Gears of War: Judgment Review (Xbox360)

Exuding the kind of confidence that one would expect from such overtly muscular soldiers, Gears of War: Judgment might not tell the finest story out there, nor offer the most original of multiplayer modes, but somehow, none of that really matters when the Lancers have warmed up and the action is flowing. Predictably, for a prequel, it won't convert naysayers but fans of the series will appreciate an extra dose.

Told from a series of flashbacks and retellings, the campaign is set during the immediate aftermath of Emergence Day, before any of the previous instalments in the series. Featuring familiar faces such as Baird and Cole, the focus is placed on the trial of their squad, Kilo Squad, where the team have been accused of treason. Thanks to this storytelling method, players get the chance to control a different member of the team, during different chapters of the game. It's an interesting diversion from the usual Gears motif of controlling Marcus Fenix and Dom, and it works quite well. While some of the chapters are more shallow than others, the change in focus keeps the story ticking along nicely, even if it is a relatively simple tale. Crucially, though, the main theme of Gears of War: Judgment is to offer fast paced action, faster than the previous titles.

The future's bleak, the future's grey

Reminiscent of the Arcade mode introduced in Gears of War 3, and with more than a passing nod to the 3 star completion system of many mobile games, a ranking system rates players' progression after each sequence of the game. Each of these sequences only take around 10-15 minutes at most, often much briefer, with 6-8 filling a chapter. Stars are rewarded according to efficient kills, headshots, executions, how many companions were revived and how many Down But Not Outs were received by the player. This system also brings with it, Declassified Missions. These missions are available at the start of every sequence, affecting the section in some way and also boosting how fast the Stars bar accumulates. They work under the basis that, while the character explains the situation to the courtroom, they recall certain details such as if they came across particularly fearsome opponents, suffer low ammo issues or environmental difficulty, such as a dust storm that badly affects the player's vision. The mission types are repeated to a certain extent, but they add another dimension to the challenge. Tied into some tough achievements, such as completing them all on Insane difficulty, it's going to take a while for players to 100% finish Gears of War: Judgment.

Continuing its vein of new features, Gears of War: Judgment comes with an appropriate supply of new weaponry such as simpler sniper rifles, the Tripwire Crossbow, and the Grenade Launcher style, Booshka. None are entirely game changing, but with the inclusion of weapon orientated Declassified Missions, there are plenty of reasons why players should deviate away from their favourite gun of choice. As well as that, a new and appropriately implemented Horde style sequence features, with the need to hold out for certain lengths of time, while being backed up by barriers and moveable turrets. Plus, there's a welcome return for the Emergence Hole. Having been omitted in all but Gears of War 3's DLC, nothing quite beats the satisfaction of tossing a well placed grenade into an E-hole. A Smart Spawn system in which players and the Locust hordes respawn in random places across each level, is also a welcome addition, adding some variety to replays, something that Gears of War: Judgment is keen to encourage.

Yup, shotguns and chainsaws to the back are still quite unbeatable at close range

The only real issue with Gears of War: Judgment's campaign is the sense that it's basically one big set piece at a time, broken up a little too readily by the ranking system and detracting from any sense of exploration. It's always been a pretty linear series, but that ranking chart at the end of the sequence reminds one of just how arcadey it is and it can jar awkwardly during some particularly dramatic sequences. The set pieces are great, with a D Day style beach invasion proving particularly memorable, but after a time, I did find myself wishing for a split between a story focused Campaign mode and a score/rank focused Arcade mode, as there was before.

Changes have been made to the multiplayer side of things, too, although, arguably, for the better. Horde mode has been replaced by a Survival mode in which players must protect covered E-Holes from a Locust Invasion. There's nothing to upgrade here, as was the case in Horde, with a simplified interface and the inclusion of four well balanced classes. There's the typical Soldier role, which can also deploy ammo for others, a Sniper type Scout who can throw a beacon to highlight enemy forces, a Medic that can heal and revive allies, as well as an Engineer with the ability to build sentry turrets and repair barriers. It's all quite well balanced and while there's only 10 waves to complete, it's still quite the challenge. Unlike Horde, it's possible to drop in and out, a much needed feature to reduce the frustration that occurred during public Horde games in the past.

Much publicised is the new Overrun mode, similar to Survival but with two teams of players taking it in turns to either protect or destroy the E-Hole covers. It plays much like an amalgamation of Beast and Horde mode, and proves to be excellent fun with two full teams of humans.

One of the arenas used for Survival. It's wise to find good camping spots

A new Free For All mode also comes into play, demonstrating the focus on speed in this new Gears game. Similarly, there are no more Down But Not Outs or Executions in Multiplayer, with an Execution Mode promised to be included in a later free DLC package. Finally comes Domination, reminiscent of King of the Hill but where the rings don't move after a set time. In this instance, the lack of Downs feels quite noticeable with respawn times kept low to encourage fast paced gameplay. Ultimately, though, it's a format we've seen and enjoyed before.

That combination of familiarity with new features is a common theme within Gears of War: Judgment. It's still the same series that many of us have known and loved over the years, but with some, mostly, appreciated tweaks. The Campaign might only last around 6-7 hours, but there are plenty of reasons to go back, ensuring that Gears of War: Judgment feels more than just an expansion pack to its predecessors. It might prove a little too arcade style in nature for some, but it's tough not to be drawn into the sheer spectacle and bravado that the series has always been so great at offering.

Best Game Moment: The sweet satisfaction of chainsawing a locust drone. It never really gets old, especially when there are stars to be gained.

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