Can Gears stay relevant? Yes, for now...
Gears of War: Judgment is the ugly duckling of the Gears of War family. A prequel that comes only 18 months after the trilogy wrapped up featuring supporting characters in lead roles is a recipe for disaster. For a franchise that has been a trendsetter in the past with it’s groundbreaking mechanics and hugely addictive modes like Horde comes a game that looks like a cash grab. It deserves huge credit that in spite of all these rightful concerns, Gears of War: Judgment is a great game that you should play and shows that it might be impossible to make a Gears of War game that isn't damn fun to play.
I would like to state that I see Gears of War as a co-op game almost entirely. The game is designed to be played with friends and that’s exactly what I've done. My entire 45 hours with the game so far whether on the Campaign or Multiplayer has been with at least one friend so this could affect my enjoyment of the game. If you are playing Gears alone you are doing it wrong. Let’s now get to the interesting stuff, firstly the campaign.
The environments all hold up to Gears’ high standards and the level design is fantastic
The campaign sees former supporting characters Damon Baird and Augustus Cole take center stage for the first time as they are on trial in events set before the original game. We discover what they did through testimonies told in court and we start to discover how people were reacting at the time when the Locust attack had only just begun and had not been fully understood it yet. This story is very weak for many reasons. Firstly, Baird and Cole just aren't strong enough characters to carry a story and the new supporting cast isn't memorable in the slightest. The story told also doesn't really add anything to the overall arc we are aware of and does not serve any purpose other than to put these characters into cool combat situations.
This is where the Campaign excels however. Putting aside how ridiculous the premise is the actual missions are really fun. The environments all hold up to Gears’ high standards and the level design is fantastic once again. The introduction of Declassified Missions which can be activated at the start of each section completely change the way you play the game for the first time in franchise history. Whether you have to only use snipers, vision is obscured by smoke, a time limit is in place or enemies are just more frequent and aggressive it completely switches up an old formula and ultimately leaves every section feeling fresh and new. This really is the only way to play this game.
A star system is also in place that gives you a score for each section depending of how well you did it such as getting head-shots and not being downed. This score is the same for all players and doesn't involve competing like Gears 3’s Arcade mode which only encouraged kill stealing and unnecessary competition. To see a co-op based score introduced is very nice as it is just another reason to play well, not just for yourself but for the team.
Former supporting characters Damon Baird and Augustus Cole take center stage for the first time
Overall, Judgment’s campaign is a good length that doesn't drag with lots of memorable moments to the point that I found myself enjoying it very much. Outside of the first game it is probably my favorite campaign so far. Gears 3 had the closure to the story but for pure fun gameplay this is up there for sure. I played on Hardcore with a friend as Insane isn't unlocked until you beat the game once and found the difficulty a good level between tough to beat and rewarding whilst never becoming frustrated. Also, acquiring a certain amount of stars through the main campaign you will unlock Aftermath, a short campaign that tells the story of what Cole and Baird were doing during the final moments of Gears 3.
Having played the main campaign first the changes between the two games becomes even more obvious, with levels feeling a lot bigger and longer to get through and not as exciting with the Declassified Missions nowhere to be seen. It’s great seeing enemies such as Lambent Humans return and after a strong start it seemed to slow down and then drag until a disappointing finale. It’s nice this was included as an extra but in the end it left me wanting more than what I was given.
Survival is the new wave based mode which sees up to 5 players choose from 4 different classes to defend against 10 waves of Locust who try and attack 3 different points before they win and it’s game over. It’s a nice idea but execution is off for a number of reasons. The AI seems to be way overpowered in this one mode unlike anything I've ever seen. As someone who always plays on Hardcore or above I found it almost impossible to finish on anything above Normal, even with 5 good players. Couple this with the fact that the only way to play public online matches is on Hardcore then unless you have 4 friends willing to play private matches the mode is almost unplayable.
The best thing to ever happen to Gears is nowhere to be seen
The next problem is that there is no Horde Mode. That’s right. The best thing to ever happen to Gears is nowhere to be seen. This makes Survival look even worse as it isn't an extra mode but more a replacement which is majorly inferior. Having Gears 3’s Horde Mode with the added ability of being able to fix fortifications as an Engineer would have been awesome and even if it comes as DLC it is no excuse for its omission from the retail version.
