The heavy chord at the end of a Gears of War battle used to be congratulatory. Your chainsaw roared, corpses crumpled, and a thundering hum warned the world what you’d done. In Gears of War Judgment, the sound that used to celebrate success is a comforting signal to unclench your teeth and start breathing again. You probably won't make it out next time.
Judgment starts 30 days after Emergence Day, just as humanity goes to war with the Locust. The COG doesn’t know its enemy just yet, which leaves them exposed to the grubs’ fearless aggression. Locust spawn by the dozen, popping out of the ground, crawling out of emergence holes, and knocking down doors in the largest, scariest groups you’ve seen in a Gears game. They are lethal individually, seemingly unstoppable in mixed groups of enemies new and old, and utterly terrifying for even the most grizzled Gears vet. At first, this challenge defines Judgment. Before long, that gives way to an impressive level of newfound complexity.
The common thread between difficulty and depth is variety – each enemy encounter is unique, both by design and thanks to the new semi-random spawning system, which generates different opponents each time you retry an encounter. If a group of Bloodmounts takes you down, don’t expect to see them a second time – Maulers and Grenadiers may replace them, perhaps with a half-dozen Wretches in tow.
Judgment doesn’t ever dial back because you’ll always have the tools necessary to scrape by. This is Gears at its quickest and most aggressive. I swapped between guns as opposed to relying on my Lancer, typically because I’d thrown it to the ground after running out of ammo. Early in the story, when Damon Baird’s Kilo Squad makes its way through the Onyx Guard’s home city of Halvo Bay, you’ll hunker down to defend the Museum of Military Glory using sentry turrets. The tower defense-influence works as effectively in a campaign context as it did in Gears of War 3’s Horde 2.0. It’s a stark change of pace from the push-push-push mission structure preceding it.
Baird, Cole, Paduk and Hendrick – Kilo’s key members – previously swapped Gnasher shotguns and close-quarters combat for the ranged superiority of the new Markza semi-auto sniper-rifle. They chainsawed grubs beneath the burning surface of Halvo Bay’s Old Town district, where they’d later mount turrets to chew through the horde. With Mauler, Boomer, Kantus, Cyclops, and Dark Wretch corpses behind them, Kilo should have earned a leisurely rest while turrets took down Locust inside the museum. Judgment never gives them that chance. I died three times trying to hold off incoming forces. Later, I’d die nearly 10 during a futile stab at the punishing Hardcore difficulty.
Moment to moment, Judgment always has something new and interesting for you to do, but it also presents the opportunity to add an interesting variable to each and every enemy encounter. Activating glowing crimson omens heralds not a hidden COG tag but instead unlocks the “declassified” version of an upcoming f!ght. Typically, these opt-in objectives limit your weapon usage to, say, Hammerbursts or a Gnasher/Sawed-Off combo. Others give the enemy an advantage. You may come up against Cyclopes with Lancers, grubs who attack from behind, or One-Shots with high-ground positioning. But why on Sera would you willingly make a tough shooter harder for yourself? What good could possibly come from wandering into a claustrophobic cloud of dense, blinding smoke when it’s unnecessary?
First, declassifications present narrative conceits that fits Judgment well. The story begins with Kilo Squad in a military court, and each mission we play representing a testimony of the events leading up to their trial. The testimony Kilo Squad delivers will change as you activate omens, revealing information you may not have known about the characters and world. Sometimes it relates to military rules, characters’ origins, or simply the COG discovering the intelligence of the Locust.
Secondly, declassified objectives tie into Judgment’s scoring system – and before you run off, it’s not as awful as it sounds. Earning stars for performing well adds substance to the combat without trivializing it. f!ghting is more tactical and engaging than ever when you’re rewarded for speed, style, and efficiency. You’re always rewarded for headshots, executions, gib-splosions and other decidedly Gears of War k!lls, but playing with optional variables adds a multiplier to your score tracker. Earning more stars for k!ll combos feels even better when the pot’s sweetened. In turn, the way you think about Gears of War’s combat changes – not only because the actual flow of battle is different, but because you’re actively trying to do better than usual. Suddenly Gears of War feels smarter, even if it has more video game-y elements in the mix.
All of this plays hand-in-hand with multiplayer. Free-for-All remains an aggressive departure from the norm, particularly on the smaller-scale street map, while OverRun encourages a different kind of cooperative experience than fans are used to. Epic told IGN that completing challenges and goals across all modes contributes to character unlocks; each character can be customized in a way that’s comparable to past Gears’ weapon skins.
Really, the only way Gears of War Judgment is the same as previous games – core mechanics aside – is in the way its cast interacts. There’s some smart, funny writing behind the characters in Kilo Squad, and it comes through in the way they tease, mock, or outright dislike each other. The witty banter between these characters is exactly what you’d expect out of Marcus and Dom, which speaks volumes about how well this cast – whether they’re old friends or new – will carry its story.