Gears of War 3 provided a very definite ending to a very good trilogy of games. With the Locust Horde finally defeated, the last few human survivors of Sera were left with the hard task of rebuilding their ruined world. They had a lot of work ahead, but the battle was done. As the Locust Queen died at Marcus’s hands (via the blade of his pal Dom), the heroes slumped down and took a break. And so Epic Games bowed out of the Gears series (and laterally, games development as a whole), leaving People Can Fly to pick up where they left off.
Just like Marcus, Epic Games needed a break, and just like the humans of Sera, People Can Fly had a huge task ahead of them. They had to Create a game that appealed to the series fans, but the Gears of War story was already over. Their challenge then was to slot another story into the Gears universe without making it feel like filler material. A side story that fans would care about, and one that wouldn’t feel like it was exploiting the series. Not an easy task.
When Santa Monica Studios were set the exact same task with God of War: Ascension, they failed with a sub-par effort that was easily the poorest God of War game. I’m glad to say that People Can Fly have fared much better. In many ways, this is the ODST of the Gears series; a self contained story that’s both smaller in scope and more focused and tightly designed. Gears of War: Judgment is a far bigger success than I had imagined it would be, and I’m going to try to explain why.
Brown. Brown and occasionally grey. Those were the predominant colour choices in the first Gears game, and this muted colour palette formed the basis of a hundred futuristic shooters that followed. At the time that the first Gears of War was released, it was such an influential title that other developers couldn’t help but try to imitate its success. They did this by copying its Unreal Engine powered visual style as well as its military “dudebro” storyline. If you didn’t keep up with the Gears games though, you might have failed to notice how much they have progressed and improved. While the first game of the series is now a classic, this newest title is very different. It has been a gradual evolution across four games, but in Gears of War: Judgemnt the world is full of colour. The world of Sera is no longer brown and grey, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed.
Gears of War: Judgment’s brighter, more verdant world won’t be as much of a surprise if you played Gears of War 3. Epic were intent on showing us a very different visual aesthetic, with whole parts of the game taking place on an oil platform in a very blue sea. Here though, People Can Fly have taken the opportunity to colour the world in bright oranges and blues. While the orange/blue colouring may have originally come from Michael Bay movies and inspired People Can Fly via its appearance in games like Battlefield 3, it’s very welcome in this case as it makes the world of Sera a stunning and vibrantly beautiful place to visit.
There’s a visual richness to Sera in Gears of War: Judgment that you won’t have seen before. There’s variety too, and while some parts look like the dark ruined corridors and smashed up Grecian buildings of Gears 1, other parts are almost as bright and garish as People Can Fly’s last game, Bulletstorm.
While the game is brighter in general, there’s a real visual sheen throughout. This is one of the best looking Xbox games around, and the moments of visual spectacle impress as much here as they ever have. When you look out at a raging battle across a ruined city – bright orange fires and plumes of billowing smoke to your left and blue waves smashing against ruined buildings on your right – there’s a real sense of scale and ruin to the world. You will stop and look around to take in your surroundings, and at these moments I thought back to how Microsoft described the world of Gears when the first game came out. They said it was a beautiful world, ruined. That it had a cracked and faded beauty. In this game, you get both a sense of sadness and awe as you look out at the detestation of Sera. They finally nailed it.
All that being said this is the glitchiest of the games so far. Its a slow paced game, with movement feeling sluggish until you get accustomed to its gentle pace, but when I went too fast for the game I felt like I was outrunning its ability to draw level geometry. Running round corners too quickly, I often saw white emptiness until the game engine caught up. It was very brief, and it never effected gameplay, but it occasionally took me out of the game a little. This is probably just a siggn of how hard the game engine is pushing the aging hardware of the 360.
The campaign comes in two parts. The first is called Judgment, and is a self-contained story set before the other games and focusing on Baird. This makes up about 80% of the singleplayer game, and although you play as Baird most often, you have a chance to play as a revolving roster of characters. The other portion of the campaign (Aftermath) is unlocked when you accrue enough stars in Judgment (more on this later), and is the story of what Baird and Cole got up to during the later parts of the Gears of War 3 story.
So most of the time you will be playing Judgment, and it’s a well designed campaign with a straightforward story. It’s got some really clever ideas though, and at times it flirts with doing something genuinely innovate. In the end though, it’s a neat, self-contained plotline that doesn’t really change much in the Gears universe, but is great fun nonetheless.
