‘Gears of War: Judgment’ Review – What’s Old is New Again

by Joseph Leray

[This is a thorough runthrough of the campaign portion for “Gears of War: Judgment.” Stay tuned as we’ll be covering the multiplayer side of “Judgment” later!]

Gears of War” has always felt heavy.

Soldiers slam into cover, carried by the momentum of their weighty armor. Bodies explode in huge, chunky bits when tagged with a frag grenade, and the sawed-off shotgun kicks mightily when fired, more like a turn-of-the-century blunderbuss than the lightweight lasers that so frequently arm the heroes of other science fiction. The way Damon Baird clean-and-jerks the Mulcher onto a piece of waist-high concrete — giving the Gatling Gun a little heave as he spins to face whatever oncoming monstrosity has crawled from the ground — makes me feel tired.

At one point near the end of “Gears of War: Judgment,” the normally rambunctious Augustus Cole remarks that he’s running out of energy, that he can’t take much more abuse from the Locust storm troopers. The same might be said for the series as a whole: humankind’s inexorable march to victory over the enemy Locust reached its apex in “Gears of War 3,” and there’s nothing left to do but lay down one’s burdens.

It’s no coincidence that “Judgment” feels so stripped down, then. The heavy machinery of “Gears of War” has been dismantled and reconstructed by developers People Can Fly into something lighter, sleeker, more efficient, and more principled.

To start, the plot of “Judgment” is comparatively pared down. Every Marcus Fenix-led scheme in the original “Gears” trilogy was supposed to wipe out the enemy Locust for good, setting the stakes higher and higher with each game. “Judgment” is subdued, constrained, and intimate in contrast: led by the newly-promoted Lieutenant Baird, Kilo Squad sets off to save one city (Halvo Bay) from one enemy (General Karn), fifteen years before the events of the original “Gears of War.”

“Judgment” opens as Baird’s team is on trial for “illegally accessing,” as he puts it, military technology, and the story unfurls over a series of flashbacks: each member of Kilo Squad is allowed to testify before an ad-hoc military court, explaining what happened during the storming of Halvo Bay and why.

Through this testimony the faintest hints of characterization sneak into “Judgment,” like a sapling pushing through a slab of concrete. There’s nothing revelatory or character-driven about the story, but Kilo’s inter-squad dynamic is alternatingly tense and brotherly, and each squad member is given enough breathing room to sketch out some backstory or personal detail that informs his or her involvement.

New-comers Sophia Hendrick and Garron Paduk benefit most from the game’s framing in the short term, while players are given a look into the hows and whys that determine the men Baird and Cole become by the time they’re  introduced in the original “Gears of War.”

“Judgment” is somewhat elegant in the way it uses the well-established “Gears” world  to establish trace amounts of pathos: the colorful palette reminds us that, only a month into the Locust War, the world of Sera isn’t quite the ruined hellscape we found in the first “Gears,” and Baird and Cole’s character models look demonstrably younger (and less self-assured) than they do in later games. Kilo’s eventual, inevitable victory against General Karn is pyrrhic when balanced against the events to come in later games.

The game’s flashback narrative also paves the way for the game’s “declassification” system. Each section of “Judgment” includes a Declassified Mission, optional objectives and tweaks unlocked by listening to extra testimony from Baird’s merry band. Most of these are modifiers that make the game more difficult, such as reduced ammunition, restricted weapons, or beefed up Locust opposition.

Some of the more creative missions, however, might reduce visibility, or affect Kilo’s ability to regenerate health. The Declassified Missions provide dynamism, and at its best “Judgment” becomes dense and exciting without being cluttered or messy.

Not all Declassified Missions are created equally, however. Some of them are timed, and a few of them require the use of shotguns and other short-range weapons. When Kilo Squad is rushed through a mission or forced to use close-quarters weapons, “Judgment” begins to feel a bit slapdash and sloppy, moving away from the methodical and calculated dance that the best “Gears” gameplay offers. The timed missions in particular are grating and poorly executed: precious seconds waste away while doors are opened or scripted events go untriggered.

Still, the Declassified Missions dovetail nicely with its arcade scoring mode, a ranking system based on how well players perform in each mission. Players score points for every kill, execution, headshot, and the like, while points drain when players are downed. Playing through Declassified Missions give players a huge score bonus, making it easier to score three stars for each level.

