“Gears of War was always about destroyed beauty, now you’ll see the destruction taking place.”
Nobody saw a fourth Gears of War title coming. Gears of War 3 was only a few months out of the can when Judgment was announced, leaving many fans a little dumbfounded but full of questions. Is this really needed? Will it just be a cash-grab? Where’s the Pendulum Wars game we so badly want?
Of all the great new IPs that found success during this console cycle, Gears of War is certainly up there for its consistent quality if nothing else. Across three games of chest-high walls and over-the-top violence, Epic Games barely put a foot wrong, constantly providing the best visuals and the very best in cover-based gameplay.
Epic remain heavily involved, but it’s People Can Fly leading development on Judgment. It’s a prequel, it’s a spin-off and well, to be quite honest, it could well be the best Gears of War yet.
“It couldn’t just be a clone,” said Epic Games’ Lead Designer Jim Brown. “We had some new ideas for new features. Epic were there with us the entire time, in fact by the time we were rolling it was almost like one-upmanship, we were both suggesting features, half implemented at Epic, half at People Can Fly, we were giving feedback on each other’s stuff.”
These new features aren’t simply cosmetic; they alter the classic Gears experience from the very first moments of the game’s story. Set shortly after Emergence Day and over a decade before the start of the original Gears of War, the game follows Lieutenant Damon Baird, Private Augustus Cole and the rest of Kilo Squad.
Summoned to a war tribunal as battle continues to rage against Locust, Kilo Squad stands accused of treason. You play through what happened as Baird relays his testimony to moustachioed Colonel Ezra Loomis.
Each portion of a mission comes with an additional challenge, represented by a large glowing cog symbol. By accepting these and “declassifying” the mission, Baird’s testimony will reveal more about what happened. During the time I spent with the game these changes were represented by different enemy types, environmental changes, time limits, and the use of specific weapons.
These challenges greatly affect your end of mission ranking, another new addition to the franchise. Accumulate 40 of these stars as you progress through the campaign and you’ll unlock an entirely new bonus campaign! How big or how long this additional campaign will be wasn’t confirmed, but it’s sizeable enough to warrant existence as an unlockable. At the very least it will be the size of a decent DLC pack, and it comes at no extra cost. In fact it could well have been DLC in of itself, but here it is for free.
Called Aftermath, it follows Baird and Cole during their time away from the main plot in Gears of War 3. Yep, we’ll be returning to the end of the trilogy to plug some gaps after People Can Fly’s prequel tale.
If all those new features weren’t good enough, there’s a shiny new class-based multiplayer as well, but I’ll get to that later. For now let’s return to the single player, and its choice of main character.
“Baird was interesting in that he was always the snarky guy, but what we found was that when we talked to people he was a real fan favourite,” said Jim Brown. “He’s not for everyone of course, but for some, while playing the game, he was the guy who says what the player is thinking. People identify with him in that way.”
In Judgment, Baird is in charge, a Lieutenant in the first battles against the emergent Locust force. In Gears 1 he’s a Private, so what exactly happened?
“In the first Gears of War when Marcus and Baird meet for the first time there’s this uncomfortable moment when they both think that they’re in charge and neither of them really is. There’s this weird ego battle. Marcus was eventually in charge but now’s your chance to see why that happened, and see how Baird is as leader. It’s the same Baird but in a completely different context.”
There are new characters as well, each injected with as much personality as you’ve come to expect from the series. In addition to Baird and Cole, Kilo squad consists of Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk.
“Sofia is brand new and straight out the academy, very by the book and has no war experience at all. Paduk is the grizzled war veteran who has defected to fight by your side.”
Paduk defected from the Union of Independent Republics, who fought the Coalition of Ordered Governments during the Pendulum Wars. Said generation-spanning war has rarely been touched by the Gears franchise but will be delved into a little more during this new campaign with the addition of a character from the side that lost it.
For all the new characters, however, a prequel is still a prequel, and one that carries with it the limitations of knowing what is to follow. I asked People Can Fly’s Art Director Waylon Brinck whether such restrictions were felt.
“From a story-telling standpoint you know humanity falls, you know Baird and Cole survive but this is your chance to go on that journey,” said Brinck. “How did humanity fall? Was it in a blaze of glory, or was it through regrettable, despicable actions? Who were the heroes and who were the villains?”
Gears of War’s multiplayer has always been popular and some would argue it was because of a formula not to be messed with, but People Can Fly beg to differ.
Overrun is a co-operative class-based mode pitting a team of five against ten increasingly difficult waves of Locust. Each team has three objects to defend one at a time, lose one to the Locust and you’ll fall back. Beat all ten waves to win, but lose all three objectives and it’s game over.
Each class has two fixed weapons and a rechargeable ability. Soliders can lay down ammo, medics have healing stim-packs, engineers carry limited-use turrets and scouts can throw beacons to light up the locations of enemies who run past it. With five on each team and four classes, there are obvious tactical avenues to take and, believe me, you will need to talk about them with your comrades to even come close to succeeding.
People Can Fly are clearly a good match for the series, and Epic were wise to hire them, but why did they?
“People Can Fly have this particular style. This crazy, intense style of gameplay – you saw it in Bulletstorm, you saw it in Painkiller and it meshed really really well with the Gears universe,” said Jim Brown. “I think that’s one of the things that they really brought to the project, for us.”
Judgment adds more fun bells and innovative whistles than either of the numbered sequels before it. They’re fine additions to a formula that has remained unique in a field full of space-faring shooters. If the few hours I played of it match up to the rest of the game then this won’t only totally shake off any negative connotations the term spin-off may carry, it’ll be the best Gears of War so far.
Gears of War: Judgment will be released on March 22 in Europe and March 19 in North America – exclusively for Xbox 360