Though a lower tier entry into the franchise, it's not poor imitation. Epic's right-hand studio in the series all these years make good on sticking true to the action beats laid down by the franchise creator - it's hard to see the stitches between the two's work.
However, there's a restraint here in level design and scope. Reasons why are theoretical and unanswered. That the game echoes the first title may be because of its prequel status in the series canon, or simply this is just a smaller studio project. Either way, those looking for spectacle that matches or exceeds what's went before will be disappointed.
Escalation was an important factor as the series continued over this generation. In comparison Judgment is a simpler affair, smaller with story and moment to moment combat stakes. It forgoes escalating the action or set pieces in favour of a steady stream of intense combat scenarios, as you fight off hordes of Locust in a variety of defensive objectives dotted through the five chapter-long city trek that is the campaign.
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The story's familiar - squad of soldiers fighting their way across destroyed towns seeking a weapon to take out a big bad - but it's clear that People Can Fly have absorbed the key concepts of multiplayer mode Horde into the campaign proper. The execution feels perfectly natural and arguably betters the campaign as a result.
Less subtly introduced are the Declassified missions. Before many of the key objectives in each mission - forty-two in all across the campaign - you'll stumble across a massive glowing symbol. Activate and gameplay conditions are altered to your disadvantage.
For the most, these variations go one of two ways: either your line of sight is reduced through the likes of fog, smoke grenades, gas or - as you'll see late on - whenever you take damage. Alternatively you'll be forced into using a particular load-out for a stretch. Say, once where you'd have Longshots, you're now stuck with pistols.
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Declassified missions are there to ramp up the challenge, and are the game's highlight. Every one is worth doing and are essential for Gears vets looking for some grit and added challenge to the familiar.
While you'd wish for more variety, they reinvigorate the gameplay and give the game its stand-out moments. Such as dodging cleaver-swinging Locust in room blanketed by dust, or hunting down Serapede eggs, else the gigantic insects appear on-mass later on. There's a great setup come the third act when you're forced to defend a rooftop with visibility cut down to a few feet at best; here Judgment finally forces you to rediscover fear of the bigger beasts that the franchise has spawned.
It's a campaign built for replays. Both the Declassified missions and much-touted S3 (smart spawn system), which randomises Locust types every time you return to an area help shake off the gameplay staleness that's slowly crept into the series. Just how much so is only apparent when you tackle the Aftermath campaign, a unlockable one chapter side-story to Gears of War 3.
Aftermath is an odd one. Even if its set years later as the Judgment cast reunite, it feels more like an afterthought than any proper conclusion to this game's story. It's so markedly different in design and pacing from the main flashback campaign - open areas, flirtation with set pieces - that it feel like a Gears of War 3 level that ended up on the cutting room floor and has been awkwardly reinstated.
While Judgment takes a step back to basics in level design, everything's gotten an arcade twist.
D-Pad selection of four weapons has been dropped in favour of quick-switch between a duo of primary and secondary arsenal with Y. Grenades are now mapped to LB, with a quick tap to quick-throw and a hold for precision-aiming. The changes will have its detractors, but we like it.
Elsewhere, Gears of War 3's scoreboard style Arcade mode is added as standard in the campaign. There's also the return of the ongoing enemy kill count rating, as a scoreboard compares your tally with friends.
And that's what Judgment feels tailored towards: the social. There's suggestion in these included systems that suggest Judgment is less about introducing new players to the franchise, and more one last get-together for those of us that have been with the series since the beginning. People Can Fly know exactly who's coming to the party.
With that in mind, it should have been easy to pitch this as a Best Of, the only Gears disc you'd need in your console to experience all the best the franchise has to offer. But Judgment's lacking in the multiplayer party favours.
On disc, we're looking at three competitive modes - Team Deathmatch, Domination, Free For All - stretched out over only four maps. Another four maps support both Survival and its competitive team- and turn-based variant OverRun (and both Survival and OverRun are a diluted cocktail of previous Horde and Beast modes). A Season Pass is on offer with six maps and two more modes, but for on-disc offerings, Judgment's sorely lacking.
It's more a shame because the maps on offer are great. Gondola offers the vertical gameplay that comes with a cliffside village, with tight streets winding up the cliff and a cable car system to carry you up and down quickly. Library is a series of long rooms with two elevated sniping points dominating the match flow. Rig's a labyrinth of cargo crates and walkways on a oil platform, with a patrolling Raven helicopter offering a heavy artillery machine gun for whoever jumps aboard. Streets mixes rooftop sniping zones with connected roadways that plays well in Domination.
OverRun, teams taking turns playing defending COGs or attacking Locust, isn't half as enjoyable as Survival, a firmly cooperative affair as Gears embraces a pesudo-class system for there first time. It works really well in execution: even if you spread the four roles evenly, the ten wave match becomes a war of attrition. The Island map (were Gears finally gets its own Normandy Beach landing) is a showstopper in the campaign, and here as well.
But we're still missing modes we'd expect as standard, and while players may need something new from Horde and Beast modes, it'd have been great to have the option to play them at least.
There's no complaints when it comes to the visuals: graphically Gears of War is still amazing, and Epic's tech has seen us out the generation's end without losing steam. You'll notice small inconstancies though; the odd NPCs and enemy getting stuck on scenery. One showdown saw the remainder of the charging enemies suddenly disappear before our eyes and the section deemed completed - it might be the rarest of occurrences, but something you wouldn't expect from a series of this caliber.
And Gears of War is still one of the best exclusives for the console. As such you're comparing Judgment against its predecessors rather than standalone, and as such it comes up short. It feels less of a fanfare, nor quite the amalgamation of everything that's went before. The multiplayer options, while individually great, are sparse as a collection. Yet the tweaks to the mechanics make sense and work well, and coupling higher difficulties with Declassified missions will give fans a workout on campaign. And that's really what Gears of War: Judgment is: another intense and highly enjoyable romp in the Gears universe. And for some of us, that's going to be enough.
7 / 10
+ Horde-style moments in campaign work well
+ Last boss fight is great.
+ Multiplayer map designs are really good.
- Lack of multiplayer maps
- Lack of multiplayer modes
- More variety in Declassified missions would have helped.
- Aftermath feels tacked on.