What developer Epic Games did with Gears of War 3 (GOW) is something that would be unthinkable for any Japanese video game company—it ended the story. As you already know, Marcus and company have finally rid the planet Sera of its hostile indigenous inhabitants in the final instalment. Now that I think of it, that's pretty much like James Cameron's Avatar, albeit the poor grubs aren't as lucky as the Na'vi. Jokes aside, it would be foolish to expect Microsoft and Epic to wash their hands off one of Xbox 360's major cash cows. Gears of War: Judgment is the inevitable next instalment to the franchise. However, since there are no more Locusts left to kill after the events of Gears of War 3, this is a prequel that tells the events from the perspective of side-characters shortly after the chaos of the Emergence Day. These are Lt. Damon Baird, Pvt. Augustus "The Cole Train" Cole, Garron Paduk, and Cadet Sofia Hendrik taking the mantle of the token female game character from Anya Stroud.
The darned Nemacysts are back again
If you came here expecting elaborate spectacles on a massive scale, replete with painstakingly crafted cutscenes depicting an overarching story arc, you're in for a major disappointment. While polished in its gameplay, let's not forget that this is something it iteratively borrows from the past games. When you consider the set pieces and cinematic interludes, or rather the lack of these, one can't be blamed for wondering if this is really a AAA game and is it even worth the lofty Rs 3,000 asking price? The narrative is prequel set against the backdrop of a merry brand of grunts, Kilo squad, being court-martialled for many serious crimes including and not limited to treason, defiance of orders, and stealing a Lightmass Bomb (GOW's version of WMD).
The single-player campaign is divided into Judgment and Aftermath modes, with the former dealing with the events that led to our merry band's transgressions against the COG forces. A distinct lack of any lengthy cutscenes underscores the Judgment mode, as Baird, Cole, Paduk, and Hendrik tell their versions of what has transpired during their struggle against the Locust on the Emergence Day. Instead, you hear each character narrate the events through the quieter moments of the campaign. Just think of Max Payne 3 and replace the whining with a dude-bro brand of jingoism and you've pretty much got it down to a T. The Aftermath mode goes from the Judgment's flashback narrative and on to Baird and Cole's parallel mission at Halvo Bay you'll remember from GOW 3.
This gon' be good!
The narrative structure isn't the only thing that's changed from the traditional GOW format. People Can Fly, the developers behind the superlative Painkiller and Bulletstorm games join Epic for the franchise's first outing sans Clifford "Cliffy B" Bleszinski. While the changes to gameplay are only minor and iterative, the level structure has undergone a major rehaul at least for the primary Judgment mode. Each testimony is divided into mini horde modes, where a few waves of enemies batter our heroes within a locked section. Thereafter, you have safe zones, where the Kilo squad can lock and load before moving forward to face the next wave of enemies. Every once in a while the game throws a quasi tower-defence mode, where you have limited time to shore up your defences with an assortment of turrets, laser trip mines, and grenade booby traps.
Your performance in each section is graded to a scale of three stars, with points given for the number of kills, executions, headshots, gibs, and such. These points in turn unlock extra skins, multiplayer character models, and other customisation goodies. This is overall a rather superficial and unremarkable inducement for what's essentially GOW's version of style points. However, the hardcore, OCD-addled ones amongst us should be compelled to take up the Declassified missions, which is a big-ass red COG logo that makes the missions more difficult when activated. The challenge ranges from low visibility and no health regeneration, to larger hordes and the addition of meaner bosses in the mix. All of this is just to gain more stars, which again isn't much unless you're purely in this for the challenge of it. Even then, you'd have to be something of a sadist to enjoy the restrictions of the declassified challenges, which can get rather ridiculous.
There's your token female character
The combat retains the same slow and heavy cover-shooter mechanics of the franchise, but the addition of new heavy enemy classes shuffles player tactics quite a bit. These club and morning star swinging behemoths, when combined with grenade lobbing and one-shot-kill gun wielding grubs means that hunkering down behind cover isn't safe anymore. You'll find faster grubs that flank and flush you out of cover. This should ideally make for excellent combat experience, but in reality it only gets frustrating. Make no mistake, this is no Halo and GOW's low FOV and a rather clunky handling make it ill suited to this sort of action. This is further compounded by lacklustre level design that's marked by a rather abysmal littering of cover, which makes combat needlessly tedious and difficult than it should rightly be. The worst part, by far, is your AI sidekicks' propensity to get slaughtered with irritating regularity in the presence of heavier enemies.
It's clear that the magnitude of effort that has gone into this game isn't anywhere close to that of the previous games. The main boss, for example, is built up to be this indestructible badass. However, in reality, he gets very little screen time and goes down with barely a whimper. The graphics and sounds too are pretty much the same, and show no signs of any improvement over the last game. In fact, the game shows its age when compared to contemporary titles in that regard. The utter lack of exposition and a strong narrative backbone, when combined with the same clichéd angsty, idealist grunt versus incompetent general plot mechanic makes the whole experience seem utterly banal.
Grub bashing time!
The truth is, although I don't approach these dude-bro cover shooters with high expectations, Judgment's case isn't helped by the fact that it doesn't even live up to those standards. If single player is what you are interested in, you may want to skip Gears of War: Judgment. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for a comprehensive multiplayer review.