News, Views, and Reviews
Gears of War: Judgment has a lot to prove. In the fictional world of Sera, the four COGs on trial have to justify why the disobeyed orders. In the game development world, the “People Can Fly” studio has to prove they can take over for Epic studios, and meet the high expectations of millions of Gears of War fans. In the video game world, Microsoft has to justify the existence of the Xbox and consoles in general, as this generation carried on too long and many gamers AND studios abandoned consoles for PC or mobile gaming. Without question, Gears of War: Judgment proves all of this and more.
On My View Screen, I’ve reviewed three games so far, and I broke up those reviews into single and multi-player parts. I will keep doing this for an important reason: I don’t think it’s fair to judge a game with an average score based on both single and multi-player. If it has a terrific story, but the multi-player portion feels tacked on or unnecessary, does that somehow diminish that story? Of course not. But the same doesn’t seem to apply to games that are well known for competitive multi-player. I often hear gamers proclaiming that they jump right online with their favorite shooting games like Call of Duty, Halo, or even Gears of War, and skip the campaign entirely. To this I always say, “their loss”, but I can understand where they are coming from; some games with fantastic multi-player DO have terrible campaigns. Or, at the least, they are entertaining for a few hours, then they are over, and nobody returns to them. But these “fantastic” multi-player and “terrible” or “fun and done” single-player games are often highly rated. It’s a double standard that I don’t appreciate.
I am trying to go beyond the common review standard of “this is a great story and let me tell you why in explicit detail, but then conclude with a brief mention that the multi-player isn’t that great.” No, I will detail both, and let the readers judge for themselves if they are OK with a game that is either good at one but not the other. It is with all this in mind, then, that I present the case that Gears of War: Judgment is good at both.
Graphics: Years ago, during the infancy of the Xbox 360, the original Gears of War was released and heralded the beginning of the “HD” generation of consoles. At that time, GOW justified the Xbox 360. But, that was years ago, and the Unreal Engine 3 has gone on to power two more Gears of War games and countless other titles. Those years have not been kind, and the UE3 is showing its age. More advanced graphic engines, such as DICE’s “Frostbite 2.0” and Crytek’s “CryEngine 3” have stolen the spotlight recently. Even demonstration videos for Epic’s new Unreal Engine 4 – for the next generation – give us so much to look forward to, its hard to look at UE3 games anymore. But make no mistake, Gears of War: Judgment IS good looking; People Can Fly have pushed the UE3 to its limits. Dramatic lighting and shadows, expert use of color, and game-play influencing particle and smoke effects bring new life to the world of Sera. I think it’s appropriate, as this game takes place before the Gears of War trilogy, and it makes sense that the devastation and ruin we saw in those games hasn’t taken place yet. I also think it’s fitting, that at the end of this generation, Microsoft releases another Gears of War game and it’s at least comparable to other Xbox titles. It doesn’t set any new standards for graphics, but then the graphics don’t service the game as they do in a game like Crysis 3. The new standard that Judgment sets is for a truly re-playable campaign.
Controls: Judgment changed the Gears of War controls. Moving, looking around, aiming, firing, the “roadie-run”, rolling, and hiding behind cover are all the same. The differences apply to switching weapons and throwing grenades. Previous GOW games put weapon and grenade selection on the D-Pad: pushing left and right switched your primary weapons, pushing down switched to your pistol, and pushing up switched to grenades. Judgment gets rid of the ability to carry two primary weapons and a pistol, and with that, positions the controls more like a game like Halo or Call of Duty. Now, the “Y” button switches primary weapons (which could include a pistol) and the “Left Bumper” button throws grenades. The “Right Bumper” button still reloads, and you can still time an “active” reload for bonus damage. The few weapons that “scope” have that function mapped to clicking in the right thumbstick. These changes mostly serve to quicken the pace.
