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Gears of War is something of a curiosity to me. I’ve not been a huge fan of the franchise. I played the first one years ago and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t ground-shattering, but it was fun enough. I liked the strategy, I liked the controls, I liked chainsawing bad guys in the face. But since then, I haven’t really felt much of a connection to the series.
While waiting to be welcomed into the preview session, it appears I am in the minority there. One guy is dressed as the only surviving Carmine brother: Full combat armour and everything (this is obviously a franchise that people take very seriously). “Clayton” assured me that my lack of knowledge of the series shouldn’t hinder my enjoyment of Judgment, and he was right.
In this prequel to the main series you play as Lt Damon Baird, who is on trial for war crimes. The game plays out in flashback form as every member of “Kilo Squad” (including Sofia Hendrik, Garron Paduk and Pvt. Augustus "Cole Train" Cole) gives their testimony. As far as framing devices go, this is classic, if problematic for tension. But then again this is an origin story, so tension probably isn’t what this game is about.
The Trial system does mean that People Can Fly could implement a few new mechanics: Each character's "Testimony" changes depending on how you play each chunk of the game, meaning that dialogue and other elements of the game's story changes from player to player. The section we played was too short to fully demonstrate this, but still a very interesting twist which is sure to add replayability.
Graphically, Judgment is stunning. It’s bright and vibrant with a solid design of architecture and character. The environments are rich and varied with plenty of chest-high walls to hide behind and reload/recover health. Of particular note were the Combine. The art team have had a field day when it comes to designing the interesting-looking monsters that populate this place. "Standard" machine-gun lizards, heavily armoured tank beasts and even a giant centipede all are trying to end you, and it feels just as good to chainsaw these guys in the face as it did in the earlier game. The voluminous shower of blood post-attack certainly adds to the almost claustrophobic atmosphere.
The highlight for me was the “enemy wave” missions. They struck me kind of like a tower defence mini-game. Placing turrets, keeping them stocked with ammo, laying energy walls and tripwires... of all things, this reminded me most of the Aliens:Colonial Marines demo. It presented a solid challenge in an entertaining way, and I hope more of the game is based around this.
I’ll be honest here. Judgment did not grab me. I don't know if it was my lack of experience with the franchise, an inability to relate to the characters, or the brief amount of time I was given to play, but I just didn’t get into it.
It was certainly fun to play and technically nothing wrong with it. The game controls solidly, it’s intuitive and feels familiar. It’s quite vibrant, but still somehow seemed to be lacking substance. After playing Judgment, I still have no great desire to play the rest of the Gears of War series, this taste reinforcing my thoughts that Epic and People Can Fly have created gaming fast food, rather than the gourmet meal I would prefer to indulge in.
Gears of War is the Arnie movie of video games: It won’t profoundly affect the way you view life, but that’s okay! The series is out to do nothing more than simply give you a good time. And it certainly does that, through solid design and a great focus towards replayability. If you're into it, Judgment is great, in the same way that sometimes, a cheeseburger is perfect. But it's still a cheeseburger.
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