Thursday, June 19, 2014

Gears of War: Judgment - The Gears Turn Faster

Last March, I reviewed Gears of War 3 and mentioned at the end that it would be a while before I played the then-upcoming Gears of War: Judgment. This was because God of War: Ascension came out around the same time and we ended up buying that instead. Later, I would actually receive Gears of War: Judgment as a Christmas present, enabling me to finally play it. About six months later, when I didn’t have school to worry about anymore and I was between things to review, I finally got around to playing the game, finishing the campaign within a couple of days during my free time. I enjoyed my time and I thought the new developer, People Can Fly, created something worthy of being an entry in the franchise. At the same time, though, there are a couple of annoyances that do hold it back a little.

Gears of War: Judgment serves as a prequel to the previous games in the Gears of War series, taking place during some early point in the Locust War. Kilo Squad, led by Lieutenant Damon Baird, is on trial by Colonel Ezra Loomis under accusations of treason for stealing COG experimental technology while on a mission at Halvo Bay. The trial serves as a framing device for Kilo Squad to give their testimony on what happened, switching back and forth between the past and present to transition between each member’s testimonies.

Colonel Loomis is kind of an ass.

Personally, I thought the story was written pretty well and was generally easy to follow, although at times I needed a reminder on why a specific action was happening. As this takes place in the past, the personalities of Baird and Cole are different than the games later in the timeline, but the vocal chemistry between them adds some depth to their friendship by giving more specifics to the audience. Because of this, we can see how they are able to stick together for so long in the main games and hearing their dialogue is fun. Two new additions to the Gears of War Universe are Cadet Sofia Hendrik, a former reporter who went to the Onyx Guard academy before her assignment to Kilo Squad, and Private Garron Paduk, a former Gorasni soldier who was originally a Major in the UIR, but became a Private with the COG through the Open Arms Program and got assigned to Kilo Squad. These two are very interesting characters, written in a way that you’re aware of their back stories, but their personalities are pretty well fleshed out and let you get to know them as people. Allowing everyone a shot at giving testimony was a great idea since we get to know everyone better and are allowed to hear multiple sides of the same story. Granted the stories follow the same timeline, but the idea is still brilliant and executed very well, especially since all characters are playable this way.

The way the story is played through though could have used some work. Each chapter is divided into a number of parts, each part consisting of an introduction to a new part of the environment before fighting through at least one wave of Locust and then moving on. After a few sections it gets pretty formulaic and it’s easy to see when a fight is coming, especially if the map layout is suspiciously firefight friendly, but over ten hours of it gets tiring and got me more and more anxious to see the ending. Missions also have a star rating, with improvement on it providing incentive to replay through the levels. However the frequent stops to give the rating for each mission frequently break the immersion, which led to me getting increasingly anxious to end the game. An additional replay incentive is the Declassified goals, which add a modifier to the mission and give a boost in increasing your star rating, along with adding additional testimony for Kilo Squad by filling in details they would have otherwise neglected to mention. Since I did all but a couple Declassifieds on my first playthrough, I don’t really know if the additional testimony changes the game at all apart from the narrations in the past. Still, it’s a neat idea that deserves mention for allowing more self-imposed challenges.

Triggering a Declassified mission requires finding this glowing logo.

Gameplay is mainly the same as previous games, but with tweaks to make it flow faster. Switching weapons is now done with a single button, Y, and grenade throwing is done such that you can still go through the setup to aim with LB and then throw with RT, or you can just simply hold LB to aim and then release the button to throw, or, more simply, just tap LB to throw in the direction you’re facing. In addition, the game introduces a new Locust type called the Rager, which starts out as a normal Locust equipped with a Breechshot, but physically changes to a melee-focused enraged form that can only be quickly disposed of with headshots; the one Declassified I intentionally skipped included waves of almost nothing but already enraged Ragers. A number of weapons are also introduced for the first time, those being the Booshka, a grenade launcher which fires ricocheting rounds with a delayed fuse; the GZ18 Marzka, a UIR sniper rifle; the Breechshot, a Locust sniper rifle without a scope, Stim-Gas grenades, which create a field that heals anyone within its range; and the Tripwire Crossbow, which fires rounds that are useful when setting up a defense against waves of Locust. These additional weapons are all very responsive and easily lend themselves to differing play styles throughout the campaign, though if you choose to go after all the Declassified missions you will be forced to change things up anyway. In any case, new weapon variety is always welcome to prevent things from getting stale and these weapons end up making sense in the long run thanks to the game’s setting.

