Gears of War: Judgment – A Belated Review

In response to seeing the new characters that will be featured in the forthcoming Gears of Wars 4 I was inspired to finally publish this unused review of GOW: Judgment I wrote a while back for a site I used to work for, as it nicely sums up a lot of my thoughts feelings for the enduring game franchise.

The three new characters from Gears of War 4 (From L to R): J.D. Fenix (son of Marcus), Kait Diaz & Delmont Walker.

The three new characters from Gears of War 4 (From L to R): J.D. Fenix (son of Marcus), Kait Diaz & Delmont Walker.

The thing about the GOW games, is that I’ve never actually played through and completed any of them on my own, as I actually get bored and frustrated with the repetition and lack of a clear and engaging plot line.

It’s the kind of game that I and my friends get to together to play as a social event, mainly for some cathartic relief in ultra violence and tongue-in-cheek larks. I think of them as being the gaming equivalent of the WWF or 70’s Godzilla movies, and the very things we criticise it for, are the same reasons why we like it. I can never take it seriously, as it has very little sense of its own absurdity, and mocking the over the top machismo, homunculi character designs, clumsy attempts at pathos and po-faced melodrama – while also getting to destroy huge, hideous monsters in a spectacular and excessively gory fashion with phallic, over the top weaponry – is a big part of what I/we enjoy about it. The unconscious (or unconcerned) mawkish sentimentality and lack of sophistication make it sort of charming.

Eat your Oats and one day you too could look this stuffed.

Eat your Oats and one day you too could look this wide.

So, because of this, I’ve never actually paid that much attention to the games from a more technical point of view, though they’ve always impressed me on an aesthetic level – despite the fact that I feel they owe an awful lot to Games Workshops Warhammer 40K (not that GW don’t owe anyone credit for inspiration – especially Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein) – and GW didn’t have a game of this type available to challenge Epic with (and still don’t in a lot of peoples opinion) until Space Marine was released. As much as I welcomed and enjoyed Space Marine, it would have benefited greatly from borrowing some of Gears’ gameplay elements – especially the campaign multiplayer and innovative cover and fire system, which hadn’t been so successfully implemented in a game of this type until GOW was first published (and yes I know space marines shouldn’t have to take cover – but really the option should be there for you to use because they physically CAN if they want to).

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SPAYSH MAHWINE!!! (TM & Copyright Games Workshop – not).

This is not to say that the plot and character development over the course of a game is not important to me – being a writer myself and favouring narrative driven games, it’s my bread and butter – but I’ve come to not expect much in the way of story from most action shooters – especially GOW – as so far, I’m just as perplexed about exactly why this is all happening as I was before I started playing them, with – even after the third instalment – a lot still left unexplained and unanswered. I find it all quite convoluted, but maybe that’s my failing and I’m not paying enough attention through all the gore splattering me in the face.

This will be tantamount to sacrilege to some, but I’ve always preferred the supporting characters of Baird and Cole (despite Cole being dangerously close to a ‘token’ caricature in how he is portrayed) to the two leads as their more cynical, snarky and overtly ridiculous (unless we’re meant to take Cole seriously and without irony?) So, having the opportunity to play as them in a prequel that is completely absent from Marcus’ gurning and Dom’s mewling is a welcome relief.

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(From L to R:) Baird, Sam & Cole.

Even after the mild disappointment of Gears 3, which – despite some stunning set pieces – failed to satisfactorily resolve the loose ends and glaring plot holes, as a whole GOW: Judgment felt small and regressive, though it was bigger than I expected it to be for a glorified expansion/add-on, due to the frequent change in locations, with the story being told in flashback from Baird and the other characters perspectives during the various theatres they experience as part of the war against the Locust (and occasionally the Lambent proper, introducing them earlier than they appeared in the main trilogy in an effort to incorporate and justify their sudden inexplicable appearance at the end of the second game)

As to be expected from Epic, the design of the environments and the graphics in general are lush, being a huge improvement over the first two games and matching – if not exceeding – the third for level of detail and impressive VFX and lighting. Unfortunately the characters still look like ‘roiders with overactive pituitary glands, and walk like they’re trying to carry grapes between their buttocks without crushing them.

Except for the sole lady of the party – Onyx Academy Cadet Sofia Hendrik – who, as far as I’m concerned, looks great and is a welcome attempt at diversity (like Anya and Sam in Gears 3) and offers an alternative perspective to the uber-mensch Cogs, both in terms of gameplay, as well as in her personality and attitude within the story. Though why she should be the only member of the party wearing a skintight body glove under her armour is questionable, despite how nicely it shows off the pronounced cleft of her finely sculpted bottom, though saying that, and to their credit, her face is not that of an atypical, pouting botox porn star, as you might have come to expect from this type of game.

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The women of GOW (From L to R): Sofia Hendrik, Anya Stroud & Samantha Byrne.

I always feel conflicted by this sort of thing, as the primal side of my being is primitively pleased by T&A, but my intellect and sensibilities question its validity and appropriateness. It saddens me to admit that my overriding memory of this game is an image of her buttocks as she’s on all fours, wounded and pleading to be revived. I’m sorry. I didn’t make it and don’t try to tell me the developers weren’t aware of this.

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Apparently, there are also two men in this picture.

As previously noted, the story is told in flashback with each of the progressive stages being from each of the casts perspective, giving you the option to play as a different character in single player for variation, though there is no discernible difference – aside from a cosmetic one – in how they handle or what they can do, making it redundant from a gameplay standpoint.

