Gears of War‘s influence on the gaming industry can’t be understated. While Kill Switch beat it to the punch by three years, Gears of War spawned a movement. Virtually every third person game with guns since its release has incorporated a cover system. It’s gotten to the point that a third person action game without a cover system in this day and age is an anomaly. The original Gears of War trilogy stands as one of last generation’s best. With that said, I have only just recently played through Gears of War: Judgment for the first time after playing the numbered entries, including Gears of War 4. It didn’t move as many units as Gears of War 3, but does that mean it’s not worth playing five years later?
With such an iconic franchise, minor mechanical alterations or changes to the control system can be met with disdain. In Judgment‘s case, the slightly redesigned UI and control system is a mixed bag. For starters, grenades are no longer equipped with the D-pad. Grenades, now mapped to the left bumper, feel like a natural evolution. Previously, equipping a grenade before throwing it felt like a chore. In some of the more intense moments, the animation took too long to play out. This often leads to slower knee-jerk responses in select instances as well as frustration. I’m just trying to kill some fleshy locust, my dude. It’s a shame Gears of War 4 returned to the old grenade system. With most of the industry adopting a dedicated grenade button for the past decade, the core franchise is stuck in the past with such an archaic system.
Weapon load-outs saw another revision. In every title, players have access to two main guns with a third slot dedicated to handguns. This meant you could rock a Longshot and Gnasher along with a Boltok or Gorgon pistol. Gears of War: Judgment removes this system entirely. If you want to keep your Boltok, you’ll only have one free weapon slot left over. On some level, this change makes sense in the thick of the action. Pressing the Y button for a snappy animation lets combat flow more consistently.
More Odd Than Good
The action’s pacing never lets up because of this minor change. Some permutation like holding down Y to switch to a pistol would slow the game down. Judgment actively encourages running through and killing shit. However, despite People Can Fly’s intentions, the end result is more restrictive than it should be. On one hand, it forces more critical decisions. Do I really want that Retro Lancer? I’ve got this gorgon pistol. Do I really want the inaccurate Retro Lancer to act as my core rifle with no real back up? Do I want both a Gnasher and a Sawed-off, inhibiting my medium to long range potency?
On the other hand, it limits the cog’s meathead arsenal. Gears of War typically features gratifying combat and spectacle-inducing set-pieces. The limited carrying arsenal puts a thorn in such an action-driven game. This especially holds true when considering Judgment‘s campaign direction.
Gears of War: Judgment’s Core Success
This is the shortest and perhaps most focused Gears campaign to date. I don’t mean to imply that it is the best campaign, but it knows what it wants to be and every design element stems from that core vision. Even the controversial load-out changes were made in service to that experience. Unlike every other entry, which occasionally splits up the action for the sake of pacing, Judgment assaults players with nonstop firefights. You’ll rarely find yourself walking slowly, waiting for NPC’s to move, or interacting with the environment for simple puzzles.
The game constantly funnels you from shoot-out to shoot-out. It sounds repetitive on paper, but Judgment deflects such criticism thanks to its length. Clocking in at five hours, it ends before the constant barrage of death grows tiresome. The original Gears of War feels a little dated today with basic encounters that only ever contained a maximum of five active AI locust on screen at once. After several engine updates and optimization, Gears of War 2 showed the world how bombastic the franchise can be. That spectacle has carried on through the franchise, with Judgment featuring some of the series’ most diverse combat sequences.
The degree to which it mixes different enemy types in both large-scale and claustrophobic environments forces constant mobility. Maybe you feel safe hunkering down behind that table in an enclosed hallway with grunts on the opposite end. Then, suddenly, a serapede sneaks up on you while those grunts you killed transform into ravages, an armored berserker-like enemy type exclusive to Judgment. It is designed almost like an arcade game, with a scoring system and non-stop action, encouraging efficiency.
If level design and combat variety alone were the end of it, Gears of War: Judgment would be a pretty good game for hardcore Gears fans that initially dismissed it because People Can Fly took the helm over Epic Games. However, Judgment steps it up further with the inclusion of declassified missions. These are optional missions/objectives that can be activated for every major scenario.
Each declassified mission activates some sort of modifier that makes the ensuing battles more difficult. One declassified mission limited the player’s arsenal to just the Gnasher and Sawed-off while another severely limits vision. While not all declassified scenarios are created equally, they enhance the moment to moment gameplay. Some of the most nail-biting missions consisted of racing against a time limit before poisonous gas filled the room or a hammer of dawn strike rained upon us.
Other optional skirmishes went as far as adding further enemy variety to the ensuing chaos. Each of these declassified missions adds a consistently changing goal to work toward while forcing players to rethink tried-and-true strategies. “Yeah, I’ll just hang back with this lancer. Oh wait, we have 2 and a half minutes to finish this. Never mind.”
Gears of War: Judgment is a great way to spend an afternoon. With such exciting combat variety, Judgment is plain old dumb fun. People Can Fly showed a greater command of what makes an exciting Gears of War campaign than The Coalition did with Gears of War 4. Kick back, grab a drink, invite up to three of your closest friends, and spend the day gibbing some locust.