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The first three Gears of War games are third-person shooters centered on a conflict between humans and a subterranean species called the Locust. They’re fun, action-packed, violent and well made with solid mechanics. Despite some slight changes and additional features introduced in each sequel, the core gameplay basically remains the same. After Gears of War 3, a spin-off title was released and aimed to do something a little different. Developed by People Can Fly and Epic Games and published by Microsoft Studios, Gears of War: Judgment was released for Xbox 360 in March, 2013. For this review, I played it on a Series X. Judgment retains the core gameplay and adds in a scoring system to mix things up.
Set in the city of Halvo Bay, Judgment’s campaign details the events of Kilo Squad that lead them to a tribunal. The squad consists of familiar faces Damon Baird and Augustus Cole along with new faces Garron Paduk and Sofia Hendrik. The plot is primarily made up of flashbacks as each member of the squad explains their actions. I can’t say the story is any better or worse than anything the series has offered so far. Those that have grown attached to Delta Squad in the previous games may appreciate the glimpse at Baird and Cole’s past. One positive thing I will say is that squad members are somewhat developed and feel like actual humans instead of just big buff Locust-killing machines.
In addition to the Judgment campaign is the Aftermath campaign which does need to be unlocked. This campaign is set during the events of Gears of War 3. Baird and Cole return to Halvo Bay to find reinforcements for the assault on Azura. The story here is basically an extension to the Gears 3 campaign and can be completed in under two hours.
Judgment’s biggest sin is that it’s more of the same. There’s nothing really innovative about it. There’s not much about the gameplay or mechanics that we haven’t seen before. That’s not to say Judgment is a bad game but if you’re looking for something fresh set in the Gears universe, this isn’t it. However, that’s not to say it feels like a total cash grab, either. The game features a scoring system and that’s the real draw is here. It’s obvious the game was designed with cooperative play in mind and the scoring system adds a good amount of replay value.
Judgment not only features the two campaigns which can be played solo or cooperatively but also competitive multiplayer modes and a Survival mode. I was unable to find any online matches but you can play with bots and that goes for the Survival mode as well. Survival is kind of similar to the Horde mode in the previous games. Players choose one of multiple classes and must protect E-Holes and Generators from waves of Locust, and each class has an ability that can benefit the squad. While Survival is a cooperative mode, it does have a competitive variant called Overrun which is basically the same thing except one team will play as the Locust.
As it relates to the Judgment campaign, once I got into the groove of things, I started to really enjoy what I was playing. Once I decided to treat it like an arcade Gears experience of sorts rather than a story-driven action title, I began to appreciate it a lot more. And I honestly think it’s a solid experience. Unfortunately, the Aftermath campaign does not feature the scoring system for some reason. And without it, it’s just another run-of-the-mill Gears of War experience.
The story will put you in the shoes of each member of Kilo Squad and each member’s story makes up an Act of the campaign. Each Act features numerous objectives to complete and you’re scored for each one based on your performance. The ultimate goal is to earn three stars for each objective and this can be done by killing enemies in various ways. The harder the difficulty, the more prestigious stars you earn.
What I really think makes the scoring system fun and interesting is the Declassified Missions. Typically, before you begin an objective, there’s usually a Gears icon somewhere nearby and interacting with it lets you view and activate a Declassified Mission. These missions are basically modifiers that will make things harder but enable you to accumulate stars faster. What’s really cool about these is that they mix things up to keep the gameplay interesting. They’ll make you think and approach situations differently. You’ll have to complete objectives within a time limit, you’ll be forced to use specific weapons, more enemies will be thrown at you, visibility will be reduced, and you’ll have to be mindful of certain environmental hazards.
Much like Gears 3, Judgment does feature an experience system. What I’ll call your profile gains experience and levels up as you play across all modes. You can earn ribbons and medals by doing certain things and meeting certain requirements, and that, alone, can be somewhat addictive. You will also earn PrizeBoxes by killing enemies, getting lots of ribbons and medals and leveling up. There’s different types of PrizeBoxes and they will reward you with something random like weapon and character skins that can be used in the multiplayer modes.
