Less than ten minutes into Gears of War: Judgement, things don’t look great for this prequel to Epic Games’ much-lauded sci-fi shooter franchise. Having mercilessly slaughtered every alien monstrosity populating the opening level… precisely nothing happens. You’re forced to backtrack to the very beginning before the call from new lead Damon Baird’s commanding officer finally triggers and activates the end of the mission. Then comes the now-familiar trek back to the end point to progress. A frustrating beginning to be sure, and a bug that occurred several more times through the single player campaign.
The story itself is about as deep as any previous Gears entry – shoot bad guys, develop sense of camaraderie with squad mates, reflect sombrely on harsh costs of war – though with added shades of conspiracy and betrayal woven into its narrative. Told in flashbacks as Baird’s Kilo Squad testify in their own shady military tribunal hearing, players control elements of the tale by choosing whether to play through trickier ‘Declassified’ versions of each mission. Doing so helps achieve the three star ranking of each area faster, in turn opening up more of the game, including a second campaign, Aftermath. Taking place during Gears of War 3, it’s very much a side mission – don’t expect anything hugely revelatory about the Gears universe from either outing.
Missions here are much shorter than usual though, leading to a very choppy experience. It’s great for short bursts of play but feels very broken up if you’re hoping for involved, cinematic firefights – sections are over too soon for any of that, with the notable exception of some impressive boss fights. Further frustration comes in now only wielding two weapons at a time, swapping and dropping your loadout Halo style.
However, it’s the multiplayer that any Gears game lives or dies by. Thankfully, it’s still as engaging as ever but not without its own changes. Gone are tactics such as grenade planting which, coupled with the two-weapon limit, forces players to change up their tactics. Two new modes, OverRun and Free-For-All offer a change of pace too, including controlling the alien Locusts in all-out assault on defending soldiers.
Gears traditionalists may balk at the changes to the series but if you can battle through the bugs (both technical and the in-game aggressors) there’s a fun game here – though one that’s far from essential.