Awwwwww, c'mon! No, seriously.
I began my time with the famed Gears of War series a little late, sometime during 2009. Though to this day do I wish I could have been there on day one, to marvel alongside everyone else at such a fantastic game and a promising start to a series. I've enjoyed my time with all three prior Gears games immensely, and while I can't deny that I've gotten a significant amount of enjoyment out of its latest release, Gears of War: Judgment, there's unfortunately too many 'ifs and buts' that plague what could have been a more than worthy follow up for the franchise.
Considering how Gears of War 3 left things off, it makes sense that for any new traditional Gears game to be set as a prequel. Thus Judgment is set 14 years before even the very first Gears of War, during the very early goings of the war between the COG and the Locust. However, Judgment adds very little to the overall fiction and most unfortunately of all makes very little use of its leads Baird and Cole, whom have until now been delegated to supporting cast members. This was very clearly established as a prequel purely as an excuse to ship another primarily traditional Gears game out.
That's not to say the campaign is bad or anything. In fact it's, for the most part, still pretty good and once again offers up the opportunity to play it all in four-player coop. For as little story, or even personality, that there is, Judgment carries on with the same tried & true Gears of War gameplay. But besides the act of taking cover, active reloading, and hearing your character shout ''Revive Meee!'', Judgment's campaign is of a different design than Gears past.
Built around its score-focussed nature, Judgment's campaign is pieced together primarily by what almost feel like small challenge rooms. The environments are smaller, there's very little to be found in terms of set-pieces or boss battles, and the core game is of a significantly smaller scale than previous games; the Gears of War combat is what was given the utmost focus. That may make it sound a little dry, but what Judgment has introduced to spice things up some are the Declassified Missions.
Before each combat scenario, there'll be a large Crimson Omen symbol plastered on a wall awaiting your arrival, which can offer the chance to change up how the combat scenario will play out. They can vary from adding a timer, forcing you to kill the enemies as fast as possible, restricting you to using a particular pair of weapons, or even obscuring your view with a constant hail of smoke grenades. There's not that much variety to 'em, and it felt like there was one too many that would simply slap on a timer to the proceedings, but some are definitely rather creative. To go from one Declassified Mission that limits you to using Longshot's and a Pistol, to the next then removing all ammo for Longshots and Pistols was devilishly hilarious. Another that forces you to use only Cleavers was also appreciatively ridiculous.
Some of the specific combat scenarios are pretty inventive too. There's a really thrilling homage to the D-Day invasion of Normandy during WW2, and there are a lot of sections that'll turn the game into a sort of Mini-Horde mode, where you'll have to defend against a few waves of enemies. There's even some mild-randomisation as well; both small bits of dialogue and even what enemies you'll face may be randomised each time you play; even reloading a checkpoint may greet you with a different set of nasties. And while it doesn't equate to the same unpredictability as what you'll find in Left 4 Dead, encountering Maulers the first time to be bombarded by Boomers the next certainly forces you to alter your tactics all the same.
Each separate mission will rank you on a three star system as well, though that there acts as a fine segue into one of the nagging problems I have with the game. So, Gears of War: Judgment is supposed to be a game that embraces a more arcade-y nature, sacrificing any kind of story or even personality in the process. However, Judgment's stars are all rather easy to attain, and most importantly of all, that's all there is: three stars. There's some small snippets of data inbetween each mission, tallying up how many kills you got, successful active reloads, and so on. But there's no numeric scoring system in play, which means the games loses that replay-incentive edge that Gears of War 3's Arcade Mode featured. In fact, for as interesting of an idea the Declassified Missions are, they're always the same each time and there are no kooky unlockables like adding a Laugh Track to the game or anything of the sort. And that then leads into the other notary problem I have with Judgment: there's just so little original content here.
So to kick things off, the campaign is actually a bit shorter than Gears games past, and while there's an additional 1-2 hours to be added with the extra unlockable campaign titled Aftermath--which takes you back to the Gears 3 era, during the time Baird and Cole separated from the group amidst Act III of the game--it removes both the star scoring system and the Declassified Missions and reverts back to basics. It thusly feels out of place and doesn't really gel with the main campaign; that, and it involves more combat against the human lambent enemies from Gears 3, which I never enjoyed fighting against all that much to begin with.
Furthermore, there's only one new enemy introduced into the game; called the 'Rager', it will initially function much like a regular Locust using the new Breechshot weapon--a powerful sniper rifle without a scope--but after so much damage it'll then rage the Hell out and basically turn into like a mini-Berzerker, swapping its gun for its claws in its frenzied attempt to unburden you of your face. Plus considering the timeline, none of the lambent enemies factor anywhere either--besides during one Declassified Mission where there'll be lambent wretches--making the actual enemy variety to be a lot slimmer than what we've now come to expect.
