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Gears of War: Judgment takes a step toward the small-time (Review)

Gears of War: Judgment

I think we can all agree that Damon Baird is, for all intents and purposes, a sentient dick move.

The least meatheady member of Delta Squad in the billion-dollar Gears of War franchise, Baird somehow turned the voice of reason into a non-stop whine. He mixed a solid background in “complaining about everything” with a side of “brag up minor accomplishments” and threw in a hint of “make someone else do it, I’m too smart.” In the brutal, planet-wrecking war between humans and the ruthless subterranean Locust, Baird was the guy people put up with — usually — because they had to, not because they wanted to, and we laughed at his many frustrations. Baird might’ve been Mr. Fix-It to series heroes Marcus and Dom, but he was comic relief to us.

Gears of War: Judgment (releasing March 19 on the Xbox 360) casts him as the lead protagonist. Consider that something of a metaphor. For this entry in their powerhouse franchise, original developer Epic Games kicked things over to a subsidiary, People Can Fly, most recently known for 2011’s amusingly profane but unremarkable shooter Bulletstorm. From the outside, it’s an interesting fit. Two secondary players get some time in the spotlight to tell their story … something I generally approve of.

But y’know how “story” has never been Gears’ strong suit?

What you’ll like

Gears of War: Judgment

Shooting things with big guns

Set years before the first Gears of War, Judgment is the heartwarming story of how Baird got his groove taken away. He and his command, Kilo Squad — made up of fan-favorite Augustus “Cole Train” Cole and newcomers Sofia Hendrick and Garron Paduk — arrive already in chains, on their way to an amusingly blunt kangaroo court. The game then flashes back to explain why the presiding judge, General Loomis, wants to put on this farce just so he can legally kill them.

So yes, it’s a flashback-within-a-prequel, and that largely applies to the gameplay as well. Judgment doesn’t stray one inch from the cover-based, grub-killing shenanigans from Gears of War 3, right down to the loading message pop-ups, menu navigation, and visual cues for nailing an active reload (thus boosting your firepower). It still works, and a few small tweaks even slims the controls down a bit. People Can Fly jettisoned the pistol sidearm nobody ever used in favor of a two-gun package and modified the controls accordingly, also making it far easier to use grenades on the fly without having to select them first. Good changes all around.

Less good? The always-reliable Hammerburst lost both its auto-fire and its iron sights aiming, flipping it from best to worst for no reason I can figure out. To make up for it, three new additions make it into the Gears arsenal, two of which are standouts. I enjoyed planting live grenades on enemy heads with Booshka, a down-and-dirty launcher, but the sniper-lite Markza became my go-to gun. It took me a bit to dial into Markza’s dark charms, but true love eventually blossomed.

And while you still take these beauties on an 8-hour campaign, I didn’t feel the need to hug cover 24/7 this time. Between easy grenade throws and hordes of charging enemies, I probably spent more time out in the open than in all the other Gears games combined, and that made a nice change, too. It also made it easier to earn the universal currency of video games: stars. That’s right, Gears now grades you section by section, awarding experience points towards unlocks and assigning stars based on executions, dismemberments, and awards earned. It takes 40 stars to unlock a sixth, hour-long chapter called Aftermath, which flashes-forward to a side-story during Gears 3 where we catch up with some of Judgment’s survivors. Naturally, the years have not been kind.

Of course, once you hit that 40-star threshold — which you can comfortably do by mid-game — the motivation for earning starts drops away fast, save for Achievement whores and perfectionists.

Gears of War: Judgment

Rocking the multiplayer

Likewise, the latest update to Gears’ online carnage streamlines the game, but not without a few major changes.

Mainly, it’s what’s missing that will annoy fans most. Capture the Leader? King of the Hill? Warzone? Execution? Dedicated Beast and Horde modes? All gone. The new headliner is OverRun, which adapts Battlefield’s Rush mode to a Gearsy five-stage attack/defend scenario. Human players guard a capped emergence hole while Locust players breach fortifications to destroy that cap, and it’s great fun in both directions. All the different Locust classes return, and now COG soldiers get classes, too: medic, engineer, soldier, and sniper.

