One of the biggest Xbox 360 exclusive titles of the year launches worldwide this coming week, bringing with it much discussion about the future of one of the console’s biggest franchises. Having built it’s name as an Xbox 360 exclusive where will Gears of War going to go without an Xbox 360? If Gears of War: Judgment is any indication, absolutely nowhere.
Billed as a prequel to the established Gears of War bloodline, Gears of War: Judgment attempts to push the ham-fisted delivery of the franchises’ pseudo mature storytelling into new directions. It accomplishes this with the same brash and utterly disposable sense of science-fiction that the series has championed, which could be seen as both a compliment and irritation aimed at the development team at People Can Fly depending on your expectations of Gears of War: Judgment. Thankfully, just has always been the series’ physique, it’s easy to ignore the story in favour of the gunplay.
For all of the possible mechanics gamers could take offence to with the Gears of War series, the tutorials are not one of them. Even from the very first time out Gears of War made a concerted effort to innovate in this area with something as simple as asking the player what direction on the analogue stick should be used to look up. Here in Gears of War: Judgment, this approach is streamlined and, sadly, not for the sake of character. An automatic prompt before the player even gets to look at the main menu for the first time asks whether or not they are new to the videogame, with a press of the A button meaning they will play through the tutorial and the B button meaning they won’t. It just as binary as it ever was, but severely lacking in character.
Beginning with the Judgment campaign, Lt. Baird starts the videogame already in custody. The gameplay takes place as a series of flashbacks during a pseudo courtroom hearing for a crime that Baird and the rest if Kilo Squad are supposed to have committed, but exactly what that crime is remains unclear until later in the videogame. For now, you venture back to Old Town, with the interrogation proceeding by way of voice over as you learn to walk and shoot as if it was the very first time.
Not too long after starting the campaign you will encounter your first Declassify Mission. Scattered throughout the campaign, available at near-every combat situation, these challenges that will boost your star rating if successfully completed. You can accept or decline these challenges, though as they only affect a short sequence most players will likely entertain at least one attempt. The star rating itself is another new mechanic that Gears of War: Judgment brings to the table, which acts as an indication of your progress in-game. Purists might suggest that having a bar slowly fill with each kill takes you out of the moment and reminds you that you are playing a videogame, but Gears of War has never been a title noted for its ability to immerse the player in its fiction. As such, a new meta game will surely be seen a welcome barometer of success for many.
In addition to the core experience Gears of War: Judgment also offers the Aftermath campaign, which is billed as an extension to the Gears of War 3 story. Essentially a package that could have been delivered as downloadable content (DLC) included here to avoid complaints of limited campaign gameplay, the Aftermath campaign is a welcome addition but ultimately refuses to alter the Gears of War template in any significant manner.
Of course, one of the most widely acclaimed part of the Gears of War experience has always been the multiplayer gameplay. Gears of War: Judgment does it’s best to ensure that this remains true as the franchise reaches the limit of it’s current technical clout, with a small set of gameplay modes that do justice to the established reputation, Moreover, Gears of War: Judgment’s biggest innovation within the Gears of War template is surely the OverRun gameplay mode. Pitting two teams of five against one another, OverRun charges the Locust with breaking Cog defensive lines and attacking a generator that resides adjacent to their respawn point. A single match consists of two rounds of this class based gameplay mode, and matches have a variable length with a shrinking distance between teams and growing resources as the extended matches continue. It’s a simple yet compelling experience, and one that will surely become a mainstay of the franchise’s multiplayer gameplay modes just as Domination has.
Visually, Gears of War: Judgment has progressed with the curve but is hardly astounding, It feels odd to say that there are better looking titles on the Xbox 360, given that the franchise has thus far been held up as a standard bearer for what is possible on the console, but there are many elements of the presentation that feel dull and lifeless. As a significant shock to the system, one of the multiplayer maps suffers from a significant amount of texture glitches when turning corners at speed, cutting into the expectation-to-delivery ratio of Gears of War deeply.
As one of the last highlights on the Xbox 360’s exclusive agenda, People Can Fly have done well to imitate the Gears of War formula with Gears of War: Judgment. Furthermore, they have presented a welcome innovation in the formula. This will surely be more than enough to please fans of the franchise, but for casual attendance it may seem as though Gears of War has begun to flatline. A welcome addition to the franchise then, but just as was the case with Halo’s expansion into new territory with Halo 3: ODST, Gears of War: Judgment is to be considered as offspring as opposed to a sibling.