A Raven lands in a war torn courtyard; faceless men clad in bulky armor and armed with chainsaw machine guns stand at the ready. A drab color palette completes the scene and confirms that Judgment is definitely a Gears of War game. The similarities stay concurrent throughout the game, but there are changes that make Judgment feel fresh and new, despite having a very similar aesthetic to the past games in the series.
As Baird steps into the makeshift courtroom along with his ragtag group of squadmates, including the ever-lovable “Cole Train”, who are all in handcuffs, it is quite evident that some sort of crime has been committed. Thus begins the story of Judgment. Baird and his buddies give their testimony of the events leading up to the alleged crime, and players get to take control of each character to see their point of view on the story.
Instead of a linear campaign full of big set pieces, Judgment takes a step back and approaches the tale through an almost challenge room like structure. Each mission takes only about ten minutes to go through, which makes for a story mode of about 5 hours. Luckily, the way the missions are structured leave room for a lot of replayability. The environments Baird’s squad travel to are varied and look great while still having the classic Gears of War feel.
Missions are usually built around taking out a singular room of enemies, which leaves room for the missions to become repetitive. Luckily, a hook in the missions keeps everything feeling fresh and provides a level of challenge that is otherwise missing. This comes in the form of special “Declassified” goals, which are activated by walking up to a Crimson Omen at the beginning of a mission and selecting it. These goals set certain parameters for each mission, from only using a certain weapon to time limits to no health regeneration. Each of these changes the way you approach a group of enemies.
Because of the heightened level of challenge when activating a declassified mission, there is a payoff of filling out a star ratings for each mission faster. Star ratings are achieved through performing special things in combat, such as headshots or GIBs (making an enemy explode into a bloody mess). Achieving a three star rating on missions is extremely satisfying, and forces the players to adapt to the situations thrown at them. Selecting these declassified missions also adds a few extra lines of dialogue to give context to the change in the mission.
The way the story is presented is not the only thing that has changed with this installment. Gameplay has undergone changes that may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but they all add up to make the combat feel faster and lighter, which can be a negative or positive depending on how each player felt about the slower and heavier combat of the numbered Gears games. Instead of carrying two main weapons, a pistol, and a grenade type that are all designated to the D-pad, each character is restricted to two weapons that can be switched with the Y button and the grenades are now accessed through the left bumper.
New weapons and new grenade types lend themselves well to the series. The stim grenade heals damaged players instantly and will revive downed teammates, while the scout grenades will reveal enemy loactions if they step into its area of effect. The Markza and Breechshot are both mid-ranged rifles that add a new level of lethality to story and multiplayer alike. The Booshka is a grenade launcher that takes a while to get the hang of, but can be deadly in trained hands.
All of these changes feel great in the story mode, but they affect the multiplayer in a way that feels off balance. Because of the constant movement that the multiplayer demands, the new faster gameplay should feel natural, but everything is still feels heavy in a way that counters the changes. There are only four modes in competitive multiplayer, and the exclusion of the classic execution mode feels like a deliberate way of forcing a faster game onto players. Horde mode is also absent, being replaced with a mode called Survival, which is just Overrun with AI controlled Locust, which takes half the fun out of Overrun. This wouldn’t be as offensive if there weren’t specific missions in the story that are literally just bite sized versions of Horde 2.0.
Overrun is the standout mode and the most exciting to play. It is a cross between the Horde and Beast modes and is pulled off exceptionally well. The humans have to defend points against player controlled Locust that have unique abilities. To add a deeper level of teamwork for the CoGs, classes are introduced for this mode. Each class can help the other in specific ways. The best team I played with balanced the classes to the point where I, as an engineer, was able to keep our defenses at full health while being fed consistent ammo and health from my soldier and medic teammates respectively, all while out scout teammates picked off the locust that would get too close.
If you told me at the beginning of the year, I would prefer to play the new Gears of War‘s campaign instead of the multiplayer I would have called you crazy. Turns out you are, in fact, a very sane person that I owe an apology to. Epic and People Can Fly collaborated to make a good product that rejuvenates a series that could have gotten stale at the end of this generation, but Judgment‘s multiplayer is stuck in a weird limbo that will not keep Gears veterans or new players around for very long.