So, prequels...as a rule they donít appear to work, much like games solely utilising flashbacks as their narrative structure rarely seem to work. So what would happen if you made a prequel which was solely comprised of flashbacks? It would be terrible right? Well, having disaster written all over it and with Epic removing themselves from development duties the team at People can Fly have been handed the reigns to Gears of War: Judgment (feels wrong spelling this incorrectly but itís the title on the box - thank you America), a prequel to the first Gears of War title with a campaign dominated by flashback storytelling. Gears 3 was an excellent package that neatly concluded our time in the Gears universe, while the narrative was weak and the game play was getting almost stale it still had enough bombastic action to keep the loyal fan base interested. Every dog has its day though and Judgment could have proven to be the death of the franchise - sometimes however successful a series itís just best left alone.
Thankfully the team at People can Fly (makers of the very much underrated Bulletstorm) have enough tricks up their sleeves to prevent it from being a total wash out. Bringing with them a brand new colour palette, a quite radical change of combat style and some subtle yet excellent co-op & multiplayer tweaks there is much to be thankful for in this iteration.
The main campaign is set in the early years shortly after ĎEmergence Dayí and tells the story of fan favourite Baird - serial moaning, back chatting, gun toting son of a gun and some would even argue the most fun character in the series. The campaign details how this lowly Private was such a low level private during the first Gears game, despite him actually being a lieutenant, along with introducing us to his team, Kilo Squad. This elite bunch of box ticking stereotypes includes Sofia Hendrik (the one with the ass), Paduk (the mad Russian type dude) and Augustus Cole or Cole Train to his friends (the black dude). The campaign itself is instantly forgettable, the story is by no means poorly written it is just devoid of any useful information, cheeky series nods, in jokes and completely lacks any tension at all. It serves its purpose sure as it propels you from one horde room to the next but thatís about it - any notion that this was a story to provide solid context to the events of the main series was just PR nonsense. Kilo Squad are pretty cool in a generic stereotypical way but, of all the Gears games, this one provided the least reasons to not hit Ďskipí during a cut scene.
As mentioned earlier the campaign is told in flashbacks and naturally as there are four members of Kilo squad, each gets their turn. Each story is told from a courtroom where our team are being accused of something by some guy with a really great tache and this back drop provides probably the most interesting element of the campaign. As they are technically giving testimony, at the beginning of each level there is a Gears symbol which provides the ability to Ďdeclassifyí; key information, thus changing the dynamics of the level you are about to embark upon. For example, play a certain level normally and it could be a bit of a cake walk, invoke the declassification and a huge dust storm envelops the entire level, only allowing you to see two feet in from of your character. Add to this that the enemy then throws more melee fighters at you with giant clevers and suddenly that option was clearly a game changer. There is no element of choice within each level, even with this option chosen - you are still on a linear path intertwined with blatant horde levels but it does change the way in which you get from beginning to end, adding replay value to each campaign section with ease. Using this option also allows you to unlock silver stars more quickly - silver stars being the little blighters that help you unlock more content within the package, including a second smaller campaign called Aftermath.
The final element worth mentioning on the campaign is how much of an arcade game it feels like this time around. Gone is the cover based, often tactical shooter and in comes a run and gun balls out action shotgun-tottiní shooter. Campaign levels are short, sometimes really short and have an awful lot of emphasis on star and ribbon collection, ultimately to allow the player to level up. Levelling up provides you with prize boxes, of which they are a handful of types - from said boxes you can expect anything from XP to new weapon skins and as your experience within the game spans across all game types (inc MP) then you are always striving for more ribbons, more stars, more, more I tell ya! This is the fourth in the series of Gears titles and it is the first time you can play the game literally never using cover and it almost seems wrong using cover when the screen is so full of oncoming enemies. Whether this is a change for the better itís difficult to say, but itís most definitely a change of pace.
The campaign can be played in full four player co-op and obviously as has been said many a time, everything is better in co-op and in the case of Judgment the game is also significantly easier in co-op. When you are done with co-op you have the option of taking on waves of enemies in a new horde like mode called Survival. This mode sees a team of five players online taking on ten waves of ever increasing enemy strengths while they protect a key strategic point on one of the initial four maps. There are some nice tweaks found in this mode that carry over to full MP which the developers should be commended for. Gone is the ever annoying currency found in previous horde modes and in comes a class based system. Soldier, medic, engineer and scout are now options when you enter a game and immediately the whole affair becomes a more strategic team based experience. A carefully plotted layout with regular ammo and health drops work wonders on the battlefield and the ability to throw ammo long distances to a struggling team mate is easily one of the best additions to the franchise. For all its initial gusto though the novelty does wear thin after a few hours; with only four initial maps (likely more in the season pass) and limited variation in the enemy combatants it will need more content to keep players coming back over and over.
Moving swiftly on once you are done with Survival are the main online multiplayer modes, of which there are four: Free for All, Team Deathmatch, Domination and the one that everyone will be playing, Overrun. Team Deathmatch and Domination are completely self explanatory while Free for All does allow you to take control of any controllable character within the game (not just humans), Overrun is where to the most fun is to be had. This mode is what the series has been crying out for, full on COG vs Locust battles, allowing a full team of COG soldiers to survive wave after wave of oncoming human controlled Locust. The mode, much like survival, has three rounds - if the COG fail to hold position one, they fall back to two and then eventually to three. Failure to hold the third and final point results in a locust victory. Playing as the COG is a tense affair, tactically tough depending on the map layout and increasingly difficult as the locust become more powerful. The locust horde are tier based and the more they progress the more powerful options become available, firmly stacking the odds against the struggling COG soldiers. Here in lies the beauty of this mode - play as the locust and you get to control all manner of nasties, much like Beast mode in Gears 3 or play as the COG and try to hold them off. There is huge satisfaction to be gained from completely overpowering the COG with giant maulers and conversely itís exhilarating to hold them off as the weak (in comparison) COG soldiers. When interest in the other modes has waned people will still be playing overrun, it is that good.
It is commendable that there is so much content on offer with the Judgment package - graphically it is at times gorgeous, sound design is as good as itís ever been and not only do you have two campaigns, you also have a horde (ish) mode and new multiplayer - all the while old school horde will likely return in the season pass along with a wealth of new maps. There is an awful lot for your money here and fans of the series will lap it up once again. Safe to say though that as commendable an effort as People Can Fly have made here it is getting a bit stale. We are at the stage now where we are seeing tweaks and iterations as opposed to must have fundamental changes and it will be interesting to see where the franchise goes from here.
For now, back to overrun!