Over the weekend, I finished playing the video game Gears of War: Judgment.
You may already know that I love the Gears of War series and went through a serious addiction to it toward the end of last year. I’ve been playing all the games co-op, but after completing the main trilogy, it was a little hard for me to jump straight into Judgment. The reason I wasn’t crazy about it was that the central characters — namely, Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago — weren’t in Judgment because it’s a prequel, and it’s also very “gamified” in its style with leaderboards at the end of each chapter, etc. I find that a little distracting, and if I’m not doing as well as my partner, it’s discouraging too.
The good news is that after taking a few months off of Gears of War, jumping back into Judgment felt like coming home. I even did better in the leaderboards, so maybe playing so much Destiny in the interim improved my shooter abilities!
Story & Atmosphere
Judgment is a prequel to the other Gears games, following the story of side characters Damon Baird and Augustus Cole. Because they’re so big in the rest of the series, it’s fun to learn more about their history together as Gears. The story takes place during the trial of Baird, who used a lightmass missile despite not being authorized to do so. Each act, which consists of seven chapters (or short missions), is a flashback to the action that took place, told from the perspective of each member of his squad.
I liked the framing of this story. At the beginning of missions, the viewpoint characters explain a little about what’s happening, ushering you into the action. It’s a very different set-up than other Gears of War games, but it makes this one a special, thoughtful entry.
The atmosphere is very similar to the other games, with destroyed buildings, crumbling walls, and Locust enemies everywhere. There are quite a few familiar enemies — such as boomers and wretches — as well as some rare ones that make a bigger appearance here. An example is the serapede, a long, bug-like creature that spits acid and can only be destroyed from the back.
Missions & Scores
Missions in Judgment are extremely short. Some take less than five minutes, even playing on Hardcore difficulty. Combine this with the linear nature of the environments and battles, and Judgment feels thin compared to other Gears of War titles that have lengthy, meaty missions with large areas to explore.
My partner and I tended to whiz through the first five or six missions in each act, which felt very breezy and almost too easy. However, we would often get stuck on the final missions which provided much bigger challenges. One took us hours; we had to take a break and come back fresh to finish it after many, many failed attempts! That’s the Gears of War way, though, so it was a refreshing challenge in an otherwise quick game.
The fun thing about Judgment is that each mission offers an optional harder mode. It’s an additional challenge, such as reduced visibility, health that doesn’t regenerate, or limited weapon options. My partner and I took these on the vast majority of the time. (I think I passed on a couple really tough ones, including a timed one because timed missions stress me out!)
One interesting aspect to this is that I tried weapons I wouldn’t otherwise have picked up. For instance, toward the end of the campaign, a challenge had us using only boomshields and sawed-off shotguns. To our surprise, those sawed-off shotguns were incredibly effective, killing the toughest enemies with just one or two bullets. My partner ended up using that set-up in the mission that followed, but we never would have tried the sawed-offs without that challenge.
The benefit of taking on these harder modes is that you earn more Stars for your work. This is a leaderboard thing, really — though I believe if you earn 40 Stars, you unlock the additional Aftermath act. My partner and I earned over 80 Stars during out playthrough. We didn’t pay a ton of attention to this, expect that it did feel good to see the Stars max out at the end of a combat section!
A leaderboard, or scorecard, appears at the end of each mission. This got me down at first, because my partner tended to dominate there, and that made me feel like I was no good at the game. Fortunately, playing Destiny multiplayer got me more used to leaderboards, so that doesn’t bother me quite as much anymore. Besides that, I think I improved in the past few months and matched my partner on the scorecard this time around. It was actually rewarding to see how many headshots and executions each of us made, and just for fun, I challenged myself to score more executions. (That was also because I kept running out of ammo, so executions spared me some.)
One thing missing from Judgment that’s pretty big in the Gears series is that there are no separate paths in co-op. In other games, you frequently split up to take different routes, which is challenging because you can’t revive each other. Sometimes you help each other — for example, one person might be on the ground floor of an outdoor courtyard, while the other person is in the windows of the building overlooking it, sniping from above. It’s a lot of fun and adds tons of depth to the co-op experience. However, Judgment doesn’t do any of this.
On the other hand, Judgment introduces one new fun feature: In several missions, you have a minute or so to set up for the upcoming wave. Though you have to scurry a little, you have time to set up turrets and other defenses, including a tripwire crossbow that lets you set traps on staircases, etc. This set-up is really handy once you get the hang of it, and sometimes after failing at a mission a couple of times, you actually figure out where to place these traps in a more strategic manner, based on where the enemies have been coming from.
I can’t compare Judgment to other Gears of War games, if we’re talking about overall quality. This game’s environments are much more limited, its missions much shorter, and the overall difficulty much less formidable. If you’re looking for a challenging third-person shooter, I wouldn’t recommend Judgment. However, as a Gears fan, this game scratched my itch to jump back into the Locust-killing action with characters I know and love. It also presents some unique new features — especially the optional harder mode in each mission — that helped keep my interest throughout the game. The story is also very strong, making me curious to see how everything played out in the past and how the trial would end.
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