The scoring system in itself isn’t particularly necessary or vital — you can complete the “Judgment” campaign with as  few stars as you want — but it points to some of the principles guiding the game’s design: People Can Fly want you replaying each “Judgment” mission as often as possible. “Judgment” gives players the opportunity to replay each level  immediately upon completion shoot for a better score, and this focus informs almost every other part of the game: each section is short, and a basic randomization system makes each run relatively new and varied.

The writers of “Judgment” — journalist and author Tom Bissel and his partner, Rob Auten — scripted multiple sets of dialogue for each mission: the first time you play a given mission, you may be treated to Paduk’s grisly gallows humor, but Cole’s bawdy optimism might punctuate the second. It’s a minor thing, but it’s a smart concession for players repeating each level in search of a high score.

Similarly, “Judgment” also includes a variable spawning system for weapons and enemies: Kilo Squad may use a flamethrower to face down Tickers and Grenadiers the first time through a mission, but wield a rocket launcher against Lambent Wretches and Grinders the second. It’s not fair to say it’s a truly dynamic or procedural process — I definitely found some repeating patterns during my time with the game — but it’s another measure that keeps the game from becoming stale.

Previous “Gears” games were built on long, drawn-out levels perfectly scripted to rise and fall in rhythm. Delta Squad’s reward for completing a mission in “Gears of War 3” was a sense of having secured territory, of having pushed the Maginot Line forward in the fight for Sera. In “Judgment,” however the missions tend to be shorter and more compact, and the arc of each is compressed and more intense.

The shorter levels in “Judgment” allow People Can Fly to experiment and riff on the basic “Gears” structure to great effect: in addition to normal firefights, Kilo Squad might also set up barbed wire and turrets to protect a safehouse (an homage to previous games’ Horde modes), storm a Locust-held beachhead, or ambush an enemy patrol at a chokepoint in the road. Coupled with the game’s randomization systems, the variety of mission structures on display in “Judgment” place a higher premium on making tactical decisions quickly and situationally instead of, say, allowing players to lean on pattern recognition and memorization.

The game’s epilogue, called “Aftermath” takes place during “Gears of War 3,” and playing it’s more drawn-out missions will make “Judgment”’s take on the formula stand out all the more.

The short levels and varied mission design complement the game’s scoring system, they don’t do its narrative arc many favors. The short missions make the story feel jerky and fragmented, and “Judgment” can be unevenly plotted: General Karn’s looming threat gets lost in the shifts in perspective and locale during the game’s meandering middle section, and Kilo Squad’s long-term goals are swallowed up by the hustle and bustle of replaying levels and exploring Declassified Missions.

What I appreciate most, though, is that “Judgment” never moves too far away from being a tactical, squad-based shooter, its experiments and twists on the genre notwithstanding. Other “Gears” games included tanks to drive, turrets to man, and sub-bosses to liquify, but “Judgment” offers a dearth of set-pieces. At one point in Kilo Squad’s trial, the judge — an ossified racist named Colonel Loomis — points out that Baird saved thousands of lives with a weapon designed to save millions. Baird’s crime — and perhaps “Judgment”’s — is not being big, explosive, or grandiose enough.

The fat has been cut away, and “Judgment” consistently doubles down on tactical complexity instead of screen-filling boss battles. Previous “Gears” games sometimes traded elegant mechanics for spectacle, but “Judgment” is purer and leaner than that.

One of the game’s standout moments, for example, happens as Kilo Squad defends a Jack-bot from an attacking swarm of Locust. It’s a relatively long fight, and it climaxes with three Beserkers attacking from all sides. By the end, my traps and turrets had been destroyed, and the only available ammunition was Locust leftovers scavenged from the impromptu killing field. When the last Beserker went down, my partner exclaimed proudly, “We earned those stars.”

More than anything, People Can Fly have a knack for pushing “Gears” forward within the fairly rigid constraints of its cover-based mechanics. The Declassified Mission system and smart, varied levels push players to explore the width and breadth the design has to offer while always returning to its strengths: tactical decision making, teamwork, and precision. “Judgment” feels unburdened by the series’ reputation for dumb bombast, and the result is a clean, sleek, and refined game in which every decision feels weighed and considered and nothing goes to waste.

As the fourth “Gears of War” game in seven years, “Judgment” may seem superfluous to anyone who isn’t already a series devotee, but it tightens the screws and oils the cogs of Epic’s aging monolith. With a sharp understanding of the very best that “Gears” has to offer, “Judgment” makes the old new again.

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