I was ready to expect "just another Gears game," except I was pleasantly surprised by what I got to play.

User Rating: 8 | Gears of War: Judgment X360
If you read my God of War: Ascension review, then you will know that I mentioned the strange spectacle that seems to be plaguing upcoming sequels, and the seeming lack of hype around them. If there was one title on Microsoft's Xbox 360, then it's Gears of War: Judgement, the fourth instalment of the huge Gears of War franchise. The title suffers from the exact same problems as God of War: Ascension - it's on current-generation consoles, is a prequel and doesn't do much to extend on the satisfying conclusion that happened at the end of Gears of War 3. There is, however, a difference between Ascension's development and this latest Gears title: a switch of developers. You see, there was a decision that happened that concluded in bringing the team at People Can Fly (of Bulletstorm fame) to put some of their flavour into the Gears franchise, and this is exactly what they have done, while still keeping the solid third-person shooting and cover mechanics you expect from this series.

Gears of War: Judgement is set just after the start of "Emergence Day," many years before the original trilogy, with the Judgement campaign beginning with Lieutenant Baird and the rest of Kilo Squad ready to be put on trial for disobeying orders. The campaign is mostly done through dictated testimonial speeches, as the game has you playing out the events that happen on the planet Sera, which is on the brink of annihilation by a new Locust general. The plot is safe and does everything by the books. It's predicable and rarely exciting, but at least the characters remain as amusing as ever. This prequel instalment isn't about creating a decent plot, though. Oh no, it's about the changes in the gameplay and how it makes the Gears formula feel refreshing to return to after three similar structure games. This is even more evident when you unlock the bonus campaign called Aftermath, which takes place during the time frame of Gears of War 3 and is completely void of any of the gameplay changes that appear in the Judgement campaign. In other words, it's more Gears. It's an interesting inclusion to have, but thankfully that part of the campaign is short-lived, as it lasts around an hour and doesn't outstay its welcome after playing the coolest part of the game – the Judgement gameplay.

The Judgement campaign mixes things up with the game's pacing, which is something you probably weren't expecting from a Gears prequel – but that's a good thing, as everything feels faster than before. Campaign chapters are broken down into smaller sections and are often comprised of fire fights against the Locusts. Chapters are overall still big levels full of action and carnage, but connected by sealed-off doors or other obstacles that shrink each combat zone down and can only be passed once you have accomplished the objective. At the beginning of each area an empty three-star ranking is on display at all times. To fill this up and highlight all three stars, you are required to kill the enemies blocking your way to the end door. Killing in a stylish fashion – say, for example, a grenade tag that blows up three enemies – will increase this metre much more than simply staying behind cover and shooting. Scoring systems aren't exactly something you would call new in shooting games, but it's what People Can Fly have built on top of it – the Declassify objectives – that makes Gears of War: Judgement such a blast to play.

At the start of every zone, a bright red COG symbol is in easy access. Activating this will bring up a screen with a story-based description and a modifier that will alter something in the upcoming battle. Earlier examples include handicaps such as every wretch exploding, an area that is in complete darkness, no health regen, extreme winds that cause havoc with aiming, and one of my favourites, shotguns only. Declassify mods become more challenging as you progress towards the game's end, but in whatever situation, the reward for using the Declassify option means that stars are earned at a much faster pace. It also adds a nice dynamic change to the Gears combat formula, as every zone features a unique Declassify mod, which injects the combat with a burst of new life that would have not happened if this prequel had remained the same. Activating Declassify mods was something I always did, as I wanted to accomplish finishing the game by beating them all. These modifiers make Gears of War: Judgement a more "gamey" game – an almost arcade-like experience – and rewards players for stylish kills, although not quite as gameplay-focused as People Can Fly's own scoring shooter, Bulletstorm. It's a shame that these modifiers cannot be used in any of the multiplayer options, because it would make for some fantastic gameplay, and at the same time would be a throwback to the days of Unreal Tournament and its endless list of multiplayer options.

