With the conclusion of the Gears of War trilogy, the Locust threat has been exterminated and Sera's humans can begin to rebuild their devastated world. Marcus Fenix and his surviving Delta Squad brethren have laid down their arms, but a fictional setting as rich as the Locust War provides the potential for many other stories to be told. Gears of War: Judgment ventures back to the early days of this conflict to tell a tale of a disobedient squad standing trial for treason. Though it's a decent story, the campaign structure favors action over immersion, delivering rousing combat challenges at the expense of narrative flow. It's a change of pace for the series, but Judgment successfully serves up the tense, brutal action you know and love, and an assortment of new online modes make it an exciting game for competitive and cooperative players alike.
Before he was the wisecracking private in Delta Squad, Damon Baird was a wisecracking lieutenant in command of Kilo Squad. Just about a month after Emergence Day, Baird finds himself in Halvo Bay, a coastal city that looks a lot like every other Locust-ravaged city. With him is series regular Augustus "The Cole Train" Cole and two new characters. Sophia is an Onyx guard recruit who does things by the book, offering resistance to Baird's crazy plans and sporting an unfortunate hairdo that looks like molded plastic. Paduk is a former enemy of the COG conscripted to fight Locust, and his disgruntled anti-COG potshots are the highlight of the otherwise unremarkable squad chatter.
The story is told in flashbacks as the squad stands trial for treason, with each member taking a turn as the narrator and primary player character. The sneering colonel who prosecutes them makes a good antagonist, and the narrative tells a decent story from the annals of the Locust War. Yet it never achieves the dramatic heights of its predecessors, and this is partly due to the fragmented mission structure that isn't very conducive to long-form storytelling.
It plays out like this: Once the campaign is under way, you walk toward your objective while voice-over and squad dialogue set the stage. Almost immediately, you come upon a big glowing red skull-and-cog, the logo of the Gears franchise. Press a button, and you are presented with the option to deliver declassified testimony, which changes the narration and adds difficulty modifiers to the upcoming combat section. As a soldier testifies about the extra hardships that Kilo Squad faced, these modifiers impose limitations on things like your time, visibility, ammunition, and weapon selection. On normal difficulty, these modifiers are a welcome challenge; on harder difficulties, they make things very challenging indeed.
The combat in Gears of War: Judgment is the same brutal, weighty gunplay that the series has thrived on for years. It's still inherently fun, and the modifiers mix things up enough to make firefights feel fresh. There are new guns and enemies to contend with, as well as a few tweaks that serve to streamline things. You can carry only two weapons now, switching between them with the press of a button, and the hey-they're-sticky-now grenades are mapped to the left bumper for quick release.
With modifiers activated, combat is as lively as ever, but while this structure benefits the action, the focus on scoring disrupts the flow of your adventure. Beginning each combat section is painless, but at the end of each one, you are given a star rating and shown tallies of your accomplishments. With that section complete, you soon come upon another glowing red logo, and the cycle begins anew. The interruptive tally screens and the regular notifications comparing your stats to those of your Xbox Live friends make it feel like Gears of War: Judgment is primarily concerned with encouraging you to perform combat feats for glory. This tallying can be fun when you're playing cooperatively or striving for perfect three-star runs, but the regular appearance of the game-halting score reports makes the campaign feel oddly stilted.
The focus on scoring is not an unnatural evolution, however; previous Gears games were eager to remind you of your achievement progress with pop-up notifications, and the tally system in Judgment takes that accomplishment-focused play one step further. There's a lot of fun to be had with this structure and these modifiers, but those looking to experience another grand Gears campaign will be disappointed. A shorter, unlockable campaign called Aftermath follows the traditional structure (no modifiers here) and tells the story of a mission Baird and Cole undertook during the events of Gears of War 3. It's nice to see Paduk again, but Aftermath moves too slowly and spends too much time with a dull new enemy type to provide much excitement.
All told, the two campaigns last about seven hours, so you'll likely want to spend some time in multiplayer to get your money's worth. Fortunately, the brutal and tense combat continues to thrive in both competitive and cooperative environments. Team Deathmatch is joined by two familiar shooter modes that are new to the Gears series: Free for All and Domination. Whether it's the gory anarchy of every Gear for him- or herself, or the frantic intensity of trying to hold a capture point against a surging enemy team, these modes deliver thrills that fit very nicely into the competitive catalog.
On the cooperative side, the new Survival mode puts you and up to four others in a struggle to defend three sequential points against 10 waves of AI-controlled Locust enemies. A sort of replacement for the absent Horde mode, Survival doesn't let you construct fortifications, only repair them. To do so, you must play as the engineer, one of the four new classes with specific support abilities. Engineers can also deploy temporary turrets, while the soldier, medic, and scout all have grenades that bestow ammo, health, and increased enemy visibility, respectively. There are a few other strategic wrinkles, and in order to surmount the stiff challenge, you need to talk strategy with your teammates.
Overrun mode is essentially the same as Survival, except the Locust are controlled by other human players. This can make struggles significantly tougher, but it also gives you the chance to relish in destruction. Whether you're rending fences and soldiers with your horrible Locust teeth or staunchly defending with your new support abilities, both Survival and Overrun work best when your team is coordinated. Some matches can feel like landslides in which one team never stood a chance, but the better ones are tense and increasingly frantic as you struggle against the clock to rally your team to victory.
These two modes replace the Horde and Beast modes of Gears games past, but they scratch the same itches and add a few new twists. These changes, along with the structural differences in the campaign, make Judgment feel like its own game, worthwhile and exciting in its own right. Yet it still stands in the shadow of those that came before it, and little flaws like loading hiccups and soft textures underscore the fact that Judgment feels like a lesser achievement. Still, it's a heck of a lot of fun, and if you still enjoy utterly destroying hulking monstrosities with one blast of the sawed-off shotgun, you'll find a lot to like in Gears of War: Judgment.