The launch of Gears of War: Judgment is nigh upon us, and though our written and video reviews aren't ready just yet, the review embargo has lifted, and I wanted to share some of my impressions of the game with you. Judgment feels like a Gears of War game all right, complete with weighty weapons, brutal executions, and armored characters sliding heavily into and around cover. The refined mechanics that define the series are still going strong, but the campaign structure diverges significantly from Gears' past, making Judgment feel like something different.
Set before the events of the first Gears of War, Judgment tells the story of Kilo Squad, a group of four COG soldiers who are being court-martialed by a stern colonel who looks like Rhett Butler from Gone With the Wind. As each soldier gives testimony, you play as him or her and go through the actions being recounted. Series veterans Baird and Cole are joined by newcomers Sophia, a recruit in the elite Onyx Guard, and Paduk, a former UIR soldier and enemy of the COGs who now fights alongside them. They make a decent crew, and Paduk's heavily accented jabs at his former foes are often amusing.
As you make your way through the campaign, it quickly becomes clear that the structure of the action is fundamentally different. Rather than simply following one continuous story, Judgment breaks up the action into distinct sections linked by short walk-and-talks. These sections begin with the option to add a difficulty modifier and end with a scoreboard.
The difficulty modifier is cast as declassified testimony, so it might say something like "Kilo Squad alleges that the Locust were using heretofore unseen tactics" or "Paduk says they were only able to find shotgun ammunition in the area." Accepting these modifiers changes the conditions of the combat encounter to come. Lower visibility, tougher enemies, limited ammunition, strict time limits, and specific weapons are some examples of the varied limitations you might face. These often make things harder, and generally feel like a welcome challenge for confident players on normal difficulty. On harder difficulties, they make things much more difficult, especially if you are striving for a three-star rating.
Indeed, it's the scoring element that really sets these sections apart. During the action, miniature leaderboards pop up in the corner, comparing your stats (headshots, executions, kills, and so on) to other players on your friends list. Once you've completed a given stretch, the action pauses, and a scoreboard pops up to tally your stats. You're assigned up to three stars and given the chance to try again. When you move on, things pick up where you left off with continuing testimony, and the story proceeds.
The overall feeling then is not so much seamless campaign story as it is story-driven arcade mode. Judgment treats you less like a soldier on a mission and more like a performer showing off combat skills. It's an odd sensation, but it seems to fit with the narrative structure of giving testimony. The Gears are recounting their combat exploits in detail, and what Gears wouldn't want to talk themselves up?
I'm enjoying the campaign, different as it is, and have also had some fun with the new Overrun multiplayer mode. With up to five COG and five Locust players, this team-based competitive mode recalls the cooperative Beast mode from Gears of War 3, only with human opponents. Playing as the different species and varieties of Locust as you try to break open the locked-down emergence holes is still a gruesome, sinister treat. Combating human players in Locust form as the COG team is also more engaging, and the four specific classes of soldier depend on each other in ways that are important to survival. Matches can come down to the wire and create some truly exciting moments, and I'm looking forward to playing more of this and other competitive modes as I prepare to write the full review.
That review will be coming in the next few days, but until then, I hope these impressions will tide you over. Judgment plays with the Gears of War formula in a few interesting ways, so those fearing just another familiar Gears game may be pleasantly surprised. Share your thoughts in the comments below, and keep an eye out for the review coming soon.