Released: March 2013
Developer: People Can Fly/Epic Games Poland
Also Available For: Xbox One (Backwards Compatible)
Gears of War (Epic Games/Various, 2006 to 2019) is a third-person, over-the-shoulder science-fiction military shooter exclusive to PC and the Xbox series of consoles. Originally conceived as more of a traditional first-person shooter in enclosed arenas, the series has seen numerous sequels, spin-offs, comic books, and action figures since the release of the first game and the franchise is easily one of the most successful on the Xbox. My exposure to the series is somewhat limited; though aware of it for some time, I didn’t actually play a game in the series until I was gifted Gears of War: Ultimate Edition (Epic Games, 2015) and I found it to be extremely enjoyably thanks to it’s over-the-top, overly macho characters and plot, all clearly heavily inspired by films such as Aliens (Cameron, 1987) and Starship Troopers (Verhoeven, 1997). Since then, the franchise has been on the fringes of my mind but somewhat intimidating and impenetrable due to the myriad of sequels. Gears of War: Judgment, however, was a prequel to the first game and, as a result, worked as a not only tentative baby step into this wild and frantic bug shooter.
Some time before the events of Gears of War, Lieutenant Damon Baird’s Kilo Squad, all soldiers battling the marauding Locust Horde on behalf of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG), are placed on trial for disobeying orders, with the majority of the game’s story taking place in the form of flashbacks as each COG tells their part of the story that led to them facing a summary execution.
Gears of War: Judgment is a third-person sci-fi/military shooter; the camera is firmly placed over the shoulder of your character and there is a heavy emphasis on gore, fast-paced shooting and taking cover from incoming damage, as well as some (very) light puzzle solving. Through the course of the game’s story, you’ll play as each of Baird’s Kilo Squad: Augustus Cole, Sofia Hendrick, Garron Paduk, and Baird himself. Each has different personalities (though they’re all mostly infused with the same ultra-macho mindset and physicality as series protagonist Marcus Fenix) but all play exactly the same as each other (in the main story campaign, at least).
If you’ve played the first Gears of War, you should be immediately familiar with Judgment’s presentation and controls. You can aim and toss a variety of grenades with the Left Trigger and bumper, blow holes in the monstrous Grubs with the Right Trigger and reload with X. When reloading, you’ll see a little white mark on a bar on your heads-up display (HUD); press the Right Button at the right time, and you’ll reload almost instantaneously. If you miss the window, though, your gun will jam and leave you vulnerable to attack.
When enemies are downed, you can choose to finish them off or use them as a shield to stave off incoming fire. Additionally, you can also melee attack enemies with B; if you have the Lancer, you can press and hold B to activate the gun’s chainsaw attachment and slice your enemies in two in fantastically gruesome fashion. Similarly, the Retro Lancer comes equipped with a bayonet-like blade that allows you to charge at Grubs and skewer them by holding B. You can also run, while ducking, by holding A; while this greatly improves your movement speed, it is a bit unwieldy and you’ll find yourself running head-first into walls and other obstacles when using this function.
Just pressing A allows you to perform a somersault (a manoeuvre that you would think is basically impossible given the heavy armour the COG wear) to dive ahead or away from danger. Pressing A near walls and other fortifications will see you immediately snap to cover; this will keep you safe from gunfire and allow you to shoot out from cover or jump from cover to cover to advance further. As with a lot of shooters, a number of generous checkpoints are scattered throughout each mission and you will automatically regenerate health if you escape from danger for a few seconds. If you’re injured too gravely, you’ll fall to the floor and be forced to crawl away from danger, mashing A to call for help. You can similarly revive your fallen comrades by pressing X when they’re nearby, which is strongly recommended as your fellow COG are instrumental not only to reviving you, but also culling the influx of Grubs and other monstrous aliens.
As you explore the various war-torn environments that make up the Gears world, you’ll find a number of weapons, ammo, ammo crates, and other collectables to aid your mission. Again, like most shooters these days, you can only hold two guns at once; sometimes, you can grab a bigger, vastly more powerful weapon that won’t see you automatically drop your current weapon, which is helpful but these larger weapons are often extremely unwieldy and have very limited ammo. You can also carry a number of grenades; these are great not just for blowing Grubs into bloody chunks but also for closing emergence holes and stopping new enemies from entering the area. Each chapter of the story is divided into a series of small missions that generally involve getting from point A to point B, navigating through dishevelled urban environments, or defending either a robot or an area from waves of enemies. As you progress, killing enemies, reviving your team mates, and staying healthy, you’ll acquire Stars to level-up your gamer profile, earning Ribbons, Achievements, and a variety of unlockables for the game’s multiplayer mode.
