Gears of War: Judgment has been as tough to judge as it has been for a lot of people to spell. It’s a prequel to a well-liked series, and the first time that series has been out of its original developer’s hands. It’s a new entry without the franchise’s main character, and it released well after the end of the main franchise.

It’s struggled since the original announcement to find a purpose, and now that it’s on shelves, it’s finally clear: this is a treat especially for Gears fans. Almost everything about Judgment feels like it was created for hardcore fans of the series, rather than pulling in anyone new or bringing back those that might’ve wandered off.

Gears of War 3 ended on a pretty clean, clear note. When Epic wanted to go back for more, they had to really go back. Judgment takes place a full fifteen years before the events of the main trilogy, following a much younger Damon Baird and Augustus Cole as they lead Kilo Squad.

Judgment is framed through Kilo’s military tribunal where they stand accused of treason. The four members of the squad tell their side of the story through flashbacks that put you in the shoes of each character in turn.

The Gears Keep Turning

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As I progressed through each character’s story segment, it felt more like I was playing through training missions than through the core game, especially thinking back to some of the previous Gears titles. There weren’t many–if, really, any–standout moments throughout the campaign’s action sequences. The framing of the campaign makes the game feel disjointed, as well. Instead of one journey, you’re on four miniature journeys and none of them are, on their own, as satisfying as they should be.

Building on this training mission sensation, the game’s framing mechanism itself lends the different segments the scoring and Declassification aspects of the game.

Each mission is scored, based on things like number of kills, executions, and times downed, a number of stars. With each action you take during the campaign, that score meter pops up in the corner of your screen. It’s always there, looming, making Judgment feel more like an arcade game than anything else.

The Declassification missions are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they add some interesting flair to some of the missions, turning a blah section into an interesting challenge. Each of the Declassifications is supposed to reveal something not included in the original report of the mission, like the appearance of an environmental hazard or the Locust using a particular tactic they don’t normally use. A favorite of mine flooded a level with dust, destroying visibility but giving everything an awesome sheen, especially around the flamethrower I was toting at the time.

The downside is that the Declassifications make each mission feel like a lesson in that particular situation, like you’re being trained in subsisting on a particular weapon or preparing for an environmental situation that never comes up outside the Declassifications.

The Declassifications and scoring make it clearer than in any Gears game past that Judgment is a game built for replay. The campaign isn’t much longer or shorter than any of the previous Gears titles, but it’s broken up such that it ends up feeling pretty zippy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re in it for replay the way the game seems to suggest.

I don’t mean to make it sound like the game is no good; all the classic Gears stuff is here. Combat is deliberate and fun, environments are littered with waist-high cover. This is Gears of War, and longtime Gearheads are going to feel right at home.

Before they were Dudebros

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Something that was made much of during the run up to Judgment‘s release was the writing in the game and the crew behind it, particularly journalist Tom Bissell. In interviews, Bissell talked about wanting to get away from the simple, stupid stories of games and do something more interesting.

What we end up with feels like a trail of squandered potential.

Some of that is in the setting itself. As a prequel, we have some idea of how it’s going to turn out, and any danger the characters are put in is passing at best. Even then, it doesn’t feel like the characters are in much danger at all.

The setting is also massively, criminally underused. The Gears series should have a painfully boring backstory, considering its penchant for fist-pumping characters and dude-bro reputation. It doesn’t, though; it has a genuinely interesting story, and Judgment is set just after one of the most interesting events in the history of planet Sera—Emergence Day. The only real differences are that some things aren’t yet destroyed and there isn’t as much dust on everything.

The moment-to-moment writing, too, feels like a missed opportunity. For all the talk about avoiding clichés, the writers still had the task of writing a Gears of War game before them, and people know and love Cole and Baird.

The other two characters, Sofia and Paduk, had a lot more freedom to grow into new, interesting characters in the Gears gallery, but only Paduk manages to leave any mark as a character. Sofia fills the role of feisty red-head in tight pants and doesn’t really break out of her initial stance. Her primary activities are to facilitate the story by opening a few doors. She quickly becomes and stays the token female that Gears’ later women grew beyond.\

Friends Old and New

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By completing goals in the main game, you’ll eventually unlock Aftermath, an additional quest that takes place during Gears of War 3. Beyond it being a more delicious Gears of War 3 flavor, everything about this mission is weird.

Gameplay reverts to Gears of War 3, as does the art design, weapon loadouts, and anything else. The mission is short and ends abruptly. It feels more like DLC that was too late for the last game. Judgment‘s Paduk is as major a player in this as he was in the campaign, but it’s easy to see how he could’ve been shoehorned into it in place of another character to make it fit with Judgment.

Judgment‘s multiplayer is mostly the same as it ever was, with the notable addition of Overrun mode. Overrun adds objective-based team play, tasking the player-controlled human characters with protecting points from an endless horde of player-controlled Locust. Each side has a number of classes to pick from, four for the humans and eight for the Locust. Overrun is quite a bit of fun, reminding me of Dead Space 2‘s short-lived multiplayer that operated on very similar rules. Like Dead Space‘s multiplayer, though, it lacks the depth to keep me coming back despite being enough fun to keep me playing for a few hours without pause.

Overrun’s PvE equivalent, Survival, also stands in for the conspicuously absent Horde mode, letting a group of players  (or a collection of humans and bots) take on waves of Locust while defending various points of the map. Once again, it won’t have the staying power Horde Mode has shown, but it’s not bad, either.

Cheer for Gears

Rating

6.5
Gears of War: Judgment has a lot going for it… if you’re a fan.

Gears of War: Judgment

More of what you love is here and done well. People Can Fly has done a stellar job taking control of the Cogs and their world from Epic. There’s a lot here for fans; just not much for anyone else.

The story reunites players with characters they love, but doesn’t do anything interesting with them. The gameplay is familiar and solid, but doesn’t feel as fresh as it once did. This is an above average game that I wouldn’t recommend for anyone who doesn’t already have a history of adoration with the franchise.

Disclaimer: We purchased Gears of War: Judgment for Xbox 360 with company funds. We completed the single player Judgment and Aftermath campaigns, as well as playing each multiplayer mode and some co-op before reviewing the game.