The Gears of War franchise has been one of the best-selling exclusives for the Xbox 360 since the first game hit store shelves in 2006. The series finished up its trilogy in late 2011 and has decided to go the route of the prequel with its newest entry, Gears of War Judgment. How does the game fare? Find out in VGU.TV’s review.

Story

Gears of War Judgment takes place about 14 years before the first game and sees series veterans Damon Baird and Augustus Cole as young soldiers in Kilo Squad, just after Emergence Day. Kilo Squad also features two newcomers: an Onyx Academy cadet named Sofia Hendrik and a former UIR (the COG’s enemies in the Pendulum Wars) Major, Garron Paduk.

Kilo Squad encounters a large Locust force lead by General Karn that wipes out a significant section of the COG defenses at Halvo Bay and Lieutenant Baird decides to defy orders to stop Karn. The game is mostly told through flashbacks as Kilo Squad testifies to Colonel Loomis after the fact to try and justify their actions.

Because each member of Kilo Squad has a bit of testimony, you get to play a section as each member. Baird (who actually has two sections) and Cole are well known to Gears of War fans by this point, but the newbies Hendrik and Paduk are given ample opportunity to shine and their characters are fleshed out pretty well given the small amount of time to do so.

Gears of War Judgment

The story is pretty straightforward but definitely lends itself to some interesting action and intense scenarios. The dynamic of Kilo Squad as they work together is probably the best part of the story. Conversely, the development of the main villain is sorely lacking, which shouldn’t be a surprise as the Gears of War series has never been one to develop villains all that well; other than the Locust Queen, none of the other big bads like RAAM or Skorge really had any real character or development.

A thin villain doesn’t get in the way too much, and overall the story is solid without being super bland, and allows the gameplay to shine without taking away from the experience. While the game is lacking in big twists and crazy reveals, this isn’t necessarily bad as too many twists and turns may have detracted from the fact that this game is just trying to show the devastation that the Locust caused when they first rampaged through Sera.

The Aftermath campaign should also be mentioned here as it is another full section of the game and adds some more length to the campaign. The Aftermath campaign is unlocked once 40 stars are achieved in the main story mode (though I would recommend beating the main story first regardless of when you unlock Aftermath) and sees Baird and Cole returning to Halvo Bay to find reinforcements during the events of Gears of War 3.

While it is cool to see what Baird and Cole were up to back in Gears 3 when Marcus sent them off to get help, the reuniting of Kilo Squad members seems a bit strange because of the history that we never see. There is some animosity that is partially explained but a lot needs to be inferred by the player and it leads to a strange dynamic. Aftermath is still a lot of fun, but I can’t help but wish that the main story was just that much longer and Aftermath was either DLC or just not included.

Gameplay

The gameplay of Judgment is truly where the game shines and is why it is a phenomenal experience. The classic Gears of War gameplay (that basically wrote the book on cover based third-person shooters) is back and is very well refined.Movement in and out of the cover system as well as the actual feel of the weapons have been improved for this installment. People Can Fly Studios and Epic Games worked together to recreate the Gears of War experience that made the franchise a big hit over the past three games.

The variety in the gameplay is fantastic with missions that will force players to hold out against waves of enemies, make their way through treacherous terrain, and use a variety of weapons to stop enemies. The bits and pieces of Horde mode that make their way into the game actually fit very well and it helps the experience quite a bit. The game is very linear (as are all Gears of War games) but that isn’t really a bad thing. The level layout gives players tons of flanking opportunities and different ways to approach situations so it never gets dull.

Gears of War Judgment

The gameplay throughout the main campaign is augmented by the ability to “declassify” portions of the mission. Towards the beginning of each section there is a glowing Gears of War logo that can be examined and it will explain that Kilo’s testimony included something additional that can be tacked onto the mission. These extras will usually include tougher enemies, weapons restrictions, and things like smoke or dust that blur vision.

The declassified missions definitely add a new level of challenge to the game and are pretty unique, even as the game goes on. While some of the stuff can be formulaic (there will always be a “only use these weapons” or a “this is going to decrease visibility” type mission) there is enough variety to make it work. Declassifying missions also lets you earn stars faster.

Speaking of stars, Judgment employs a new system for grading the player’s performance after each level. Stars can be obtained by getting kills, doing special executions, and earning ribbons. The stars accumulate faster when a mission is declassified, so it helps to always take on the additional challenge. This system helps players to unlock multiplayer characters and achievements and adds extra challenge to the missions.

Presentation

Gears of War Judgment is a great looking game that offers a variety of phenomenal set pieces like destroyed mansions, city centers, basement corridors, and more. The Unreal Engine works just as well here as it did for the previous games in the series and the graphics are top notch.

The HUD provides a lot of information and with the star system and the weapons taking up real estate on the top left and right of the screen it can feel a bit cluttered at times. It never becomes a huge issue but I generally prefer my games to have a minimal HUD unless it makes sense contextually.

Gears of War Judgment

Clipping errors and stuttering are relatively uncommon and other more major problems like crashing or game breaking glitches were nonexistent in my playthrough of both the main campaign and the Aftermath campaign. It can take a second for the game to move forward when an autosave is triggered but that usually only happened when I was in the process of swinging the camera around as I hit the checkpoint.

The presentation aspect of this game is strong and definitely keeps up (and in many ways surpasses) with its predecessors in the Gears of War series.

Multiplayer

Gears of War Judgment has several different options for multiplayer but the definite standout is OverRun. OverRun borrows some elements from Beast mode and includes a class based match that pits COG forces against Locust forces. Each match sees both teams taking control of the Locust and the COG with the simple objective of either protecting or destroying fortifications. The Locust attackers have a limited amount of time to destroy an emergence hole cover that will push the COG forces back to a second E-Hole cover. If the second E-Hole cover is destroyed, the COG must finally defend their generator.

The team that stops the Locust from advancing as far as they did when they were the Locust wins the match. If neither team (as the COG) is able to stop the Locust from advancing all the way to the generator and destroying it, the team that destroyed the two covers and the generator the quickest will win.

The amount of variety in the types of Locust attackers and the specialized abilities of the COG defenders make this a very interesting mode to play and one that will definitely keep players busy for a long time. The one fully cooperative multiplayer mode (that takes the place of Horde mode) is called Survival, and it is pretty fun in its own right.

Survival is the same basic set up as OverRun except the Locust are computer-controlled characters and the COG forces need to hold out for ten waves of them. This is a fun mode but because of how similar it is to OverRun, I think keeping Horde mode might have been a better way to keep everything unique.

Other multiplayer modes like free for all, team deathmatch, and domination are the Gears of War equivalents of classic modes from many other shooters and they work pretty well. They might not be special, but they serve the purpose of fleshing out the multiplayer experience for more than one type of player.

Overall the multiplayer is a lot of fun because it branches out where it needs to and it sticks to the tried and true where it needs to. Staples of multiplayer gaming and some new variations on modes are both evident and that makes for a well-rounded experience.

Final Thoughts

Gears of War Judgment is a lot of fun and a solid continuation of the beloved Xbox 360 franchise. The main campaign offers some great value, the multiplayer is fun, and the presentation is superb. While the game might suffer from some small issues like a lack of a strong, well-developed villain, the game is a great Gears of War game.

It is not exactly clear where the Gears of War series will go next but People Can Fly and Epic have proven that prequels to the series can work very well as long as the gameplay and presentation that made us love the original trilogy remains intact.

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