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Gears of War: Judgment

1:0802/04/2013Posted by Simeon PaskellNo Comments

With three instalments under its belt, Gears of War can without question be considered as something of a veteran, but here in the twilight years of a generation such an old hand has to try that much harder to impress a gaming audience that has seen it all before, quite possibly on numerous occasions. The latest chapter – Gears of War: Judgment – sees a new developer take the driving seat, but have People Can Fly steered the soldiers of the COG into fertile new ground, or settled on ploughing the same old furrows?

Though Gears of War as a series has flirted with adding a little diversity (there was the occasional love interest, vehicle sections and, heck, even a delusional, American football-themed flash back) it has remained doggedly focussed on OTT ultra-violence. This singularity of vision has served it well however, as Marcus Phoenix and co’s unmatched ability to insert bullets into things whilst hiding behind waist-level walls not only helped put the series on the map but to also establish cover-based shooting as a videogame mainstay.

Gaming would be a very different place without them, but what can the thick necks of the COG do to grab our world-weary attention short of going through a complete reinvention? On paper, it would appear that Epic Games’ solution to this is to turn everything up to eleven by handing over the development reins to People Can Fly – creators of Bulletstorm; a game that redefined ‘OTT’ and that could make even Marcus Phoenix break into a cold sweat. With this heritage behind it, it’s likely that you’ll approach Gears of War: Judgment with expectations that here will be a Gears of War title on (even more) steroids – faster, louder, swearier and…er…shootier. Well, hang on to your hats… as this is far from the case.

Gears of War: Judgment actually feels restrained, clinical, focused and, dare we say it, somewhat conservative. Sure, it’s still an incredibly loud and incredibly violent cover-based shooter, but it strips Gears back rather than exploding it outward. As a prequel, it is backward looking by very definition, but it’s also mechanically regressive in many ways; there’s very little in the way of the show-stopping set pieces that became more prevalent as the series progressed, with the game instead choosing to focus on visceral, squad-based tactical combat. Where it attempts to differentiate itself is in the details, be they tweaks to the structure, changes in narrative style or a smattering of new equipment.

Gears of War: Judgment represents a series remixed then, not reinvented, and it is with this modest ambition that People Can Fly has created a fun if not earth shattering experience. It’s somewhat of a shame that it is one of Judgment’s boldest moves that ends up being the most disappointing… namely the narrative. Told through flashbacks as Kilo Squad is tried for war crimes by the moustachioed Colonel Ezra Loomis, Judgment attempts to lend a greater gravitas to the constant squeezing of the trigger, but falls short of actually doing so. The problem is that the plot fails to clearly establish exactly what Kilo Squad are being tried for, making the courtroom based interludes at worst disruptive to the flow of the game, and at best mildly distracting. The stakes simply don’t feel high enough and there is little sense of serious jeopardy to equal the ever-present threat of the locust themselves.

Though the plot falls short of expectations, it does at least enable a whole lot of character switching, as each member of the squad recounts their personal experiences. Unlike previous games in the series, there is neither sight nor sound of Marcus Phoenix, with Judgment instead focusing on Baird, Pvt. Augustus “The Cole Train” Cole, Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk. Though this makes for something of a change we suppose, People Can Fly haven’t used this as an opportunity for experimentation; mechanically all four are identical, with even Sofia being differentiated solely by her physical appearance – by which, of course, we mean a narrower waist, a thinner neck and biceps that aren’t the size of beer-barrels. Hardcore fans will no doubt relish the opportunity to hop into the chunky power armour of their favourite character, but from a pure gameplay perspective, this is window dressing, and can’t help but feel like something of a missed opportunity.

Far more successful than its narrative gamble is in Judgment’s more arcadey approach to structure, with single player campaign missions having a much greater emphasis on scores and achievements. Though, on a macro level these are fairly standard Gears of War missions, your performance is constantly graded with bite-sized sections being bookended by scoreboards and achievement updates. Working alongside this are ‘Declassified missions’ that are scattered throughout the levels and which can be activated by a projected Gears of War symbol. Rather than be separate, standalone side quests, activating a declassified mission tweaks the conditions of the current objective. This may mean that visibility is reduced, your weapon choice is limited or that you must face larger numbers of enemies. In short, it enables you to remix your experience on the fly.

The combination of the bite-sized sections and declassified mission does go some way to making Judgment feel fresh, and actually makes a great deal of sense from a design perspective. More so than any previous Gears, Judgment is a game that can be picked up for a quick, satisfying blast or can be really ratcheted up in terms of difficulty to test the skills of even the most battle hardened player. In other words, it feels well-positioned to satisfy both the more casual and hardcore ends of the Gears fanbase. Unfortunately however, if the constant ducking, diving, shooting and chainsawing of the past three games has left you cold, then there isn’t quite enough here to draw you in.

Despite this, one can’t help but be impressed by how well the core mechanics of Gears of War have stood the test of time, and the series remains firmly entrenched at the top of its particular class. Aside from the occasional wonkiness of the melee combat, the running and gunning here feels as chunky and as satisfying as ever, ably supported by beautifully rendered visuals and audio that threatens to chew its way out of your speakers – in a good way.

Fans of multiplayer are also relatively well served, with all of the usual modes of play (deathmatch, team deathmatch, survival, domination etc) as well as a new addition, titled Overrun. If you’ve not played Gears online before, there is plenty to recommend it and those who have will welcome the additional maps here. Overrun is the real star of the show however, coming across as a blend of Horde mode from previous games and Battlefield 3’s Rush mode with a smattering of tower-defence in which one team attempting to push back the defensive position of the other. Though only supporting ten players and despite the Overrun maps being relatively small, battles are rarely anything less than intense, taut affairs, as one team attempts to locate and pressurise the other’s weak spots. Add in the locust team’s ability to play as thirty-foot long millipedes and explosive tickers and the COGs four different classes (medic etc), and you have a riveting and curiously economic multiplayer experience.

It should be much easier to damn Gears of War: Judgment than it actually is. In a lot of ways, it is the laziest of sequels – rehashing elements from previous instalments, refusing to step out in any bold new directions as well as generally lacking in ambition. And yet, People Can Fly have for the most part nailed what makes Gears’ almost clockwork combat so satisfying, in the process proving that American football flashbacks and scenic chopper tours around one-hundred foot locust freaks were only ever window dressing. The real joy of Gears is in the squeeze of the trigger, the revving of chainsaw bayonets and Judgment knows this, celebrating it by thrusting it onto centre stage with the intense second to second combat, with the frequent scoreboards and with a multiplayer that has been extended just enough to make it feel fresh.

In refusing to slap a number 4 in the title, Epic Games itself is admitting that Judgment categorically isn’t the next great leap for the series, and we’re assuming that will come with the next generation. But as a reminder of why Gears of War became one of the most influential shooters of its generation, Judgment is a welcome curtain call, even if it isn’t the grand finale that some would have wanted.

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