Things are about to get Ghnasty.

Graphically, the series is almost identical to Gears of War 3, but there are slight improvements to the color palette that helps things stand out a bit better on the battlefield, though I would chalk that up to the campaign taking place mostly during the day with clear skies. However, this just shows off how good the lighting is and it’s always pretty cool to look at. Sound design is the same from the last game, but is no less impressive, and the sound which indicates the end of an encounter remains as satisfying as ever. Voice acting is also good, displaying a good emotional range and chemistry between characters.

As a bonus, earning 40 stars unlocks the Aftermath campaign, which takes place during the events of Gears of War 3. At some point during that game, Marcus Fenix sent Cole and Baird on a mission to find a ship and reinforcements for their assault on Azura. With Clayton Carmine, the duo returns to Halvo Bay and run into an old ally, Paduk, whom they haven’t seen in years. Paduk begrudgingly helps them on their quest, since his people made camp there and he knows the area. I liked playing this storyline, since I finally got closure on what happened to these characters during Gears of War 3, specifically why it took them until the final act to show up again. The campaign is also pretty short, maybe a couple hours, and its gameplay is basically Gears of War 3 (complete with graphics) but with all of the tweaks from Judgment, minus the tedious stopping between sections, star ratings and Declassified-type modifiers (though this makes sense given its spot on the timeline). I highly recommend playing this after completing the entirety of the Judgment campaign.

One of the first shots of Aftermath.

Before I end the review, I’d like to briefly discuss the Multiplayer. Normally, I don’t play online and, unlike my Gears of War 3 review, I don’t have an Xbox Live Gold account. So, in the interest of still wanting to discuss it, I tried the offline options to see what each thing was. Thankfully you can play offline with a second player and/or with bots. However, none of the modes were really that fun with two people. Sure the bots add some variety and increase the enjoyability, but my brother and I both concluded that all of the modes would be infinitely more fun with three or four people locally to provide more variety. Fortunately the new OverRun mode, in which players take turns defending or attacking an E-hole cover, is very fun regardless of having only two people around, although I must say that, due to the assigned roles of the characters and having pre-determined loadouts, the mode reminded me a lot of Team Fortress 2. That isn’t really a mark against it, just merely an observation; also, OverRun is sadly the only mode where a player can play as the Locust and Down But Not Out and Executions are no longer there (there are too many additional changes to list in this space). In addition, the new Free-for-All mode is basically a nice way of saying Gears of War now has a Deathmatch mode, though our conclusion about the number of people needed to make the game fun still stands.

I’d like to make one final complaint, which is that three Multiplayer modes, Execution, Master-at-Arms and Breakthrough, can be seen in the menu, but trying to select them has the game telling you to buy the DLC in order to play them. I have no idea if these were added to menu from an update or they were already on the disc, but I don’t like the idea of having a game tell you to spend money on it so you can do more things, even if you never intended to do so. If this was through an update, then it’s more understandable (though no less annoying), but if it was already that way from the start, then I have a problem.

Gears of War Judgment improves on the formula in all of the right ways, introducing tweaks to make the gameplay faster and creating greater replay value through additional modifiers and star ratings. While the story is pretty well-written, the frequent stops erode at the immersion and make the campaign unnecessarily tedious. However, it’s still a very fun game to play and the unlockable Aftermath campaign provides some much-needed closure on what happened to Baird, Cole and C. Carmine during Gears of War 3. This is a must-buy for Gears of War fans, plus for those who are only interested in the Multiplayer, I don’t think you can really go wrong. The gameplay may be getting a little more formulaic, but I’d still be willing to buy the next game and see what they’ll do next.

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