When Microsoft released the Xbox 360 in 2005 the console’s launch lineup was far from stellar. Relying heavily on cross generational ports and rushed launch titles (I’m looking at you, Perfect Dark) it’s fair to say that the 360 was sorely missing its killer app. It wasn’t until a year later that EPIC Games came along and changed that. Gears of War’s stunning Unreal engine powered visuals and revolutionary cover mechanic truly signalled the start of the next generation. It has spawned countless imitators and now this once-risky IP stands shoulder to shoulder with franchises like Mario and Halo as one of the biggest in gaming: but has its biggest imitator become itself?
Seven years, two sequels and a whole lot of curb stomps later we find ourselves on the aging 360’s deathbed and with it the release of another Gears of War game.
Set before the previous entries in the series (like most good prequels) the game’s story revolves around Baird being put on trial for unspecified war crimes. As he tells his story and pleads his innocence the player relives the flashbacks to each mission, hoping to uncover the truth – while shooting stacks of Locust on the way. Although Baird is the main character here, you also get the chance to play as Augustus ‘The Cole Train’ Cole, Sophia and Pollack to as they chime in with their versions of events.
The first thing that caught my eye were the environments in Judgement.
In the previous Gears titles, you would be fighting in the ruins of cities the Locust had already long destroyed. Baird’s flashbacks in Judgement take place 14 years before the events of the original Gears of War, as the Locust first started invading the planet. This means that while Marcus Fenix is still sitting uncomfortably in his cell, you’ll be running through cities that are still relatively intact. It’s a nice change of scenery from previous Gears games, and is sure to please die hard Gears fans wanting a glimpse of the pre-war-torn Gears universe. As you run through a smattering of furnished buildings you will occasionally discover traces of life, rather than just the well-worn burnt out husks and crumbling foundations of old. Sadly in my time with the game these environments appeared to be fleeting, and after a few missions with Baird the environments quickly descended into the halls, bunkers and dingy corridors that are all too familiar from previous Gears.
The biggest criticism that has been leveled at Gears is that the sequels have been slightly enhanced reiterations of the original. It will come as no surprise that the core gameplay is very much the same here – you’ll still be hopping from cover to cover, using the same controls and techniques to fire your lancer and lob frags into grub holes. So far so Gears of War, but aside from the new weapons and story that you would expect from a sequel, Judgement brings some interesting new tweaks to the overall experience. Before now the Gears games have always been developed solely by EPIC, but for Judgment they have enlisted the help of Bulletstorm team People Can Fly – and, with the addition of the new Declassified system, boy does it show!
When playing a mission in the campaign you’ll encounter walls emblazoned with a flashing COG logo. Activating this logo will give you the option to play a ‘Declassified’ version of your current mission. This either means you have to complete an extra optional objective (destroy 10 alien eggs, for example), or play the level under certain changed conditions, such as beating the mission in a set time or with a restricted set of weapons. At the end of the mission you are given a rating out of 3 stars, weighing up how often you died, how many enemies of each type you killed, and so on. Even with my short time with the game this proved highly addicting and felt surprisingly refreshing for what on paper sounds like a simple addition. Declassified mode adds another layer of challenge and variety and seems like it could provide a fair amount of replay value.
After defeating another wave of Locusts as Baird I came to a building called the Museum of Military Glory. Instinctively I ran to cover on entering the building, expecting an instant barrage of enemies and to repeat the formula but instead here you are greeted by moveable sentry turrets, repairable barriers and a 30 second countdown until the next wave of enemies. This adds a whole new layer of strategy to proceedings, as it gives you time to plan your area of defence, tactically place turrets and of course stock up on lots of ammo. This light tower defence element came as a surprising addition, it broke up the gameplay and offered a welcome change of pace. If used sparingly these sections could be a fun and effective way to keep the campaign interesting.
The tower defence sections were a fun distraction in the campaign, but these elements really come into their own in the new multiplayer Survival mode. In another first for Gears, Survival mode features four classes – medic, engineer, scout and soldier – and sees you defending three objectives from increasingly difficult waves of Locust attack. It sounds like exactly what it is – a mix of Battlefield’s Rush mode and the traditional Gears horde mode, and it works brilliantly. There’s a heavy emphasis on team play here, with each class providing a unique and vital role to the team. The medic’s job is, unsurprisingly, to heal their teammates with their own medicinal grenades (yep, really) and to revive fallen comrades with a stim pack. The soldier supplies the ammo, the scout can reach high places inaccessible to the other classes and, in a nod to Battlefield’s spotting system, can also ‘mark’ enemies for the team to see. The key class here, however, is the engineer.
The engineer can create time limited sentry guns, but his most important asset is the repair tool.
Littered around the map are little repairable barriers that can stop the majority of enemy types coming through, and keeping them in good condition is crucial to stopping your team being overrun and your generator being destroyed. A strong sense of team work and tactics emerged during my two map playtest of Survival mode, with different classes taking different sides of the map, communicating where the enemy was coming from and the status of our defences was crucial and we quickly learnt that being a gung ho lone wolf would lose the objective for every one very quickly. I really enjoyed my time with Survival mode, and it has the potential to be one of the best online co-op experiences on the system.
As well as the new Gears of Battlefield Survival mode and the regular campaign, Judgement also features an unlockable second campaign entitled Aftermath. In Aftermath the game takes you back to the events of the third game, giving you the chance to play Baird and Cole’s mission to Halvo Bay and see the final events of the third game from their perspective. This campaign feels like a love letter to fans, and while it seems to play just as you would expect, it’s a lot of extra content and a nice inclusion.
Although the final Gears of War for the console doesn’t look it will be the gaming revolution that the original was, it looks like there is a fair amount of new content on offer here. The refreshing score-based Declassified mode looks to breathe new life in a series of somewhat stubbornly unchanging campaigns and the class based Survival mode looks to offer a surprisingly tactical and unique experience. I have no doubt that Judgement is on course to please Gears fans and the wealth of content offered here is commendable, and while not a massive departure from the norm it looks to be a fitting Swan song for the console that spawned the franchise.