Welcome, COG! If you’re here to find out if the latest game in the Gears of War franchise, Gears of War: Judgment, is worth your hard earned dough, I’ll make this easy for you: Go out and buy it. Now. I feel quite confident in saying that if you enjoyed the previous GoW games, you will enjoy this one too. So don’t listen to the naysayers who might suggest to stay away because of a new control scheme, a disengaged story, or anything else. While not perfect, Judgment (developed by Epic Games and People Can Fly) is a fine addition to the series. It is faster, better-looking and deserves to be added to your Xbox 360 library.
So what is Judgment? Well, it’s a prequel to the original GoW trilogy and is set in the period following Emergence Day. The game is experienced in the form of flashbacks and testimony from the trial of Kilo Squad1. Lead by Damon Baird, Kilo Squad is a group of four individuals who are being tried for some indiscretions taken in their battle against the Locust. Rounding out the remaining members of the team are Augustus Cole2, and two new characters: Sofia Hendrick and Garron Paduk. Think of Sofia as the cautious and by-the-books cadet and Garron as the brash ex-POW-cum-COG loyalist3. While at times I found Sofia’s dialog to be a bit one-dimensional, and Garron’s to be a bit stereotypical (“Russian”4 brute), both characters are welcome additions to the franchise and helped forward the plot during the trial.
“Whaddaya mean there are five pulses?”
Speaking of story, I am probably one of the minority when I say that it was just as engaging -if not more so- than some of the other games in the franchise. You see, each level of the game is told by a different character from Kilo Squad. During all of the missions within each level, not only does a Kilo Squad member narrate, but you get to play as that same character as well. It felt quite engaging, and achieved the objective of pulling you into story, allowing you to walk in the shoes of each specific character. If Morgan Freeman, the king of narration, were a GoW fan, he would be proud.
The narrative structure also opens the door for two new concepts to the franchise: mission “star” ratings and character classes (I will discuss the latter when I get to my multi-player experience). The star ratings are an interesting introduction to the game and give it a much heavier arcade feel than the original trilogy. How they play out is that within each mission you are able to gain points that add up to a 3-star rating. Points are awarded for both playing well (not rushing ahead, saving your teammates, etc.) and style (executions, headshots, etc.). Further to that, you are also given the option to “declassify” each mission. Declassifying a mission makes it easier to earn points, but it also adds constraints to some aspect of the game-play. For example, some declassified missions limit your weapon choices while others add heavy smoke and fog to the environment. After each mission your score is tallied and your stars are awarded. You are then given the option to replay the mission to improve your score. This all plays out “ok”, but it does detract a bit from the overall flow of the game. Imagine a Joe Danger or Angry Birds rewards system in a story-driven third person shooter and you might get a sense of why this comes off as awkward. Fortunately for me, I’m a fan of The Club5, and I was not put off by this as much as I imagine others might be.
Nothing is cooler than a bad-ass team photo.
The other new concept that we are introduced to in Judgment is the character class. These classes are available in two new round-based multi-player modes, OverRun and Survival (an updated version of Horde mode). In each of these modes, you get to choose to be either an engineer who can deploy a sentry gun (Baird), a soldier who supplies ammo to teammates (Cole), a scout with the ability to deploy beacon grenades (Paduk), or a medic with the ability to throw stim-gas canisters (Sofia). Not only is this good for the franchise, but it takes the importance of teamwork and communication to a whole new level. While both skill and team coordination are critical to multi-player shooters, skill has traditionally been the more important factor. With the introduction of character classes, the balance of the two is slightly more even.
If you’re still reading, I’ll close with one more thing. What are you waiting for? Didn’t I tell you to go pick it up?