Gears of War has been around for a while now—seven years, with Judgment being the fourth game in the series—and it seems the franchise is not ready to slow down just yet. Most reviewers agree that the gameplay is exhilarating, the story is tight, and the war-torn world is prettier than ever.
So what was it that critics loved best about this adrenaline-fueled Locust-maiming rampage of epic proportions? Here's what they had to say.
Despite my feelings that Baird is the most extraneous character in the Gears universe and a general feeling after Gears 3 that I was probably done with this franchise, Judgment is still a good time. It doesn't let its story get in the way of its action, and the declassified modifiers had me playing Gears in ways that I normally wouldn't, making for a more interesting challenge than the typical difficulty settings offer. But the lack of maps just sucks every last bit of life out of the multiplayer, regardless of its new modes.
Gears games always look good, but even by the series' own standards Judgment is an especially good-looking bit of work, although the 'destroyed beauty' aesthetic feels somewhat overdone now. The characters look more human too. They're still hulking colossi (it wouldn't be Gears if the characters weren't on the juice), but they don't look quite so much like they were fashioned in clay by a drunk that's watched too much WWE this time around.
Judgment's campaign offers a dutiful tour through the formerly beautiful, now ruined city: you take cover to fend off waves of the Horde, defend escorts (like a robot drone), pick off snipers wielding OneShot rifles, and essentially go through the paces of what you expect from a Gears of War game—without that extra burst of creativity, surprises, and multiple routes that made Gears of War 3's campaign stand out. Judgment offers a linear, largely boss-less, by-the-numbers journey that, while fun, is surprising in how unsurprising it is.
Speaking of difficulty, this game is a heck-of-a lot harder, faster, and more intense than previous Gears games, even on Normal and Hardcore difficulties. The amount of enemies may incite small panic attacks, especially in co-op on hardcore or above, where every death resets you to a checkpoint. It's gratifying when surpassed, but teasingly brutal otherwise. The fact that enemy types and layouts change every time a checkpoint is restarted means you can't simply learn the patterns to get a jump on the locations after a couple of restarts. The game's AI will catch you off-guard in a heartbeat, but the satisfaction that comes from conquering this dynamic is all the more elating.
This focus on leveling and winning things leads to Judgment's campaign having a lot more of an "arcade" feel than prior installments. Missions are very short, lasting a few minutes at most, which leads to the already basic story feeling segmented. However, the trade-off is a faster, more chaotic, more varied solo and cooperative experience which, coupled with the declassified extras, leads to an altogether different type of Gears that players are used to. Whether fighting in a room covered in thick dust and full of sword-wielding Therons, or defending a position with sentry bots and turrets, Judgment constantly switches things up on the player, and the bite-sized nature of individual missions leads to a feeling of greater replayability.
The success of Judgment's story comes down to the clever use of familiar storytelling techniques. It begins at the end, with Kilo Squad under arrest and facing a military tribunal for an unspecified crime. Discovering the how and why they arrived here is exciting because you're involved in every moment leading up to the arrest. Cutscenes are mercifully few and far between, leaving us to dig into the details during playable flashback sequences. This is where Gears of War bottles lightning again.
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.