Gears of War: Judgment Review: Grin and Baird It
Gears of War basically invented the cover shooter; four games later, it has arguably perfected it. The weighty character animations, the claustrophobic third-person camera, the endless variety of satisfying weapons, that feeling after a successful flanking attack — it’s all there, ever-so-slightly better than it was before. The Locust enemies are smart, aggressive, and arrive in seemingly endless variety. The encounter design takes valuable lessons from the success of “Horde Mode,” first introduced in Gears of War 2, and the game provides a well-balanced mix of frenzied attack and set-piece defense. If anything, the pace is almost too relentless; vehicle combat sections in previous games offered a rare but welcome change.
In contrast to the caramel colored sunsets preferred by Bleszinksi, the game’s environments feel a little more lurid, a little more hyperbolic. The events of Judgment take Kilo Squad to the city of Halvo Bay, mere weeks after Emergence Day and years before the events of the first Gears title. Level design provides the expected array of grandeur in decay, moving from cavernous military buildings to a pillaged suburb to a sublime D-Day style beach assault, so rare now that World War II shooters have fallen out of fashion.
Like many modern combat games, Judgment is meant to be replayed and thoroughly mastered, boasting a co-op campaign, a variety of difficulties, and a dizzying array of levels, stars, ribbons, badges, and achievements. In contrast to many of its peers, however, the game actually makes this prospect seem appealing. This is largely due to careful design balance. The Locust get tough without getting cheap. Declassifying missions adds creative variety. Defensive set-pieces feature multiple flanks and emplacements that cry out for a carefully orchestrated co-op effort.
By earning stars through good performance in the main campaign, players can unlock “Aftermath” a bonus section set during the events of Gears of War 3. Far from being tacked on, Aftermath features some of Judgment’s best writing and level design, neatly book-ending the events of the original trilogy without having to ret-con much of anything.
The game also offers a superb new class-based multiplayer mode, called OverRun. At the beginning of each round, a team of Locust are tasked with destroying a stationary emplacement, a team of COG soldiers with defending it. The four COG classes — Engineer, Soldier, Recon, and Medic — correspond ingeniously with the Baird, Cole, Paduk, and Sofia character models. Locust players will take control of basic Grenadiers, healing Cantus, scuttling Wretches, and Tickers — a personal favorite that play like controlling a highly explosive remote controlled car. High-scoring Locust players can unlock a set of four more powerful variants, such as Corpsers and Maulers.
Combat is confined to arenas small enough to keep the action constant. Each class is stripped down to the basics. COG players get two guns and one special ability on a short cooldown, like the Engineer’s turret or the Medic’s healing grenades. Locust classes are similarly limited; for example, the Ticker can use a speed boost, a melee attack against static defenses, and a devastating explosion.