Oddly enough, one such imitator has actually emerged from within Epic Games own walls. Fresh off the release of 2011’s Bulletstorm, the development team over at People Can Fly decided they wanted to take a whack at telling a story in the Gears universe. And thus, Gears of War: Judgment, a prequel to the events of the original installment starring fan favorites Baird and Cole, was born. Can this canonical diversion find a home amongst the masses of Gears fanboys, or has it not received the numerical moniker for good reason?
Not since the days of the O.J. Simpson Trial has a day in court been so intriguing to see play out. Fresh off of completing an act of insubordination, the recently promoted Lt. Damon Baird and his ragtag squad of Gears are brought before a military tribunal for judgment. This is hardly an unexpected plot twist, given the game’s name. Instead of following the traditionally linear plot of the previous Gears titles, the campaign plays out through a series of flashbacks. Each character has seven or eight chapters to fill in their pieces of the puzzle, while also placing the player in that specific character’s dramatically oversized boots and codpiece. As one might expect, upon completion of the squad’s testimony their fate is decided. Let’s just say that this trial may end up extending beyond the constraints of the courtroom by the time everything is said and done. If you think that is a spoiler, you have obviously never played another Gears of War game and quite frankly shouldn’t be playing this as an entry point to the franchise, but more on that later…
Using a storytelling mechanic like flashbacks can, in many cases, help provide a little flavor to what would otherwise be a rather generically predictable plotline. In that respect this tweak on the formula is fairly effective. Bouncing around between the different characters and narrators prevent the exposition from becoming too rote, while still feeling familiar enough to encourage players to immerse themselves in the world. Unfortunately this is a lost opportunity that the developers could have taken to establish more unique character traits. They could have differentiated how the different characters played and felt from either a control or “special ability” perspective. Overall complaints aside, the dialog in cutscenes and within the action itself does a decent job of setting the stage for the events of previous iterations in the franchise, while still alluding to a much larger universe that exists beyond the confines of this single narrative.
While they could have just sat on a single campaign and called it a day, it seems that the team over at People Can Fly had one more story to tell. After completing Kilo Squad’s main quest, a final “Aftermath” Act is unlocked. Jumping ahead several years in the canon, Aftermath is set during the events of Gears of War 3 as Baird and Cole find themselves returning to Halvo Bay. In returning to the proverbial scene of the crime, it acts to cover the through-line of what happened to the other characters in Judgment, post Emergence Day. It is a solid nod to the games that came before it, which once again helps to further flush out the universe. Where the main campaign took more risks in terms of level design and mission structure, this side jaunt feels more like a return to the formula in the first three titles. This is very much a good thing. Getting away from the main storyline’s brief mission structure to the more long form storytelling ends up being a far more satisfying experience in hindsight. Simply put, it just feels more like a proper Gears mission.
Part of the way that Judgment steps outside of the traditional mode is to implement something that fans of the studio’s previous release, Bulletstorm, will certainly appreciate: persistent campaign and stage scoreboards. Every stage has a possible three stars that can be awarded from accomplishing any number of different tasks, or even for killing in flashy or colorful ways. This scoring mechanic is then compounded by the Declassified system which will actually increase the difficulty of completing a chapter successfully, but also makes it easier to accrue stars through the course of the section. It bares mentioning that a certain number of Declassified missions must be completed by the end of the campaign, in order to unlock the Aftermath epilogue.
On paper the addition of scoreboards makes logical sense and certainly helps to encourage replayability from completionists, it also unfortunately proves distracting for those purely playing for story. Instead of seamlessly flowing from one chapter to the next, the game must come to a complete halt while scores are tallied and stars are awarded. It would be one thing if this were an optional aspect of the game’s mechanics, but with the exception of the Aftermath portion, every other mission requires this abrupt interruption of the experience, just to watch numbers climb. To some this might prove exciting, but wouldn’t you rather be getting your excitement from the events of the story, instead of some artificial measure of talent? For this aspect alone it is not worth recommending as a starting point for those looking to dab their toes into the Gears of War world. It inaccurately reflects on its precursors and would probably best be left to the dedicated fans.
Complementing all the single player (or coop) action is the fantastic Gears of War multiplayer suite, which has managed to garner its own steadfastly devoted fan base. In an attempt to mix things up a bit, while simultaneously retain the status quo, there have only been two new modes added to this outing: Survival and OverRun. Drawing upon light allusions to tower defense games, OverRun revolves around setting up and defending certain locations from being overrun by Locust attack. You can also find a version of this featured in a single chapter of each of the campaign’s acts. Essentially it boils down to being a hybrid and refinement of the popular Horde and Beast modes.
Survival mode draws heavily upon the newly implemented player class system, where team members can choose from being an engineer, soldier, medic or scout. Anyone who has ever played a class based shooter can essentially assume the same for how things are implemented here, which is a smart move on the developer’s part. Really there was no need to reinvent the wheel, as it wasn’t necessary. As previously mentioned, Survival builds upon the traditional Horde mode, while trying to emphasize cooperation between the different player classes. Communication and teamwork are the keys to success in this onslaught of attrition. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Those that have a strong appreciation for the Gears franchise will find plenty to enjoy in Gears of War: Judgment. It doesn’t matter if you are simply a fan of the gameplay or deeply invested in the mythos, there is plenty of compelling content on both fronts. Tie the package up with another solid outing in the multiplayer arena, and Epic might just have another hit on their hands. But really, would we expect anything less from the studio that brought us Jazzy Jackrabbit?