Game Review – Gears of War: Judgment

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Gears of War: Judgment (360)
Developer: People Can Fly, Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Price: $60

“15 seconds of amazing gameplay is all you need as long as you keep finding exciting ways to repeat it,” said Cliff Bleszinski, a former game designer of the Gears of War trilogy. At least I think he said it. I can’t find the quote anywhere, but I know he said it. I know.

Focused on this barometer, Gears of War: Judgment shaves off excess that gets in the way of that blissful quarter minute like a Guido trims body hair. While this glowing Italian of a game is adept with its Gilette Fusion, it’s not without nicks.

As the fourth installment of the ended series, Judgment takes place fifteen years prior to the events of the first game. Kilo Squad, comprised of Baird, Cole, and two newbie Cogs, is brought into custody for a military tribunal engulfed in war. It’s bleak. The grunt-tastic team deserted their orders to instead fire a Planet of the Apes 2-sized missile, in the hopes that it would blast away the fearsome General Karn. Colonel Ezra Loomis isn’t happy about this, so he asks each member to recount what happened.

If I were Loomis I would’ve taken a nap as the soldiers justified their actions. Nothing happens. Villains should demand presence, yet that General Karn fellow is glimpsed only once prior to the climactic showdown. Halfway through the game I asked my girlfriend who he was and she didn’t know either. Kilo Squad merely babbles on about how powerful he is.

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Fortunately, Judgment’s story refuses to distract as characters narrate outside of the infrequent cutscenes. Unfortunately, since nothing happens, there’s little for them to say other than, “As we were on our way to the missile…”

Journeying to that bomb is not trivial. Bashing into blocks of concrete and shredding Locusts—coarse, earthy terrestrials that live below ground—from behind a broken cement girder is brisker than before. It’s a fast-moving adventure, nudging you from skirmish to skirmish at a relentless pace. But don’t fret: Though the younger cast is more agile, Judgment remains chunky.

Each war zone is constructed with multiple avenues of approach, making it a killer co-op experience. There are instances where you park turrets around the battlefield to defend against waves of incoming reptile-alien-bug-men. These tower defense segments play out like Horde mode from previous entries — optional content that had you gunning down waves of enemies on multiplayer maps. In fact, the whole game plays like this, but within a succession of dilapidated areas caused by war.

Points are doled out for chainsaw kills, headshots, perfect reloads, etc., which translate into a score of zero to three stars. Optional “Declassified” objectives make accumulating these tokens of self-worth easier, and make playing harder. These tend to apply time limits, restrict your available gear, equip Locusts with nasty blasters, or fog up your vision. If you opt in, which you always should, the narrating Cog conjures up ostensible reasons for these changes, an attempt to mask their tacked-on nature.

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However, tacked-on better describes the Aftermath campaign that unlocks if you gathered enough stars. It’s a misplaced addendum to Gears of War 3, which follows Cole and Baird fifteen years later, as they travel back to the island that the missile was on. Everything Judgment adds in this section, and I mean everything, is tossed aside. No more stars. No more Declassified challenges. No more protect-this-area-from-enemy-waves stages. Locales are cramped and confusing, and the ‘story’ delights in interrupting you more, even though it has less to say.

As with Aftermath, Judgment’s multiplayer deviations are cause for concern. The Horde and Beast modes of the previous entry are replaced by OverRun. Team Cog and Team Locust alternate between attacking and defending, with each member choosing a desired role they’d like to fulfill. Roles are restrictive to a detriment, denying versatility beyond specific jobs. Erecting limp barbed wire as an engineer is the antithesis of Gears’s charms.

Curious changes continue into Team Deathmatch. Aimless running is more common than heated battles due to the large maps. Infinite respawns wrongfully encourage persistence over strategic rounds where each player only has one life. “Down but not out” – a state of crawling consciousness remedied by another teammate – is removed, as is super-charged ammunition from finessed reloads.

There’s a magic sweet spot to Gears of War 10-player debauchery that hasn’t been cracked. The myriad of oblique adjustments, as well as those persistent shotgun saradanas that plague close-quarter duels, are evidence of this. Gears of War: Judgment is something like a Guido with a beard: a game that shaved everywhere except the places that matter. What remains is a silky smooth campaign and a shaggy multiplayer that never reaches those coveted 15 seconds of amazing.

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