When there's only a year-and-a-half between games in a big-name franchise, it's reasonable to expect that any new release is going to be more of the same.
That's the case with Gears of War: Judgment, the fourth entry in the Xbox 360 exclusive sci-fi shooter series. The latest instalment, a prequel to the trilogy that wrapped up in 2011, serves up the same generous dose of intense, gore-filled, bone-crunching, chainsaw-bayonette-ing action that fans of the series have come to love.
While that's a good thing if you liked the previous games, don't expect much in the way of new twists. Like a lot of games being released now – clearly the twilight days of the current generation of consoles – this entry suffers from an inescapable sense of been-there-done-that.
As the game begins, the Coalition of Ordered Governments is already at war with the monstrous Locust of the original Gears trilogy (released between 2006 and 2011). The story unfolds as a series of testimonies, as related by four soldiers, who try to explain why they went rogue. (Hint: it has to do with the greater good.) The story focuses on Damon Baird and Augustus Cole, soldiers in the COG who eventually go on to become members of Delta Squad (and playable characters). In the here and now, however, Baird and Cole are facing a COG court martial along with two new characters, fellow Kilo squad members Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk, for disobeying orders.
Previous Gears of War games have received their fair share of criticism for terrible writing, with characters serving up the sort of testosterone-overloaded and cliché-ridden dialogue one might expect to find at a frat house keg party. Epic Games brought in noted writers Rob Auten and Tom Bissell – from the Hollywood and game criticism worlds, respectively – to try and address the issue.
To everyone's credit, they mostly succeed. Judgment strikes a very different and welcome tone from its predecessors, with the witless banter noticeably subdued from the get-go. Even the greatest offender from past games, Cole – who bills himself as the "Cole Train" – is considerably more serious, with his annoying braggadocio kept to a minimum.
The group is more focused on the grave task at hand, which is trying to keep the Locust from destroying the city of Halvo Bay, and aren't so much into trading battlefield one-liners (perhaps the low point of Gears of Wars 3 was Cole lamely bellowing "price check in aisle three" during a firefight in an abandoned supermarket). With their newfound sober outlook, the characters and story are a little more grounded and believable.
The two new characters are a miss and a hit. Sofia is a fresh, by-the-book cadet who starts out as something as a stick-in-the-mud, insisting that Kilo squad obey their orders. But once the collective decision is made to rebel, she pretty much fades into the background.
Paduk, on the other hand, is entertaining. He's the quintessentially stoic Russian… er Gorasnayan. I almost forgot – Gears of War takes place on Sera, a planet very much like Earth, but not actually Earth. Gorasnaya is the Russia-like republic that used to be at war with the COG, before the Locust showed up.
Paduk is thus a resentful ally, but he comes to trust and respect his new comrades as the story unfolds. He also shows glimpses of a dark past, but not without an underlying sense of humour. With luck, he'll be a more prominent character in future Gears games.
The action is as intense and tightly refined as ever, with cover and flanking tactics the key to survival. Kilo squad must change up strategies and weapons, with sniper-like Longshots coming in handy during certain fights and Boomshot missile launchers in others. A few new additions, including Gorasnayan grenade launchers and sniper rifles, round out the fun.
The developers have made a clear attempt to push more multiplayer features into the single-player game, with Kilo squad routinely having to defend certain points against waves of enemies. Whether it's setting up turrets or mines, it's an obvious importation of the popular Horde mode from previous Gears games. The wave sequences are fun and often frantic, but they do seem illogical – it's a game-y feature that interferes with the story's immersion.
The same goes for Judgment's main new attraction, the "Declassifieds" found at the start of every section in the form of a big, spray-painted red skull on a nearby wall. Each skull gives players the choice of modifying the upcoming section – some introduce completion time limits while others add environmental effects such as dust storms or winds that restrict movements. Others restrict players to using certain weapons, such as pistols and shields only.
If the player opts to accept the modifier, whoever is currently telling the story explains it narratively, as in, "We were low on ammo, so we had to stick to pistols."
The modifiers inevitably make the game harder, but they award extra stars in return, which unlock multiplayer characters and weapon skins and even an extra single-player level. A minimum of 40 stars is needed to access "Aftermath," which is an add-on to the Gears of War 3 story. It's worth noting that the frat-boy dialogue is back in full effect in this additional section, which feels very much like a tacked-on mission that could have been offered as downloadable content for the previous game. It's probably here to pad out Judgment's short campaign, which can be completed in a brisk six hours or so.
The star system actually does much to disrupt the flow of the game. Breaks for results come at the end of every section, which is far too frequently. Judgment consequently feels like a numbers game – you get the sense that the single-player campaign is merely filler that sets up the online multiplayer mode, more so than in other games.
Multiplayer is again much of the same thing from previous games, with a few additions – like the ability to have COG versus COG teams, rather than just COG versus Locust. It's solid fun, but without a deep advancement system – there's just not that much to unlock or strive for – it's not interesting for very long.
Getting back to the single-player campaign, which is ultimately where Judgment must be, er, judged, the pluses of its writing improvements are negated by the subtraction of one of the series' most important pillars: grandiosity. The toning down of the bombastic dialogue has unfortunately carried over into the main story itself, with the game largely lacking the huge set pieces that have defined the franchise.
Judgment feels like a smaller and quieter game, with Kilo squad often confined into tighter spaces. The only visual grandeur comes from occasional vistas of Halvo Bay in the background, and aside from a climactic battle with Locust leader Karn at the end, there isn't much to make your jaw drop. Ironically, Aftermath supplies the only such moment, where the protagonists must figure out how to rescue a giant ocean liner that has somehow found itself stalled atop a tall building.
Gears of War: Judgment just doesn't have a lot of epic moments, which an unfortunate irony when the developer calls itself Epic Games. While the series has taken a big step forward by reining in its worst excesses, it also takes one back by shying away from what made it great to begin with. As such, Judgment is a familiar experience that, at this point in time, is just treading water.