Gears of War: Judgment: The Kotaku ReviewS

Our Gears of War: Judgment review has been updated with a multiplayer segment as well as an overall verdict on the game (finally). To sum: you might have a better time picking up Gears of War 3 instead.

A good soldier doesn't always follow orders—not if he or she wants to get the job done. Gears of War: Judgment is about those types of choices, the ones we make despite knowing they'll get us in trouble. Only, instead of focusing mostly on Marcus and Dom—possibly the most famous bros this gen—this Gears of War taps into the past of smart-aleck Baird and the always-vibrant Cole, who are the other members of your squad in the main Gears games.

Judgment takes place before the first Gears of War, shortly after "emergence day"—or, the day when the alien horde (Locusts) overran humanity on planet Sera. You are a part of the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or "COG," as a soldier.

This Gears is called "Judgment," see, because your characters undergo a tribunal where they are tried for disobeying orders—or, as Baird and Cole probably see it, for doing their job and trying to save lives. During the tribunal, each member of your squad ("Kilo squad") gives testimony, and each testimony encompasses a different playable part of the game.

If we look at the narrative, Judgment tried to do something curious. The testimonies are broken down to smaller levels, most of which give the player the opportunity to tell the "declassified" version of what really went down. So, you can either choose to play the level vanilla, or you can choose to play it with special circumstances. Think stuff like, finish the level in X minutes, only use certain weapons, fight even more vicious enemies.

In their ideal form, these declassified missions present an opportunity for the player to add some spice to the basic Gears of War setup of shooting enemies with your lancer until they stop moving. It's a shame, then, that half the time it felt like some of the challenges added annoyances instead of making things more compelling. I loved missions that would force me to get out of my comfort zone, like going through a level pistols-only, or adding an ambush where there previously was none.

And then there were levels that experimented with visual obfuscation. One level in particular I can only describe as running through fun house mirrors at a carnival while high. When levels like that came up, I'd pass on going declassified, even if it cost me "stars." See, you're graded on your performance, filling up a three-star bar depending on what you do. Declassified missions fill the bar up faster, though in these cases, it wasn't worth it.

A star-bar is awarded if the player gibs an enemy (make them explode, basically), performs executions (drawn out, hyper-violent killing sequences, like punching an enemy's skull off), lands a headshot, or gains any ribbons (awards tracked in both single-player and multiplayer). Some of you may want to chase the high score, three-starring every level. This will mean braving the declassified missions. Yes, even the awful ones.

Gears of War: Judgment: The Kotaku Review

The declassified missions initially impressed me, in that they seemed to promise a more nuanced story. A more complicated story—perhaps one that varied depending on who you ask, since multiple people testify. The type of story that the higher-ups would likely want to conceal and mark as classified.

While I won't say Gears of War has ever been the vanguard of groundbreaking or moving storytelling, other games with a similar framework use it delightfully. I recall, for instance, loving that characters in Dragon Age would sometimes recount a story specifically in a way to make themselves look better.

Gears of War never really capitalizes on its framework. That's a shame, as it's the thing that makes the title unique, at least in the campaign, amongst other entries in the franchise. It almost does, though. There is a moment, for example, when one of your squad members sounds like she will contradict your story, but then doesn't. There's another moment when Cole tells the commanding officer to make sure to include the fact they only used a certain weapon in the report—as if boasting (which is cool!) It kind of makes you wonder—is what you're playing what really happened, or is it just Kilo squad trying to make themselves sound more heroic?

But often, the game devolves into telling a covered-up version of the story that sounds ridiculous. There are only so many times you can have a tale where it turns out that suddenly, for no reason, you could only use a certain type of gun, or so many times you can claim to have gone nearly blind. Midway through the game, Judgment starts recycling declassified missions, giving the player even less reason to do them outside of star-farming.

The interesting structure also doesn't save Judgment's writing. While occasionally the star characters will jab the player in the ribs with a good one-liner, I was mostly left wondering what happened to the charming cast in other Gears games. Cole still sounds boisterous, but is mostly silent, and Baird still seems like the sharpest in the bunch, but that's not saying much when the cast seems dispensable.

Gears of War: Judgment: The Kotaku ReviewS

That's a shame, because the dynamics between the squad were sometimes excellent in Gears of War—I lived for when Baird and Sam would bicker, and Cole's introspection while visiting his hometown seriously made me pause while playing (it was the "ever feel like you're dead, but nobody told you" line).

Melodramatic? Maybe. But the games tried, damnit, and sometimes they succeeded—if you were willing take it for what it was; an action romp. I cared (enough). In Judgment? Not so much. If you've watched the trailers or the intro cinematic—which is probably the most dramatic part of the game—you might guess you'd be in for a crazy tale of camaraderie, defiance and heroics. You're not. You do shoot things, though.

The rest of the game largely plays like its brothers—not always, though. You can only equip three weapons instead of the franchise's staple four, for example, which makes the game feel like a downgrade [edit: to clarify, I am counting grenades, pistol, assault rifle of choice and shotgun of choice—now you can have two equippable weapons, be they starting weapons or power weapons, plus grenades.] Fortunately I at least didn't notice this as much in the campaign as I did in the multiplayer, where the game asks you to choose between an assault rifle or a shotgun. Judgment also doesn't match the level of obsessive details that Gears of War 3 for instance did.

