Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: Gears of War: Judgment!

There’s a very good reason why this game isn’t called Gears of War 4. I think of the Gears series as high octane, constantly ratcheting, episodic, interactive action movies where the gritty boombox-breasted protagonists are siphoned from one horrible situation to another. Traversing broken cities and strange lands, they’ve been inside a giant bug, battled light-sensitive bats, and even dodged a downpour of broken glass. Gears of War: Judgment, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of these things. Instead we get an almost real-time tour through... a museum, a college and a courthouse? Hmmmmmm. So what DOES it have?

Find out why it still kind of works... after the jump!

What Judgment really is, is a big middle finger to solo play. Like many other games this year, we're getting a very strong message - everything is social and networked now. And companies make more money when they don't just sell to you, but also three of your friends. The core campaign is not especially long, nor ambitious, and is rather lacklustre on your own, completely abandoning the cinematic structure and panache of the previous games. This prequel also ditches Gears' beefy bigwig Marcus, focusing instead on career douche Baird, the unintelligible Cole, racial stereotype Paduk and token girl Sophia, four Cogs who are on trial for disobeying direct orders in the time immediately following Emergence Day. As their story unfolds (in narrated flashback) you’ll play through their ill-fated mission, which is less of a story and more of an interconnected series of arenas and challenge rooms.

Each “section” is generally a multi-level battleground where unrelenting waves of the various accumulated bad guys will crawl out of the woodwork to murder you. You’ll need to strategize, placing turrets and traps and, most importantly, working as a team. So you’ll have far more fun if you play with three others, something you are thankfully able to do with both friends and anonymous strangers online. After each skirmish you’ll be judged on your performance and awarded stars depending on both the difficulty level and your effectiveness. To ramp up the challenge even further you can also choose to “declassify” each mission. Selecting this option adds an extra layer of trickiness such as limited ammo, a restriction to certain weapon types, or tougher enemies. The harder it is, the more you earn and you can spend these rewards pimping out your multiplayer character.

This change up in style of gameplay takes a little bit of adjusting to and at first I was incredibly disappointed with Judgment, but it does get better when shared with others (although it takes just one person to slip up and force you to restart the mission. This happened at least thirty times on one occasion as the same guy was repeatedly sniped. I began to suspect we were playing with a cat). I guess this is almost a logical extension of the popular multiplayer Horde mode, with the Gears team deciding that rather than our characters running around flicking switches, activating cutscenes, and getting teary about lost loved ones, the focus would instead shift to a constant stream of intense firefights. After all, that's why you're playing, right?

I’m personally a little mixed. I accept that this is an attempt at something new/different but I wish they'd found a balance between multiplayer challenges and the cinematic approach of old, especially when it comes to varying up the level design. As it stands, there is absolutely nothing memorable about the busted city that houses Judgment and all you do is engage in fight after fight after fight. There aren't even any vehicle sections! And only one mech! It seems incredibly lazy for a AAA release. However...

There's a bonus campaign also included here to further pad out the content. Called Aftermath, it's a complimentary chapter to Gears of War 3 and is a reasonably sized adventure on its own. Was it originally intended to be downloadable content? I'm not sure but that's definitely what it feels like - as though they didn't have faith in the value of what they were already offering. Aftermath sticks out because it does follow the original Gears of War style, i.e. it is a far more structured story mission with more memorable encounters and objectives. Although you can still play through it with up to three friends, just without the declassified missions or accumulation of stars.

What I didn't expect, however, is how different it is visually to the comparatively shiny Judgment. I assume Aftermath uses the Gears 3 assets and the character models are nowhere near as defined, nor are the colours as vibrant and sharp. And it all feels slower. Aftermath is pretty good but as I began carrying out the mundane tasks of finding switches and asking other characters about their love life, I began to actually appreciate the no nonsense approach to the main Judgment campaign.

Plus, of course, you also get your standard multiplayer modes in addition to all this, but having played the campaign through almost twice with other players already, my interest was starting to wane. There's a fair bit to do but, after a while, it does all start to feel the same, so only the most dedicated players will find longevity here. And despite all this content, it still doesn't really feel like a big AAA release, more like a bonus collection of multiplayer missions and oddities. Gears of War: B-Sides.

Although I'm a casual fan of the series, I had planned to skip this game altogether. I wound up finding it for half-price and I think that's probably just about right. I more than got my money's worth at that price, but the truth is there's far better games released last month to vie for your attention and time. It's the lesser of the series, and the lesser of March's biggest new games, but why not keep it in mind for later? It mightn't be such a bad thing to sustain you during the drought.

Judgment: Sure. Why not?

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