A report on the Xbox Live Games with Gold titles available for November 2014.
Gears of War: Judgment Review: Echoes of the Past, Hope for the Future
The first game I played on this generation of consoles was the original Gears of War. After one match of Warzone, I was hooked, and I never looked back. Now, a new batch of consoles is upon us, and the Gears series has ran through an entire popular trilogy, and is releasing one more hurrah before the inevitable Xbox 720 release. It may not be exactly the Gears I remembered from my past, but it is a fitting end, or perhaps beginning, for the series moving forward.
Epic Games has changed quite a bit since Gears of War came out in 2006. A number of high-level employees, including Gears creator Cliff Bleszinski, have left the company, so Epic tapped Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly to help them with Judgment. Everything from the gameplay to the soundtrack feels familiar, but a host of other changes give the game its own unique identity, for good and bad.
Set as a prequel to the original storyline, Judgment follows fan-favorite Damon Baird as he recounts a dramatic mission from his past. The story is told mostly through flashbacks as Baird and Co. relay testimony to an officer who has them court marshaled. This framing technique is am interesting approach to storytelling, but I’m not sure how well it works in the context of this game. Instead of the flowing narrative of past games, Judgment’s main campaign is divided into bite-sized missions that focus heavily on combat. By the end, it feels like you are being whisked from battlefield to battlefield with little context, with some missions only lasting a couple of minutes.
It’s still fun, though. Some missions are straight-forward shootouts, while others inject a little variety into the campaign. While I enjoyed setting up defenses to hold off a few waves of enemies (something you’ll do multiple times throughout the game), it doesn’t have the same effect of the awesome set pieces of past Gears games. Emergence holes are back, and plugging one up with a grenade made me wax nostalgic, but this was my least favorite campaign in any Gears game.
One thing I did like was the inclusion of “Declassified” missions. These are modifiers that can be activated for every level that drastically change the parameters of the mission in exchange for more points, which leads to a better rating. These can be anything from adding a time limit to a stage, disabling health regeneration or giving you nothing but a Cleaver. One of my favorite modifiers causes your characters to see everything distorted for the duration of the level. A few are repeated, but the variety they provide is a breath of fresh air during the mostly formulaic campaign.
A separate campaign is unlocked after obtaining so many stars during the main story. This “Aftermath “section is a neat little spin-off of the end of Gears of War 3’s campaign. If you were wondering what exactly Cole and Baird were doing while you were fighting the Queen, here you’ll find out. It feels much more like a traditional Gears campaign, although I was disappointed not to see a single “split-up” section in the entire game. It’s decent, but only runs for about an hour. Outside of one neat zipline section, it won’t blow your mind either.
The online experience has been changed dramatically. Horde and Beast modes are gone, replaced by Overrun and Survival. Survival is a ten-round, ill-conceived Horde mode wannabe that lacks identity, and barely warrants a playthrough. Overrun, however, is one of the standout multiplayer experiences of the decade. Think of it as Left 4 Dead with a decidedly Gears twist. One team controls the Horde as they try to attack three objectives in a row, while the opposing Gears try their best to hold them off.
The Locust have eight classes to choose from, and everything from the lowly Tickers and Wretches to the upper-echelon Serapedes and Maulers are a blast to play, and learning the myriad strategies they can work together to destroy an objective is a delight. On the other side of the equation, the Cog work together via a class based system. All four classes working together is a must if the Cogs want to stand a chance, which is equally true for the Locusts. I can see myself dropping a lot of hours into Overrun.
More traditional multiplayer options are also available, and these will feel the most familiar to longtime Gears fans. Team Deathmatch, Execution, Domination and the newly added Free-For-All are the only options to choose from at this time, and the paltry eight maps out of the box (four for Overrun, four for multiplayer) don’t help the variety. It’s still a good time, but let’s hope some DLC maps are on the way.
It’s not perfect, but Gears of War: Judgment is still a heck of a good time. The story isn’t winning any awards, and the multiplayer could use some variety, but the over-the-top action and fantastic Overrun mode make it absolutely worth a play.