I’m an admitted Gears of War junkie. The accessible third person shooter series has been distilled over the last few years, and ultimately met a storyline wrap up in Gears of War 3. I spent a lot of time in Gears 3′s multiplayer, even through to Judgment’s launch. This all being said, I was surprised at Epic’s plan to launch a prequel to Gears, let alone one starring Baird and Kilo Company. The “easy choice” of telling the story of how Marcus Fenix ends up in jail would have been entertaining – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Judgment’s campaign mode presents itself as a flashback, where Kilo Company takes turns telling parts of the story. Baird and Cole are the familiar faces, with Onyx Guard recruit Sofia and ex-militia UIR Major Garron Paduk. Paduk is probably the best new character in the bunch, however his demeanour does not do anything to expand the range of emotion in most Gears characters. Gruff, sarcastic and one-liner heavy COG soldiers are the focus yet again. Cole seems strangely subdued (less Cole Train, less Woo!) which I found almost jarring. Ultimately, the character exposition is rather light, but if you’re playing Judgment to get your feels on, there are other titles in the series that should suit your need.
The small glimpses of pre-E Day have grown, where Kilo battles across Halvo Bay, through civilian areas in the city and residential areas. There is an additional series of missions that provide some detail into Baird and Cole’s side mission in Gears 3 to find a boat – complete with “Previously on Gears of War 3″ – and a shopping district even has the expected huge sized V-neck sweaters on sale that would only fit a human from the Gears universe. It’s these little environmental details like the grocery store advertising in Gears 3 (or the thrash ball flashbacks) that remind me that Sera was not always just this world filled with violence – personally, I want to see more of this, but will accept that less may be more in these cases.
In terms of mechanics, the Judgment offers “Declassified” versions of campaign areas, where restrictions or handicaps are placed on Kilo Squad that increase the amount of points collected during that checkpoint area. I may have only skipped a few of the declassified missions, but the ones that require specific weapon use (Pistol Only, Shields & Sawed-Offs only) make for unique combat opportunities that I likely wouldn’t have placed myself in. I usually choose to chainsaw and snipe my way through Gears, but mixing it up helps. There are a few new weapons, Breechshot and Marksa, but classics like the Retro Lancer, Gnasher and Boomshot all appear. The changes to the control scheme aren’t presented to “returning players”, and I spent a good portion of the first campaign area dumping grenades on myself when trying to bring up the tac-comm. The other notable change is just how quickly the characters can cycle weapons, which has an impact in combat situations where you might normally get caught off-guard by an enemy. Not carrying a pistol is frustrating, however.
Multiplayer seems to tweak the existing formats, most notably that Horde Mode and Beast Mode have been rebuilt as Survival Mode and OverRun. Survival is a 10 round, class based fight against waves of AI Locust, where the COG have to defend objectives that are under attack. OverRun is the same game, just players get to take turns as the Locust. While classic Horde mode holds a dear place in my heart, I really enjoy the classes and the teamwork required as a group to be successful at Survival/OverRun. That being said, Judgment forces AI players onto your team to fill up the 5 slot roster. Characters that you cannot define which class they play, not that it frankly matters. I typically play the sniper/spotter role and have watched an AI hop back and forth across cover just waiting for the spot grenade cool down to finish so it can throw another, never taking a shot at incoming Locust. Or a medic, who never uses their stim-grenades to heal a group following a big rush of elites. Not being able to turn off these AI team-mates is a small annoyance overall, but hopefully a title update allows this to change in the future.
As for the rest of the multiplayer experience, its a pretty standard set of content. Four maps at most for each game type, and only a handful of characters to pick from in terms of customization. There are a large quantity of custom skins for the characters, however most are DLC or unlocked via prize boxes collected in the game. As there is a season pass, there is hope that the list of maps and characters ends up growing over time, much like Gears 3 did. As of a few days ago, Epic released “Haven” which was a free DLC map download, which was appreciated. Epic has also been vocal in their community forums talking about gameplay tweaking. I find this very interesting, as they’re polling the active Gears players for input on how guns work, cool downs, etc. Seeing behind the curtain helps us provide feedback, and can only assist in building the best Gears experience.
This feels like a complete Gears title, which means that People Can Fly did their job right. I’m not sure it warrants the $60 price tag; fans will want to pick this up regardless, but for others it might be worth waiting until it hits $40 to fully enjoy the content you get on-disc.