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Epic have seen tremendous success with their Gears franchise, amidst criticisms of its overly macho tones, beefed up beefcakes and hyper violence, those in disfavour have more than enough ammo to self-servingly let the vitriol fly about its apparent awfulness. To do so is such a waste, because at its core Gears is a fantastic science fiction shooter, and has without question the best third person cover based action shooting ever made. Even better, you can do all this with your buddy with couch co-op, a dying format that needs all the love it can get. People Can Fly have taken the reigns of Judgement, and they have done something rather unexpected and clever in the process.
Judgement takes place shortly after the events of E-Day, a horrific event where the ground dwelling forces of the Locust rose to combat against humans, strained from the continuing Pendulum wars. It chronicles the story of Lieutenant Baird, the sarcastic mechanical genius of the Marcus Fenix trilogy and one of the more interesting characters of the bunch. Baird has been put on trial along with the rest of Kilo squad, fan favourite Augustus Cole along with two new characters; Sofia Hendrik who was a critic of the COG in the pendulum wars who enlisted hours after E-Day and Garron Paduk, an enemy of the COG forced to fight alongside them in an effort to thwart the Locust threat.
Unlike the previous entries, this game plays out as a flashback of the events leading to Kilo squad's arrest, detailing what happened along the way. Playing during the flashback sequences you have the opportunity to walk up to a wall with the Gears of War skull and cog logo and "declassify" the events that really went down. By choosing to do this changes how you fight the next sequence, instead of playing like a regular campaign, you are given challenges which reward you with extra ribbons and points to go towards your star rating, which effectively unlocks additional characters, skins, and weapons for multiplayer.
These challenges are widely varied, ranging from obscuring your vision with smoke, replacing your load out with limited ammo, different weapons, or by simply boosting the enemies effectiveness. What this does is create a segmented campaign made up of dozens and dozens of little unique battle sequences with an arcade type scoring system and its genius. Playing the game normally is fine, but beating these challenges add so much to the scope of battle and is a hearty challenge for newcomers and gears veterans alike. It also gives replayability a solid boost in the arm, as some of these missions are downright tough to slog through, but never overbearing or cheap. It'll lead to you becoming a better player and appreciating how deep the combat really is.
The second campaign Aftermath, takes place during Gears of War 3, where Baird and Cole must find reinforcements for the final battle, and is played out more like a traditional campaign, albeit very short in length. It may not hold the same length as the Judgement campaign, but it does have plenty of style and is a fantastic addition to fleshing out the Gears world, particularly addressing the consequences of the COG campaign against the Locust.
The way combat plays out has been given some tweaks.. Previously we had the option of carrying two weapons, a pistol and one grenade type with the selection on the D-Pad. This time around we are limited to only carrying two weapon types, and grenades have been button mapped to the left bumper. Tap it to lob the grenade, hold to fine aim. It's a big change to an already great system, but it works perfectly for the quicker pace this title sets. Other tweaks are the ability to use any weapon while carrying a shield, and switching weapons is done by tapping Y.
There are some new multiplayer modes to choose from, instead of being a COG vs. Locust affair, you can now choose whatever character you want, and fight on either the blue or red team. It feels kind of weird having your character chainsaw his doppelganger, or fighting against a team made up entirely of Cole Trains. It's a nice change of pace, but probably not going to win everyone over against some of the previous entries.
Two new modes have crept their way in, Survival and Overrun mode. In essence there is an E-Hole cover that must be defended by either a timed based horde in survival, or wave based mode in overrun. If you can hold out against the swarms, you will win the match, however if your E-Hole is destroyed, you must fall back to defend another one, and failing that a generator. Once the generator goes, the game is over.
In these modes you have the choice of playing as one of several difference classes. From the Engineer, loaded out with a Shotgun, Turret and repair tool, you can fix barricades to slow them down, throw down turrets to slow enemies, but cannot repair the E-Hole. As a Medic Class, you are loaded out with a Lancer and health stim grenades, keeping your forces healthy and continuing the battle. These classes cannot pick up other weapons and are limited to their initial layout, this forces teamwork and creates a very tense atmosphere to protect the target and reinforce your defences.
Visually the game is arguably the best in the series, the Unreal Engine has been pushed to its limits and has resulted in something quite astonishing for the aging 360 hardware. Smoke is particularly well handled, in the missions with obscured visibility, it creates a very movie like experience with dark shadows breaching from the smoke as you frantically hold them off. Lighting has seen a comfortable boost and with the excellently designed maps of the campaign, combined with the faster pace gameplay leads to some memorable and great looking moments.
The sound is equally punchy, weapons blast through surround sound with nary a hitch and amongst the chaos it's still very clear and concise to listen out for attacking Locust. The voice work is once again top notch, the cast really have done an excellent job with their characters, delivering subtleties that add some suprising depth to each character. Even though Gears isn't praised for its story or characters, within the context of the subject matter, the cast give more than could ever be expected. In light of this campaign being more gameplay than story, it was a great experience listening to their performances.
Judgement is very unique amongst the Gears landscape, it looks fantastic, sounds incredible, and plays very fast and varied. Replayability is ridiculously high, there is a lot of content to play through and its arguably one of the more enjoyable entries in the series. It's fresh, it adds more than enough to the franchise and I hope that People Can Fly are given the opportunity to make another Gears game.
A fresh take, excellent pacing and its unique challenges are more than enough to keep one enthralled. Even better with a buddy.