The framing device for the campaign is a “trial” that Baird and his team are being put through. This is as hackneyed and regressive as it sounds, and the shrill judge is as stereotypical and unreasonable as you would expect. Suffice it to say that he’s one of the poorer characters, and he spends much of the game twirling his moustache and issuing dialogue so terrible you’ll want to hide behind your sofa to get away from it.
As it becomes clear that the trial is just a storytelling device to have you play through the events that led up to this point, I was reminded of Battlefield 3’s excretable singlplayer campaign. My expectations were low as Baird began to narrate and the game began….
It’s at this point that the games cleverest feature popped up. At the beginning of each level in the game, you get a big Cog symbol emblazoned on a wall somewhere close to where you start. Activating this allows you to choose whether to play the “Declassified” version of the level.
The Declassified Mission will add some extra challenge to the level, and will have accompanying dialogue. For example, you might be challenged to complete a level with just boom shields and sawn off shotguns. Baird might say something like “we knew we weren’t supposed to use Locust weapons, but we had no other choice”.
These challenges are always optional, and they almost always make the level harder, but they are often also absolutely great fun and well designed. They make you play the game in a different way than you normally would and often lead to you using weapons or items you normally would avoid. They work like the optional requirements in the newer Assassins Creed games, or even the bets you would place on yourself in Fable 2 that would make missions harder to complete. Because they are optional, you can always skip them, but when directly confronted with a challenge that makes the game harder, you’ll rarely say no, and when you succeed in spite of the obstacles in your way you’ll feel pride in your accomplishment.
In the example above, I learned the power of the sawn-off shotgun in taking out even some of the most powerful enemies in one hit it you were close enough to them. Previously this had been a weapon I had hated, but after this mission I used it often.
Another great challenge was a level where you faced wave after wave of wretches, but your health no longer regenerated. In the game, this was justified by having the characters say how tired they were and how they needed a break. This whole section changed how I played completely, as I played slowly and carefully. The environment was set out with lots of jump scares, and the changes to the game mechanics made it feel like a survival horror game. This one level was better than all of Resident Evil 6.
Aside from the gameplay benefits of the Declassified Missions, they are a neat narrative trick. Baird and his team are unreliable narrators, and there are little hints that events may or may not have occurred as the team describe them. People Can Fly really should have built on this part of the game more though. The idea is played with here, but it’s not really exploited as well as it could have been. If Baird had been set out as a Roshomon or Don Quixote and the game had committed to exploring the reality of his version of events, it could have been a great story instead of just a passable one. As it is, the Declassified Missions are fun, but sometimes they don’t even make sense within the story as a whole.
You are incentivised to try these Declassified Missions with the promise of increased Stars. Each mission can award up to three stars, and like in Guitar Hero you get these for performing well throughout the mission. You can see how many you have got in the mission so far at all times, and killing enemies, getting head-shots, reviving team-mates and performing any skilful or helpful activities throughout the mission increases your chance of getting more stars.
It’s impossible to overstate how much this adds to the game. When every little thing you do well is rewarded, you really do work harder to get get those skilful torque bow shots or brutal executions. As well as the base bonuses you get for these activities, you get ribbons too. These are awarded for things like “getting 5 head-shots in a row”, or “completing 5 levels in a row without going down”. These ribbons add even more points to your score and push you closer to getting the 3 star rating you crave in every level.
And there’s even more little rewards available in the form of mystery packs. These are unlocked for levelling up or completing sections of he game, and opening them gives you more experience points or skins for weapon or your armour. Essentially, at every point of Gears of War: Judgment you will be working towards unlocking something, and the constant drip-feed of rewards and upgrades is heady. This is a very difficult game to stop playing.
The design of everything that surrounds the game is near-perfect. From the menus to the unlock screens, there’s a ridiculous amount of detail, but everything feels easy to find and is simple to understand. Dipping into the achievements section, you can see your progress towards each one. The game communicates data brilliantly, and if you miss a Cog tag during gameplay, it’s polite enough to tell you in which level, and decent enough to save your game as soon as you collect one. There’s an all round level of consideration for the player that’s unparalleled. Gears games have always been good at presenting gameplay data to the player, but this is on a whole different level.
