As a big fan of military sci-fi, especially Karen Traviss and Fred Saberhagen, I'm just gonna come right out and say that I really like the complete package of Gears of War. It's solid on both the single-player and multiplayer fronts, and has a rich, interesting world that is unfortunately neglected for large parts of the games.
With Gears of War: Judgment, Epic has called upon the considerable talents of People Can Fly--the development house responsible for the criminally underrated Painkiller and Bulletstorm--to shake up Gears' genre-defining shooter gameplay as well as give a new focus on story and character... at least, that's what the plan was. Judgment makes a lot of smart adjustments to how we play the game, but fails at times to leave a lasting impression.
Taking place fourteen years before the original Gears, Judgment follows whiny series regular Damon Baird as he and his squad are put on trial for insubordination and the theft of classified military technology. I wish I could say more about the story, but that's the long and short of it--there are no sudden twists, very little character development, and the only real interesting details exist for people who were into the lore in the first place. Do well enough in the main campaign, and you're given access to Aftermath, a follow-up story that takes place during Gears of War 3 and catches up with Judgment's main characters almost two decades later. While Aftermath ties up some loose ends (and closes up a huge plot hole from Gears 3), there are times when it feels like a tacked-on afterthought, even with some inventive action sequences.
Judgment takes the already-solid third-person shooting from the previous games and streamlines it, speeding up the gameplay and making each fight seem like a vicious knock-down, drag-out brawl that you were lucky to survive. Instead of two long weapons and the pistols that nobody ever used, you're now only allowed to carry two weapons, which are swapped with the Y button. Grenades are mapped to the left bumper, and you're now able to use any weapon with a shield or a hostage. Freed from the constraints of previous games, the action in Judgment is lightning-fast for a third-person shooter and far more unpredictable than previous installments.
Keeping with the faster-paced gameplay, the campaign now scores you during play, earning you stars that go toward unlocking multiplayer characters and the secondary Aftermath campaign. Each chapter also has a "Declassified" option, where you're able to play it with certain modifiers, like "use these specific weapons" or "fight through this area in three minutes or less, failure equals death." Sometimes, these can seem almost unfairly hard, like fighting through a neighborhood full of Maulers armed only with shotguns, but it's satisfying to come out on top and finishing the Declassified missions spices up the campaign's variety and provides great replay value--I always love games that dangle the carrot of "you can do better."
Multiplayer has gone through some major upheavals as well, replacing series mainstay Horde (and GoW3's Beast) with the new Survival and OverRun modes, and adding a chaotic Free-for-All mode. This is a big disappointment for me, as Horde is one of my go-to modes for Gears--a great challenge in single-player or with a group of friends, Horde required patience, communication, forethought, and the willingness to actually play on a team. Horde and its fifty waves of terror, bosses, and resource management has been trimmed down to Survival and its ten bland waves, which throw the same handfuls of enemies at you again and again. The different character classes add some variety and make sure everybody's doing their jobs, from keeping teammates stocked on ammo to repairing fortifications, but now you're no longer able to go solo--you're stuck with dumb-as-a-rock AI teammates, with only one class (Scout) doing its job.
OverRun combines Horde and Beast into a single mode, where one team will play as the COG (basically playing Versus Survival) to defend an objective, while the other team chooses different Locust creatures to tear down fortifications and kill enemies. It's entertaining, especially with a good team, but it feels unbalanced--human-sized Locust classes plod along at half the speed they used to, making playing as the attacking team feel sluggish. The last new addition, Free-for-All, is exactly what it says on the box, with ten players shooting it out in an all-out slobberknocker. There's little room for style or finesse or strategy--it's fun, but whoever gets a grenade out or closes distance first will usually come out on top.
But here's where the other shoe drops--Gears of War: Judgment feels incomplete. Its campaign is exciting and memorable, and the streamlined gameplay is a nice change of pace, even with its completely forgettable final boss fight. However, the multiplayer component--a major part of that "complete package" I was talking about earlier--is lacking, with only four samey multiplayer maps and the usual multitude of game modes all mashed together. The verdict is in: Judgment is a flawed-but-enjoyable follow-up for Gearheads, basically Gears of War 3.5 with some welcome adjustments to gameplay and new takes on favorite modes. However, if you've never played Gears before, or were just looking for a good co-op shooter to play with friends, Judgment is not the place to start.
+ Smart adjustments to controls and gameplay make for a fast, frenzied third-person shooter with great setpieces
+ The breathless action does not let up, with the score-based gameplay a constant reminder that you can do better
+/- The new multiplayer modes are a hell of a lot of fun... but only if you have a good team backing you
+/- Campaign builds and builds in excitement and inventiveness, only to fall flat with a forgettable final boss
- Horde Mode--a challenging series mainstay--is replaced with the dull, too-lenient Survival Mode
- Aside from a few campaign-only locations, Judgment ditches Gears 3's bright color palette for even more grey
- Overall lack of multiplayer maps and modes compared to previous titles make Judgment feel like an incomplete add-on