Okay, it’s no secret that I am something of a gamer. My console of choice is the X-Box 360 and there are two reasons for that. I used to be a Sony guy. I got the first PlayStation not long after it was released and fell in love with all those PS-exclusive titles (at the time) like Resident Evil and Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill and Final Fantasy VII and… well, you get the picture. Naturally, when Sony released the imaginatively named PlayStation 2, I jumped right on board as soon as I could. In the meantime, Microsoft jumped into the home gaming console market with its original X-Box. It did everything that the PS2 did and more, but I wasn’t impressed. Even as the X-Box started getting some of the franchises I’d loved for so long, I clung to my PlayStation 2 and kept loving my Final Fantasy, my God of War, and my Metal Gear. Then the current generation consoles were released. My younger brother had jumped on the X-Box bandwagon already and was a huge Halo fan (published by Microsoft, that game is an X-Box exclusive), so he got his hands on the X-Box 360 pretty much right when it was released. I was holding out hope for the PlayStation 3. Then, Sony announced it and it’s price. Six hundred American dollars. What. The. Fuck.
That was when I first started considering Microsoft’s console.
The second reason I wound up jumping ship to the X-Box 360 was a single game. I visited my brother for Thanksgiving in 2005 and he showed me Gears of War. I was floored. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Part Kill Switch, part Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and all balls, Gears was an experience in over-the-top violence and bloodshed coupled with a militaristic storyline about the bonds shared by men in combat. Okay, that may be taking it a bit far as the story really isn’t that deep.It is more about machismo and frat-guy, cave man, dude-offs more than anything else. It makes you want to fucking kill something and then have a beer with your buddies.
In short, it’s a religious experience.
Now, some five and a half years later, Gears of War Judgment was released this week. The fourth entry in the Gears franchise, I wondered whether the formula would still hold up and whether Epic Games would keep the Gears magic alive for one more go-around.
Now that I’ve got my mitts on it, the answer to that question is both yes and no.
If you’ve not played the other three Gears of War games, not much of what I’m about to say is going to make any sense to you. More importantly, if you’ve not played them and you intend to, heads up that I’m about to lay down some pretty significant spoilers. Fuck you. Gears 3 came out in November 2011. You’ve had ample time.
Gears of War 3 was originally intended to be the end of the Gears franchise. The Locust were defeated. The Lambent were defeated. Adam Fenix managed to unleash his Final Solution with the help of his boy Marcus and his buddies in Delta Squad. The COG, for all intents and purposes, was no more. Dominick Santiago gave his life to save Marcus and the others. There really was no way to go any further with that story. For that reason, Judgment is a prequel
The previous games in the series focused on the characters of March Fenix and Dominick Santiago as they worked together as a part of Delta Squad in the humans’ fight against the Locust, a monstrous subterranean race of creatures bent on destroying humanity on the fictional planet of Serra altogether. The other members of the squad are Privates Damon Baird and Agustus “Cole Train” Cole, formerly a celebrated athlete in the sport of “thrashball.” Through the first three games the pair of Cole and Baird are primarily used for comic relief as Marcus and Dom carry the majority of the story. Judgment upsets that formula by focusing the action on Baird and Cole and Kilo Squad in the early days of the war against the Locust. Gears of War took place some fourteen years after the event known as Emergence Day or E-Day while Judgment reportedly starts just days after the day the Locust made their presence known by emerging from the ground and attacking humanity.
The story in Gears Judgment is told in a series of flashbacks. Baird and Kilo Squad are currently being tried in a military court for disobeying direct orders. The details of exactly what they did and why are made clear as each member of Kilo gives his or her testimony as to the events that occurred. Gears 3 changed up the typical Gears formula by offering an “arcade” mode where players would earn points for doing various things in the game. It proved to be pretty popular and Epic/People Can Fly have brought it back in a way. Each chapter you play through in Judgment earns you “stars” that accumulate based on your game prowess. Making a kill goes toward earning stars, getting a headshot takes you farther, performing an execution earns more, and so on. All your performance is tallied up at the end of a section toward a maximum rating of three stars. Additionally, you have the opportunity to ramp up the rate at which these stars are earned by enabling a “declassified” version of the mission. These optional modifiers typically make a section more difficult by either imposing a time limit, making you fight with specific weapon types or limited ammo, etc. Enable the declassification and you earn your stars much faster. Earning stars leads to unlocking in-game items like weapon skins, multiplayer characters, and Achievements. In most cases its worthwhile.
