Gears of War: Judgment

Gears of War: Judgment
Thanks to the ascendance of series like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, we've come to consider pop culture primarily as sets of trilogies. So where does that leave a fourth chapter when there's more story to be told or, at least, more money to be made? Apparently as a prequel.

This, however, makes a particular kind of sense for Gears of War, since the original trilogy was set a decade-and-half or so after Emergence Day, when the evil Locust hordes came up from their nests below the planet Sera to launch their war against COG (the Coalition of Ordered Governments) and their soldiers, known as Gears.

The new game takes us back to these early, not-yet-played days. But while the war was still fresh then, the franchise's gun-and-cover gameplay, giant alien grubs and apocalyptic aesthetic remain familiar to gamers, arguably overly so on instalment number four. Still, its past-tense spin on the series' alien invasion narrative does help Judgment win its case.

New co-developer People Can Fly (taking some of the load off creator Epic Games) makes its stamp by adding an arcade-inspired sensibility to the gameplay and bringing secondary characters Damon Baird and Cole Train to the forefront. These two may not be as iconic as Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago, but it's about time they got off the bench, even if they weren't imbued with quite enough personality to pull it off. Ironically, the new second-stringers — Garron Paduk, a sarcastic fatalist from a Soviet-esque republic, and Sofia Hendrik, a journalist-turned-soldier — are a bit more fleshed out.

The title suits this story, which unspools via military tribunal testimony. This turns each "level" into a flashback as the various soldiers of Kilo Squad testify about the mission, in which they defy direct orders and try to set off a light-mass missile to kill a particularly nasty Big Bad, leading to the game's court martial theme.

The varying perspectives allow you to play as all four characters, which is pretty cool, even if they don't play much differently, but the writers fail to take advantage of their Rashomon conceit and use the different testimonies to contradict each other and comment on the fog of war. By making the tribunal feel like a kangaroo court, with Col. Loomis practically twirling his moustache, they also fail to really dig into deeper issues about obeying orders. Even the optional "declassified" ways of running though the levels fail to release new information that changes your perspective, instead just adding more challenges, such as restricting weapon use or limiting visibility. (There's also an unlockable Aftermath mini-campaign that jumps back into the Gears of War 3 timeline to wrap up some loose ends.)

But Gears of War never had the philosophical ambitions of, say, Spec Ops: The Line. Instead, it desired to be the best third-person, cover-based shooter of its generation, which it succeeded at. Judgment continues that technical proficiency and offers just enough new twists (like a dynamic spawning system, ensuring you never fight the same battle twice) to justify the franchise's continued forward momentum after the success of Gear of Wars 3 had seemed to grind the series to a halt. (Epic/Microsoft)