With the imminent approach of the next videogame generation, it's fun to imagine what might edge out as "the big thing" or who will become our new favorite heroes. Consequently, in looking forward, it's also a causes to reflect, to see what has been successful. In the Xbox 360's case, Gears of War turned out to be a marquee franchise so intertwined with the console, it's hard to disassociate one from the other. Epic Games' creation has cast a mould from which others borrow—for better or worse—and has helped to further popularize the cover-based shooter, Unreal technology, and team-based survival against waves of unrelenting enemies.
Whereas Epic's earlier work on the series might be viewed as mostly progressive, their collaborative work with People Can Fly on quasi-prequel Gears of War: Judgment plays in an arguably retro-fied manner. Showcasing a hefty bias towards score-based gameplay, instead of dramatic exposition, Judgment amounts to a quick, side-story romp more suited for the hardest of the hardcore in the "Gears" community. Their effort might have been intended to bring more players into the fold with quickly accessed action, but there's little backing up the tight controls in a game so focused on solely delivering explosions of meaty giblets.
Honestly, I see Judgment as a devisive "Gears" experience. It's a departure from the numbered arc where Marcus Fenix's fight against an emergent alien force involved showy set pieces and more drawn out pacing to at least make an attempt at creating drama amidst oversized splattering bodies. In a way, the series' popularity crafted more of an obligation to play, rather than an opus, but either way, the result is the same: a lot of people played the games. Like any massively popular commodity, those games spawned licensed products, extending its reach and giving way to the super-fan who could invest into more than only a couple of games. That's the kind of person I see really getting the most out of Judgment—someone who just really loves the "Gears" universe.
For the generalist group (of which I consider myself a member), it's hard to sit through a game that purposefully, methodically, predictably pulls you away from any hint of immersion. Literally and mechanically broken up into sections, Judgment hides what skeleton of a story there is behind template scoreboards and gameplay breakdowns of your COG-versus-Locust firefights. Taking control of series favorites Cole and Baird, along with newcomers Paduk and Sofia, in a framed narrative scheme, that can be remixed with challenges in each section with “Mission Declassification” (only certain weapons allowed, finite health, etc.), holds potential for at least entertaining storytelling, but besides some contextual cues, Judgment's reason to fight is swept to the background. The story's so passively constructed and presented, the big-boss bad guy only exists as a name and an anticlimactic final battle, and the characters hardly develop from anything more than one-liners.
It's not until you finish the main campaign and unlock a short, more Gears 3-styled epilogue that any effort at a narrative presents itself. “Aftermath” serves to tie the years-prior events of Judgment to 3, but it's distinct contrast to Judgment's structure makes it an out-of-place DLC event.
The decision to build and dissect the game into defined sections; score, recap, and reward each of those parts; and breeze past any meaningful storytelling is ultimately what breaks an otherwise solidly grounded shooter. Judgment's light on any real twists on the familiar chainsaw bayonet run and gunning, opting to instead incorporate some survival standoffs into its campaign, but its action isn't any less fluid for it.
Though it can be hard to nail down random sessions with random people online, at specific parts in the story, four-player cooperative design allows for groups to complete the sections (and their accompanying declassified modifications) with a sort of brutish grace. Sucking up against a low barrier can unfold into a series of movements through cover that allows for a myriad of ways to dispatch Locust opposition. It's not new territory for the franchise, but it's just a little bit faster and more tuned.
Thankfully, Judgment's competitive multiplayer saves face for the package. The addition of a free-for-all option and the objective-driven, Horde-Beast hybrid, “OverRun” to other genre staples offer some "Gears" takes on multiplayer. No longer are matches just shotgun forays; an emphasis on relatively as powerful, yet just as skill-necessary, medium-range rifles make pot-shots from a little bit of a distance more achievable, in maps of some verticality (that number too few, unfortunately). These rifles come in handy in OverRun games where player-controlled Locust enemies fight to invade barricaded COG objectives. Standard classes (medic, engineer, scout, and heavy) on the COG side are surprisingly well-matched against a greater number of bigger, more-fun-to-play-as Locust options.
Essentially, Judgment offers a more balanced multiplayer experience than past entries; it's one that's slightly more accessible for the generalist, while also offering a different skill to master for the "Gears" diehard.
For all of its cross-over experience integration, allowing both campaign and multiplayer modes to contribute to unlocking character and weapon skins, Judgment falls short on delivering an engaging story to play through. I get that's not what it's entirely trying to achieve, but creating a core experience out of what's usually reserved for 'arcade' or more ancillary play doesn't create a strong impression. People Can Fly and Epic exhibit an ability to make technically sound gaming, where gunplay and movement is tight and thought out, but it's a shame there isn't more substance to keep Judgment from staling to mindless, meaningless shooting for points and standings on a leaderboard.
What are you looking for in a Gears experience? Does Marcus Fenix define the franchise for you, or are you cool with an expansion to other characters? Let us know through Twitter @Gamers_Hell