Gears of War: Judgment is the latest game in the sci-fi Gears of War series, detailing the war between the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) and the planet Sera’s native locust. I play through this game to find out whether the Gears grind smoothly, or whether it’s just a spanner in the works.

Any gamer not familiar with Gears of War by now is either living beneath a rock of some description, or owns either a PlayStation 3 or Wii, in which case they’re missing out on some of the best story and multiplayer action seen this side of a decent MMORPG. Yes, that’s me making a dig at all those console owners who feel that “one console is good enough for me!” But I digress. Epic Games, coupled with People Can Fly studios, have done a completely superb job in this game.

Gears of War: Judgment serves as a prequel of sorts to the original Gears of War, and features the return of (introduction of?) Damon Baird and Augustus Cole from the prior games. The campaign story starts in-media res, with Baird, Cole, and the other two members of Kilo squad (Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk) in chains and appearing before Colonel Loomis at a tribunal, hence the game’s “Judgment” moniker. The game itself takes place in the form of flashbacks, detailing what Kilo squad did, and what their rationales were for performing the actions they did. I’m not going to spoil the story much more than that, except to say that it’s not classic Gears of War storytelling: this is a good thing. Curiously, Gears of War 3 and the Gears of War novels writer, Karen Traviss, seems absent from the game’s credits.

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The game itself is fairly classic Gears of War. The battlefield is littered—littered, I tell you!—with convenient chest-high walls and vehicles. Many of the weapons and equipment from GOW3 make their return to Gears of War: Judgment, so anyone familiar with the older games will feel very much at home. What’s fairly great, though, is that players new to Gears of War will feel just as much at home, since the game not only serves as a decent introduction to the Gears of War universe, but also eases new players into the game gently enough, provided you’ve asked it nicely.

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Despite its essential familiarity, the game introduces a number of new concepts and mechanics that I feel other games could do with. One of my favourites is the Declassify mechanic: it’s essentially an optional number of mission modifier parameters that can alter your game experience. For example, some Declassify missions ask you to complete a level within a specified time limit, while others limit your visibility or available weapons. Still yet others will, predictably, add harder enemies to the mix. Accepting the Declassify missions alters the story in minor ways, but the core of the story remains the same. Here is my recommendation to get the most replay value out of Judgment: play the game once on Normal difficulty if you’re new to GOW, or on Hardcore if you’re a veteran, and skip all the Declassify missions. Once you’ve done that, replay it on the next highest difficulty while going for all the Declassify missions. Yes, it potentially makes the game much harder than it ordinarily would, but the experience is also completely different, and a lot more fun, since you’re now familiar with the environments.

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The big draw of any Gears of War game is the multiplayer, and as before, some modes have been taken away and others added. The two big additions are Free-For-All, which is exactly what it sounds like—a bunch of COG soldiers battling it out in an arena for a total kill count—and OverRun, which can be thought of as a combination of Beast mode and Horde mode. Of the two, I had the most fun in OverRun—it’s somewhat reminiscent of Left4Dead 2’s Versus mode. Essentially, players are split into two teams, one of COG soldiers and one of Locust. The game is played over two rounds, with players switching teams between rounds. In each round, the COG soldiers must defend a series of locked-down Locust holes (and eventually a generator) against the opposing team of Locust. Each time you respawn, you are allowed to choose which character class you take on. If you are on the COG side, you can be a medic, scout, soldier, or mechanic. If you’re in the Locust side, just about any of the Locust sub-types can be chosen, including Kantus, Ticker, Wretch, and Serapede. Like GOW3, Judgment maintains a player rank across modes (including campaign mode), allowing you access to new goodies in multiplayer mode as you level up.

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The other modes are Survival (which is the same as the COG-side mode of OverRun against an endless flurry of Locust), Domination (like King of the Hill with three rings instead of one), and the return of Team Deathmatch (which is a team-based version of Free-For-All). If you enjoyed your Horde, Beast, Annex, Wingman, or Execution modes, you’re going to have to go back to earlier games, I’m afraid, because they’re not to be found here.

My impression of Gears of War: Judgment is that it’s a fairly solid game, despite the lack of some multiplayer modes and the relatively short campaign. The campaign length can be made up for by following my recommendation above, but it can still be completed in less than ten hours if you’re a veteran. This leaves the not-quite-as-extensive-as-hoped multiplayer modes to bring up the shortfall. There is still plenty of content to come, but as it stands, Judgment feels like so much less of a Gears of War game than its predecessors. Should you buy it? Of course. There was never any doubt about it, especially if you’re a GOW fan. If you’ve tentatively been ambling up and down the beach of GOW, this would be the ideal game to get you into the waters, and get your hands bloody. Now rev up that chainsaw, soldier, and get back out there! Those Locust aren’t going to kill themselves!

Final Score: 8 Locust Prawns out of 10

Detailed information:
Developer: Epic Games and People Can Fly
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Distributor: Microsoft South Africa
Platform: Xbox 360
Age Rating: 18
Website: http://gearsofwar.xbox.com/en-US/