If the Gears timeline breaks down roughly as Boo! Waah! Bang! Small walls! Bzzz! Splurty! Dom’s dead! Mad World… cry – then Gears Of War: Judgment occurs just after the ‘Boo!’ and slightly before the ‘Waah!’
Halvo Bay is the setting. A smallish harbour town referenced frequently in Gears Of War 3 and home of the COG’s Onyx Guard.
It’s currently being burnt flat by a Locust army led by new bad guy Karn, an uncharacteristically characterless (for the series) Locust boss, notable primarily for his chosen mode of transportation: a giant Corpser replete with gun-encrusted battle-knees. Gears Of War: Judgment is essentially one long flashback.
Current events take place at a military tribunal at which Damon Baird and new compatriots Sophia Hendrick and Garron Parduk (along with returning favourite Augustus Cole), are accused of deliberately disobeying orders, which, as it turns out, they had to in order to get the job done.
As a storytelling device it works well in most important respects. In affording Paduk and Hendrick their own testimonies – their own slices of the game as player-character – we receive a crash course in their personalities.
Further, Gears Of War: Judgment’s focus on a more personal storyline lets us concentrate on winning one battle at a time without having to worry about saving the world, which has allowed writers Rob Auten and Tom Bissell to avoid the type of overwrought melodrama we saw in Gears Of War 3.
From a gameplay perspective, things have changed enough to be different, but not enough to negatively affect its Gearsness. The ebb and flow of enemies, placement of cover and the generally accepted stop-and-pop gameplay is changed almost beyond recognition; enemies are randomly generated, flanking is more frequent, and the speed at which the game as a whole runs is roughly a quarter faster than any previous title in the series.
Which means you’ll spend less time cowering behind yet another mysteriously erected small wall and more time evading, chainsawing and defending yourself, frequently in panicked, twitch-reflex fashion.
Everything about Gears Of War: Judgment encourages you to play in a more brazen style. Each section, or ‘Testimony’, is split into pieces, each comprising one or two major battles. A three-star system awards points for beating your adversaries in stylish ways.
So while sitting in cover and pumping an entire Lancer mag into some distant Grub will win you so few points it’s hardly worth it, by contrast, roadie-running full-pelt at them with intention to upset them point-blank will bump your score swiftly skyward.
And there are benefits to that. The amount of stars you accumulate across the campaign unlocks in-game content – primarily skins and other bits and bobs associated with multiplayer. A quick side note to that: Gears Of War: Judgment has some of the wildest character and weapon skins we’ve ever seen; everything from harlequin to zebra stripes. Some of them are even animated – waves of light and colour that ripple across your character’s body.
To increase the three-star score multiplier, and therefore the chance of achieving the compliment on any given section, Epic and People Can Fly have provided another new gameplay feature: Declassified Testimonies.
Appearing as Gears’ traditional red cog with a red skull in the middle (or ‘Omen’, as it’s known among the Gears-fan elite), they represent optional challenges that layer difficulty and/or change fundamentally how the section needs to be played.
Since the main story is told through the testimonies of its central characters, the declassified variety takes the form of details you can choose to relate or not.
With the odd exception (finding and destroying clutches of Serapede eggs, for example), these fall into three categories: weapon limitations (in which you may only use a specific loadout); environmental hazards (a dust cloud perhaps, or hurricane-force winds to make both movement and shooting near impossible) and debuffs (health that won’t recover, damaging poison gas, tunnel vision).
The entire system is a bit of a double-edged cleaver. On the bright side, it funnels the Gears experience in a specific way – and that’s not the way you’ve become accustomed to. As a result, gameplay feels fresh, exciting and frequently invites you to dive into the fray naked bar a shotgun and a prayer.
The downside? Well, in order to rate your performance, Gears Of War: Judgment has to bring things to a halt frequently enough to play havoc with your ability to keep your head inside the fantasy.
One minute you’re battling to prevent a Mauler caving the skull of a comrade, the next you’re looking at the scoreboard, cursing yourself for falling a few points shy of a three-star award.
So if Gears Of War: Judgment itself were on trial, we’d ask it this: Gears Of War: Judgment – are you attempting to be absorbing, immersive and driven by your story, or are you obsessed by the abstract videogame concept of score? The dumb look on its face tells us it doesn’t know. It tries to walk that fence with due care. Tries.
