All rise! This court is now in session! Epic Games and People Can Fly have been charged with creating an unnecessary prequel to a highly successful trilogy. The prosecution here at Shacknews wish to present the only piece of evidence. Exhibit A--Gears of War: Judgment, an interesting side-story to the main series, but one that pales in comparison to the memorable campaigns of the original trilogy.
Unlike the previous three Gears of War titles, Judgment's campaign centers around a courtroom setting. Damon Baird has been put on trial, along with the rest of his Kilo Squad teammates--Augustus Cole, the other boisterous series veteran to join the team; Garron Paduk, a rebellious Gorasnayan that served previously as part of the Union of Independent Republics; and Sofia Hendrik, a medic fresh out of the academy. Colonel Ezra Loomis is holding Kilo Squad on trial for treason after the team stole a giant Lightmass Missile to fight off a giant Locust threat. Before anyone asks, yes, there is still a huge battle occurring outside the courtroom, naturally a great time to hold a trial.
The main Judgment campaign takes place through a series of flashbacks, as each member of Kilo Squad (starting with Baird) narrates stages through their given courtroom testimony. This segues to the cover-based Gears combat that veterans have become accustomed to, with the shooting mechanics feeling as smooth as ever. Each person's testimony is divided up into roughly half-a-dozen chapters, each one lasting about five minutes. There's some decent variety in each chapter, with some requiring a calculated push through Locust forces, others requiring the team to fight enemy waves in a Horde-style setting, and even a few escort missions tossed in.
While Judgment's mission objectives are sufficiently mixed up, the individual levels feel tightly constricted. Combat areas don't feel as open as they have been in previous games. Even the Horde homages feel more closed-off and pigeonholed than I would have liked. Particularly, the stages that see Kilo Squad running through a museum and the courthouse start to feel so small and linear that I was half-expecting to see arrows painted on the ground. There are one or two exceptions, including one of the final defense stages, but Judgment's level design leaves a lot to be desired.
The difficulty curve in Judgment does hit some targets. Beyond the multiple difficulty levels, each chapter begins with a giant COG symbol painted on a wall. These give players access to "Declassified" objectives, which throw enough of an additional challenge that GoW veterans will feel deeply satisfied. The Declassified objectives include completing the stage within a time limit, using only certain weapons, tossing in additional Locust resistance, or even low visibility from environmental obstructions like heavy wind. Accepting these missions will also affect the story, as the character giving testimony will seamlessly weave the details of the Declassified objectives into their accounts, in a nice narrative touch. Completing Declassified objectives will often lead to players completing chapters with a full three-star rating--in fact, they're probably the only way to finish with a full rating--but they're completely optional.
Completing the main Judgment campaign with 40 stars will open up a special "Aftermath" campaign. This is a side-tale from the Gears of War 3 story that follows Baird and Cole and is styled closer to the classic GoW stages, focusing more on lengthier stages and more wide-open areas. The Aftermath campaign is closer to what I was hoping to see from a new Gears of War title. Unfortunately, the experience is far too brief and ends very anticlimatically.
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Judgment also suffers through its fair share of bugs and I don't mean of the Locust variety. The AI on both sides have some head-scratching moments. Taking out members of the opposing faction can often lead to lone Locusts wandering to an empty corner and just standing there until you take them out. AI teammates are even worse, sometimes failing to revive you, even as you crawl at their feet. They have an irritating tendency to come from the opposite end of the room to occupy your nearest cover spot, but that isn't nearly as annoying as when they constantly get in the way of your shots. This is an unavoidable issue when the areas are as small and narrow as they are, so expect to accidentally send a barrage of bullets into your teammate, while completely missing your target, at several points during the campaign.
Judgment is a superfluous and unnecessary addition to the Gears franchise. It fails to live up to the standard set by the previous three games with some pesky AI issues, limited level design, and characters that don't resonate nearly as well as those from the previous games. While I felt Marcus and Dom grow as characters and watched the stakes grow higher for them as characters, I don't get that same sense with Baird at all and it doesn't help that his teammates feel annoyingly one-dimensional. Did you know Paduk had half his face burned off by a Lightbringer Missile? Did you know that Sofia lost some good friends from the academy? If you didn't, they'll be sure to tell you--repeatedly.
On the count of creating a disappointing prequel story, I find Gears of War: Judgment guilty. The court will reconvene later this week to review some new evidence: Exhibit B--Gears of War: Judgment multiplayer.
This Gears of War: Judgment single-player review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher. The game will hit shelves tomorrow. A game's multiplayer component will be reviewed separately when servers are live.