Nearly six years ago, Cliff Bleszinski laid out a blueprint for third-person shooters that nearly every game thereafter would use. But now he’s departed Epic and entrusted his labour of violent love to the studio he left behind, will Gears of War: Judgement continue to simply follow, or set its own precedent?
I never really liked Marcus Fenix. He displayed all the charm and charisma of a caravan, and was nothing more than a Freudian vehicle for the transportation of oversized weaponry. Fan favourite Dom doesn’t float my boat either, because having a beard in no way constitutes having a personality. I should know. As for the “Cole Train”, his super-cool stereotyping also did little for me.
I was always a Baird man. Underneath his Australian soap-actor exterior, he was cool as a cucumber and clever as Copernicus. Maybe it’s the fact that now he finally has his own story to tell that makes Judgement so unique. Or maybe it’s the absorbing way in which the story is told, or the subtly tweaked controls, or the wealth of new options and abilities afforded to players. While it may not be a complete reinvention, this is certainly the first properly new Gears experience for some time.
It begins in a courthouse, with Baird and Cole standing trial alongside series newbies Sofia Hendrick – token no-nonsense female – and Garron Paduk – token no-nonsense Russian – as they are questioned about their actions. Exactly what those actions were are slowly revealed in flashback, with each chapter representing one of the four character’s testimonies. Certainly, there was potential for this to become a very convoluted and nonsensical mish-mash of plot-twists and overlaps, but not so. While it definitely has its surprises, the story is played surprisingly straight, and is actually all the better for it.
Three friends can join you online to play through the entirety of the campaign too, but even when played solo with bots, your comrades will rarely annoy you enough for you to wish they weren’t there. Only a couple of times did they run into the path of my gunfire and have the nerve to tell me to “watch it” – for the most part they’re pretty reliable.
The missions themselves feature a new “Declassification” system, tying in to the notion of the testimonies. At the start of each level you’ll be given the option to provide an extra account of your own mission that will affect your objectives during the flashback. For example, Baird may choose to allege that the team ran out of ammo and fought through a particular section using only giant meat cleavers, in which case that scenario would play out in the game.
You won’t believe what I sawed
Each of these extra testimonies are varied and some dramatically change the way a level plays out. They also add a huge challenge to the mission, but will reward you with plenty of extra “stars” for doing so – the game’s version of experience. It’s a great idea and effectively doubles the replayability of the game.
Progression through the campaign is much more akin to the original Gears of War than the more recent set-piece festivals and this, if you didn’t know, is a very good thing. You painstakingly fight from cover to cover, slowly gaining ground where you can. The battles are small scale and have a genuine feeling of futility about them. The feeling of a team doing their best to survive overwhelming encounters in the background of a far greater losing battle. It’s gritty and real, and somehow puts you more in mind of something like Saving Private Ryan than a fantastical sci-fi epic. Perhaps, best of all, there isn’t a single gratuitous on-rails section.
It’s a brilliant – and surprisingly – restrained affair in all but the visuals, which merrily gouge your eyes out with their staggering attention to detail. I spent much of my first playthrough simply marvelling at the Baroque architecture and the ever reliable Unreal engine barely breaks a sweat, even during the most intense firefights. The “destroyed beauty” mantra that has coursed through the blood of the series has never been so deftly applied, and the game has never looked more beautiful. Or destroyed.
It’s a shame that the same can’t be said for the audio. The guns lack the punch of every other modern day shooter and in the heat of battle sound like they’re being fired through pillows. The score and sound effects, while perfectly atmospheric, hardly seem to have changed at all, which is a shame considering how much the rest has been altered. Unbelievably, for a game of this nature, the dialogue and its delivery are strong, and there’s no “woe is me/I’m a tortured soul” ham anywhere to be heard.
By the time you’ve slaughtered your way through the hordes of marauding bottom-feeders, you’ll have probably notched up around 10-12 hours of playtime. This is certainly the Goldilocks zone for Judgement: not too short to be disposable, not too long to outstay its welcome. There’s plenty more hours of gib-spraying to rack up in the multiplayer component after all.