At the beginning of each mission, you’ll find a massive glowing red Gears logo on a wall; pressing X on these will give you the option of tackling the mission with a number of handicaps to earn more Stars. These handicaps vary from reaching your objective under a strict time limit, fighting with either no ammo or certain weapons, having your vision obscured, more enemies being present, or your health no longer regenerating, among others, and are a nice way to add a little more challenge to each mission. Gameplay doesn’t really amount to much more than taking cover, blasting at aliens, and ploughing ahead (unless, of course, you choose one of the aforementioned optional handicaps). However, you earn more Achievements and in-game rewards if you manage to kill enemies with certain weapons, get headshots, blow shit up, or interact with your environment by completing the game’s few, very simple puzzles. These literally boil down to pressing X on a highlighted area of the environment to turn a valve or set a charge and, maybe, pressing A as well. When defending an area, you’ll be tasked with setting up automated turrets or laying explosive trip wires and you’ll also have to defend your robot from being attacked but there are no vehicles or other gameplay styles to break up the action: it’s simply an unapologetic, super macho bug hunt from start to finish.
Graphics and Sound:
Gears of War: Judgment doesn’t exactly move the needle when it comes to its graphics or environments; once again, we have many war-torn, urban environments that are mostly grey or brown, with scattered fire, entrails, and damage all over them. It seems that shooters can’t quite get out of the slump of falling back on these generic colour schemes and locations; every area, whether inside or outside, is deceptively enclosed to localise your firefight to that one area until the danger has passed. This might be in the streets, on a military campus, or on the rooftops over the half-destroyed city but, in either case, you’ll find the same barricades and fortifications to take cover behind.
Luckily, Judgment makes up for this by continuing the over-the-top character designs made famous in the first game; every character is bulging with muscles and testosterone the likes of which made famous by movies like Predator (McTiernan, 1987) and clad in a massive segmented suit of armour that looks completely ridiculous and impractical but it all adds to the elaborate character of the game, and the series in general. This time, the COG are joined by a female soldier, Cadet Hendrick, who, while still hyper-sexualised, is actually surprisingly well-covered for a female character in such a blatantly overly masculine videogame. I mean, she’s the only female in the game (and she of course has a questionable sexual history) and she doesn’t really factor into the plot too much beyond being young and naïve but it’s something, if nothing else.
The majority of the game’s story is told through cutscenes, of course, wherein the characters all growl and snarl at each other with an amusing level of camaraderie; the cutscenes still hold up really well, being nearly indistinguishable from the in-game graphics, and the in-game dialogue between the soldiers helps to direct your attention and further flesh out the characters. Mostly, though, the game is swamped in either silence, the sounds of gunfire and growling beasts and men alike, or sporadic bursts of suitably military-inspired tunes.
Enemies and Bosses:
The COG have a tall order ahead of them as they clash with the seemingly inexhaustible Locust Horde, an army of monstrous aliens of all shapes and sizes who attack using the environment to their advantage and using intelligent swarming and flanking tactics. Locusts fire from behind cover, dash behind pillars and barricades, and clamber out of emergence holes hungry for human flesh but they’re also bolstered by larger, more durable enemies and smaller, bug-like enemies that explode in your face.
You’ll have to contend with snipers, Grubs who fire mortars at you incessantly, floating squid-like aliens affixed with machine guns, zombie-like humans, blade-wielding Grubs, massive armour-plated hulks who wield maces and giant protective shields, and even gaunt Kantus enemies who will replenish the Locust’s health and ranks and explode in a suffocating toxic cloud upon defeat. Even the regular, run-of-the-mill Wretches can be quite tough to put down as enemies can absorb a lot of bullets and even then many of them will crawl around on the floor, leaving themselves wide open to a bloody evisceration, but the bigger, tougher enemies will require you to manoeuvre around them to their exposed behinds or simply toss a grenade at them to blast them to pieces.
Technically speaking, Judgment only features one true boss battle, which forms the basis for the game’s final mission. However, as you progress through the campaign, you’ll battle some larger, far tougher enemies who basically function as mini bosses. These include the crab-like Corpsers (which burrow out of the ground and shield themselves with their claws), Ragers (which are regular Grubs that suddenly transform into rampaging, bloodthirsty monsters rather than dying), the Bloodmounts (massive monsters the Locust Horde ride into battle), and the giant, spider/octopus-like Reavers that fly around the air shooting missiles at you and then come crashing to the ground to try and stamp you to death.