As ever with the Gears games, I found the controls  as being exceptionally responsive (I have to actually turn the sensitivity down – which is unusual for me in a game of this type) with just the right amount of ‘resistance’ in the virtual physics to give the illusion of weight and momentum to the targeting and movement.

In regards to the HUD I’ve always found the gore spatter hitting the camera distracting and irritating – rather than more immersive – as it obscures the action happening on screen and I would much prefer a small energy bar representing health and armour/shield strength to the cog and skull icon made of rapidly darkening blood mist and splotches. Though I must acknowledge that this is a creative method for both warning and punishing you for your incompetence at being hit, encouraging you to play more tactically by using cover more frequently.

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Judgement is quite flat in terms of how interesting and varied the geography of the environments are, especially when compared to Gears 2 and 3, with their escalating – and undulating – verticality. Though maybe this is down to the fact that it’s set before the events in GOW 1. As a result, it’s not as expansive, because certain things have yet to have happened in the timeline of the larger story to create more interesting apocalyptic marquee moments. Though I thought the beach assault on Onyx Point was very visually arresting, evoking footage of the Normandy landings from WWII and what it might be like to have a ground view in those circumstances.

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The Assault on Onyx Beach. 

One new thing that Judgment does introduce is an extra element of difficulty to the missions by adding optional in-game challenges that reward you with extra content if completed (principally being the ‘Aftermath’ campaign set during Gears 3), which I/we happily accepted during our play through and actually found them more enjoyable, as opposed to the usual tired method of increasing difficulty by either making the enemies much harder to kill, or spawn more frequently and in greater number in repetitive waves, which usually proves to be frustrating and boring, but these challenges actually made it more interesting at times, by adding variation to the types of enemies you face and giving you additional objectives to be completed.

A good example of this was in the level set within the Vaults of the Museum of Military Glory where you have the option to reduce visibility via a thick blanket of fog, making it more challenging and atmospheric.

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The Museum of Military Glory.

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The Vaults beneath the Museum of Military Glory.

If it wasn’t for these extra challenges and the impressive visuals (though less so here than in Gears 3 with its huge sense of scale and elevation) and the now standard campaign and multiplayer features, this game would be quite repetitive and dull, with the often relentless and (aforementioned) identical waves of beasties to vanquish being little more than fodder as you make your way through the gorgeous, but now fairly perfunctory environments (thanks to being typical of those featured in the three previous games) adding no real challenge or significant new plot elements or back-story to the series, leaving me in doubt as to wether these supporting characters really needed their own game to flesh out what little there is to know about them.

One thing that I always considered to be a cheap and overused element from the previous games, that are still present in this new addition to the series, are the Tickers. TICKERS ARE REALLY ANNOYING!!!

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A Ticker. Oh, how I despise thee.

In single player I found the A.I. controlling your team members to be just as unreliable as it was in the previous three titles, with no real sign of improvement here. I found myself having to revive them more frequently than they did me in some places, which can get irritating at crucial times when multiple positions have to be defended simultaneously. Admittedly, I’m not a greatly skilled gamer to start with and if the programming that governs their behaviour is set up to make them adaptive to my ability, then perhaps this is why! Durrrr…

Maybe I’m expecting too much from what is essentially just an arcade style shoot ’em up – and the latest in a series of games that have already defined and pushed the boundaries of this particular franchise (and arguably third person shooters as a whole) as far as it can go in both terms of gameplay, character development and story.

These days, with competition from other series of a similar genre and content such as Lost Planet (Lost Planet 2 in particular – and also now the Division) it’s easy to take for granted just how innovative GOW was/is, being the first co-operative third person shooter of its kind on the next generation of consoles (at the time of their initial release).

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Lost Planet 2

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The Division

I’m not a big competitive multiplayer gamer, but the GOW games were one of the few I used to play frequently. I have always felt that GOW definitely added something new to the standard multiplayer tropes, with more emphasis on tactical team work and more balanced, less frenetic, even pace to the action.

With Judgment Epic have made an attempt to shake up the multiplayer features with two new modes, but unfortunately these don’t really live up to the standards set by previous instalments, being largely replacements of existing, popular and well established features, rather than completely new additions, which begs the question “if it ain’t broke why try an’ fix it”? Unlike the refinements of existing modes seen in previous games in the series, change for the sake of change to try and encourage new interest does not – in this case – guarantee an improvement.

The first of these new modes; ‘Free-for-all’ changes the pace of the existing multiplayer game modes by essentially being a chaotic you-versus-everyone death match and takes away a lot of the iconic features that make the Gears games unique, such as round based, team-oriented combat, and the iconic systems of receiving power boosts from successful reloads, and being able to revive and be revived by your team mates.

The second of these ‘OverRun’ is actually quite a good addition, but is basically a combination of the Horde and Beast modes from Gears 3, with players filling specific roles in your team that can be used tactically to your advantage, by playing as different classes from a selection that includes both Human and Locust characters, and is objective based, encouraging players to be more strategic and play cooperatively – which I personally favour.

In conclusion; GOW: Judgment doesn’t really introduce anything new aside from explaining what happened to Baird and Cole before GOW 1 with no major or affecting drama to speak of (at least not for me, but then I’m an emotionally desensitised Brit). Regardless of this, it’s an undeniably solid shooter and a lot of bozo fun to play with friends in co-op and multiplayer modes, with few equals in the third person arena. You get a good six or so hours of gaming for your money in campaign mode (and more beyond in you’re willing to preserve with the new multiplayer features), so if you’ve have enjoyed the previous three games – and as long as you’re not expecting anything new or radically different – then I guarantee you will like this, despite it’s various shortcomings.