As a package, there's plenty of good to recommend to fans, but it'll never live up to Gears of War 3's bombastic and dramatic finish. "What's left, Anya?" Apparently there's still war left to fight, but it's up to you if it's worth it. As a reluctant fan of the series, I'm sad to see it go out like this, but Judgment seemed dead set on opening old wounds just to feel the sting.
Just another cog in the war.
When Marcus Fenix hung up his doo-rag, shaved his soul patch, and called it a day at the end of Gears of War 3, I nearly shed a manly tear with him. "What's left, Anya?", indeed. The COG army had warred with the Locusts for five long years, and the Pendulum Wars took as many, if not more, lives before that. While Marcus, Anya, Dom (lol), and others get to stay at their Island getaway a little longer, Baird and Cole have been sent back in time to the initial underground-monster onslaught.
With a few new friends, the second-string Gears get starring roles and maybe even a chance to get emotional too. People Can Fly, of Bulletstorm fame, and Epic Games teamed up to reach deep and feed their fan base one more game. Can the formula continue to pay off, or is it time to take this war machine to the shop?
In the "Judgment" campaign, Lieutenant Damon Baird and young Thrashball star Augustus Cole are joined by two newcomers: Sofia Hendrik, fresh from the academy, and Garren Paduk, UIR turned Gear who talks in a funny Russian accent. Some military asshole puts Baird on trial for an unknown reason and now each member of Kilo squad must narrate their testimony in the form of levels. This allows for the new "Declassified" missions, sub-objectives or parameters that will add to your score for the level. Oh yeah, there's a three-star scoring system now too, one you are constantly reminded of.
Some Declassified objectives set a timer and kill you if you take too long to finish. It's all the thrill of autoerotic asphyxiation in video game form. Sometimes it can make the player feel incredibly powerful. An early parameter gave my team of AI numbskulls four minutes to finish the level, so I took off with my Gnasher shotgun and turned my enemies to chunk stew meat. Once I completed the sequence, the game scored my performance, with the amplified sound of gears turning and clanging as stars filled up, which is strangely but incredibly rewarding after completing a difficult challenge.
Declassified missions also push the player to take specific advantage of new and returning weapons. Two UIR rifles and a UIR grenade launcher join the shotguns, retro lancers, and Grub weaponry. Unfortunately, the additions are also overly powerful, but taking on a challenging sequence with just a pistol or headshotting charging enemies with a new rifle still rewards and empowers the player. Scoring three stars thanks to all of your Gib kills puts icing on the cake.
On Normal difficulty, your teammates will never fail to pick you up. I spent minutes on the ground, waiting for death and they'd still pick me up like my problem was just that I was a turtle on his back. I was bleeding out! Hard and Insane (unlocked after Normal was completed) felt supremely oppressive, but Normal was a cakewalk. The frequent score cards and awkwardly presented Declassified objectives ultimately result in a choppy, less-than cinematic experience, unlike Gears of War 3.
The AI also failed to impress when I foolishly charged ahead in the hopes of sticking a minigun-toting brute with a grenade. One by one, each squadmate ran from cover in the hopes of reviving me, and each fell to crawl and call for help like me. Then Sofia dutifully charged over and picked all three of us up, only to collapse from the damage she sustained doing so. Why didn't a Locust execute me? Why wasn't I just killed outright and punished for my stupid maneuver?
There are certainly sequences that astound both visually and mechanically. Cities burning and interior blues really demonstrated everything the artists and programmers know about the Unreal 3 engine. The effect of lunging into cover, roadie-running as bullets fly just overhead, and working together as a squad isn't lost on Judgment.
Plus, fans get to explore more of the Gears universe including the mansions of Seahorse Hills, the backdrop for a few missions that make flanking enemy encampments as satisfying as it's ever been in the series. There are several winks at fans: subtle nods to the faithful bot Jack and to where the characters go in subsequent games. But the levels don't have the same scale and bosses still feel like bullet sponges. Even the characters themselves seem bored.
There's an awkward silence throughout much of the campaign, and Cole, my favorite character, has his enthusiasm robbed of him. I could complain about Sofia and Paduk too, but the cheap jokes, out-of-left-field turns, and awkward delivery aren't worth the time. The frequent use of Horde mode scenarios continues this downward spiral of uncreativity and cash-grabsmanship.
Perhaps sensing that Judgment wasn't measuring up, Epic saw fit to add the "Aftermath" campaign. As you earn stars in Judgment, you'll unlock this campaign, an unscored side story to the end of Gears of War 3. There are no side missions and no start and stop points and it's very short. Worse, it never approaches the cathartic sense of relief you want because it just reminds you of past tragedies.
Judgment's campaign just feels cheap and stale. I got a rush out of the optional mission twists, but the whole package left me wanting. Diehard Gears fans will love it all the same and co-op can still turn the romp into a great time, but fans will likely get more out of competitive multiplayer.
There, players will find that the new two weapon system and always-present reticle encourage even more roll-dive-shotgun madness. Great! That's what I wanted more of. Pre-release multiplayer opportunities were limited to the rabid fans and Xbots with early copies, but my fears were realized in one Team Deathmatch game.
I snuck up on an enemy hoping to chainsaw him from behind (for massive damage). As I revved, the enemy dove right, spun, and blasted a chunk out of my torso, separating the shoulders and legs. As if the ever-overpowered Gnasher weren't enough, the sawed-off shotgun now has two shots instead of one. Respawning feels like pushing the button in a suicide booth repeatedly asking for more instant death. This is obviously what Gears fans want, though, so maybe it should count in Judgment's favor.
Copy provided by publisher. Xbox 360 exclusive.