Stick or twist. That is the question that many of the popular franchises are faced with towards the twilight of a generation; whether to continue with a successful formula that may begin to tire or to freshen things up and take the series in a brand new direction but at the risk of alienating the fans. There’s been plenty examples of both in the past few years – especially the past twelve months – and Gears of War: Judgment, the latest instalment in the hit franchise from Epic Games and People Can Fly, is certainly one that plays it safe.
Set prior to the original Trilogy, Judgment takes the route of a prequel in an effort to bring a new dimension to a series that has honed its craft to near perfection already. Focusing around Kilo squad – featuring regulars Baird and “The Cole Train” who are joined by newcomers Sofia Hendrick and Garron Paduk – you’ll spend you campaign time going from kill room to kill room within the besieged city of Halvo Bay that is under attack from the Locust.
Even though the series has never been renowned for its writing, Judgment has an unmoving and uninspiring plot that fails to emote any sort of connection or response other than an overpowering indifference – despite its delivery via each character’s testimony during a tribunal. Each member of Kilo squad gets their time in the spotlight which sees you play as each of the main characters as they give their account of the current portion of the tale. Though, it’s not a replay each scenario four times, just an excuse to utilise all of the personnel involved.
Four-player coop is available throughout the entirety of the campaign, though it’s certainly not a requirement given how impressive the ally AI is. If you prefer to play with friends then the benefits of a quad-squad will be apparent, although it’s just as enjoyable on your own, and the ease of the drop-in-drop-out functionality ensures an incredibly smooth experience that never intrudes upon your solo outing.
Given that the importance of the plot is pretty much non-existent, Judgment has boiled the campaign into another version of a survival mode. Broken up into many sections, you are awarded a set of stars for your efforts, signalling an almost arcade approach than the traditional story-driven single player portion of the franchise, whereby you must move from one “arena” to the next. There is no flow, no pacing; it’s broken down into small chunks that essentially eliminate the need for any story and ultimately makes the campaign feel rather redundant. Each environment may be styled a slightly differently and the enemies you face obviously increase with difficulty as you advance, but there’s nothing to mix things up or offer something a little bit different. It’s all been done before and, at times, it can feel incredibly monotonous as you perform the same task for the thirtieth time.
That said, what’s impressive about Judgment is what Gears of War has always done successfully. Gameplay doesn’t feel overly different to that of previous outings, which is to say that it’s still fantastic. Controls are as responsive as ever and, having been iterated on over the past seven years, Gears of War remains the king of cover. Active reload is as satisfying as ever and subtle changes to the controls in order to adapt to the new, faster-paced combat are expertly integrated and never jarring. Engagement with enemies does feel more urgent though; there isn’t the same sluggishness that creeped into Gears of War 3 and this creates some superb battles with the usual variety of bullet-sponge foes.
Enemy variety remains exceptional to provide tactical challenges whilst never throwing too many toys into the pram, which is also the case for the fantastic feeling array of weapons – there’s even the appearance of a mech. Other than the big baddies, which insist on stomping towards you out in the open, the Locust make effective use of cover and will use suppressing fire and flanking tactics to try and take you and your squad out.
As with all previous outings, multiplayer will surely be a popular portion of Judgment and it maintains the high levels the series aspires to. Team Deathmatch makes a return but it’s the new set of modes that feature the most enjoyment. ‘Free for All’ does what it says on the tin and pits all players against each other in a frenetic and high-octane battle where you shoot anything that’s moving; ‘Domination’ is a points based capture-the-point venture, whilst ‘OverRun’ pits Locust and COG soldiers against one-another in an objective-oriented mode including classes and multiple phases.
Each of the different versus modes will surely appeal to different players, but it’s the Survival mode where the game truly excels. As a blend of Horde Mode (which does not feature on its own this time) and OverRun, you battle against waves of onrushing Locust whilst protecting the designated objects. The class elements add an additional tactical dimension, and an increased focus on teamwork, that has previously alluded Gears of War multiplayer, and gives an added sense of meaning as you defend outposts rather than just bunker down in a corner and hide behind your shield.
The combined nature of the experience system across all modes – with prize packs and unlockables to boot – as well as the notification of your progress with achievements, creates a unified experience level and a hugely addictive and satisfying experience.
One thing Epic Games and People Can Fly has managed to do is to squeeze yet more power out of the Xbox 360. Judgement is up there with the best looking games on the platform and, although at times the framerate takes a bit of hit, there are some utterly breathtaking vistas, incredibly detailed character models and some expert lighting. Little has been done to expand the colour palette of the franchise with greys and browns continuing to be far too frequent, though the fiery glow of burning building does at least add a third colour.
As good as it all looks, it’s one of many reasons that it seems a lot like retreading the same ground. It maintains the Gears of War vibe, which is not a mark against Judgment, but equally leads to that feeling of repetitiveness. Mission Declassification is something new to the series and grants the choice of opting for more challenging scenarios during the campaign in exchange for more stars, but it’s never enough to understand if Judgment is supposed to offer anything other than another ride on the old horse. The inclusion of Aftermath – the epilogue Judgment based during Gears of War 3 – acts as a nice snippet for long-standing fans, and the amount of polish can’t go unmentioned, but there’s just something lacking.
If you’re after more of the same then Gears of War: Judgment is exactly what you’re looking for; it brings more of the franchise’s excellence out for a last hurrah. This may be a prequel but nothing about it feels overly fresh or raw other than an entirely dismissive and forgettable plot. Judgment may still have the goods when it comes to excellent gameplay, but recent reboots and outings from popular series has shown us that, maybe, this just isn’t enough anymore.