The only actual boss battle takes place in the game’s final mission and sees you battle against the Locust Horde’s General, Karn, who attacks from atop a gargantuan semi-cybernetic spider called the Shibboleth. This battle takes place in a large open area with plenty of massive blocks to take cover behind and ammo to grab and can be made harder to selecting the option handicap, which sees a swarm of Elite Grubs help defend their General. The hardest thing about this boss battle is that Karn doesn’t have a health bar so the only way to you that you’re damaging him is when the HUD says he’s been wounded and you can only damage him when your aiming reticule is red. Otherwise, Karn is a large and lumbering target; as long as you take cover and stay out of the way of his charge attack and missiles (and revive your team mates as needed), he isn’t too tough to put down.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Despite the game’s over-the-top premise and presentation, there are no power-ups to be found in Gears of War: Judgment. You won’t get any steroids to make you faster, no invincibility power-ups, and there’s no beer to chug to send you into a blood rage. Instead, you have to make do with the game’s wide and impressive array of weaponry; the standard weapon is, as always, the Lancer, which is great for ranged and close quarters combat and, of course, has a fuckin’ chainsaw attached to it, making it the best go-to weapon of the game once again.
You’ll also get a few pistols, which can be useful in a pinch, some shotgun variants (which are fantastic for blowing chunks into Grubs when they get in your face), and a couple of different sniper rifle-type weapons. Some Grubs carry heavier weaponry, such as the Boomshot (which is, essentially a shotgun-like grenade launcher), giant Buster Sword-like blades, and one particular weapon that burrows under the ground towards its target and explodes in impact. You’ll also get to use some of the COG’s heavier weaponry; automated turrets, mortars, shielded heavy rifles, and massive hand-held weaponry like the Mulcher and the One-Shot, which are so big and heavy that you fire from a crouched position. They also massively slow you down and have limited ammo, forcing you to pick between mobility and power. You can also set up explosive traps, fire a bouncing grenade, roast Grubs alive with the Scorcher (or “flamethrower”), and defend yourself using a Boomshield.
Gears of War: Judgment has a fair few Achievements tied to it; most of these are tied to story progression and levelling-up your in-game profile but you’ll also earn them by unlocking certain Ribbons and playing the game’s multiplayer component.
Judgment’s multiplayer comes in numerous forms; you can play the main story campaign in co-op, take part in local and offline deathmatches and the like, and even compete in similar matches against computer-controller ‘bots. Alongside the standard multiplayer matches you might expect, you can also play “OverRun” and “Free-For-All”, with OverRun seeing you play as the COG and/or the Locust Horde in pursuit of gaining ground and raking up kills. You can also purchase some downloadable content that adds further multiplayer maps and modes to the game, if you like that sort of thing. As you play the campaign, you’ll find the game keeps track of various statistics (enemies killed, times downed, number of executions performed, etc) and compares them to those of your friends, which is a neat feature. You’ll also find a number of COG Tags scattered throughout each mission; whenever you spot a dark, blood-red Gears logo, a COG Tag will be nearby and you’ll need to find all of them to get 100% of the game’s Achievements. Additionally, once you complete the main campaign, you’ll unlock a bonus story, “Aftermath”, which appears to take place after Gears of War 3 (Epic Games, 2011), which sees Kilo Squad reunited and attempting to prepare for a bigger Locust assault.
I feel like I came into Gears of War when the series was already deeply entrenched in its lore and nearly impenetrable as a result. While I enjoy the characters and presentation and the gameplay, the idea of playing every single one of the titles is a little daunting to me as there is a lot of content to digest but, after playing first Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and now Gears of War: Judgment, I have to admit that I am tempted to try out more from the Gears franchise. Crucial to this is that fact that, while the game can be challenging, it’s nowhere near as frustrating or aggravating as a lot of similar shooters. Thanks to the game’s optional handicaps, Judgment is only ever as difficult as you choose it to be, meaning you can play as casually or as hardcore as you like. The characters and premise are also massively over-the-top and really appeal to the nineties kid in me, recalling the ultra-macho sci-fi/horror franchises that shaped my childhood and being unapologetically mindless and masculine in its execution. I didn’t see much in Judgment to really make it stand out from the first game or that was especially innovative but there was enough here to appeal to a casual fan of the series such as myself and to inspire me to revisit the title at a later point to try and tidy up a few more of those Achievements.
What did you think of Gears of War: Judgment? Where do you rank it amongst the other Gears of War titles? Which Gears of War videogame or character is your favourite? Whatever you think about Gears of War, drop a comment below.