Gears of War: Judgment Review: Grin and Baird It
Gears of War 3 isn’t a game dying for a follow-up. As the final chapter in a hugely successful trilogy, it did what it needed to do: the good guys win, the bad guys are wiped out, Marcus Fenix stomps off into the sunset, the credits roll.
Many felt that Gears of War had run its course. Developers Epic Games thought different. And so Gears of War: Judgment arrives this week facing one simple test: justifying its existence. It’s a test the game passes comfortably, but doesn’t ace.
Gears of War: Judgment
Platforms: Xbox 360
Developer: Epic Games/People Can Fly
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: March 19, 2013
Judgment certainly benefits from the infusion of new blood, starting with Polish developers People Can Fly. The studio is a subsidiary of franchise masters Epic Games, credited with porting Gears of War 1, “additional development” on Gears of War 2, and of course Bulletstorm. This is the first time it has worked on a Gears title from the beginning.
Also new to the series is writer Tom Bissell. A respected fiction author and a widely published journalist, Bissell first met Gears creator Cliff Bleszinski while writing an article about him for the New Yorker. Today, nearly five years after the article’s publication Bleszinski is no longer working for Epic, and Bissell (along with co-writer Rob Auten) has been handed the keys to the franchise.
It proves an inspired choice. As a prose author and lifelong gamer making his first foray into actually creating games, Bissell is free to subvert and stretch the conventions and cliches of the medium. Video game characters tend to speak in a kind of overblown, jargon-laced language of their own, but the characters in Judgment sound familiar and lifelike. Characters in previous Gears of War games have been world-weary, or indulged in gallows humor, but never before have they been so believably downtrodden, or so funny.
Series regulars will recognize protagonist Damon Baird, a fan-favorite character with an irreverent, insubordinate attitude to match his blue goggles and bleach-blonde hair. So too Augustus Cole, a brash former pro athlete, who is given more to do this time around than simply hoot and holler. New addition Sofia Hendrik is more of a stock character — the plucky rookie determined to do things by the book — but the real star of the show is Garron Paduk, a heavily scarred sniper defined by his acerbic, deadpan sarcasm. Paduk fought against his three comrades before Emergence Day, when the series’ Locust enemies devastated human civilization, and his hard-bitten Russian accent is heavy with resentment and regret.
Despite these innovations in dialogue and character, Bissell’s best idea is the game’s frame story. In the opening cut-scene, the four members of Kilo Squad are arrested by Colonel Loomis, a mustachioed martinet who court martials them for a crime not yet revealed. The events of the game are all flashbacks, as each character testifies in his or her defense and explains what really happened. During each section of testimony, players take control of the character on the witness stand.
This narrative device underpins the game’s best gameplay element. At the beginning of each level, players can choose to “Declassify” the mission, which imposes a special condition on the action to follow; the tale, you might say, grows in the telling. Some conditions are simple and familiar: more enemies, a time limit. Others are more creative, limiting players to certain weapons, or eliminating health regeneration. In certain inspired cases, the developers obscure the player’s vision, swathing the battlefield in clouds of gorgeous smoke or dust that increase the combat challenge, deepen the immersion, and capture the chaotic uncertainty of combat like few games have ever done before.