One of the first enemies taken down in Judgment is a Mauler. In the world of Gears of War, these are the brutes of the invading Locust, with their mass low to the ground, hunched behind their shields, swinging a mace precariously. They charge, slam the weapon, and prepare the next strike.
Within the series, these bulkier beasts broke the cover mold. Crouching behind a barrier against them was a defeated strategy, and their insertion into the combat scenario required keen tactics and team play. Often, Maulers were part of the progression, rising over Drones and Tickers into grenade throwing Boomers or heavy gunner Grinders. In every way, these enemies introduced their own style set, while demanding adjustment on the part of the Gears squad.
Enter Judgment, which thus plops Maulers down instantaneously as Baird begins his journey as a new promoted Lieutenant. There is no growth or adjustment period to the design. The Mauler’s mystique, that of a deadly, cover breaking, imposing war machine, is shattered. In fact, there are so many Maulers, Boomers, and Grinders, how can any of them carry sufficient fear upon arrival?
Judgment is encapsulated with law, a military tribunal opening a case against series (secondary) protagonist Baird. He drops on the courthouse lawn via helicopter, handcuffed, with the city aflame in the background as flying Reavers patrol the sky. It is a wonder how they ever made it to the courthouse from the air.
Baird’s testimony is the first to cycle in the opening level, the game situated in the early days of the war. Planet Sera still shows signs of life, from buildings partially standing to broken parades shattered in mid-presentation. Interestingly, the game is injected with color, splashes of green from plant life still clutching to life amidst the conflict, and buildings still showing paint. Judgment is certainly within a different place than the Gears we know.
This is a game less about brawn and more about raw aggression. For Baird and his crew, the Locust are new, a fresh threat after the Pendulum Wars that precede within the fiction. They are not as cautious, rookies moving faster and acting more for the melee or show than precision. Scattered AI seem confused as they run around taking pot shots, leaving the bulk of the slaughter up to the player. And yes, it will be a slaughter.
Through a host of new ribbons, awards, and achievements, Judgment keeps a running tally. As the core campaign closed itself off from the narrative, 1,000 Locust had met their fate. Most of those would almost undoubtedly be the type that holds onto the weapons of brute force. Drones were an exception despite being the lifeblood of the opposing side in every story to follow.
At the heart of the problem is People Can Fly’s randomization. This is less of a design and more of an engine sprouting sets of Locusts to duel. Encounters, even when replayed, are never the same. What sounds like a refresh worthy of the series quickly damns the game to an eternity of sloppily constructed swarms. Judgment begins to feel more like an extension of the evolving Horde mode than a standalone product. The bulk of the story structure seems more concerned with locking the squad down in rooms to defend with turrets and traps than actually expand the world of Sera – or its inhabitants.
In reality, Judgment feels rushed out the door, eagerly trying to grasp at potential profits as this generation dies off technologically. Closed off rooms mean an artificial length and fewer needs for asset creation. People Can Fly seem to have pieced a game together from spare parts (hardly anything is new), technically strung up by the fiction acting as a prequel. It is hard to justify the insertion of new enemies or guns when future games never see them. On the other hand, that opens the door for recycling en masse, and despite Sera feeling less like a graveyard, this has all seen exposure before.
Also at odds with the design is an arcade mindset, the game split into chunks that spew awards and stars based on performance. There is also an option to tweak upcoming mission sets for added challenge by changing testimony. “Declassifying” material can include short changing ammunition, widening enemy sets, or impairing vision. These have no eventual outcome on the narrative, and exist as dry diversions for score chasers. That choice crumbles around Judgment which now must play on a level playing field with no high-end theatrics, giant creatures, or massive assaults. For a species just laying its footprint on the face of Sera, they offer little more than a numbers game. Memories of slicing open the belly of a humungous worm, battling atop incredible Cog vehicles, or driving through Locust-infested quarters are just that: Memories. This is purely a war fought by the inches.
Stripped of scale, Judgment thus loses energy. With a sagging narrative that fails to see a satisfying conclusion, it is a wonder why the story was ever found necessary. Baird never shows growth, and a mention within dialogue of a uniquely silent Cole Train is all too true; it’s rare if you can even tell he is part of Kilo squad. None of these events changes, exposes, or explains the later events in this saga… except for Aftermath.
Aftermath picks up during Gears of War 3, finding Kilo squad reunited with one of their own, Baird trying to connect with an endangered Marcus. The sub-campaign, two levels, is unlocked after earning an arbitrary number of stars in Judgment. Stars are doled out after every short mission clip, most players likely finding a spot in Aftermath halfway through the core campaign. What is abundantly clear is that Aftermath is Gears of War 3. With the exception of a single holding point, there are more shocks and scale here in two hours than in the six or so of Judgment. Pacing is sharper, enemy distribution is thought out, and a sequence of high action caps a segue into the third Gears.
Chalk up the thoughts of a cash grab to not only the synthetic campaign but the multiplayer too. Sections are cordoned off for those who splurge for additional DLC packs from the outset, menus are littered with exhaustive lists of paid unlockables, a puny choice of four base maps calls on players to buy more, and the overall experience is an utter rut. The only salvage is OverRun, an energetic offense/defense mode that sees Cog forces defending a map point, and Locust infiltrating. This – finally – broadens the scope of Gears multi into something other than a shotgun fest, forcing a shred of strategy in addition to ranged tactics.
For whatever reason, Judgment pushes Locust out of core versus play, the online (or off with bots) conflict now a human vs human rumble. Seeing Baird and Marcus stand up against one another is a bizarre piece of fiction-shattering decision making, almost inappropriate. While stories are rarely requested of online battlefields, the total lack of any central logic is disconcerting, as if the Locust models were not fit to sell boatloads of DLC character skins.
It is difficult to say who the worst villain is, the business model or the campaign’s Karn. The latter is another in a line of almost invisible Gears villains who act in the background without any sense of identity. For whatever reason, it would seem the Locust promote based squarely on whether or not one of them looks different than the rest. Judgment’s campaign centers around Karn’s extinction, yet there is never any tension surrounding him, just an attempted mystique. That is more a failure of the narrative, so let’s leave the DLC vs. Karn scuffle a draw, the game as a whole a wash.