While this prequel delivers an entertaining and action-packed campaign, as well as some traditional and new multiplayer modes, the overall package feels woefully unimpressive.
Back when the first Gears of War debuted in 2005, the third-person shooter felt refreshingly unique even if some of its parts were seen before (the iconic cover mechanic, for instance, appeared in kill.switch years before and was later on popularized by Resident Evil 4.) With each subsequent entry, the franchise became stronger and stronger, but by the time Gears of War 3 came out, Epic Games had delivered a strong and complete trilogy of games. So when Judgment was announced, people wondered where the developer could go next. Now we know the answer and while this prequel delivers an entertaining and action-packed campaign, as well as some traditional and new multiplayer modes, the overall package feels unimpressive.
Judgment follows a four-person team of academy cadets as they’re awaiting a tribunal to decide if they are guilty of some undisclosed events. The game takes place in flashbacks, since characters take turns to tell their version of the story and narrate the events as they unfolded. Unfortunately, the four new characters (which include Baird, Sofia, Cole and Paduk) lack any defining personalities whatsoever. Even if Marcus Phoenix and his teammates were caricatures, at least you could describe them, but the same thing can’t be said about Baird and his friends.
The story might be bland, but there are a couple of additions to the Gears of War formula that makes the single-player campaign substantially different to previous games in the series. Whenever you start a new mission, you can approach a red Gears of War logo on a wall and accept modifiers that make the mission more difficult. These modifiers encourage you to complete missions with limited visibility, more powerful enemies, use specific weapons, there are timers and so on. Naturally, this makes missions harder, but you get stars more easily. At the end of each mission, your performance is graded with up to three stars and this depends on the number of kills, headshots and executions you’ve performed during the level.
There are a couple of problems with this new approach. Other than bragging rights or achievements, I didn’t see the point to accept more challenges. Should you fail some of these alternate objectives it’s game over, so sometimes I thought twice before accepting some of them. Another problem with this structure is that it makes the game incredibly linear and the action quickly becomes predictable and repetitive: you move from point A to point B and in between, you shoot at pretty much everything that moves.
But for all of its problems, this is still a Gears of War game and the basic formula still holds up remarkably well. The hefty weapons, third-person shooter action, the cover mechanic, violent encounters, exciting multiplayer are all here and that makes Judgment enjoyable and fun to play.
Once you complete the main campaign, you gain access to an extra chapter called The Aftermath which bridges the gap between Judgment and Gears of War 3. This campaign follows a more traditional structure and there are no modifiers between levels, but it’s still only one chapter long.
And then there’s the multiplayer and here’s where most fans of the series will spend most of their time. There’s a variety of modes, including Survival, Domination, Team Deathmatch, Execution, Master at Arms and Breakthrough. The new modes are Overrun and Free-for-All. In the former, you either defend or attack a series of points of interest until they are destroyed. This is repeated three times and then the roles are reversed. Free-for-All is, of course, a much more straightforward mode where is every man has for himself.
For all intents and purposes, Judgment feels like an unnecessary sequel. The mission structure feels uninspired, the plot is bland and the characters boring, making the package feel thin. But then again, the multiplayer is exciting, the action feels solid and the gameplay is entertaining. Maybe this game shouldn’t have been made, but for what it is, I’m glad I played it and even if the gameplay twists and the story were boring, the rest of Judgment was a blast.