If Gears of War 3 was a bizarre dream sequence, then Gears of War: Judgment is the mad scramble to get back to reality. It’s almost as if People Can Fly stepped in, said “yes, we know the last game felt a little “off,” then delivered a prequel to get things back in order. Except Judgment ends up feeling just as surreal. It’s a testosterone-fueled romp through seemingly endless waves of Locust soldiers, with sprinkles of ambition here and there, but the best way to describe it would certainly be Horde Mode: The Game.
Kilo Squad acts as your vehicle throughout pre-Gears of War Sera, with Damon Baird leading up the pack. Some familiar faces (namely Augustus Cole — hop on the Cole Train, baby!) are along for the ride as well, including a female character who doesn’t possess a shred of the individuality Anya did. It’s a disjointed jaunt from the start of the war with the Locust here and back again, with plenty of shout outs to spare, but a shortage on heart and the emotionally charged moments later Gears fans honed in on.
Fifteen years before the events of the main trilogy, Judgment follows Kilo’s military tribunal, as they stand accused of treason. The actual game plays out across the four Kilo Squad members’ flashbacks as they struggle to tell their side of the story. Baird goes first, and progressing through his missions feels a bit too much like early tutorial levels in a much less ambitious shooter. As Baird narrates the action, there’s some kind of restraint shown with his words and actions, as if the developers this time around were afraid to go as crazy with this release as they dared with the trilogy. As a result, it feels decidedly “safe,” no matter how many times you execute a crawling grub.
There’s a real lack of immediacy or urgency, and the campaign lacks the standout moments of even the second or third core Gears game. It feels very much as though you’re being asked to walk through several tutorial missions instead of a full-blown throwback to the beginning of the Locust conflict. Declassification missions, for example, were a much touted aspect of the game, advertised as a massive draw for new players. They’re built to beef up the campaign and add value and challenge for those willing to take them, but they’re sorely disappointing. Some of them end up adding an intriguing mixture of luck and precision to an already trying mission, while others feel little more than artificial padding to give the game length and substance where it lacks such.
Each Declassification mission is meant to include never-before-seen content or pieces of the narrative meant only for players who go the extra mile, and you’ll usually be asked to finish a level in a certain amount of time or annihilate X amount of enemies using only a Hammerburst or particular weapon. The spoils for doing so aren’t particularly engaging, though the narrative segments that accompany them are often the better choice. You’ll want to of course aim for a higher ranking for each bite-sized missions for better rewards (weapon skins, characters, costumes, and more) but these are all the missions themselves really offer, and instead end up working to further the cause that this game feels much more like than an expansion than a stand-alone game than anything else. Earning stars that are revealed at the end of each level along with your stats lend an arcade feel to the experience, and ends up cheapening things.
Running from each small courtyard to alleyway with little by way of exposition and instead only massive amounts of Locust to pepper with bullets damages the sense of exploration and wonder one had with the original Gears trilogy. You can easily go back and have a look at the included “lost” Gears of War 3 episode “Aftermath” for a taste of this. Judgment replaces that feeling with a hurried, stunted single-player campaign that feels tacked onto the same Gears multiplayer most will likely purchase it for, especially with the additional new modes of play.
It’s slick, fast-paced, and full of the same balls-out adrenaline rush you’d expect from any one of the beefy soldiers of Sera, but ultimately ends up feeling hollow, full of missed opportunities. It would have been exciting, for example, to delve more into Cole’s abandoned sports career and his feelings on becoming a hardened soldier instead of living the good life, or flesh out the very typical female character further beyond a quick introduction. With Gears of War following up the pack after Halo as a shooter with a story, there were plenty of avenues that could have been explored here instead of turning to gore, grinding, and gunning – as fun as that is, it could be so much more. And perhaps one day we’ll get it. But for now, Gears of War: Judgment is exactly what you expected: rainbow Lancers, the Cole Train, and executions.