Game play: When I was writing the multi-player review, I almost included the campaign. People Can Fly have taken what we know about story mode, and turned it into a competitive, re-playable adventure, for up to four players. At the beginning of the game, the four COGs have already been arrested and are standing trial. The game flashes back to earlier in the day as the characters testify what happened. Not an unusual story-telling device, but the fun comes with being able to “de-classify” information in those testimonies. Think of it as someone embellishing a story, and getting a chance to brag a little. A character may say something like “we were trying to get past the Locusts, to get inside the library…” as the player re-enacts that situation, and then add “did I mention we had nothing but sawed-off shotguns?” and suddenly you’re playing the same scenario, but under different conditions. Adding these embellishments to your play-through might make it harder, but it makes it easier to earn points. Each section is rated, up to three stars, and you’ll have to work to get those three stars. Earning points and stars helps you level-up, and helps you unlock character models and skins for multi-player. As you play, you also get notifications about how well your friends fared on that same section. This also creates a type of competition. You might finish a down enemy off with an execution, and a notification will say that one of your friends did four executions in this section. Now, you’ve got a new goal in mind, to outdo your friend! Meanwhile, the game is keeping track of other accomplishments, like how many enemies you’ve killed with a certain weapon, or achieving something crazy like hitting three head-shots with the same bullet. In essence, Judgment gives you all these different things to do, reasons to replay the campaign. Did I mention that enemies are random? There may be scripted moments, when enemies will always appear, but one play-through they could be a swarm of Wretches and next time they could be Boomers. The entire campaign can be played with up to four players, with AI taking over for each character not controlled by a player. There are so few games that allow that, and even fewer that change up the scenarios and create this type of competitive, re-playable story mode. That is the best evidence I present that Judgment is a worthy game.
Sound: With all this competitiveness and excitement going on, there does seem to be a lack of melancholy. The musical score keeps up with the intensity of the action, and Gears’ fans should find the familiar sound effects satisfying. The voice acting is significant, as the four main characters banter throughout the campaign, and even have some alternate lines when you replay each section. Augustus “the Cole Train” Cole is quite younger in this prequel, and lacks some of his bravado, but I think that’s appropriate. This is supposed to be the beginning of the war with the Locusts, and Cole has just joined the COGs from a lifetime of professional sports. There are no romantic sub-plots, nothing that really pulls on your heart strings, so even the music come across as not very serious. Which is fine. It serves the campaign well and I enjoyed it.
Narrative: As a prequel, Judgment has to toe the line. It can’t include any continuity breaking events, and the knowledge the main characters will survive robs it of some suspense. One of the interesting aspects of the original GOW trilogy was that even the characters didn’t fully understand what the Locusts wanted until the end of the third game. I felt that could have been presented a little better, so the players would understand that they weren’t missing part of the story; they knew as much as the characters knew. That ignorance IS better presented in Judgment, as the characters bring it up from time to time. In fact, they still seem more sore about the previous “Pendulum Wars”, the civil war on Sera, than they do about the Emergence of the Locusts. One of the four main characters, Paduk, was one of the losers of that civil war, and his wry humor hides his bitterness better than the obvious scars on his face and body. Part of the conflict, the reason the heroes are even on trial, is due to their superiors not taking the Locust threat seriously. The main character, Baird, has to justify his actions to someone that doesn’t believe those actions were necessary. In the process, we do learn a few extra details about Sera, the COGs, the Pendulum War, and Baird. These little details add up, and enrich the Gears’ mythos like a good prequel should. There may not be any romantic sub-plots or sense of loss here, but Judgment does establish the sense of urgency and dread the main characters feel as they face a nearly invincible foe. Some of that urgency is overshadowed by the game play itself, as trying to earn more points and stars can be distracting, but it is very well presented.
Conclusion: It’s enjoyable to play a game that has a tight narrative, excellent controls, great graphics and sound, AND happens to include some fun re-play features, especially with up to four player co-op. Combine that with an impressive multi-player game, and Judgment really stands out. If a game has to be judged by both single and multi-player, it’s great to know games like Judgment can do both. As game developers move on to PC and mobile gaming, they should look back and see what makes console gaming relevant, and nothing makes that case stronger than Gears of War: Judgment.
Gears of War: Judgment is an Xbox 360 exclusive, available March 19th. It is Rated ‘M’ for Mature for: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, and Strong Language.