These days, action video games aren’t known for having a strong and engrossing single player experience.  There are exceptions, naturally but by and large the fundamental action titles these days are usually designed so that the best we can ask for is perhaps a better-than-average single player campaign and then a deeper multiplayer experience to keep players fighting each other long into the future – or at least until the next iteration comes out.  So with its roots set firmly in a strong single/co op player experience, how will Gears of War: Judgment stand up now that the events of Gears of War 3 have ended?  How will Epic Games and People Can Fly handle this new episode now that the key antagonists are no more?

Gears of War: Judgment takes place prior to the events of the original Gears of War and in a surprising twist, has nothing to do with the dominating, testosterone-fueled man-mountain, Marcus Fenix but rather the tech-savvy, wise-cracking gun at his side, Damon Baird.  Joining alongside him is Augustus ‘Cole Train’ Cole the team of Kilo Squad to help protect the city of Halvo Bay from a new Locust enemy.
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First things first, it’s interesting to see how much the mentality of officers and soldiers has changed from Emergence Day (the day when the ravaging Locust enemies attacked from underground, causing widespread chaos) to the events of Gears of War 3.  In the Judgment era, animosity is rife amongst the soldiers as the recently formed COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) includes soldiers which only days before were embattled in bitter civil war with each other.  Baird, Cole and the two new members of Kilo (Sofia Hendrick – a cadet in the mysterious Onyx Guard and Garron Paduk – former member of the Union of Independent Republics) find themselves on trial for undisclosed ‘war crimes’ and the remainder of the game takes place in flashback form, each member of Kilo squad being questioned to discover the truth of why they are stood in chains and on trial in a besieged and crumbling city.

As a series which revolutionised the ‘chest high cover’ mechanic, Judgment rarely seems to need this extra level of protection between you and the approaching Locust horde.  Usually (even on the higher difficulties) you can find yourself simply standing behind cover or standing around a corner and using the ‘peeking’ technique and being protected enough.  Now, I’m not saying that the difficulty levels have been altered – nor am I professing to be any good at the Gears series but it is a series which I always seemed to find myself taking a few days to complete on more difficult settings.  Playing through the campaign missions on Judgment on Hardcore in two player couch co op probably lasted less than eight hours all told.
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The overall feeling of Judgment has that classic Gear of War quality but seems to be missing something – and it’s not just the loving bromance of Marcus and Dom – each chapter is split into almost ‘missions’ which when you complete, you are presented with a ‘Total Score’ screen, telling you who in your party had the most headshots, kills, deaths etc and rewarding you with stars if you kill a lot of Locust without dying a lot (which admittedly sounds much easier than it actually is sometimes)  You can increase your score by also activating Declassified options.  These are displayed usually at the beginning of each stage as a larger glowing Blood Omen symbol and give you a certain handicap.  These are thinly veiled as misinformation in the War Crime report which one of Kilo Team proceeds to clarify – these parameters can vary from being forced to use only a certain type of weapon to being virtually blinded throughout the entire stage by smoke.  Whilst an interesting addition to the campaign I couldn’t help but feel almost dependent on these parameters at times for a touch of variety in the otherwise predictable set piece encounters.

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And predictability is something that Epic and People Can Fly have really tried to avoid in this chapter in the Gears saga.  Employing a new Smart Spawn System (S3) which claims it “makes each encounter (both campaign and multiplayer) unique and new because types, timing and locations of enemies change with each new encounter” which is primarily true because in a couple of set piece battles I noticed the types and timing of enemies change but as any good Gears player will understand, you can still predict how an encounter is going to play out, you’ll get a healthy handful of lower level Locust (basic grubs, Tickers, Wretches) and smaller helping of mid levels goons and a sprinkling of elite level baddies (Boomers, Berserker that kind of thing)

In hindsight the Judgment campaign lasts exactly as long as it should do, if gives you an interesting insight into the past of both Baird and Cole which would have otherwise been an obscure storyline to pursue whilst introducing new elements which eventually feel as natural as the Active Reload.  After completing the Judgment campaign (or after collecting 40 stars through various actions in the game) you can enter the ‘Aftermath’ campaign – a completely separate campaign section focussed on the closing events of Gears of War 3.

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Aftermath takes place as Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago head to Azure Island, both Baird and Cole head to find reinforcements and transport.  This takes the pair back to some familiar locations from the Judgement campaign.  This campaign admittedly isn’t nearly as long as the Judgement one and will only last you roughly three hours on Hardcore difficulty.

Once you have collected all of your COG tags and spent enough time in the campaign modes it’s time to head straight into Multiplayer.  A standalone favourite amongst hardcore Gears fans and one which has had something of a facelift since we last saw it. And yes, the Gnasher is still one of your go-to weapons in Judgement Multiplayer.

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Kicking off the list of longstanding and new features in the Gears multiplayer is Team Deathmatch.  A classic amongst Gears players.  This Gears Multiplayer how you remember it – intense five on five chaos! With the introduction of new weapons like the Markza Sniper Rifle, the Booshaka Grenade Launcher and the Beacon Grenade (made especially for multiplayer, allowing you to radar-tag an enemy for all to see) Gears of War Judgment multiplayer is as intense as you remember with a few extra additions thrown in for good measure.  Characters also seem to have an increased running speed, greater maneuverability and are overall less ‘clunky’ than they used to be in say Gears of War 2 and feel like a slight improvement on the gameplay of Gears of War 3 Multiplayer.

The newly created OverRun mode consists of five player teams alternating between Locust and COG soldiers. Players will be able to play as different classes;  Medics, Soldiers, Engineers and Scouts.  The classes in OverRun each getting their own unique items – the Scout class for example starts with the Beacon Grenade whereas the Medic will start with Stim Grenades which heal allies in a certain area.

If you’re looking for more frantic action then Free For All is frantic ten player action which acts very much like a classic Deathmatch scenario. Frag, go nuts! This is the classic ‘quick game’ in the picklist of multiplayer games for Judgement.  Domination Mode is focussed more around location capture for the team games – think King of The Hill in a Gears of War setting and you’re there!  Combining both OverRun and Horde mode, Survival Mode sees players trying to battle against ten waves of increasingly difficult enemies.

Overall Gears of War: Judgment will probably leave you wanting more from the franchise.  In a content rich environment like the Gears universe, why Epic and People Can Fly would want to explore the Pendulum Wars or Marcus’ past to introduce a potential new spin on the franchise eludes me.  Judgment will always have a place amongst the existing Gears titles but definately doesn’t stand out from the crowd.
Review Score : [starreview tpl=16]box
Title : Gears of War: Judgment
Format : XBox 360
Developer : Epic Games/People Can Fly
Publisher : Microsoft
Release Date : March 19th (US) March 22nd (EU) 2013

[starreviewmulti id=1 tpl=20]

This review was written after playing Gears of War: Judgments Campaign and the following ‘Aftermath’ missions on Hardcore difficulty with an extra co op partner.  All Multiplayer experiences are taken from gameplay, previous press events and game time at the Eurogamer Expo 2012.