So all this and I’ve barely talked about the base gameplay. Well, in this case that’s because there’s not actually that much to say. This is Gears, and in particular if you played Gears 3 then this will feel very familiar.
To some extent it feels like a greatest hits of the Gears games, with every single enemy type and weapon appearing for at least a cameo. It’s welcoming to newcomers, and for vets they should definitely nudge the difficulty up a little as even with the Declassified Mission making things tougher it’s still not a very difficult game, and certainly too easy for most on normal difficulty. It’s got a slow and deliberate pace to the combat, and there’s still a clunkiness to the character movement, but that’s so much a part of Gears games now that it might be impossible to change.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the gameplay formula is the parts where you have to set up an area for an upcoming enemy assault. There have always been parts like this in Gears games, normally where you fight off enemies while Jack hacks a door, but in this case it’s more overtly inspired by horde mode. The time till the next wave is shown on screen, and you are able to deploy turrets or set up traps with the new tripwire crossbow.
Generally these parts work well, but there’s a clockwork regularity with which they appear, and they are more fun in multiplayer than they are with your somewhat trigger-shy AI companions. When your battle buddies are computer controlled, they fight well enough for the most part (and are quite reliable at reviving you), but they tend to shoot a little less than they should, and are particularly bad at taking out enemies that need to be shot in specific areas. One example of this is the new red, charging Locusts, who are ludicrously tough, need to be shot in the head and are never effectively handled by your AI buddies.
When you eventually tire of the campaign and dip into multiplayer you will find that here things have changed the least. Online Gears of War is established, enjoyable and well designed, and here you will find a huge range of modes to suit your tastes. There’s the adoption of objective modes and character classes in some of the modes, and you will find a whole new set of challenges if you have cleared out all the waves of enemies in Gears 3’s horde mode. In some ways it plays a little more like Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer now, and that’s no bad thing. Chances are you already know by now if online Gears is an experience you’ll enjoy, but if it is then here you will find the most complete and comprehensive version of it. The multiplayer component is a whole games worth of content in itself.
My time with Gears of War: Judgment was perfect. I had a quiet weekend, and I played through the campaign like no other game existed. I didn’t once think of playing something else, doing something else, or leaving the sofa for anything but a trip to evacuate my expanding bladder. I didn’t expect that.
Affection for the Gears series is something that sneaked up on me. The first game was good, but left me cold. The second game came and went, and was fine, but it was the third that really hooked me. I was surprised to find that some of the character I had liked the least when I had first met them had grown the most in my affections. The macho posturing of the first game gave way to misplaced “emotional dudebros” in the second, but by the third I found that the curiously sincere sentimentality was affecting me, and there were moments that genuinely touched me, like Cole’s flashbacks in the sports stadium and the death of Marcus’ oldest friend.
So with Judgment I was coming off the back of a great experience with Gears. I assumed this would be a place-holder title. I’ve seldom been so glad to be wrong. Judgment is the tightest, best playing game in the Gears series, and the changes are all for the better. For all the complaints about Baird, he’s actually more likeable than “personality-vacuum”, Marcus. Like the other games though, its the expanded cast that you connect with more than the main characters, and it’s the gameplay that pulls you through what is otherwise quite an average story.
I struggled to score this game. It’s perhaps the most absorbing game I’ve played this year, and its probably the best Gears game made too. The stars scoring system and the Declassified missions add so much. That being said, I can’t help but think about the missed chances with the story, the clunkiness of the dialogue and how forgettable the characters are.
But still, but still…… I think about the Lancer as a weapon. The iconic tool of the series; it’s preposterous. It’s a gun with a chainsaw attached. Like Gears, it’s not subtle. It’s loud, messy and noisy. It’s crude. But in the other Gears games, it’s always been a bit compromised. Too weak, it made enemies feel like bullet sponges. In Judgment though, it feels perfect. When you carry it, you feel like you can take on any enemy. It’s a multi-purpose weapon that’s beautifully balanced and fun to use. It’s well designed. So is almost every part of Judgment. It’s a brilliantly designed game. That tight design and attention to detail make it a great game, and as long as you like the actual combat in Gears of War games, this is the best one you can play.
Colour me impressed.
9 brown worlds, coloured orange and blue out of 10