Review: Gears of War: Judgment (Xbox 360)

Though a little on the lean side in terms of content, Gears of War: Judgment is pretty good… provided you like third-person Halo games.

Shooters are the video-game equivalent of jazz music. To some people they seem like so much chaos and noise, and many have trouble discerning the subtleties that distinguish one work from another. Through practiced appreciation, though, the connoisseur learns to identify tightly woven patterns of structure and balance, a framework that allows seemingly minor creative changes to have a massive impact on the mood and feel of the piece. This dichotomy of chaos and order is why two games like Halo and Call of Duty can seem like interchangeable murder simulators to the layperson, whilst the expert experiences them as differently as one would a Thai massage and a colonoscopy.

The narrow chasms that differentiate shooters are especially relevant when we consider franchises and sequels. For example, the Gears of War series sets itself apart with combat that is far more deliberate and strategic than that of “twitchier” shooters like Call of Duty, while still achieving the kind of high-octane arcade flair not present in tactical shooters like Rainbow Six. However, when designing a new entry for an established franchise, developers face a dilemma: how can the game evolve, without changing so much that it becomes an entirely different kind of shooter?

It looks like our Pendulum War victory party was a bit… premature.

Consider the case of Gears of War: Judgment, a newly-released prequel to the Gears of War trilogy focusing on the exploits of Damon Baird and his squad at the start of the Locust War. It seems like Epic Games and People Can Fly grappled with how to evolve the game, and in many ways their solution plays a lot closer to Halo than to traditional Gears of War. The most distinctive similarity is that players have been reduced to two weapons, which can be quickly swapped (via an animation that is almost hilariously fast) Halo Y-button style. In addition, grenades can now be quick-tossed (also like Halo), and the characters seem to move around the field much more nimbly.

Though each seems relatively minor, these changes conspired to change drastically the way I played Judgment. Unless the only cover available was low, there was almost no need to use it, and in fact there were so many melee enemies, staying on the move often was the best strategy. Overall, the combat of Judgment was a lot more fast-paced than old-school Gears, and I found myself rushing into the fray with Lancers blazing more often than I preferred, simply because it seemed to work.

In Judgment, your weapons and abilities and the selection and tactics of the enemies you face is more diverse than ever before, because you know, that’s how the past works.

That’s not to say that every liberty the developers took leaned in the direction of Halo. For instance, the chapters are broken up into short (e.g. 3-5 minute) mission segments, each of which can potentially earn you a 0-3 star reward to use for in-game unlocks like weapon skins and multiplayer characters. If you really want to grind your Gears, there’s an option at the beginning of each mission for a “Declassified Mode”, which challenges you with special conditions like weapon restrictions, elite enemies, or limited visibility. (This option was typically fun, though at times a bit imbalanced.) Another strong choice was incorporating base defense elements à la Gears of War 3‘s “Horde mode” into parts of the campaign, although it’s a bit ironic considering there’s no Horde mode available in the multiplayer (only “Overrun”, a sort of Horde mode / Beast mode hybrid).

Of course, beyond the bad and the good ideas, there are all the things about Judgment that remain true to previous Gears of War games. In the plus column, the graphics of Judgment are as impressive as ever, with the prequel nature of the game allowing for visually stunning environments like a city full of immolated Baroque architecture and freshly razed tropical mansions. In the minus column, the dialogue and characterization seem to struggle, because apparently trying to give a Gear a multidimensional personality is like trying to teach a potato to solve differential equations. Even though People Can Fly seem to have genuinely tried to motivate the campaign with a well-framed narrative, engaging plot still eludes the Gears of War series.

Eventually you can unlock a present-day bonus mission that fills in some of the blanks from Gears of War 3, and also comes a little closer to making the total campaign gameplay a respectable length.

If it sounds like my thinking on this game is a little divided, I suppose that’s because it is. I like to see developers taking risks with a franchise (see my Darksiders II and DmC reviews), but I don’t know if I consider borrowing your new mechanics from another incredibly popular shooter to be much of a risk. The game is certainly on the lean side—even with a present-day bonus mission, I burned through the campaign in about 6 or 7 hours, and the multiplayer options are considerably pared down from the Gears of War 3 selection—but I also don’t feel that a game experience needs to be long to necessarily be worth the money. I guess when it comes down to it, though, I did have a lot of fun playing Gears of War: Judgment, and whether it’s because I like Gears, or Halo, or both, enjoyment is the main thing that matters here. However, like any shooter—and like jazz music, I suppose—only time will tell how much longer my enjoyment of this experience will hold up.

What Do You Think?