Set just after the cataclysmic events of Emergence Day, Gears of War: Judgment tells the story of series regular and wisecracking fan-favourite, Damon Baird. Or, as we’ve always affectionately known him: ‘the blonde one’. A prequel told using flashbacks, Judgment follows Baird and his team as they fight to save Halva Bay from Locust commander and all round nasty piece of work, Karn.
Baird and the rest of Kilo squad - returning character Cole and newcomers Garron Paduk and Sofia Hendrik - testify in front of a military tribunal accused of war crimes, with each testimony making up part of the campaign. Sadly, any ‘ooh, what could they have possibly done to get in trouble?’ intrigue quickly dissipates and the potentials of the flashback narrative device are squandered. No compelling information about Baird or Emergence Day is revealed, with no unexpected twists or jaw-dropping revelations.
With Bulletstorm, People Can Fly brought a fresh perspective to the macho space shooter by poking fun at staples of the genre. Now they’re working within the confines of that genre, it struggles to elevate the story and characters away from the archetypes associated with it. Kilo squad disobey the top brass, fight a shed load of guys, and that's about as complex as things get. Not that Bulletstorm was particularly layered, but unconfined by a license it at least had the freedom to take a wry approach that would be out of place in Gears’ space jock universe.
Thankfully, People Can Fly are free to take more inspiration from Bulletstorm when it comes to gameplay, adding a fresh element to Judgment that’s been missing from the series since the original wowed everyone as one of the first truly ‘next-gen’ games. The finely tuned cover system and distinctive controls are in place, along with the messy chainsaw attacks and trajectory-lined grenade throws. The difference is that each section now only lasts a few minutes, with a star-rating awarded at the end, complete with leaderboards for comparing scores with friends and the wider world of Xbox Live. A smart design choice, it retains the feel of the series while introducing a whole new way of engaging with the game, with the aim now to achieve a three star-rating as opposed to just slugging through to the end.
At the start of each section, players can ‘declassify’ the testimony they are about to play, meaning the character telling the story will now include something they may have otherwise left out. These take the form of gameplay modifiers such as stronger enemies, strict time limits or limited visibility, each with their own narrative justification. For example, a time limit may be introduced when Baird decides to tell the tribunal that Hammer of Dawn strikes were scheduled to wipe out the area they were in within three minutes of their arrival.
Kills, executions, headshots, explosives and turning bad guys into gibs all increase your star-rating, while getting downed reduces it. Choosing to ‘declassify’ a mission increases the speed at which stars are earned, but can also make completing the level much harder. Though a simple addition, it does a great job of placing Judgment in one-more-go arcade territory and when combined with the short and sweet length of the sections, offers a lot of replayability for perfectionists.