Gears Of War has never been the most pretentious series, but there have been moments when it grasped for the kind of gravitas usually reserved for games that are less about swearing and muscles and guns. Whether it was Dom dying against lonely Mad World piano music in Gears 3 or a clumsy concentration camp allegory in Gears 2, there was always some cutscene insisting that this is more than a game. Not so for Gears Of War: Judgment, which goes out of its way at every moment to remind you that, yes, this is a game, and aren’t games fun?
Judgment’s Locusts advance in unprecedented numbers with only the barest regard for taking cover, your stars – a score system, more or less – are always visible onscreen, gibs and headshots are visibly totalled up on the left, and your friends’ high scores are tracked on the right. Every level is broken into sections, and every section is preceded by a screen-filling option to make it harder and concluded with another screen-filling rundown of everyone’s kills, headshots and deaths. “Would you like to retry?” it asks when you’ve fallen short of a three-star ranking, and it might as well be asking you to insert a coin for one more credit.
Judgment is, shamelessly, an arcade game. It’s the Gears Of War combat loop stripped of the vehicular set-pieces, most of the box-ticking boss fights and almost all of the narrative. The effect is to turn every section of every level into a micro-sized Horde mission. Developer People Can Fly clearly understands what makes Gears’ multiplayer tick so well that it thought to turn the best of Gears into the whole of Gears. Even the new multiplayer modes – Overrun and Domination – are built to facilitate Horde-style defensive and tactical play in the competitive space, while the new Free For All mode seems to exist only to keep the lone gun riffraff away from everyone playing Gears ‘properly’.
Each room in Gears’ segmented campaign is constructed like a miniature multiplayer map, and all are intricate and varied in their designs. In one, you’ll find yourself assaulting a bridge, in another you’re navigating underground vaults, in another still you’re storming a beach beneath a hail of bullets and mortars. What little context writers Tom Bissell and Rob Auten manage to squeeze in between all the flying meat is Gears Of War writing at its most functional and its best. The brief cutscenes frame the next half-dozen rounds of slaughter, and throwaway voiceovers give context to each little killbox People Can Fly has built, but that’s enough. These are spaces built for committing murders, not for telling stories, and Judgment never trips over its own narrative strings on the way to a good bloodbath.
You’ll fight through some half-blind, through others against the clock and through others with exotic modifiers to your usual regenerating health. Judgment grows bored of itself as quickly as it grew bored of aping Gears Of War; sure, it was stuck with the cover system and camera, but why not change the controls to make grenades a little more flexible? Why not throw points and prize boxes into the mixer? Why not spawn enemies at random and in such numbers that your 360 barely has a chance to conjure up a plan for what they’ll do when they arrive?
The Smart Spawn System, with its upper case esses, is Judgment’s most conspicuous back-of-the-box feature. Play a mission once and you’ll see a couple of Boomers walking over the hill. Play again and it’ll be a handful of Grinders. Play again and it’s a Kantus flanked by Theron Guardsmen. Except it’s never just a couple or a handful in Judgment, where Locusts spawn in their dozens and in random combinations, all making up in courage and heart what they lack in brain. They sprint directly into the line of fire and get their hearts and other important bits exploded across Sera’s pseudo-Victorian brickwork, but isn’t this how Gears has always played online, where cover is rarely as useful as a good evasive roll? Judgment is the first Gears to capture the ferocity and shape of the competitive online modes in its campaign, and the first Gears to be at home with being about nothing more than competitive chaos. It needed smart AI about as much as it needed the song from Donnie Darko.
Gears can live without brains, but Judgment suddenly feels empty when it loses the score system for the bonus Aftermath campaign. The weakest part of the game – material apparently scraped from Gears Of War 3’s cutting room floor – is the part that’s most like classic Gears, which seems justification enough for People Can Fly’s ideas on what the series should be.
Unlocked about halfway through the main campaign, Aftermath suffers from Gears 3’s preoccupation with sulking and is too short on Judgment’s unrestrained enthusiasm for things that explode. Everything about Gears 3’s campaign, even the bit Epic left out, seems to think war is hell and treats it as such. Judgment thinks war is brilliant and is such a riot that it feels more like a reboot than a spin-off.
Only its brevity and the limited multiplayer modes keep Judgment firmly in the ‘not a real sequel’ world, but it’s a template for the next generation of Gears and a licence to experiment with the series’ most sacred mechanics. There’s no going back to the sombre hang-wringing of Gears 3 after you’ve faced an army of machete-wielding madmen and been rewarded with a shiny pink gun from a magic prize box for your trouble. After seven years, 2006’s cover and co-op mechanics have been so exhausted by Epic and its imitators that it’s 1986’s gimmicks – high scores, more enemies, faster action, ridiculous firepower – that make Judgment feel brand new.