The Gears of War series has so far spanned three games, three games that complete and epic trilogy in the battle to defeat the alien menace, the Locust. Now we have a new title in the series that doesn’t take the franchise forward, but backwards. That’s not bad, the prequel to the successful trilogy may be taking a step back in time and focussing on other characters, but it’s a definite step forward in terms of gameplay.
Alarm bells started ringing months ago when we found that Epic Games weren’t the sole developers, but Poland based studio People Can Fly have done a stellar job in giving Gears of War: Judgment a good kick up the rear end.
As you know, Gears of War: Judgment is a prequel, set a month after the outbreak of global war between the Locust and humans, putting you in the oversized boots of previously underdeveloped characters and reliving their experiences through a series of flashback memories telling their tales of the early days of the war. It works nicely and is a welcome change from the standard story telling mechanics seen in previous entries, in fact, it’s probably the best story of the bunch. You get a closer look at the characters who’ve been given a better round of dialogue this time around, instead of the overtly macho mannerisms we’re treated to interesting and at times comical dialogue, more often than not provided by Cole and Baird with their manly banter.
Without giving too much away in the story, although we all know the eventual outcome, as is the curse with prequels, the story trots at a different pace to the previous games, with much more emphasis on dramatics and story telling than just mindless mowing down of those ugly bugger Locusts. It’s not a bad thing either, you’ll still get more than enough action packed gameplay which encourages you to go back and play again with more bite-sized chunks in terms of levels, and with a narrative that keeps you engaged and interested, even after playing through the same sequence a couple of times. The idea of playing through the same sections might sound tedious and prone to getting a little boring, which is true with the previous trilogy, but Gears of War: Judgment throws you a curve ball each time you play thanks to the dynamic spawning of enemy Locusts.
Instead of scripted fight sequences where you know exactly where the enemy will spawn, they can from in different variations at different times in different places. It’s a nice mix thrown in, though it’s not nearly as dynamic as the ‘Director’ in Left 4 Dead or Left 4 Dead 2, it does make replaying the story missions more enjoyable due to the fact you just don’t know what’s coming, all you know is that you’re going to be putting a ton of bullets in them, or the end of your chainsaw rifle, whatever takes your fancy. It does come with its own problems, though nothing that will break the game or your enjoyment (much.) The spawning of the enemies changes each time and its here that lies the problem. While on one play through you may just get a few regular Locust grunts that can be taken care of in a good ol’ fashioned shoot-out, the next time you play the same section you may find yourself up against some of the tougher enemies which require a different change of pace, but not all areas are designed with groups of specific enemies in mind. Where it may work for one set of enemies, it fails for others. Still, it adds a little bit of a challenge and like I say, it won’t take away from the fun.
Graphically, it’s no better than Gears of War 3, though there may be a few extra effects in play, it doesn’t really strike the eye as a leap forward, but it’s to be expected as the Xbox 360 is nearing the end of its life cycle and is really being pushed to its limits with today’s gaming experiences.
That being said, the game looks and plays like a dream with the frame rate stable even in the heat of big battles, environments are given high detail and are good fun to have a poke around, even when you’re supposed to be on the job. Level design is mostly linear with little emphasis put on exploration, but they’re big enough for you to find cover, pull off some tactical flanking manoeuvres and are generally big enough to accommodate all styles of play.
The big finales and ‘boss’ battles are stunning and suck you into the gritty universe just as well, and sometimes better than the previous games managed to. The visual fidelity of the characters, both human and Locust alike. Characters movements are swift and reek of finesse whilst the enemies move according to their own motion set, and it’s all good. You’ll notice the odd bit of AI that acts ‘special’ especially with the enemies who on more than one occasion just stood there and took their beating with dignity, but without retaliation. Only a couple of times did I come across these ‘special’ individuals, and the friendly AI was for the most part pretty good, as far as AI goes. You’ll see you’re fellow soldiers take cover when they need to, lob grenades when they see fit, blind fire when the going gets tough and retreat when the battle starts going south, which for me happened more often than not.
