By 2013 the Gears of War franchise was pretty well established. Since first appearing on the Xbox 360 in 2006, the series had become a firm favourite amongst gamers, becoming one of the tent-pole titles for the console. Its mixture of third-person shooting and cover mechanics, high octane action, and the beefiest of beefcake men set it apart from some other shooters.
And as the third game in the series seemed to bring the story of mankind’s battle against the evil Locust Horde to an end the question of ‘what next?’ was raised. What next would be a new sequel series set decades later, with Gears of War 4, but before that we get Gears of War: Judgment.
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Gears of War: Judgment is not a sequel to the third game, and instead of continuing the story after the conclusion it was decided that the best thing to do would be to go backwards in time instead. But, rather than explore the emergence of the Locust, or even the human civil war that came before it (both things that the later sequels would shine more light on) we kind of got more of the same, with another game set during the events of the Locust War. The two characters from the main series Delta Squad who players don’t get to control, Damon Baird (Fred Tatasciore) and August ‘Cole Train’ Cole (Lester Speight), get thrust into the spotlight here, as we get to explore their time before they meet up with the rest of Delta Squad.
But rather than just give us another Gears of War game, new developers People Can Fly messed around with the format a little bit. Rather than telling a fairly traditional story in chronological order, where players are able to explore a large-feeling world through big levels, we get a story told in flashback, where our characters are on trial, and their testimony becomes the game-play. Key moments from their testimony become small arenas in which the player is tasked with surviving.
These levels kind of feel like the Horde Mode offered in previous games, though they don’t last anywhere as long. However, the game introduces some new elements that stop it from becoming Horde Light. Each level has objectives that the player has to meet in order to earn stars for their rankings.
These collectable stars encourage you to not just survive, but to try and meet certain expectations, to push yourself harder, and to try to become better at the game. However, there are also Declassified Missions, small changes to the testimony that add more detail, and offer challenges to the player; things like low ammunition, explosions reducing visibility, or more enemies appearing.
The Declassified Missions are incredibly fun to tackle, and they can make even the easiest of the levels feel like a challenge. They force the player to try different tactics, to use weapons they might normally never pick up, and to play smarter. From a narrative point of view these Declassified Missions are fun because they shows how different people will remember the same events in different ways, and plays into the idea of unreliable narrators.
An added bonus to playing the Declassified Missions is that it allows the player to unlock the ‘Aftermath’ campaign if they’ve earned enough stars. This campaign takes place during the events of Gears of War 3, and shows what Damon and Cole were doing whilst their compatriots were off on the main mission. It adds some extra detail to the third game that isn’t necessarily needed, but is fun to have nonetheless.
Despite being a spin-off game (which sometimes struggles), and despite messing with a tried and true formula, Gears of War: Judgment was well received upon release, being praised for giving players something new in the Gears of War universe. The twist on the standard formula helped the game to feel different, and you could argue that it encouraged those who might have begun to get a bit bored with the series’ regular play style to give it a go in hopes of getting something different.
Whilst most of the changes added to Gears of War: Judgment wouldn’t be retained for the main series when Gears of War 4 and Gears of War 5 were released, it did set the stage for spin-off games that would try to be different to the main series, with others like Gears Tactics and Gears Pop! taking even bigger leaps away from the standard formula. If you missed out on Gears of War: Judgment first time round it might be worth your time finally giving it a try.
Gears of War: Judgement was released in the UK on 19th March 2013.