The thing is, the game is rather short. I picked up my copy at the midnight release at my local Game Stop Monday night, so let’s call it Tuesday the 19th of March, the game’s official release date. I finished the main campaign sometime Wednesday evening. No, i didn’t play non-stop since getting the game in my hands. I played a couple of hours on Tuesday – until maybe two a.m. or so. I went to work Tuesday, my regular noon-to-nine p.m. shift. I did play a few more hours when I got home Tuesday night. I also played on Wednesday before work as I was going in late. I also got home a little early on Wednesday as I was suffering from an annoyingly nasty head cold. I played maybe an hour and finished the campaign.
Completing the main campaign unlocks an additional smaller campaign called “Aftermath.” This takes place during the events of Gears of War 3 and shows what Baird and Cole were up to while they were separated from Marcus and Dom. I could swear it seems like it was originally planned to be released as Gears 3 DLC but never was. Overall, the entire game has that sort of tacked-on feel to it as if the entire thing is really just a missing piece of Gears 3 and not a complete game all unto itself worthy of a sixty dollar price tag.
One of the first evident changes to the Gears systems we all know and love that players will notice is in how we swap weapons now. Instead of mapping weapons to the D-pad as every Gears title has done until now, the two primary weapons are swapped with a quick press of the Y button, another longtime shooter mechanic that seems taken right out of Call of Duty or Halo. Grenades no longer need to be equipped, but can be tossed with a tap of the left shoulder button. They can still be tagged onto walls and players with a press of the B button, you’ve just got to be holding LB when you do it… and some multiplayer modes won’t allow grenade tagging onto walls. Boo. Oh, one thing i would like to mention – if you throw a grenade at an opponent now and hit him… it sticks. Woot.
“Story schmory,” you may be saying, “What about the flippin’ multiplayer?” Well I was just getting to that, patient reader. Gears is like Call of Duty in that no one really plays for the story anyway. What made the franchise so popular to begin with was the in-your-face, blood and guts multiplayer that served up four on four matches in the first game and expanded them to five on five battles in the sequels and added some interesting cooperative modes such as the brilliant Horde mode that debuted in Gears 2 and was expanded and perfected in Gears 3. Judgment has multiplayer, but doesn’t offer up quite the selection of modes from previous Gears titles. The “Execution” game mode that helped make the franchise such a hit? Gone. Horde mode? Not present, but replaced by something a little different. Beast mode from gears 3? Nope. Again, sort of replaced. What the game does offer in terms of multiplayer modes are Team Deathmatch (a shooter staple that Epic stayed away from until Gears 3), Free-For-All (a new every man for himself entry to the series), Domination (Gears used to call this classic control-point style game “Annex”), and two “new” modes dubbed Survival and Overrun.
To be honest, I’ve not played Survival just yet, so i can’t comment on what its really all about. Highlight the option on the game menu, however, and the sub-text reads something like, “Fight wave after wave of Locust with up to four teammates.” sounds like Horde mode to me.
Overrun, on the other hand, I have played and become somewhat addicted to. It is a seek and destroy game type that pits five players as COG soldiers trying to protect a capped E-hole (Gears fans know what this is) from the five Locust players trying to destroy it. If the Locust are successful, the COG are pushed back and must defend another E-hole and finally a generator. If time expires before the Locust can destroy the objective, it’s game over as the Hammer of Dawn is now online. After either side achieves victory, the teams switch sides with the attackers becoming the defenders and vice-versa.
Two changes to the Gears multiplayer formula serve to make Overrun interesting. The first is that the Locust team chooses its characters in the same way Locust players did in Gears 3‘s interesting Beast mode. Essentially there are four characters to start: a Ticker, a Wretch, a Grenadier, and a Kantus. Locust players earn points for destroying fortifications, attaining the objective, and killing or
damaging COG players. Earning enough points allows players to utilize larger, more powerful Locust, namely a Rager, a Serapede, a Mauler, and a Corpser. Additionally the COG Gears are now divided into classes, ala Call of Duty. COG players will play as an Engineer (represented by Baird, he can deploy turret guns, repair fortifications, and carries a shotgun), a Soldier (he’s represented by Cole and carries a Lancer and the new grenade launching Booshka – it has a silly name but packs a considerable punch), a Scout (represented by Paduk, he has the new Markza sniper rifle, a pistol, and can toss “spot grenades” which create a field that will alert the team to the presence of any enemy who enters it), or a Medic (represented by Sofia, she carries a Lancer, a sawed-off shotgun, and can toss “stim grenades” which can heal nearby teammates).
So, overall, I’d say that Gears of War Judgment is a decent game. It changes the Gears formula in ways that are not exactly revolutionary, but won’t alienate fans of the series either. I could have done with a longer campaign and more maps for the admittedly limited multiplayer (there are only four out of the box but there will be more on the way – they are selling a Season pass for DLC, after all), and in a lot of ways it feels rushed, but its still fun and, despite some minor changes, it’s still Gears.