Damon Baird and Kilo squad are charged with cowardice, desertion, theft of military tech, and treason. While cities fall around them to the Locust hordes, Colonel Loomis looks down on Baird, Augustus “The Cole Train” Cole, Onyx Guard Academy Cadet Sofia Hendrik, and former UIR Major Garron Paduk, ready and very willing to sentence them all to death.
In Gears of War: Judgment, Epic Games and developers People Can Fly take us back to the beginning of the war against the Locusts - to the aftermath of Emergence Day. It’s fourteen years before the events of the original Gears of War and the planet Sera is recovering from the war between the Coalition of Ordered Government and the Union of Independent Republics. Then, armies of Locusts swarm out of holes in the ground and death, destruction, and plenty of snappy one-liners ensue.
Released in 2006, the original Gears arrived with plenty of hype and a brilliantly atypical trailer. When the dust settled, and the pools of bug blood dried on the rubble of a ruined world, Gears of War left with a bucket load of Game of the Year awards and lead developer Cliff Bleszinski firmly established as the king of the gaming blogosphere.
It was all well deserved. With a tight control system, and plenty of online options, Gears of War looked and sounded like you were thrown into the middle of an epic sci-fi action flick. Gears of War 2 and 3 followed, with a few refinements to the gameplay and, because the first game got a bit of criticism over the lack of depth to the story, a whole lot more emotional baggage.
In Gears of War: Judgment, now without CliffyB, we get a typical bulletstorm of world-ravaging warfare, with humanity facing off against a seemingly unstoppable alien horde. But, you knew that when you signed on. Judgment is Gears of War to the core. It’s a noisy, big-budget release that’s polished and playable, and you know it is going to shift a whole lot of units.
But, what’s new?
For a start, in campaign mode you get to play as all four members of Kilo squad. While they are on trial, each member tells a chapter of the story from their point of view. The most enjoyable of the four is Garron Paduk. With his horribly scarred face, heavy East European accent, and bleak attitude, you can’t help but like him. Especially when he looks forward to wiping out all the bugs so everyone can get back to killing each other - like normal people.
For a while Paduk, and the rest of Kilo squad, have to be content with killing Locusts. And there a lot of Locusts to kill. Often all at once. Sometimes you can’t move from the amount of Bloodmounts and Berserkers swarming around waiting to be shot or blown up by the UIR-issued Breechshot and bouncing grenade-firing Booshka. And with the fighting more intense than ever, and a new spawn system that means different enemies can turn up in different locations every time, the addition of a Stim-Gas grenade (which releases a cloud to heal you and your squad) is very welcome.
Unfortunately, compared to some recent big releases, Judgment’s campaign mode misses some tricks. Apart from the occasional big cinematic vista, the cut scenes are mostly of Kilo squad walking through doors and standing around talking. When you think of some of the jaw-dropping stuff you get in other games, as you seamlessly switch from gameplay to cut-scene and back, by the tenth time you cut to Baird kicking open a door and walking into another bombed out location, you’ll have had enough.
The upside of this is that you get a whole lot of checkpoints. The campaign’s chapters are split into very short little missions. Often these missions will be just clearing a room or protecting a robot for a few minutes as it opens a door. If you die, at worst you restart the mission, while some longer missions even give you a couple of checkpoints along the way.
At the end of each mission you get the usual stars, experience points, ribbons, collectables, and achievements that level you up, unlock Aftermath - a special chapter set during the events of Gears of War 3 - and plenty of characters and skins for when you’re ready to go online. And any game that awards an “I’m your Huckleberry” ribbon for five handgun kills in a row, is my kind of game.
As you would expect, in the week leading up to the game’s release, Judgment’s online hub has been a fairly lonely place. However, with everything ready and waiting, and the ability to play games against bots, at least I was able to get in there and try out the new online modes. And, just quietly, collect a few achievement ribbons, like most headshots and best kill/death ratio, that I’ll have no hope of getting once the place is flooded with Gears of War vets.
New to Gears of War online is OverRun, where two teams of five players each go against each other as COG and Locust soldiers. Each player on the COG side gets to choose what class they want to be, from scout, medic, engineer, or soldier. If you’re on the Locust side you get to choose what kind of bug you want to be.
In timed rounds, COG soldiers have to defend E-holes and a beacon from the attacking bugs. If the Locusts break through and destroy the seal on an E-hole the round moves to the second hole. If this falls, the COG soldiers have to fall back to protect the beacon. If the beacon is destroyed the bugs win and the teams switch sides.
There is also Domination, where red and blue COG soldiers capture and defend three positions. Points are awarded as positions are held. The first team to 250 points wins. And at last, for up to ten players, and needing no explanation, there is Free For All.
The maps look great, from coastal villas to military buildings and museums. While not big, they are complex and varied enough to give snipers a chance as well as those who prefer their chainsaw. Unfortunately, while I did occasionally get into a match with a real person, it happened very rarely (like twice in three days). It was disappointing that, even playing against bots 99% of the time, there were still a few (seemingly lag-related) glitches. More than once I had an enemy staring down the barrel of my Hammerburst only to have them flicker out and appear on top of me with their Lancer’s chainsaw bayonet buzzing towards my head.
Although it’s in no way game changing, Gears of War: Judgment is a fast paced, satisfyingly violent, action shooter. If you’re new to the franchise you can charge through the story on easy, or veterans can ramp up the difficulty and play a careful squad based campaign, fully utilising the game’s cover system, along with three friends via local co-op or online. And online will keep a lot of people happy for a long time, with the new modes and some familiar character skins to unlock.
While originality was never something Gears of War aimed for, it knew what it wanted to do and did it very, very well. And it looked and sounded great doing it. Is that going to be enough to satisfy fans a fourth time round? Probably. And Judgment is every bit a great shooter. It’s just that - even this early in the year - it’s not the best looking, best sounding, or the most cinematic game of 2013.