Sunday, 24 March 2013

Review - Gears of War: Judgment (Xbox 360)

Reviews now receive scores. I will be going back and scoring all previously reviewed games (except the Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 review) so check back with those game reviews on here over the next week to see what scores I gave them!

Having not been massively excited for Gears of War: Judgment my expectations were as simple as this: so long as it is a good game that lives up to the Gears name, I'm happy.

Unfortunately Judgment doesn't live up to the franchises standards and is certainly the weakest game so far.

Judgment goes back in time to a full 15 years before the original Gears game. It is also set only 14 days after emergence day. I was excited about this as I thought it would be a chance to see the war how it was when it first started and compare it to the games set in the future. This, however, isn't the case. Let me get this out the way before I properly get into reviewing the rest of the game: Judgment doesn't do anything to make you feel like you are playing 15 years before GoW1 or 14 days after emergence day. There is really nothing here that made me feel like I was playing the beginning of an epic war. It just felt like any old Gears game to be honest. This sucks massively as it reduced immersion and didn't make me feel anywhere near as involved in the game as I should, or could, have been.

The story itself is mostly done in flashback and based around Kilo squad; lead by Lieutenant Baird from the previous games and also including three other squad members who go by the names of: Pudak, who is a stereotypical 'I'm a not a good guy but I have a good heart so I basically am a good guy' Russian character, Augustus Cole who is also from the original games and Sofia Hendrik, who feels like a fairly pointless and irrelevant character who wasn't really built on.

The story starts with Kilo squad being lead into a somewhat makeshift courtroom as they are charged with war crimes (no not abusing their power to kill innocent people or anything; just disobeying orders) and left to tell the one-man Judge and Jury Col. Loomis their side of the story. This didn't quite make sense to me as Col. Loomis seemed adamant they were guilty and given whatever he said went, he could have just ended it without listening to them. It seemed pretty weird that he was actually willing to take their opinions on board even though he looked like he had made his mind up on what the verdict would be beforehand.

As each member of Kilo squad takes turns to explain what happened, the game goes into flashback and you play as whoever is giving their report at that time. So you get to have a go at playing as each member of the squad.

This would be OK, if the characters weren't so average. While the story did make me feel more for Baird and  Cole, it was only because I had played with those two in the three previous games that I actually cared about them. However Pudak was basically a stereotypical Russian who, although likeable, felt way too, well, stereotypical.
As for Sofia Hendrik, she was actually irritating. The women in GoW3 were pretty cool, however she is just annoying more than anything. What's more, none of these characters have anything even remotely unique about them in terms of gameplay, so there is no difference between playing as Baird then switching to Sofia Hendrik which is a little dull.

The actual story is also lacklustre. All previous games in the series had done a fantastic job of making you feel and understand the situation the characters and world was in. As I said before; Judgment doesn't do this. You never feel very involved with the events that happen and the game barely acknowledges that shit didn't get real until 14 days ago. It's baffling.

The entire plot revolves around killing this one bad guy and isn't very interesting at all. It's a bit sleep worthy actually. The bad guy himself, Karn, is completely rubbish too. He is barely in it and felt very half-hearted.

Unfortunately, and this is where the killer blow comes in; the rest of the campaign is a bit sucky too - especially where the level design and structure is concerned.

The level design is awful. Instead of going in a straight line and simply encountering some enemies on the way to the objective, maybe once in a while having a big battle, the campaign is like horde, the arcade mode from Gears 3 and the normal single player all combined into one. It is a horrible, clashing, mess.

There are very few, simple, 'enemy encounters'. Instead, every time you come into contact with the bad guys it is like a big battle arena. There is practically never just a few locust to kill and then you move on. Instead there is a big, expansive area and loads of locust. Pretty much EVERY time there is a fight scene. The fighting segments are not clean and smooth; they are long, drawn out, way overused, full-scale battles.

When you are not participating in one of the 'gladiator battle arena' styled shootouts, the game seems to turn into a kind of horde mode thing.  You'll reach a certain point and then you will need to protect something or hold a place from the enemy. You will be given tons of ammo, sentries and maybe even barriers (just like you get in Horde 2.0) and then told when the wave of locust is incoming. After the first wave there might be 1 or maybe even 2 more. This doesn't happen once of twice either; it happens a lot. And I mean a lot.

Each of these stages feels like they've integrated horde mode into the campaign. They feel very deliberate and not at all situational. For instance: in previous games, if you had to protect Jack while he opened a door, you would do that for a few minutes and then continue. It wouldn't be a big deal or anything. Here, every battle and horde-like-section feels deliberately laid out and made into an overblown deal that lasts for ages. Like, ages. Sometimes even 10 minutes.

The level design is just appalling. It really feels like they tried to make everything fit into one and it doesn't even remotely work. If horde had a campaign, this would be it. Not the other way around. It isn't a smooth ride; it is big battle after big battle, then a big defensive 'protect this thing or that thing for so many waves' part. There is even a timer on screen telling you when the next wave is coming. And this is supposed to be a serious campaign?

