Gears of War: Judgment – Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Epic Games, People Can Fly
Release Date: Mar 19, 2013
Genre: Action, Shooter
Reviewed by Mark Smith

Review Score: 3.5 of 5

Gears of War: Judgment is the fourth installment in the Xbox exclusive series, and while I have played all the games leading up to this moment, this is the first time we have ever been able to do a review. Sadly, Judgment is, in my opinion, the weakest game in the franchise. I’m not sure what happened here. Perhaps Epic Games turned over too much creative control to People Can Fly, the studio that created Bulletstorm, or perhaps nothing could ever top the spectacle of the original trilogy, but for most of the time I spent with this latest Gears of War game I couldn’t help but feel this was a rushed cash-in attempt at one last Gears game before we move on to a new generation of console.

Things I did enjoy was the adherence to the traditional look and feel of the Gears gameplay, the classic cover system and the evolutionary reload system that has become a mini-game of its own. I enjoyed the story backdrop and the way the game was broken down into a series of four narrated flashback sequences as our heroes testified in their own court-martial hearing. But what I did not enjoy was the overall mission design that focused on very short missions – usually 3-10 minutes – and the three star scoring system that made this game seem more like something I would play on my iPad rather than my Xbox.

This major game design shift has taken Judgment from a serious action-adventure and turned it into something more casual and arcade-like…Angry Birds of War if you will. You’ll pick your difficulty level in order to earn medals ranging from silver, gold and onyx and every mission has a specific Declassified challenge worked into the narrative that, when chosen, will allow you to earn those three star ratings even faster – challenges like only using enemy weapons or completing a level within a given time limit, or any other modifier that will make your life (and the game) that much harder. Once you earn 40 stars in the Judgment missions you will unlock Aftermath, a single chapter that will take about two more hours to finish. This is the only time the game actually feels like a classic Gears of War game; when all those arcade tropes are gone and you can immerse yourself in the fiction, the landscape, and the combat.

Gears of War was one of the first games I really took seriously when it came to co-op play, and Judgment is perhaps the best game in the series to be approached from a multiplayer standpoint due to the very reason it doesn’t work as a solo game. The arcade experience is definitely best shared with others, either in two-player local split-screen or with four players online, and rest assured, the enemy numbers and AI will ramp up accordingly to the number of players and the chosen difficulty. But also know that human players seem to die a lot more than the computer controlled ones, so you might find yourself replaying levels over and over if you have careless players in your group.

If you’d rather kill your friends than work with them then prepare for some classic multiplayer support for up to ten players in all your favorite modes including the new Overrun mode that mixes class-based gaming with the Beast mode mentality. Horde mode is sadly missing, replaced with Survival mode – basically Overrun with AI controlled Locust, and a domination style mode will have you struggling to capture and control various points on the map. Speaking of maps, there are a few new maps and more on the way in the form of DLC, so if you are in this for the long haul you may want to invest in the Season Pass.

Judgment looks and sounds great with some of the best graphics in the series to date; a proper send off to the Xbox in its final year. The environments are complex and there are some truly impressive set pieces that serve as hubs to the action. The dialogue is great with classic quips (“I like my guns like I like my ladies…heavy and loud”) and plenty of humorous banter, and the sound effects are as powerful as they are terrifying at times. And of course, the score is as epic as it gets and drives the action and the narrative.

I really love the Gears of War games and I really enjoyed Bulletstorm but mixing and matching the elements from these two unique franchises has created some mutant hybrid that isn’t as enjoyable as it might sound on paper. I miss the meandering action adventure days where I could explore the ruined cities looking for the collectible tags (which are back) and kill Locust at my leisure. Gears of War: Judgment betrays the very core of the design that inspired the original trilogy and replaces it with arcade tension and pacing and arbitrary rule sets and restrictions that turns the whole thing into something rushed and not entirely fun…at least until you unlock Aftermath, and then that is over just as you are started to find your old-school groove. Diehard Gears fans might find some enjoyment here, but you can probably exploit this game for all its worth in a rental period or at least wait for a sale before you enlist in this final and somewhat unnecessary tour of duty.