Don’t Judge Too Harshly: Gears of War Judgment

by Kristin Bezio

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that I’m a long-time fan of the Gears of War series. I’ve played Gears of War, Gears of War 2, Gears of War 3, and just completed Gears of War: Judgment. All of them cooperative campaign, with a good deal of “Horde Mode” thrown in (“Horde” is a multiplayer mode where a team of 4-5 plays against waves of computer-controlled enemies – it’s survival mode). Gears and Gears 2 I played with my husband, but Gears 3 and Judgment are four-person online co-op campaign. As in, you can get together three people and play through the story together working as a team.

My “team” has been the same for almost all four-person co-op games that I’ve played (the same team that I played through Monaco with) – me, my husband, a female friend (J), and a male friend (M). We played through Halo together (and J and I hated every second of it), and we’ve now played through both Gears 3 and Judgment, as well as innumerable hours of “Horde” on Gears 2. J and I love Gears. Unnaturally so, perhaps, so this review should be read with the obsessive fangirl in mind.

Gears 3 is one of my favorite games to date. It has multiple playable characters – Baird, Cole, Marcus, Dom (whom I hate as a character), Sam, and Anya – and swaps players between them. Sam and Anya are both female, and neither one is a wilting flower or damsel in distress. They have personalities, but are otherwise equal in player-stats to any of the men. The impetus behind the story is contrived, but it follows from earlier games, and thus has to be, to a certain extent, but the actual narrative of the game is fairly complex, as are the relationships between the characters.
Not so, Judgment. The story, insofar as I would call it a story, provides a narrative frame to what mechanically amounts to “horde” gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of “horde.” I loved every second of it, but it wasn’t the kind of interesting story that we got in Gears 2 or Gears 3. It wasn’t a story. It was just a frame for co-op “horde.” Still fun. A lot of fun. But it wasn’t really a story.

Judgment added an extra challenge to the game in addition to difficulty settings: Declassified Missions, which are optional additional challenges that can be tacked on to each level (so in one level, for instance, the players might be restricted to only using shotguns, or thick fog that means you can’t see an enemy until it’s right on top of you, or lambent – aka exploding – wretches instead of normal ones). We of course did all of them. And it was a really interesting way to tackle the levels; for experienced Gears players (which all of us are), it adds an intellectual challenge to negotiating the limitations placed on the level instead of just mowing your way through it with chainsaws revving. (Yes, the main gun, the “lancer,” has a chainsaw attached to it. Best. Gun. Ever.)

Like Gears 3, Judgment also has four playable characters, including one woman: Sofia, Baird, Cole, and Paduk. Sofia has just as much agency in her “testimony” as the men, although the game did feel obligated to shoehorn a weird romance (sort of) between her and Paduk. I say “sort of” because there were a few sexual tension comments and one later in-game reference to something having happened “between you two.” Of course, there are also sexual tension comments – which are at least semi-humorous – between Baird and Cole, as well, although the game never overtly suggests they are a couple in the way that Paduk and Sofia clearly were off-camera. I wish that Paduk and Sofia weren’t a “couple,” simply because the trope of the girl-has-to-attach-to-a-guy is tired and totally unnecessary (and because it wasn’t in Gears 3, and that was really refreshing). But Sofia wasn’t a delicate flower and could handle a gun just as well as the rest of her male counterparts, so it wasn’t really that big of an issue.

What was disappointing was that in spite of the challenge posed by the Declassified Missions, I still felt like our group was steamrolling through the game. Yes, we were playing on Casual (as prep for our next playthrough, during which we intend to slog very slowly through on Insane), but there wasn’t at all a sense of “what’s next?” in narrative terms. Although neither J or M are particularly interested in the stories of the games we play, I am, and I missed the sense of gravitas the story imparted on the earlier Gears titles that was notably absent from Judgment. I didn’t develop any sense of emotional attachment (or revulsion, in the case of Dom) to the characters, even the two I knew and loved from previous games (Cole and Baird).

So I did find Judgment a bit disappointing. The play-spaces are small, much, much more confined than the vast open and twisting spaces of earlier Gears games, although they retain the characteristic drab coloring that has become a laughable hallmark of the game’s setting. The narrative is functionally non-existent and largely meaningless, because most of the scenes are flashbacks, so we already know that 1) they live through it, and 2) they end up on trial for doing something they shouldn’t have done, which is the thing they discuss as being “against orders” for the entire game. No surprises. The new characters were less compelling than the old ones, and the returning characters just didn’t have the “snap” and “polish” they did in Gears 3. They were echoes of themselves, sporting the two-dimensional catch phrases of their other selves, but without the depth.

But it is still a Gears game, and that means that in spite of all the disappointments, it’s insanely fun. There’s nothing like chainsawing a wretch to death or punting a ticker to make me (and J) giggle like crazy. (Which may say something about us, but whatever.) So while I wish Judgment were more like Gears 3, it is still really fun in the way that only Gears games can be, and since the point of play is to have fun, then it’s a success.

Now excuse me while I go play through it again on Insane.

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