No, those roles and their special abilities don’t exactly stretch the bounds of innovation either, but the balance of those abilities with the preset loadouts plays very well, particularly when your defenses crumble (victory goes to the team that holds out the longest), all while adding Battlefield’s tactical edge to your Gears playstyle. It’s a lean, mean game.

People Can Fly also ported OverRun’s framework over to Survival, the “Horde 3.0″ mode where instead of merely surviving increasingly tough waves of enemies, you must defend the e-hole caps for ten rounds; getting pushed back starts the count over again. Much as I like objective-based games, this ruins the point of Horde, which was simply to survive as long as possible. Forget roaming the whole map. You’re stuck to that one spot. As-is, Survival simply repeats OverRun’s example without giving you a turn as the Locust.

Domination’s control-points fight make for sticky fun, and it must be noted that every non-OverRun map counts as a winner. Several let you hop aboard a mobile platform. In Rig’s case, you slip behind the mounted chaingun of a King Raven helicopter as it hops from one landing pad to the next; Gondola has map-traversing (you guessed it) gondolas. Even without those extras, I found a lot to enjoy in Library’s literary cover and long sight-lines, while Streets’ excellent verticality always kept me looking up when I wasn’t aiming downward. For team or solo deathmatches, you won’t want for good killing fields, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself sneaking back to Gears 3 to play the old-school modes the way you really want to.

And a warning: I detected a shocking amount of clipping where the target in my sights suddenly teleported to another part of the room. I hope that doesn’t bode ill when a few million players jump aboard.

Gears of War: Judgment

It’s got some character

With Baird in charge and the Locust War just beginning, Judgment isn’t nearly so dark and depressing as previous installments. It still knows how to twist a knife, though. Baird leads his squad through a freshly-destroyed city still draped with bright blue “Victory!” banners … a victory against Paduk’s country, as it turns out.

The flashback setup gives each member of Kilo Squad their own chapter — Baird gets three, including Aftermath — suggesting a broken Rashomon where everyone remembers the same thing. Ah, but the great Akira Kurosawa and Ryunosuke Akutagawa didn’t have an interactive medium to play around in. Judgment changes things up by letting players activate “Declassified” variants before every section of the game. These expose off-the-record details that fundamentally alter the game you’re about to play … handicapping your weapons loadout, adding a blinding fog or aim-impairing wind, putting you on a timer to escape before the saturation bombing begins, or boxing you in with enemies on all sides.

One Declassified tasks you with destroying egg caches or getting hit with more enemies as a result. I only found nine of the 10 caches before I got bored and moved onward. Believe me, I felt that consequence. I wish more Declassified options had taken this approach.

Regardless, I cannot stress enough how much activating Declassifieds improves Judgment. They finally kick the game and the gamer out of their comfort zones. Without them, the game proves almost ridiculously easy on Normal difficulty, and that makes Aftermath — which doesn’t have Declassifieds — more of a distraction than a challenge.

And that’s the big problem with Judgment.

What you won’t like

Gears of War: Judgment

The soul-crushing sameness

Playing through Gears of War: Judgment’s campaign feels a lot like a duller version of déjà vu. Everything about it seems recycled to the point where the game wisely lets veteran players disable most tutorials before they even reach the main menu.

In the first Gears, your squad spends most of its time locating, securing, and deploying a Lightmass bomb. In Judgment, your squad spends most of its time locating, securing, and deploying a Lightmass missile. And nothing on your path to doing so stands out in any meaningful way.

None of the encounters qualify as memorable, and the few that don’t slide right out of your brain the moment they’re over get recycled ad nauseum in multiplayer. I write this having finished the campaign just a few hours ago, and I can’t describe any single battle that’s not directly related to how the Declassified setting altered it. It’s mystifying to me that People Can Fly decided to make the best parts of the game optional. But even with those switched on, the levels themselves feel more obligatory than inspired. Where previous Gears frequently built fights around a compelling idea or a tricky environment, Judgment simply dumps enemies between you and a door.