The biggest and best new mode is undoubtedly Overrun mode. The first class-based competitive online mode in Gears history sees teams switching sides between Cog and Locust to see who can destroy 3 bases the quickest as the Locusts, whilst Cog are tasked with defending the 3 areas. As Cog you choose from 4 different classes (the same ones featured in Survival) which are Engineer, Soldier, Medic and Scout. Each has their own different abilities such as being able to fix fences as an Engineer or being able to heal teammates as a Medic. All of them are balanced with their own strengths and weaknesses except Scout which seems slightly under-powered compared to the rest.
As Locust you are presented with a list of different enemies to play as such as Tickers and Wretches which are unlocked early but as you earn points you unlock some rather powerful choices such as Maulers and Serapedes. Whilst mechanically similar to Beast Mode this takes those ideas and uses them in a much better way. Each feel unique and all have different abilities that are useful for each section of each different map. You won’t find yourself just using one enemy such as a Ticker until you unlock something awesome which could have been a problem had the different locusts not been made so balanced and the maps so well put together.
An amazing addition to the franchise that creates an even richer experience
A small issue is that Locusts are considerably stronger than Cog which can make defending bases frustrating. However when you get a good team together and shut out a team it feels so rewarding and even better when you get your shot at kicking ass as the Locusts. It’s also a shame there is only 4 maps but after playing the mode for over 20 hours I still find it extremely fun and I’m yet to get bored of it. It’s an amazing addition to the franchise that takes the fundamentals of Beast Mode and creates an even richer experience. This is the best part of Gears of War: Judgment for sure.
The rest of the online competitive modes that fill out this package are Team Deathmatch, Domination and Free for All. Team Deathmatch is what you would expect only this time around we see Cog vs Cog with no Locust in sight for the first time. This becomes slightly confusing as the red and blue tints used to distinguish teams isn't very eye catching and definitely presents an unnecessary challenge. Domination sees two teams trying to hold 3 different positions at the same time for as long as possible to gain enough points to win the match. It plays similar to King of the Hill but isn't as fun and ultimately isn't something I want to play for extended periods of time.
And finally we get to Free For All, the first ever non team based mode to feature in any Gears game. As I stated earlier I see these games as a completely co-op experience so don’t see the point in this mode at all. I understand some will like it as not everyone will have friends to play with or want to play with strangers but I can’t think of anything more boring in a Gears game so after trying it I will never be going back to this mode again.
This package feels vastly smaller than Gears of War 3
Mechanically the game is almost untouched from Gears 3 which isn't a huge issue due to how well that game plays. Is does feel slightly disappointing as the jump between the previous games was huge in terms of mechanics and content. This package feels vastly smaller than Gears 3 and even if they just added the exact same Horde mode completely unchanged from the last game it would have felt fairer to the consumer. Even bringing over those old maps would have padded the experience slightly more.
Graphically the game looks as stunning as ever. Whilst nothing here blows you away like the original game back in 2006, everything on display is incredibly well designed and environments as usual look extremely detailed. I experienced zero glitches of frame rate problems during my entire time with the game which is what you would expect from the series known for it’s very high production values. The soundtrack is also as beautiful as ever and sound effects in particular make every weapon feel unique. If you can find me a better noise in a video game than headshotting a locust I would like to hear it.
In terms of co-op games, nothing comes close
When it comes down to it, your enjoyment will be based on how much you want to play more Gears of War. Some changes to the campaign make it feel fresh and different but primarily it is still very much what we have seen before. Overrun being the only true new mode worth your time (it’s actually worth buying this game for that mode alone), you may feel like you have played this game before. For me personally I find the overall gameplay of the franchise, with it’s vast use of enemies and weapons to be one of the most fun games to play this generation. And in terms of co-op games, nothing comes close. If you own an Xbox then you will struggle to find a more fun game to play this year. Even if it doesn't reinvent the wheel, it sure as hell hasn't broken it yet.