entire Kilo squad being arrested, loaded into a Raven and flown to Halvo Bay for a Tribunal hearing. The hearing is led by Colonel Ezra Loomis, who is in good mind to dish out the worst punishment for what Kilo squad has just done, but not before giving the four accused a chance to narrate the incidents that forced them to take the actions that they did. The story is revealed in the form of their testimony, and hence, allows the user to step into the shoes of each of the characters for a part of the campaign. For those wondering, yes, you do get to play as Sofia Hendrick, the foxy red-headed cadet from Onyx Guard Academy. This is the first time that players can play as anyone but the main protagonist, as has been the case in the original Gears trilogy.
The story has two layers to it, the one that is narrated through gameplay and the other that is unlocked by activating the “Declassified Missions” in each level. Essentially, Declassified Missions make the level a whole lot harder to get through, by exponentially increasing the number of Grubs that attack your squad, all while reducing visibility to almost nothing. Activating Declassified Missions also allows you to earn Stars a lot faster, collecting 30 of which will unlock AfterMath, an additional campaign mode that takes places during the events of Gears of War 3, but more on that later.
Epic Games has made some pretty noticeable changes to the gameplay, but nothing that takes away from the its true lineage. Originally, your ammo-quota was three guns and a set of grenades, which you could toggle between using the D-pad. In Judgment, you only get to wield two weapons, and grenades are a separate thing altogether. All it takes is a tap of the left button to toss a grenade, much quicker from the old D-Pad-Up-Arrow-Aim-Toss ritual. Switching between the two guns is also a whole lot faster, thanks to just having to tap ‘Y’ to toggle between them. It might take a little getting used to initially, and so we strongly recommend not skipping the tutorial at the beginning.
Gears of War: Judgment lives up to the GoW lineage through and through. There is a lot of serious firepower available in this game like the Booshka, a single shot-grenade launcher that is especially useful in taking down the beefier grubs like the Boomers. The best part about this gun is that the Booshka is able to fire grenades that can bounce off walls, so you can blow up grubs from around a corner. The Markza is a new sniper rifle introduced to address the frustration many players had with the Longshot; that it could not fire rapidly. The Markza fires rapidly, but requires at least two accurate shots to take down an enemy whereas Longshot required only one. A fair enough trade-off if you ask us. There are two new kinds of grenades, one that can start regenerating health and the other than can pinpoint the location of any enemy nearby using a sonar-like property. Epic Games has provided everything one would need to take down the Locust, including automated sentry turrets, so it just breaks down to how skilled you are at pushing through the wave after wave of Boomers, Ragers and Bloodmounts.
The new game also boasts of a Smart Spawn System, which ensures that every time you respawn, the enemy utilizes a new tactic to waste you. We couldn’t wait to see if the claims were true, and we intentionally let our character die six times at various points in the game to see how the strategy would change. In many cases, the enemy would start their assault from a new position, taking full advantage of the vast landscape of the maps, but many a times, we were faced with different enemies altogether. This made the levels especially challenging, and kept us on our toes and those of you who love a good challenge, will be getting just that thanks to the Smart Spawn System. Combine this with an activated Declassified Mission and it’s nothing short of a sh*t storm.
The one good thing about the Gears of War: Judgment is that ammo is quite freely available throughout the entire game (except for the Longshot, it is as if the developers don’t want us using the damn thing), which certainly wasn’t the case in Gears of War 3, which was rather more difficult to get through. Having a weapons cache round every corner will definitely encourage the “spray and pray” method of playing, which we feel takes away from the game’s difficulty. Grenades still require a lot of precision though, and the Locust are smart enough to dodge.
Gears of War: Judgment is all about the heat of the battle, about shoving the intensity of close-quarters war-fare right in your face. This is does effectively with an AI that focuses on boxing you into corners, along with some very stunning visuals. The graphics of the game are absolutely beautiful, though we wouldn’t exactly consider them next-gen. What does stand out though is the stark improvement in the physics engine that simulates fire, water and wind quite well (including their effects on the immediate environment). However, for us what stood out the most was the auditory experience the game brought to our living room. If you have a good enough music system hooked up to your console, then you will be able to hear the subtle nuances of the game, such as the clanking of military issued boots, feel the boom of every single grenade, and maybe even hear the shell hit the ground from every time you fire the Longshot.
The Multiplayer aspect of the game is just as gratifying as the campaign, offering hours upon hours of relentless fun. The new OverRun mode is simply amazing, and shows that the developers are truly focused on delivering a unique gameplay experience. The mode is a class based mode, a first of its kind in the franchise, which does away with mindlessly running around killing each other in favour of a more objective based challenge. The OverRun mode epitomizes the importance of team-work over everything else, so make sure you’re on the right team. Along with that, there’s also Domination, a new five versus five team-based competitive multiplayer mode. Teams compete to control three rings placed throughout the map to earn points.
If you’re the classic multiplayer enthusiast, fear not as Microsoft has retained the Free for All and Team Deathmatch modes as well, so that you can establish for good who’s the boss.
We couldn’t get the multiplayer modes going very effectively as at the time of review, there were only a handful of individuals with access to the early copy of the game and not all of them were online at the same time as us. But whatever little we did manage to play (OverRun and Domination), we can safely say that those who finish the campaign will find themselves spending a lot of time in these two modes. If you don’t have an Xbox Live Gold account, now would be a good time to get yourself one.
A secondary campaign mode that gets unlocked after you have successfully racked up 30 stars during the primary campaign. The events of AfterMath take place in the Gears of War 3 timeline and follow a now “seasoned” Baird and Cole as they revisit their past, Halvo City to scrounge for backup. The campaign lasted us all of about 30 minutes, but doesn’t actually show how they manage to pull together an entire fleet of Ravens. The boat does get explained though, which is a pretty damn awesome thing in of itself.
Regardless, the mini-campaign is quite a bit of fun, and definitely something to look forward to if you’ve busted through the main campaign at lightning speed, like we did. While AfterMath itself is set as a dead end, it does raise many questions, which we feel will be answered either in the upcoming DLCs or will be part of the other two Gears of War games.
Gears of War: Judgment offers a very delicate mix between what we’ve come to love about the game and what we will come to love about the series. It builds on the story of two very important characters that did not get their fair share of the limelight in the original trilogy and it does so in style. It doesn’t seem to rely at all on the events of the original trilogy, which is good for any first timers. In fact, the game does little to explain any of the events from the original Gears of War Trilogy, but it does give us a good insight into Baird and Cole. Given that the game is set during the time of just after E-Day and given the way Marcus Fenix and Baird have their first run-in in the original Gears game, we feel that the two upcoming games in the trilogy will be used to fill in that gap.
So the obvious question is, should you buy it, and to that we say – yes! Gears of War: Judgment is everything we have come to expect of the franchise and more! There’s blood, there’s glory and there sure as hell is a lot of profanity. We recommend plugging in the loudest set of speakers you have to your Xbox 360 to truly enjoy the riveting experience that Gears of War: Judgment has to offer. The only thing disappointing about the game was that we felt it was over too quickly. The campaign felt like it was shorter than its counterparts in the original trilogy, but that could just be because we managed to plough through the grub scum with too much ease on Normal mode. For those who find this too boring, there is always ‘Insane’ difficulty.
Publishers: Microsoft Game Studios
Developers: Epic Games, People Can Fly
Platform: Xbox 360 (Exclusive)
Availability: March 20, 2013