It also suffers from an over-reliance on horde-style encounters, where you hold your ground as waves of enemies kamikaze into your gunsights. Used sparingly, these would’ve worked just fine. Judgment falls back on them roughly every 25 minutes.

Arguably, the franchise can’t really stretch its gameplay out much further without becoming something it’s not. That’s fine. But it puts a greater imperative on creating new, smart, exciting situations within the established framework. Unfortunately ….

Gears of War: Judgment

The “wow” factor is MIA

Gears always revolved around solving colossal problems in horrible ways. Those games had scope and epic challenges that we accomplished in epic ways. Nothing epic happens in Judgment. Nothing.

I wanted to fight towering, monstrous Brumaks and spider-like Corpsers. I wanted to work my way across a crumbling bridge while an aircraft carrier burned below. I wanted to shoot through a burning building while it fell into a ravine around me. I wanted to creep around a blind, bullet-proof Berserker and take her out with a Hammer of Dawn orbital laser cannon. Judgment doesn’t have a Hammer of Dawn. The one Berserker I fought didn’t give off any clues on how to beat her without it, and I had plenty of time to safely explore for a secret “here’s how you kill her!” area while she swatted at my squad. Finally, she just stopped moving, and I simply placed an automated flame turret close by until she fried. Yawn.

Even smaller moments, like spotting glowing wretches at night in the rain for the first time, put some flavor into the action. Not only does Judgment lack those “best rain ever” moments, it doesn’t even reach for them. I actually started hoping for some Ice-T stunt casting to liven things up. No dice. You’re on a walking tour of Halvo Bay. Just keep on walking. Try to pretend the end-boss doesn’t look exactly like a few dozen other things you’ve killed recently.

Minus thoughtful level designs and major set-pieces, what remains are a bunch of waist-high walls leading from Point A to Point B. It’s not terrible, but it is terribly mechanical.

Gears of War: Judgment

Even for Gears, the plot lacks cohesion

A lot of these complaints might not measure up if you’ve never played Gears before, but newbies will find themselves completely lost in the first ten seconds. Judgment never bothers to catch anyone up on who these people are, what’s going on, or when this takes place in the continuity unless you count reading the box copy. The new characters, Sofia and Paduk, suffer badly in his regard. It’s not really clear that Paduk opposed COG forces in a previous war until about half-way through the game, and Cadet Sofia touring her decimated school lacks the weight of Marcus returning home in the first Gears. We just don’t know enough to feel invested in her. Unless a history of adultery somehow makes you bond with a character.

Even Augustus Cole, the biggest, most boisterous weapon in Gears’ narrative arsenal, remains so uncharacteristically quiet that other characters remark on it. Who put Cole in the corner?

By the end of Aftermath, Paduk did emerge as one of my all-time favorite Gears personalities, but the overall story never makes it past the total contrivance stage. Why would a general insist on calling a time-out on conducting a war just to hold a lengthy tribunal right on the front lines even though he’s already decided the verdict? Who’d like to bet his poor decision-making skills bite him in the ass at some point?

Then there’s Baird. True, he comes off as less of a schmuck that ever before, but he doesn’t feel particularly redeemed, either. No great revelations come out of Judgment, no epiphanies, no insights. Without them, it’s tough to figure out why this story needed to be told. It just ends up being one of the more pleasant days in Damon Baird’s war, and if he’d known that at the time, he’d probably have shot himself.

Gears of War: Judgment

Conclusion

Judgment just might be the game that drops Gears of War out of the triple-A tier. It is competently done and no more. The rock-solid gameplay returns intact — virtually identical, in fact — and the Declassified options bump the entertainment value up a few notches, but the epic scope and precision level designs that elevated the franchise beyond its mechanics simply aren’t here. Similarly, OverRun’s takeover of the multiplayer, fun as it is, can’t completely compensate for an overall pullback on modes. This is a smaller game. If you’re a huge Gears fan and that doesn’t bother you, Judgment’s your huckleberry. I’ll wait until the bombast makes a comeback.

Score: 70/100

Gears of War: Judgment releases March 19 on the Xbox 360. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a retail copy of the game for the purposes of this review.