But fails to find its balance often enough to distract. Gears Of War: Judgment is an archipelago of small, self-contained challenges, then, rather than something which feels homogeneous and whole. It’s a string of little islands on which to test skill and wit.
The problem with islands is that if you’re not looking hard enough they are in the habit of appearing the same: trees at their middle, sand encircling. The levels are different enough, sure. It’s not samey. But unlike the series of which it both is and isn’t a part, memorable set pieces fail to materialise.
Fighting your way out from the innards of a giant worm. Orbital laser-f***ing a Berserker in the eye. That time you twangsploded an Elite Theron Guard with his colleague’s Torque Bow. Carmine’s multiple deaths. Razorhail.
When RAAM killed Kim. When Dom died. Maria! Despite Gears Of War: Judgment’s inarguable solidity as a shooter, creatively it feels barren alongside its predecessors.
We don’t want to guess what exactly went wrong in this respect; to do so would be to add two and two to make nine. But the proximity of Cliff Bleszinski and Rod Ferguson’s departures from Epic are going to push the thoughts of any sane mind in a particular direction.
Creatively rich experiences tend to have richly creative figureheads, and while People Can Fly has performed admirably in most respects, Gears Of War: Judgment suffers a distinct lack of creative vision.
Even the inevitable final battle with the aforementioned war-lobster feels dreary. Becuase unlike the Locust Queen, RAAM, or even Skorge, he just hasn’t done enough bad guy stuff to earn your contempt. Lancer-tickling him to death, then, feels neither satisfying nor necessary.
Gears Of War: Judgment is not a long game. You’ll be done with it in about seven hours, and while that figure compares averagely to others of its genre, it’s going to feel brief – partly because it’s shorter than previous games in the series, but mainly due to the techniques it uses to prolong its life. Techniques familiar to those with a decent eye for game stretching.
Like Horde mode, these are split by 30-second periods in which you can suck up fresh ammo and set up defences such as turrets, sticky grenades, or explosive traps launched from the BioShock-alike Tripwire Crossbow.
Further, you’ll often find yourself backtracking to fight at venues that only 20 minutes earlier hosted an all-but-identical fracas.
There’s a touch here of what we like to call ‘the Lego effect’. The sense that another game (or games) has been split to its smallest pieces and rebuilt in a different shape. It’s an odd thing to say when we would not have accused either of the other Gears sequels of the problem, but it’s there nonetheless.
Taking place right in the middle of Gears Of War 3, it shows us what happened during the mission in which Baird was sent to Halvo Bay.
It eschews the new star rating system in favour of a mission more in keeping with the traditional Gears Of War experience.
Less onslaught, more method, and so feels more like an add-on to Gears 3 than it does an add-on to Judgment.
There are a host of new weapons available in Gears Of War: Judgment. But, contrary to our initial impressions when we were introduced to them in multiplayer a few months back, they feel less than vital within the context of the single-player campaign.
Often, Declassified Testimonies will ask you approach a particular situation using only a particular weapon or loadout – forcing you to pick up and try weapons you might otherwise have not. Kudos for that.
But with the more traditional weapons in the series available alongside them, choosing a Markza over a Longshot, or a Booshka over a Boomshot, can feel not only superfluous, but more often than not the inferior choice.
What we’re saying here is that the new weapons have negligible impact on the single-player campaign. In multiplayer, however, due to their difference in range, power, rates of fire, magazine sizes and more, they are, tactically speaking, like night and day.
So when you’re forced to use them in certain Declassified Testimonies, it can feel a bit like a multiplayer tutorial. “Here’s a new gun,” it seems to say. “Why not give it a try?”
There’s a section, for example, where the Declassified Testimony condition dictates your health won’t regenerate. The only way to get through it is to locate and make use of Stim Grenades. Hence, we’ve been taught how to use Stim Grenades – ready for multiplayer.
This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but it highlights something apparent throughout our time with the game; that Gears Of War: Judgment’s primary focus is multiplayer, that the campaign, although far, far from an afterthought, is built to serve under it when it comes to new weapons and new gameplay methodologies.
It was always going to be difficult for Gears Of War: Judgment to hit the ground roadie-running. Miraculous, in fact.
But what we have here is well-made, engaging and highly playable shooter, albeit one that lacks memorable highlights that have become hallmarks of the series.
Gears Of War: Judgment is like a crown with no jewels; it’s still solid gold, sure, but that something is missing is all the more obvious for the size and magnificence of the gems which were once there.