Gears of War: Judgment is an odd beast of a game. In many ways, it feels like a rejected piece of DLC from a previous entry; too many changes to satisfy the expectations of the hardcore Gears crowd. And yet what holds back this game from greater heights is its reluctance to go far enough to leave any significant impact on the franchise.
Judgment is the story of Kilo squad: veteran Gears Baird and Cole, along with newcomers Paduk and Sofia. This story is a prequel to the rest of the series, supposedly set shortly after "Emergence Day" although you wouldn't know that just by playing. While the city isn't quite as war-torn as series regulars are used to, there's nothing really to indicate how long they've been actually fighting the Locust. Everyone seems unfazed by these monstrous creatures, and just as well-suited for battle as any of the other games. That's one of the biggest missteps of the conception of this game... its insignificant timeline makes this whole effort meaningless. Why couldn't we play an unprepared squad that encounters the very first wave of these fierce beasts? Or even give us a storyline that ends with the events that led Marcus to wind up in the jail cell that we met him in back in the original Gears?
Jumping into the campaign, I was immediately put off by two things: You have to unlock Insanity (my co-op buddy's difficulty of choice), and there's no Arcade mode. Arcade mode was a god-send for co-op, because if one player died, they would eventually respawn as long as a teammate was still alive. Why oh why did they not keep it??
Judgment doesn't stray far from the Gears' go-to theme of insubordination. Most of the game is told in flashbacks as Kilo Squad stands trial at a makeshift tribunal session. It's one of those ludicrous situations you only see in stories like this: A major Ass of a commanding officer takes time out during a war (right smack in the middle of a warzone, no less... The trial is interrupted several times by waves of enemies) to punish these soldiers for not following orders. I understand the importance of discipline on the battlefield and what not, but why wouldn't they just be locked in the brig until a more suitable time can be found? It seems more detrimental to the war effort that this officer is abandoning his post so he can punish these guys for not following his misguided orders.
The gameplay itself stays inline with the tried-and-true Gears formula, with a few odd control tweaks. Grenades are now exclusively assigned to the left bumper, which had previously been the objective indicator. That led to quite a few explosives being unintentionally launched into the air, but once you get used to the change tossing grenades on the fly becomes a welcome change. The grenades themselves also get a bit of a makeover, adding the Stim-Gas variety to the mix, allowing you to revive comrades from a distance. A tossed explosive will also automatically stick to anyone they come in contact with, providing a messy, inescapable death.
Also, you now switch weapons with the Y button, as you can only carry two, with the elimination of the back-up pistol (you still can use pistols, but they have to be slotted in the main weapon positions). With the removal of mandatory pistol opens up the use of Boomshields, however. These massive, portable, near-indestructible shields can now be used with any of your main weapons.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the gameplay is a fully optional component; the Declassified Missions. These help increase your score for each section, awarding your performance with Stars that unlock character skins and such. Selecting these at the beginning of each mission (usually) adds a degree of difficulty to the section at hand: A time limit, a limitation on available weapons, even the removal regenerating health. Sometimes, however, the Declassified Mission actually helps you: It provided Longshot rifles for a level designed to fight off enemies across a chasm. It would have been a lot slower going had I attempted the section without the rifle.
The game itself is an oddly structured thing. It's broken up into tiny little sections, ones that often end abruptly. One level in particular had a fight in the street, then showed enemy reinforcements coming. So I set up defenses with a fancy Tripwire Crossbow (a devastating trap-maker, if you have time to properly use it) and readied myself for the attack... only to have the section suddenly end; The oncoming battle was part of the next section entirely. While it's nice to only have such small bite-sized areas to redo if you die (a big gripe of previous GOW games were the horribly-placed checkpoints), these section breaks really screw with the pacing of this game as a whole.
There's also a short extra campaign that unlocks: Aftermath, an equally unimportant side story that occurs during the timeline of Gears of War 3. This story reunited Baird & Cole with Paduk, but doesn't really tell you why they didn't stay together after the events of the main campaign (Oh yeah, because his character hadn't been invented until this game). This part of the game has no Declassified Missions or Star-based scoring. Just feels like something that failed to make the cut in Gears 3. But it does flow uninterrupted, which was a nice change of pace.
The multiplayer options provided this time is a mixed bag. On one hand, the maps are great. Along with increased character mobility (you can now jump off balconies and such, though larger falls can hurt), these multi-tiered levels, particularly the map with the gondola, are expertly structured. However, this game has stripped out a lot of the game modes, and even more of the characters skins. In fact, Locust aren't even available in deathmatch. It's all Gears vs Gears, which is both confusing and morally questionable.
The main multiplayer addition is Overrun, which is a class-based objective mode. And there's only one objective: Locust want to break open the Emergence Hole cover, while the COGs want to stop them. Playing as the Locust is just like Beast mode (only with fewer character options)... earning points will let you buy a tougher Locust to use. There are only eight types to choose from, but that's better than what the COG have. Playing as the COG only lets you choose one of four class-types. Bizarrely, you can't choose your own skin, as they're tied to the class. So if you want to be a medic and throw Stim-Gas grenades, you'll be playing as Sofia... possibly one of several identical Sofias running around. And while there are fortifications scattered about (razorwire, turrets and such), they can not be upgraded or replaced. The engineer class (Baird) can repair them before they break completely, but once they're destroyed, that's it. With no unlocks or rewards while playing on the COG side, it's just not a fulfilling treat, it's just table scraps of a mode.
Graphically, it's as good as Gears 3, minus many of the impressive set pieces. There is some actual color in the game though! The sky in particular provides a welcome blast of brightness, breaking up the bleak gray palette the Gears franchise is known for. But you won't be seeing all that much of it, as the action keeps you focused on the ground.
And while the voice acting is solid, and what you've come to expect from the series, the dialog writing is a big shameful letdown. Love them or hate them, to me Baird & Cole have been the comic relief of the series. So why put them as the leads in a game that takes itself way too seriously? Even if the story isn't the Wacky Over-The-Top Adventures Of Baird & Cole (that it should have been), why isn't the writing peppered with more one-liners? There are a few humorous lines, but nothing noteworthy. That is the biggest disappointment of this outing.
2.5 out of 4 Stars
Recommended for: Die-Hard GearHeads. The campaign won't do much for them, but they should enjoy the few new maps... if they can put up with the weapon tweaks (They nerfed the shotguns a bit. Oh my!).
Franchise Fixes: If you're going to do a spin-off of Gears, make it worthwhile. If not telling a significant story, then it needs to be an over-the-top good-time joyride. The developers, People Can Fly, made the pitch-perfect Bulletstorm, and this really should have been a spiritual sequel to that game. They really need to be let loose and make a true Gears/Bulletstorm mash-up.
Achievements/In-Game rewards: While there's nothing very creative on it, but achievement hunters will probably find this the easiest list of all the Gears games (getting 3 stars on all levels on Insanity will be the most difficult). There's about a half-dozen multiplayer characters to unlock, and a bunch of weapon and player skins that are awarded in random prizeboxes that you get as you play. You have to get the same skin for each gun separately though: bleh. And you don't even get to use them in the campaign: boo!