Gears of War: Judgment: The Kotaku ReviewS

As an example: Gears of War has something called "active reload," which is a reload minigame that allows you to reload faster than you would otherwise. In Gears 3, each weapon had a different sweet-spot for their respective active reloads to work, forcing players to be more self-aware of what they had equipped, and simultaneously distinguishing one gun from another even further. Judgment doesn't add to or refine these types of details, as far as I can tell.

Judgment does have a few tricks up its sleeve, though. I enjoyed the campaign levels that had me set up defenses for incoming waves—it felt like a mix of the Tower Defense and Horde modes from previous games. I'm more of a competitive multiplayer player myself, but these levels were a welcome change of pace, when they played nice with the map on which they were featured (this wasn't always the case).

Saving graces aside, Judgment is a lot more of the same. You get to a level. Enemies burst from their emergence holes, or from the air, if not simply from the edges/doors of the levels. You pop your head out every once in a while and you unload on your enemies, or if you're feeling brave, you'll go head-to-head with an enemy for the gib, for the execution—whatever gives you more star-bar. Gears of War 3 often gave me arenas, forced me to change my positioning constantly. Judgment's levels feel small and I often found myself camping in the same stretch of cover.

I adore Gears of War—enough that, despite feeling that this entry isn't nearly as good as previous Gears games, I'll still play the multiplayer obsessively. But as someone who has logged an absurd number of hours playing the games, I might have higher expectations than the average person.

I felt bored playing Judgment, basically. But I recognize that won't stop a dedicated fan from picking up the next title out of curiosity and dedication. For newcomers, there's nothing abhorrent about this game. If it's your first introduction, you'll likely be captivated by everything the franchise has to offer.

Ultimately, the guns are still meaty, the roadie run still feels exhilarating, the speed and force with which your body hits cover is still satisfying, the locales are still great ruin porn. It's an evocative game, a remarkably carnal experience for a video game in which nothing sexual actually happens.

Thought of in that context, though, Judgment reminds me that the worst thing a lover can do is become too familiar.

***

Note: based on the campaign alone, I don't think Judgment is worth playing. It would've gotten a "No" from us if that's all the game had to offer. But Gears also has its signature multiplayer. While I've spent some time with that, I can't definitively tell you what it will play like until the public gets their hands on it. I'll spend some more time with the game in the coming week and will update this with the multiplayer segment of my review, along with my final verdict.

Right now, what I can tell you is that some changes—like barely using the "down but not out" feature in multiplayer (where you don't always outright die, as you can be picked up by a teammate or can stand back up) make the game lose some of its unique charms. I'm also baffled by having to choose between my shotgun and assault rifle; I sense People Can Fly might be trying to dismantle the cult of the shotgun (people LOVE the shotgun online), but I'm not sure that's the way to do it.

I'll have more thoughts on the multiplayer by the end of the week.

5/8/13 Update: Two months after launch, Judgment's multiplayer has changed. There's a new DLC mode now, Master At Arms. You no longer have to pick between an assault rifle and a shotgun and can have both weapons at once, if you'd like (this is huge—now you can be in a variety of different situations and actually be able to change to the most appropriate weapon!) There might be other tweaks which are harder to pick up on, but these seem to be the biggest changes.

Like in previous Gears games, Judgment offers a number of different matchtypes and modes, from the tried and true Team Deathmatch to new modes like Overrun and Survival. The game types that have returned might not work the way veteran players are used to—Annex and King of the hill—have changed (now it's "Domination," which requires you to control three different points).

Both OverRun and Survival are similar in that they require players to attack or defend objectives. OverRun has players take turns being COG and the Locust, whereas survival is a co-op mode where players fight off waves of locust. Both are class-based, and each character/creature has different abilities you must use together as a team in order to succeed.

Both of these modes are highlights worth trying out. Figuring out how to best destroy a team's defenses as the locust while as a highly volatile ticker, for example, is thrilling—nevermind being a bigger, more dangerous locust. The COG seem kind of boring by comparison, actually—being the medic class as a COG is in no way comparable to being a Kantus. They might have the same abilities, but c'mon, the Kantus is cooler!

I'm also a fan of anything that requires players to work together—and though it's no Battlefield, both of these modes make me wonder what a class-based versus mode in Gears of War would function like. If I have one issue with OverRun and Survival—Survival in particular here—is that the maps feel small and claustrophobic. And both, quite frankly, don't seem to be as good as Horde is in Gears of War 3—which already incorporated elements of defense set-up and required the use of things like barriers and turrets tactically on bigger, more well-designed maps.

Some of Judgment's game types are missing Gear's signature "down but not out"—where, instead of outright dying, a gravely wounded gear would become incapacitated. Players could revive DBNO characters. Ostensibly, the reason for its exclusion was to make Judgment quicker than previous games, which it is, but after playing previous Gears games, it also feels a tad ridiculous to be killed so easily. This is especially true in objective game types where longevity feels important. But beyond this niggle, it's a feature that used to distinguish Gears from other games….and now it's not there anymore (sometimes). That's not a good thing in my books.

Otherwise, this Gears multiplayer seems much like previous Gears before it…except kind of worse in some areas, like I mentioned. While players who have been away from the franchise in a while might find something here, honestly, playing Judgment only made me want to pick up Gears 3 again—the more robust and polished title. This is true even though Judgment does have some improvements—maps now have ample verticality for example, and players can drop down from high up; there's also a ton of awesome character and weapon skins; Master at Arms, much like Call of Duty's Gun Game, is an absolute blast of a party game. But all I could think was "I sure wish these things were in Gears 3 instead."