Earning all three stars for an objective may not always be easy. You do have to be somewhat aggressive and being down but not out does drain stars. You also fail an objective if a squad mate dies. That said, if playing solo, the friendly AI ranges from stupid to competent. On the Normal difficulty, I found that most of the time they do okay. But I did witness them unnecessarily run right into danger on more than one occasion. It happened more often when I utilized the Spotting mechanic. Just like in Gears 3, you can mark a specific enemy for the AI to focus their fire on and I guess sometimes that means they charge right at them and as a result, get taken down.
As fun as the game can be, it doesn’t always feel like a typical Gears game which is both good and bad. Despite the gameplay not being innovative, I appreciate the developers attempting to mix things up with the scoring system. But you can tell the Judgment campaign was designed around the scoring and cooperative aspects. Many encounters do feel staged and there’s a lot of defense objectives. These encounters let you set up some basic defenses like turrets and laser tripwires and they typically all play out the same with tougher enemies thrown in the further you are into the campaign. In fact, much of the campaign throws numerous enemies at you, even more if a declassified mission calls for it so encounters late in the game can feel very chaotic.
In addition to all of this, Judgment does change some things and introduces some new stuff. For one thing, you can only carry two weapons now. You can walk over certain ammo drops and automatically pick them up. You’re not restricted to using only pistols when using a Boomshield or taking meat shields. The campaigns do showcase some new weapons like rifles, the Booshka which is a grenade launcher, and the Stim-Gas grenades which create an area that can replenish health. Judgment also introduces a new enemy type called the Rager. It can enter an enraged state and start charging around the battlefield attempting to melee its enemies inflicting a decent amount of damage.
Unlike Gears 2 and 3, the campaigns don’t feature too many set pieces or scripted events. Most of the time, you’re just running and gunning. There is a segment that lets you use a Silverback to mow down foes which is a lot of fun and my favorite encounters are set on a beach. At one point you’ll have to assault a beach head defended by Locust and then defend it later on. Other than that, there’s not a lot of environments or scenarios that I found particularly exciting compared to what we’ve experienced in the previous games. You’ll shoot your way around a museum, mansion, rooftops, hotel, old town and courthouse. The environments always seem somewhat open to support the encounters because you’re always going from one objective to the next and each objective has you engaging enemies in some fashion and there’s plenty of walls, structures and things to use as cover. Exploration will typically lead you to weapons, ammo, and COG Tags which act as a form of collectible.
Gears of War: Judgment did look pretty good for its time and, unfortunately, it is not enhanced for the Xbox One X so if you play this on the system or a Series X|S immediately after playing the previous ones, it’s not going to look quite as crisp. That’s not to say it looks bad or is completely jarring but it is a little disappointing. But for it’s time, it was a good-looking game with some beautiful backdrops and nice visual and gore effects. The action is accompanied by a good orchestral soundtrack and audio work and on the technical side, the game crashed on me once. Luckily, I did not encounter any other issues.
I kind of remember when Judgment came out but nobody seems to talk about it so I went into it thinking it wasn’t going to be that great but I actually ended up really enjoying it. I don’t think it’s the best in the series. In fact, I think it is the worst up to this point but it’s not a bad game. As it relates to the campaigns, it contains all the fun aspects I expect from a Gears of War game. Action, violence, bloodshed and solid gunplay. It has all that plus a scoring system and somewhat addictive reward system. I enjoyed it more the further I got into the campaign and while I don’t think it reaches the same highs as its predecessors, there are several cool firefights and encounters that stand out. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the Aftermath campaign because despite the plot connection to the Judgment campaign and Gears 3, it’s rather unremarkable.
I would recommend Gears of War: Judgment because despite not doing anything innovative, it is fun. It’s another case of if you liked the previous games, you’ll probably like this. That is if you’re not tired of the tried and true formula at this point. As it relates to the Judgment campaign, the scoring system is the real draw here and if that doesn’t interest you, and you’re looking for something more than just another cover-based third-person shooter, you might want to look elsewhere. Otherwise, it’s a solid spin-off and entry in the Gears franchise. It’s not the best but it can make for a good time.