While maneuvering through the Gears of War Judgment campaign I recalled a small art book that Microsoft’s PR folks passed along prior to delivering the original Gears of War entry for review. I couldn’t tell you what pile of stuff the book is buried under today, yet its underlying message about creating beauty out of chaos and destruction has never rung more true.
Gears of War Judgment has a lot going for it other than the best looking crumbling city and particle dust effects this side of Xbox 360. It’s the first game in the franchise to mess with the “cogs” in the wheel, to take chances rather than embrace the franchise’s status quo. Though officially a prequel and not a reboot, there’s freshness to its narrative and design disobedience, possible hints of where the franchise might be headed in the next generation.
“Judgment” refers to a tribunal of Kilo Squad, a mishmash of four COG soldiers fighting to protect their home and race from the Locust invaders in the immediate aftermath of Emergence Day. Led by Damon Baird and Augustus Cole, secondary characters in the Gears trilogy, they face a death sentence and must explain their actions, which in turn becomes the core of the game’s campaign via character-centric flashbacks.
Developer People Can Fly lets each focus character guide the story progression on the fly by dropping remarks or bits of information relatable to the tribunal while moving through areas between combat, negating interruptions to the game’s rhythm and unfolding the story in a more natural, cinematic way.
The flashbacks also offer an opportunity to get to know each member of Kilo Squad – each playable within their own section or via 2-4 player co-op – and understand their motives and, in some cases, disliking of one another. Baird and Cole are in the early stages of forming a brotherly bond that will carry them to the end of the war. Sofia Hendrick is accustomed to playing by the rules and struggles to follow Baird’s lead. Garron Paduk was an enemy of the COGs not too long ago and isn’t looking for friendship in his new role.
Additional dialogue is uncovered by partaking in optional Declassified Missions that appear as red COG emblems in the beginning of each mission. Blending narrative and gameplay in a wholly satisfying way, Declassified Missions award stars for clearing a mission by adhering to strict criteria and how you personally perform.
Declassified Missions start off easy enough with tasks such as destroying all the eggs in an area or protecting a piece of armor in a museum. As the campaign progresses, they grow substantially harder with tasks such as defending a beacon (small flying robot) with pistols only, clearing an area within a tight time limit, or playing an entire mission without regenerative health.
What’s clever and interactive about Declassified Missions is their impact on “how” you play a level. Head shots and earning ribbons for certain kill marks will earn stars faster than say running through a level with a shotgun. It represents a whole new way to play a Gears game and begs you to come back and try for three stars in every mission.
Some of Judgment’s best visuals are only available by accepting Declassified Missions. They include filling a room with dust, smoke, gas, and in one instance, strong winds. Smoke and particle effects in games are nothing new; look no further than Call of Duty. The way the smoke seamlessly blends into the environment and how it interacts “creates beauty out of chaos,” exactly what the franchise was designed to deliver.
Across the board Judgment’s level designs never feel stale or monotonous. There’s variety in each and every mission, and never a feeling of deja vu which has long plagued the Halo franchise. Detail is literally littered everywhere as a reminder of a peaceful time not too long ago.
Gears of War Judgment also opens up levels to feel less claustrophobic than past games in the franchise. Some of the levels are downright huge with multiple paths and nooks to explore. There are ample opportunities to use a variety of long-range weapons and countless places to seek cover and hide. A lot of thought went into these levels and it shows.
In contrast, once the nine to ten-hour campaign is completed there’s a secondary campaign “Aftermath” to dig into. These extra missions are an extension of Gears of War 3 that runs parallel to that narrative but focuses on Baird and Cole instead to show what they were up to during that time. It also plays like Gears 3 so there’s the claustrophobic feel and visual design that feels almost “last-gen” in comparison. Jumping from the Judgment campaign right into Aftermath, if anything, is a telling sign of the leaps People Can Fly have made within the franchise.
If the Gears of War Judgment campaign must have an Achilles Heel then it’s the main antagonist, General Karn. Though his name is heard often his presence is barely felt, and the final showdown reverts to “Gears of Old” in the most anticlimactic and uninspiring way imaginable. It makes the inclusion of Aftermath feel like an apology.
Multiplayer gets a little injection of newness as well in the form of OverRun. This team-based mode pits five class-based COG soldiers defending their bases against five attacking Locust warriors. It’s a somewhat familiar setup with hints of the abandoned Horde mode where each COG soldier has a duty to perform; whether it be repair the base or snipe Locust, while the Locust are in full on destroy mode. To keep OverRun fresh and extend its appeal, players rotate sides from COG to Locust at the end of each match.
Speaking of Horde, its presence is also felt in Survival mode. There are no teams here like OverRun, only COG soldiers defending their base against 10 waves of Locust attackers. The familiar and missed Horde mode it is not, but between Survival and OverRun there’s enough of Horde’s legacy to satisfy, though not full on applaud.
Polished AAA games are expected during a console cycle’s final year and Gears of War Judgment checks the box with red ink. My mind keeps circling back to the stunning visuals and wants to step into that dense dust again. I want to go back and take on some of the Declassified Missions that had to be skipped. I want to replay the campaign cooperatively on insane difficulty. Most of all, I want to thank People Can Fly for taking some chances and making Gears addictive again.
– Dan Bradley
Shop for Gears of War 3 with free shipping at Amazon.com (March 19, 2013 release date).