This might look the black sheep of the family, but it's actually worth it.
Right from the get-go you realize why this is called “Judgement”. Somehow, Damon Baird, one of the original four in the group since the first Gears, is being judged in a rather trumped-up trial. The form in which the charges are presented and how the seemingly superior ranked official storms on them makes everything seem conspicuously biased. Still, all of them are given the chance to speak and give his version of what had happened.
They take turns unfolding the story and each time you control a different character rebuilding their narrative in real time. Apparently they weren’t supposed to had done something that they did, why? Because they disobeyed direct orders. Not unlike what Marcus Fenix had been doing throughout the series up to that point, but still, let the tribunal hear and the official would give his final and unquestionable verdict.
The first few minutes might have more meaningful storytelling than all the other 3 Gears of War games combined. Not that it ultimately matters, you basically go from action sequence to action sequence shooting down gruesome enemies that seem much enraged as you are, in a battle that it’s never really clear when or why it began in the first place.
The fact the narrative works better this time around might have to do with the fact that Damon Baird is a better developed character than Marcus Fenix. Gears of War dropped a lot of the raucous macho attitude in favor of a more harmonious relationship between the four characters.
There’s also the addition of a woman character, Sofia Hendrik, who surprisingly doesn’t look like a masculinized modern day feminist. She stands as the the voice of reason in a group of air-heads. She still fights though, and is quite good at that. Along with Damon Baird, the other member of the secondary group in the original trilogy is also present, Augustus Cole. The fourth member is another friend of Damon, a guy named Garron Paduk, who is much more aligned with Gears’s type of taciturn, scarred manly men who prefers to shoot first and never ask any question.
This is typical Gears, episodic, full of action and explosions. They actually took down a notch in the noble task of introducing newer enemy variants at every few seconds. Gears of War 3 was basically one gigantic puzzle on how each enemy behaved and could be beaten.
The most important new feature are the Declassified Missions. Picture it this way, during the re-telling of the events in the game there will be a strange foggy Gears symbol attached to a wall right before some action sequences, if you inspect it you’re given the option to change the occurrences to a more extreme version. Of course you’re going to have to play that more extreme version so it’s up to you to accept or not this new “path”.
Some of them simply state that at that moment a fog had come down on them and the visibility was weakened. You’re going to have to deal with the fog during the whole sequence. Some of them state that a poisonous gas was released so they had a limited time to reach their destination, if you missed the time, you were dead.
Some extras are tougher than others so you can try to beat it and change your mind if you somehow are having trouble with it. The bonus for enduring this higher challenge is that you get more stars at the end of each episode. Depending on how well you did you might receive up to three stars which can unlock new stuff for both single and multiplayer.
The most important thing you can unlock by getting stars is the Aftermath chapter, which is not exactly related to the events of Judgement and in fact sheds a light on some of the events that took place in Gears of War 3 but wasn’t part of the Marcus/Dominic storyline. It features the length of pretty much a regular chapter and the very presence of it might be due to the fact that Judgement might leave the impression of being a DLC thrown in together in full package for revenue.
Another important change was made to how controls work, and the changes are excellent! You no longer need to count on the unresponsive digital pad of the Xbox 360 controller to change weapons. You simply press Y to change to your secondary. To throw grenades you no longer need to equip them, they used the left bumper to throw nades. By tapping it you'll do a quick throw, if you hold then the trajectory will be shown. The left bumper used to be used for telling the objective and no one really needed that, Gears of War has always been a corridor and what you needed to do was to shoot anything that moved.
My take on this is that Judgement is solid as a stand-alone full-length release, it just doesn’t follow the main storyline, but it’s certainly within the reaches of Gears. The fact that it features nothing new in terms of gameplay wasn’t an argument not to release both sequels to the first installment. Let’s be fair here, Gears didn’t try to redefine gaming, action, or third-person shooters in any way; not in the beginning, not now.
The multiplayer might as well be the best you can play in all four games. The usual deathmatch to see who scores big and kills the most is still the main meal. The latest addition is a mode called OverRun. This is pretty much a take on Gears if it were a team-based shooter. It works so well that it would be a shame if this mode doesn’t become a constant recurrent in later iterations.
In OverRun you get to play as both the COG (good guys) and the Locust (bad guys). Your objective as the COG is to prevent the Locust to completely damage the entrance to the Emergency Hole, denying them the advance in the course. If somehow you fail twice they will reach the last of a three-part round in which their task will be to destroy the generator.
If the COG successfully defends the advance of the Locust they immediately win the round. The roles are then changed and whoever was defending now has to attack. Whichever team gets farther wins the game. If both teams manages to reach the generator and destroy it then the team that did it fastest will be the winner.
To do that you assume the role of four classes in the COG and 8 different types of Locust. As the COG you simply change your role. You can be the engineer and repair the defenses, a soldier who inflicts damage and restores ammunition, a medic who deals damage and can revive downed team-mates or the scout who snipes from afar and can reach higher places in the maps for better vision.
As the Locust you need to start with one of the four regular, weaker grubs, while gaining score points. If you earn enough points you can become a much stronger enemy, like the Serapede (a giant centipede imune to front attacks) or a Corpser (the big shielded guys). Controlling the opposition — not only in multiplayer with human-like controls — and getting to control monsters like the Corpser is an amazing feeling. Some might be overpowered, but still, whoever manages to do better will win the round and some always have to win anyway.
The co-op is solid as well. The four characters are always together so it doesn’t feature different paths like it did in previous Gears. Playing with 3 other people online, especially if you know them, is pretty satisfying and the whole game was build from ground up for this very purpose.
So Gears of War: Judgement might be the black sheep of the family in Gears, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. The OverRun multiplayer by itself is one of the best multiplayer mode I’ve played in a while and the campaign is good old Gears. There’s not much not to like except the fact that the main team of protagonists aren’t featured. I actually thought it was a plus, but to each his own opinions.