The new weapons fair a little better at least, even if adding in two new sniper rifles seemed a bit much. There's the aforementioned Breechshot; the other new semi-auto sniper rifle being the Markza, which while it does have a scope, it still lacks the zoom of the regular Longshot; the Bazooka-like Booshka, which can be difficult to use but destructive when mastered; and a Trip Wire crossbow, which, like the name implies, allows you to set up trip mines. They're all welcome additions and the core weaponry itself is still super fun to utilise.
Furthermore, you'll now occasionally locate ''Onyx Ammo Crates'', which'll supply you with full ammo for whatever weapons you have equipped -- power weapons, such as the Boomshot or Torque Bow included. Meaning that you may actually get the chance to hold onto your Longshot for a little longer if you so desire, which I appreciated. Still, speaking for what's on offer, Gears of War 3 set the precedent for what to expect in a Gears game, and Judgment unfortunately doesn't come close to reaching such heights. And I haven't even gotten to the multiplayer side of things yet.
As of this writing, there's currently some free DLC that'll add an additional map and an extra mode. But that's a temporary offer, and thus most people may still find themselves with the base game, which includes but only four multiplayer modes, four regular multiplayer maps (and another four exclusively for OverRun), nine character skins, and a downright disgusting amount of DLC. The multiplayer itself has gone through some rather radical changes at that.
Judgment overall is a much faster game than Gears past; animations are quicker, but also a lot smoother than they've ever been, and even the roadie run has been sped up an inkling as well. You can now take grenades in with you, and pairing it with the new control scheme allowing you to throw grenades with but the tap of a button means you can expect a lot more frags to be thrown around willy nilly. The Down But Not Out feature has been removed entirely from regular modes (though still persists in Execution); the concept of a sidearm simply doesn't exist anymore and a pistol will now count as your secondary should you decide to carry one; scores now tally up instead of counting down in Team Deathmatch; and the Locust faction has been removed from the majority of modes, resulting in a much more generic portrait of human Red vs Blue matches.
Some of the changes I welcome--most importantly the much faster and more fluid method for switching between your weapons--but removing DBNO, sidearms, and the Locust characters simply leaves me baffled as to why they'd go forth with such decisions. The multiplayer is still pretty fun, though, if decidedly different than what the hardcore purists have come to expect. And as someone who has never gotten too deep into Gears multiplayer in the past, the multiplayer has become to be surprisingly addictive. The core shooting is as satisfying and appealing for me as it's always been, and while Gnashers still populate the rounds as much as ever, ranged weaponry is now a much more viable alternative for those like myself who simply can't quite nail the art of 'wall-bouncing'. Believe me when I say that I can dish out some damage just with the use of my trusty Hammerburst rifle.
The key element that's supposed to set Judgment apart from its predecessors is its OverRun mode. Acting as a quasi-combination of Horde and Beast mode, it tasks one team as the COG to defend against an onslaught of the Locust. Difference here is both factions are played by human players. It's a neat concept, and with its new class system in play--made up of such classic archetypes as Soldier, Engineer, Medic, and Scout--acts as a suitable evolution of Beast mode. The classes fit into the core gameplay very well too and utilising a varied mix of classes feels pivotal to success -- on both sides.
However, the distinct lack of content is reprehensible. Judgment actually has a system in place where upon gaining so many kills or earning enough ribbons, you'll be awarded with a prize box that'll award you a random piece of loot -- as in a character armour or weapon skin. It's a fine way to dole out rewards for your continued playtime and it worked wonders with Mass Effect 3. The problem is, there's barely any actual skins to unlock in-game and roughly about 80% of the items are all exclusively kept behind an insanely high priced paywall. More often than not you'll rewarded with a measly cache of experience. Even characters that you play as during the Aftermath campaign--as in Clayton Carmine and Gears 3 era Baird--have been locked behind specific retailer codes; removing the Locust skins maybe wouldn't have stung that much if they at least buckled down on regular COG characters. But, no, literally like eight to choose from by default. What the Hell.
There's not even any traditional Horde mode in here, and its watered-down replacement titled Survival mode doesn't do its forebearers any justice. It's quite literally just OverRun mode but with AI Locust; no base building, no boss waves, smaller maps, and you can't even take in your own personalised character in and must still be restricted to the four core class type characters. What makes it especially disappointing is implementing the classes system in Horde mode is just about all that mode needed to be damn near perfect. Being able to repair my fortifications mid-wave? How could you destroy my dream, Epic!
During a lot of my time amidst playing Judgment, I would routinely visit the character customisation menu, browse the 'selection' of maps and let out an almighty sigh of frustration. They were only so few steps away from turning Judgment into a fine experiment of the typical Gears of War design; different, but respectable on its own merits. Hell, what's weird about all of this is it'll probably still find itself making its mark on my top ten for this year. I have to reiterate that I've had a lot of fun with Judgment overall, but even I can't dismiss the disheartening amount of business that permeates every corner like some kind of slime.