There are also some things called 'Declassified' missions included throughout the game. These missions are optional and add a twist to that part of the chapter. You may activate one of these and then get reduced visibility or no regenerating health; shotguns or enemy weapons only etc. These then help to increase you star rating at the end of the level. By not going down and by performing executions and killing more enemies and completing the Declassified mission, your star rating will be higher. The highest you can get is 3 stars out of 3.

These add-ons mostly work well, however I didn't quite understand why a lot of them weren't just added in as standard. Why am I having to choose whether or not to challenge myself more with reduced visibility? Shouldn't this just be included in this chapter, or whatever, by default? Some of them wouldn't work well being inbuilt, like using only particular weapons, however I didn't even feel these added anything into the game. They are optional so you do not have to complete the game with all of them activated, however if you want to get certain achievements then it is best if you just complete them when you get the chance. I did them all on my first play-through and they were easy enough, rarely offering much of a challenge. That was on Hardcore by the way, so you get what I mean. If anything they just break up the action.

Many reviews have noted that the gameplay is faster paced and this is definitely true. I felt like it was far less tactical than before, which also disappointed me. Why were enemies constantly rushing me? Why was I not having to use cover anymore and just simply jump around and doge bullets instead? The gameplay felt more like a step backwards than forwards and while the AI wasn't great (they go down quite a lot and don't kill much. This too is a step backwards over GoW3) they did a good job of almost always reviving me, so going down during gameplay is not a big deal at all. I remember when, even in Gears 3, going down would often lead to instant death. I don't quite get why these changes were made as they add little to the overall enjoyment and just mess up what was a perfect style into something that feels more arcady.

The controls are more fluid now, though; so no more feeling bogged down or getting caught up. It is very easy to move around which is nice.

Another change I didn't quite get was the actual button layout. You can now only carry two weapons as opposed to before when you could carry two main guns and a pistol. You no longer navigate the weapons selection with the D-pad, either. Now you use Y to switch weapons and the D-pad to highlight objectives and teammates and view points of interest.
Using Y to switch guns is certainly smoother, quicker and easier, however it is only so useful because the gameplay is so fast and furious now. If it hadn't been changed so much, keeping the loadout selection with the D-pad would still work.

The campaign will likely take you around 6-10 hours to complete, depending on the difficulty. I played on hardcore first time around and it took me about 8 hours.

In terms of actual difficulty, Judgment is not as hard as people are making out. I'm baffled as to why critics are claiming it is the hardest Gears game yet. Did they not play GoW1? Either way, Judgment is probably only a little bit more challenging than GoW3 and never felt very punishing. In fact, the boss fight is incredibly easy, especially compared to Gears 3's incredibly harsh and unfair final battle.

There is also a separate campaign segment called 'Aftermath'. This revisits Gears of War 3 and tells a short story about a mission that Baird and his squad embarked on. I have little to add here as it was pretty fun, although it felt a little dry.

This review is far from over (I still have the multiplayer to comment on) however the campaign has basically been wrapped up here. In truth it is pretty enjoyable however the changes made are far from for the better. Judgment feels like a massive step backwards in a lot of ways. The level design is a weird, clashing, mess that doesn't play out that well, the story is mediocre as are the characters, the gameplay is still good but not tactical enough, the Declassified missions are OK add-ons but somewhat bland and often feel a bit pointless too.

Multiplayer is definitely Judgment's strongest area. That said, it is more 60% good, 40% bad. Unfortunately this game just can't get anything completely right.

The multiplayer's best new addition is definitely the brand new mode 'Overrun'. It is like a mixture of Horde and Beast mode (both of which are not in this game) and pits 5 Cog players against 5 other players playing as locust. It is up to the locust to destroy the objective and the Cog to protect it. If the locust fail to complete the objective in the set time they lose the game. If they do, then it goes onto the next round. After a maximum of 3 rounds the players swap sides. It is an absolute blast to play and admittedly I am totally addicted to it right now.

The new Survival mode is basically a replacement for Horde 2.0. However this is bad; very, very bad. Survival is basically like Overrun but with Bots as the Locust. That is pretty much it. It lacks the depth and strategy of the original horde mode and I honestly don't know why they ruined this, one of the most popular parts of the game.

The other multiplayer modes are minimal in variety. Team Death Match, Domination and Free-For-All. While the selection is shallow I enjoyed all of them a lot. That said, I honestly don't know why the other modes are gone.

One of the biggest cons in this area of the game is the lack of customisation. There are a lot of weapons skins, sure, but where are all the characters? You can't even unlock classic people like Marcus Fenix or any of the Carmine brothers or anyone from GoW3 really. It is incredibly shallow. I worked my ass off in Gears 3 just to reach level 34(?) so I could unlock my favourite guy: Benjamin Carmine. None of that here.

Overall the multiplayer is mostly hit, but also fairly miss too. A lack of a horde mode and minimal characters and game modes make it feel fairly shallow. However Overrun is awesome and the more fluid gameplay worked well online, making it generally more enjoyable to actually play.

Gears of War: Judgment isn't a terrible game. If it was a standalone title and was not part of the Gears series it would actually be good, but for a GoW game it is very average. Some things have been removed that make no sense and changes have been made that seem pointless. Even some new things are pretty stupid too.

Unfortunately, my Judgment on Judgment is a harsh one. Play it with a pinch of salt.

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