That’s Gears of War: Judgment in essence, the fight is never over and you’re looking at a loss each time you get into a shoot-out, especially in some of the more gruelling sections when even played on the default difficulty often felt much more difficult. It may seem off-putting to some, but the idea that you may not win the battle the first time around adds to the tension being pulled through the entire campaign; it’s a fight for survival and humanity isn’t prepared, the battles are fierce and the enemy is a frightening foe that can’t be beaten with just brawn alone. For hardcore Gears of War fans, the fight is worth the money and won’t feel a shade less than anything that’s come before it. For those who haven’t gotten around to the Gears of War series, it’s a great starting point and sets you up for the rest of the series, which is best played in order. Some may feel the deviation from hardcore gunning and mowing is a blemish on the franchise, but the story telling is strong and makes up for any short-comings you might find, though I didn’t find any, except for the multiplayer.
The multiplayer is present, but feels more tacked on than any other multiplayer addition in the series. The main focus has understandably been the single player campaign, without it there wouldn’t be a new game until Gears of War 4, but the multiplayer is pretty bare bones.
You’ve got your standard Team Deathmatch making a welcome return, and that’s all that returns from previous entries. Instead of the plethora of game-modes brought across from Gears of War 3, there’s new additions that take place of the usual contenders. Free For All, Survival, Domination and OverRun.
Free For All is pretty self-explanatory, Survival is basically Horde mode played co-op, Domination puts two teams head to head in a fight to control three points on the map and then there’s OverRun which puts two teams Locust-vs-Human against each other in a series of objective driven games.
And that’s it. Team Deathmatch is a staple by now and remains just as fun, as do the new game modes being introduced, which all play perfectly fine and as you would expect, but there’s a serious lack of content. With just five game-modes and 8 maps, you’ll feel a little short-changed if it’s the multiplayer that you’re buying into. The best explanation for the lack of content is that it’ll be released as download content in the near future, most likely paid and if that’s the case, it’s a kick in the teeth to fans who’ve followed the series and have grown accustomed to the deep multiplayer offering of previous games.
Gears of War: Judgment is a more than decent effort and breaks the ‘prequels are rubbish’ rule. The focus on story telling and characters is a welcome change of pace to the usual frantically bomb-tastic narrative’s we’re force-fed. It’s without a doubt the strongest title in the series in terms of single player, but the multiplayer component is seriously lacking in the content department, so if you’ve no interest in the single player campaign then you’ll be in for a big disappointment with the stripped down online features.
Story: The best in the series. A strong narrative filled with witty dialogue and characters that you’ll appreciate. It has its weak spots, but as a whole package, the story lives up to and exceeds the previous tales being told. – 9.0
Gameplay: It’s Gear of War as you know it, though with a little spice. Missions are broken up into bite-size chunks with dynamically spawning enemies, the combat is identical to the previous games and the ‘boss’ levels are horribly difficult at times. – 8.5
Graphics: Not much difference between this and Gears of War 3, but that’s OK as Gears of War 3 looked good enough when it first released. Large environments filled with details, characters with believable movements and some grisly deaths and you’ve got yourself a HD beauty. – 8.0
Sound: The musical score pipes in at the right moments, providing an additional layer of drama to the already grounded story. Guns sound heavy and satisfyingly brutal, especially when you’re down to your last bullets and all you’ve got is the trusty chainsaw. – 8.5
Replay Value: Most games depend on their multiplayer modes for replay value, Gears of War: Judgment doesn’t. The single player campaign is pretty long, clocking in around 8 hours depending on play style and difficulty, but you can easily triple it if you’re going for the Achievements or playing through the Declassified mode. The multiplayer is bare bones to say the least and won’t be holding anyone away from Gears of War 3‘s online offering, not until there’s some more game modes and a big influx of maps, most likely to come in the form of overpriced DLC. - 8.0
The Verdict – 8.4
Chainsaws at the ready, you’re in for a kick-ass ride.
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