When the original Gears of War trilogy ended with the humans’ triumph over the Locust, it was pretty obvious we haven’t seen the last the planet Sera and its rich history of war. Epic Games and People Can Fly do not disappoint and bring us Gears of War: Judgment – a fast-paced and intensive action game that takes place before the events of the familiar trilogy, right at the beginning of the bloody conflict between Man and Locust. On the surface, Judgment appears to be another Gears of War game that doesn’t take any unnecessary risks, but after just a few hours of play it is obvious we are dealing with a different gaming experience (though not entirely). The game takes the most basic elements of the series to a whole new direction, both in the single-player campaign and multiplayer. Is Judgment worth the long trip back to the battlefield of Sera, or should it be left for the mercy of the Locust?

Judgment starts about a month after Emergence Day – the day the war between the humans and the Locust started – and follows Kilo squad and their daring leader Damon Baird, who you may recall from previous games. Joining Baird, as always, is his good friend Augustus Cole, together with Cadet Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk, who fought against the COG army in the Pendulum Wars. The story begins with the four standing trial for disobeying orders, and is told through a series of flashbacks that recap the chain of events that led them there. The narrative isn’t very interesting or original when you examine it closely, and takes a backseat to all the action (and probably not by chance), but it still does its job pretty well, which is to provide Baird and company an excuse to waste wave after wave of Locust.

Because of the way it is structured, the narrative feels a little choppy, as if it was glued together out of several different bits. Judgment is divided into chapters (based on the testimonies of different characters) which in turn are divided into short and closed missions. Each of these bite-sized missions takes place in a single environment with one primary and well-defined goal. This division into short and fast-paced missions may contribute to the whole intense action vibe People Can Fly is known for, but completely demolishes the player’s ability to connect with the story (that isn’t so interesting to begin with). The characters, on the other hand, manage to warm up to the player with funny dialog and well-established personalities and characteristics. The inclusion of Paduk as playable character and the heavy hints to his questionable past sure help to enrich the overall plot, and grant the player a peek at Sera’s long history of war.

In general, the action in Gears of War: Judgment feels very similar to that in previous games in the series (especially that of Gears of War 3). There are a few superficial changes to the combat mechanics: each character can only carry two guns (instead of three), and grenades are now mapped to the shoulder button and can be thrown more quickly. These are almost meaningless changes, so if you don’t like being pulled out of your comfort zone, don’t worry – the combat is still as fun as it was before. The new editions to the arsenal are also quite welcomed (finally a semi-automatic sniper rifle!) and help Kilo squad traverse mission after mission.

Most missions require the player (or players) to simply eliminate every enemy on the map while moving toward a certain destination, or to survive against a heavy Locust counterattack a la Horde Mode from Gears of War 3. One could’ve accused Judgment of meaningless repetition and lack in variety if it wasn’t for the two new gameplay mechanics: the star system and declassified missions. Each mission has its standard version, where players face the enemy on their own terms without any restrictions, and then there’s the declassified version. The declassified version offers additional challenges for the player to overcome (apart from the massive Locust horde); it can be a smaller arsenal, tougher enemies or even limited time to complete the mission. Every declassified mission is different and adds both to the narrative (each restriction usually comes with a story-related explanation) and to the gameplay experience. If you’re not afraid of a little challenge, playing through the declassified missions is definitely the way to go.

If the declassified missions are the means to create more diversity in gameplay, the star system is the way Judgment encourages players to always take the fight to the enemy, instead of waiting behind cover (thus changing the way we’re used to play GoW). The more aggressive you play, the more stars you accumulate: headshots, executions and explosions are a great way to earn that final star, and of course the difficulty level you play on is also a factor. Again, People Can Fly definitely knows how to make a action-heavy game, but isn’t concerned with weaving a deep and gripping narrative.

“But why should I bother earning all these stars” you ask? Well, apart from proving to the world (and yourself) what a brave warrior you are, collection stars is the only way to unlock Aftermath – the bonus single-player campaign that occurs during the events of Gears of War 3. It’s a very short campaign, and truthfully  it isn’t very good; it’s not fun or interesting to play, and doesn’t really contributes anything to the story of both Judgment or GoW 3, but it feels like the games in the original trilogy, so if you’re craving a little “old-school” GoW gameplay, Aftermath might be worth a shot.

The Gears of War games were always an excellent co-op experience for 2-4 friends, and Judgment is no different. Up to four players can go through the single-player campaign together; as well they should considering the poor and annoying behavior of the A.I. controlled characters: getting in your way and refusing to revive you in critical moments. Once the campaign is done, players can then move on to the new Survival mode. Four players must defend three strategic points on the map from increasingly difficult enemy waves. This mode is very similar to Horde mode, but this time players can choose to play as different classes: soldier, engineer, medic or scout. The different classes have different abilities: the medic can throw grenades that heal and revive her teammates, the soldier generates more ammo, the scout can climb into special sniper-nests and tag enemies on the map, and the engineer can deploy turrets and fix fortifications. With the right team (and strategy), Survival can be very fun and satisfying, but one rouge member can easy ruin everything for the rest of the group.

On the competitive side of the multiplayer there’s Overrun – a competitive version of Survival. This time, the Locust enemies are controlled by other players who choose with monster they want to play as – the sort of combination between Horde and Beast modes. Overrun is much more fast-paced than Survival, and playing as the Locust is still as challenging as it was in the previous game, since every unit requires a different strategy. Other competitive modes are Free-for-all, Team Deathmatch and Domination that offer a pretty standard multiplayer experience for those who want a break from co-op tactics. It’s nice to see the Gears of War series expending its multiplayer and allows for more brutal and bloody combat.

Gears of War: Judgment isn’t the best game to come out of the battle-worn planet of Sera, but it may have been less severely judged if it wasn’t for the previous games in the series. All in all we have a great action game that drowns the player in shooting, explosions and chainsaws, and leaves him glued to the sofa despite the uninteresting story. The new gameplay mechanics create lots of variety and incentives to replay missions over and over again in an attempt to earn more stars and a higher score. The new multiplayer and co-op modes will also keep the player coming back for more, if only to unlock more skins and medals. Some minor problems, like the poor friendly A.I. or the slow to respond controls, can damage the overall enjoyment and even generate some hostility towards the game, mostly since its fast-paced nature require quick reflexes and responses. Fans of the series will find a lot to like in Judgment, and if chainsawing aliens sounds like your kind of fun, you’ll do wisely to seize the opportunity and introduce yourself with the series that helped define action games on the Xbox 360.

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