Some slight changes are moulded into the control system, but it doesn't affect the combat itself, so you're still using the Lancer to chainsaw fools apart or using the Longshot to sniper some grunt's head clean off his body. These changes are to do with grenades, which are now assigned to LB and you hold that to bring one out and aim its trajectory. Switching weapons also gets a revamp, as it is now assigned to the Y Button rather than the D-Pad. You are also limited to carrying two guns, but these can be of any type. There are a few new weapons included, such as the Breechshot, a Locust long-range rifle; and the Markza, a semi-automatic sniper rifle that doesn't zoom quite as far as the Longshot but is much faster. You also gain access to a couple of fancy grenades: one that plants down a healing circle, allowing friendlies to gather health when stepping within its radius; and a spot grenade, a scanner that will alert you to enemies hiding. Overall, the new weapons are fun to use and I do prefer the changes to the combat. It allows you to access the buttons for weapons and grenades with less hassle than constantly switching on the D-Pad.

Getting through the campaign will last you around six hours – seven hours if you include the Aftermath campaign, but the length of the Judgement campaign depends if you are up for the challenge of beating all the Declassify mods you come across. You can of course play the entire campaign with another player locally in split-screen, or go online and play the whole thing with four players. Once you are done, you are left with the multiplayer, which brings across some new game modes and interesting choices that may upset some hardcore Gears of War multiplayer fans.

Two new modes make their way into the multiplayer: these are OverRun and Survival. OverRun is a class-based, team competitive mode that has COG soldiers defending a sealed emergence hole for six minutes against the team of Locust players, who have to destroy the barrier to win the round. A match consists of each team taking on the role of COG and Locust, and whoever manages to kill the barrier the fastest is the winner. The COG team have four class options: Soldier acts as the ammo supplier; Engineer can deploy turrets; Scout can climb to specific spots to snipe from and can also use scan grenades; while, lastly, the Medic can use Stim Grenades to heal fellow teammates. Locust players, on the other hand, have eight classes, but only four are available from the start. The other four are locked behind a points wall, with a player meeting those requirements to unlock these new monsters to use for the duration of that battle. Initially, you can pick to play as Tickers, Wretches, Grenadiers and Kantus, the healer class for the Locust. Do well and you'll be able to fight as a Bloodmount, Serapede, Mauler and even a Corpser. As far as multiplayer goes, OverRun is an exciting mode that I often found myself playing more than the normal multiplayer, just for the fact that the idea of a class-based system forces cooperative play between players.

The other new mode, Survival, is a twist on Horde mode that originally began in Gears of War 2. It feels like a cooperative version of OverRun, in the sense that players take on the role of the class-based COG team versus ten waves of incoming, computer-controlled Locusts. It's a fun mode, sure, but it feels somewhat of a downgrade compared to Horde mode in Gears of War 3. Other modes include Team Deathmatch, a Free-For-All (which is a first for the normally team-focused Gears games) and Domination. All these modes are human vs. human. Long gone is the human vs. locust multiplayer – that is now for OverRun mode. Online action feels faster and more frantic than ever. However, one thing to note is that there is a bizarre amount of multiplayer maps. Overrun and Survival have their own four maps, and then the other modes have four maps as well. That's eight maps in total but not usable for all the modes, which seems a little low, especially if you end up being a fan of one of the multiplayer game types.

Throughout the multiplayer and the single-player, you will be constantly gaining experience and leveling up. Each level brings one random loot box that will unlock either weapon skins, armour skins or an experience bonus. It seems that not all the skins are accessible this way, as the customisation menu is full of little Microsoft Point logos that cover over the skins that you have to buy. It seems there is no way to unlock these, so it's not even a "purchase to save time," but flat-out denying customers access for the skin. It's free-to-play elements entering a full-priced game, and I'm not sure if I like that model.

Coming towards the end of the Xbox 360's life it's going to be hard to find games that graphically impress you. Gears of War: Judgement is a nice looking game, and most of the gripes that come with Unreal Engine 3 are gone from this title – yes, that includes the infamous texture loading, I never saw that once during my single-player experience, and I was running the game off the disc. The colour palette on use here is more vibrant, offering a nice and bright look at the Gears universe.

I was ready to expect "just another Gears game," except I was pleasantly surprised by what I got to play. Sure it's not completely new, but People Can Fly has moved Gears of War in an alternative, more arcade-feeling direction that I can totally get on board with. The Judgement campaign is simply great action from start to finish. If you're a person who is more interested in the single-player and cooperative side of Gears of War, then Judgement might just reignite that love for a fourth entry. Multiplayer fans, on the other hand, might not agree with the changes to multiplayer, and the lack of maps does hurt. In the end, I really enjoyed this new direction and it opens my eyes to see what happens next for the franchise's future. Whoever is in charge of the next Gears game, if they are willing to change the flow of the game and experiment again, then I can see the future looking bright for the series.

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