Much like Halo on the original Xbox, Gears of War was the defining trilogy on the Xbox 360. Hyper-violent action, cover-based mechanics, a heaping helping of testosterone, and a gruesome glaze of horror all helped make Gears one of the most compelling reasons to own an Xbox 360, and its ever-expanding multiplayer options, which grew exponentially with each entry in the series, gave the series some impressive staying power. Gears of War 3 loosely tied up the three-part epic of manliness that pitted the humans of the planet Sera against the subterranean Locusts, with the Locusts in retreat and the remaining members of Marcus Fenix’ ragtag squad left to try and rebuild the decimated planet. It’s not the sort of ending that really lends itself to a continuation, so Epic handed the fourth entry in the series over to People Can Fly, whose history of balls-to-the-wall action (Painkiller and Bulletstorm) made them an ideal fit for a new Gears game, which takes place before the original Gears of War.
A prequel? Yeah, it seems like a cheap way to expand on the mythology of a game after you’ve painted yourself into a corner narratively (ironically, the similarly titled God of War just did the same thing), but Epic’s initial decision to set the first game well after the cataclysmic event of Emergence Day (when all of the Locusts started pouring out of the ground to raze the surface of Sera) gave a lot of timeline for People Can Fly to explore. Smarter still, they switched the focus from series mainstays Marcus and Dom to fan-favorite sidekicks Damon Baird and Augustus “Cole Train” Cole, who find themselves being court martialed for treason in the wake of Emergence Day. This leads to a smart narrative setup, as each member of Baird’s Kilo Squad gets cross-examined by the military tribunal. It’s an easy way to get each of the game’s characters their time in the spotlight, even if they all play in virtually the same fashion as every Gears game since its inception.
Judgment does find a way to inject new life into the single player campaign through use of Declassified Missions, which basically double the gameplay by adding certain additional rules to the game. Accepting a Declassified Mission, which is as simple as activating a pulsing Crimson Omen on the wall, adds “additional details” to a character’s testimony, such as a firefight in complete darkness, or being forced to complete a mission only using a specific weapon. These additional challenges may not add massive differences to the narrative push of the game, but they certainly change the overall flow of the mission quite a bit. The missions that cloak the battlefield in a choking cloud of dust or a smothering darkness can be incredibly harrowing, and bring a level of nervous horror to the game.
These Declassified Missions also help you fill up faster on Stars, the main currency in the game’s RPG-style leveling system which net you rewards (primarily different skins for weapons and armor) based on just how much of a badass you are. Filling up these Stars can be slow going, but accepting Declassified Missions, as well as performing other actions like gibbing your enemies or performing executions, helps build you up quickly.
There are also a host of multiplayer options including a class-based mode called OverRun and a classic every-man-for-himself deathmatch option called Free-for-All. As usual for Gears, these are handled seamlessly, merging together the single and multiplayer experiences in the overall game.
While some of the dramatic “oomph” may get sucked out of the game due to its prequel timing (you know who’s gonna make it out alive of this one), Gears of War: Judgment throws enough new twists into the franchise to keep it feeling fresh and exciting. It’s a hell of a sendoff to the series that helped define this console generation from the cradle to the grave.