They say that putting your child into the care of another is one of the hardest things you have to do as a parent. It could be the first time you have to leave them with a babysitter or that uncomfortable farewell when you drop them off for their first day of school. But no matter which way you look at it, kids grow up and your responsibility for them slowly starts to diminish. We imagine this is how some of the founding members of Bungie felt when they handed over the keys to 343 Industries; maybe not quite as deeply affecting, of course, but when you’ve become emotionally attached to something it can be hard to let go.
This is the position that Epic Games found itself in after completing its work on Gears Of War 3. Marcus Fenix had finally dealt with the Locust forces on Sera and – for all intents and purposes – the trilogy had ended its five-year run on a resoundingly high note. It also felt like the third game had refined the cover-based mechanics to their natural limit and unless Epic could come up with something totally unprecedented, a third sequel would only offer more of the same. This gives credence to the growing trend of franchise loaning between studios. After all, who could forget the brilliance of Metal Gear Rising?
Unfortunately, it seems that relinquishing control is a risk that few studios are prepared to make. Rather than taking the hands-off approach, Epic decided to collaborate with its closest bedfellow. This was none other than People Can Fly – a wholly owned subsidiary of Epic Games that has already proven itself more than capable with the under-appreciated Bulletstorm. Instead of focusing the game on the do-rag charms of Marcus, Gears Of War: Judgment is a prequel that centers on the odd-couple duo of Baird and Cole. The result is a game that feels safe and inherently familiar but effortlessly delivers on a tried and tested combat system that, even now, is hard to fault.
The new Campaign kicks off in the ensuing aftermath of Emergence Day. As the leader of Kilo Squad, Baird is forced to stand trial alongside his fellow teammates after they disobeyed a direct order in their fight against the Locust Horde. The man in charge of the hearing is Colonel Loomis, a no-nonsense solider who despises insubordination and has about as much compassion as Sergeant Hartman. The reasoning behind Kilo Squad’s arrest is initially unclear, but as each squad mate runs through their testimony in the flashback sequences that make up the six main chapters, you’ll gradually piece together the whole story before the game reaches its deflated conclusion.
We’d wager that most Gears fans will buy Judgment on the promise of more roadie run executions and hidden COG tags, and in this regard the game doesn’t disappoint. The control scheme has been altered to accommodate a dedicated grenade button that lets you toss out an ink, incendiary or frag grenade without having to consult the D-pad. The pistol slot has also been removed entirely. This means that, like most other modern-day shooters, you can only carry two guns at a time. The trade-off is that weapon switching is about twice as fast, with off-the-hip shotgun kills being even snappier than before.
The adjustments to the control scheme come hand-in-hand with some subtle changes to the existing armoury. The sawed-off shotgun, for instance, is now a two-shot weapon rather than a shrapnel cannon that blows both barrels by default. The game also introduces a semi-automatic counterpart to the Longshot called the Markza Rifle, in addition to a scope-less sniper rifle, a grenade launcher that fires timed explosives, a crossbow that dispenses proximity-mines and a grenade that heals any COG soldiers that walk into its area-of-effect. None of these weapons alter the dynamics of the gunplay in any serious way, but it’s refreshing to have long-range options that don’t force you to reload after each and every shot.
Whether you’re dosing a Drone in Lancer fire, bombarding a Grinder with Mortar shells or waiting for a Corpser to emerge so you can end its burrowing shenanigans with a OneShot to the face, the minute-to-minute firefights are like a greatest hits collection of everything we’ve seen before – just without any of the seismic set pieces, as Judgment tends to keep the encounters fairly grounded. If there’s one way in which the campaign feels fundamentally different, though, it’s the modular structure. It often feels like the game is permanently stuck in score attack mode as whenever you finish one of the seven sections that make up each chapter, you’re presented with a statistical rundown of how you faired.
You could argue that this scoreboard enforcement breaks the sense of immersion, and yet, it’s clear that Judgment’s campaign is more about the challenge than the journey. As a case in point, every level has an optional Mission Declassification that makes the section more challenging. This could be anything from introducing a thick dust cloud that limits your visibility or bolstering the attacking forces with Serapedes to removing your ability to regenerate lost health or forcing you to fight with a Boltok pistol. It’s a genuinely engaging addition that tactfully enhances the difficulty. It’s also one of the few ways in which Judgment stands apart from its predecessors.