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Gears of War: Judgment (2013) – Better than the trilogy (Gameplay-wise)

I don't like the Gears of War series because I don't like third-person cover shooters. I have always had resentment toward the series for popularizing the concept. When the first game did it, it was fresh and new. By using the template set by Kill.Switch, Gears created a fluid conversion between ducking and shooting, moving between cover, sawing enemies in half. It was the first time the console third-person shooter actually evolved to create its own distinct, satisfying combat loop, much better than WinBack, Syphon Filter, and Everything or Nothing.

The problem is that the Gears as a series didn't evolve from the first game and got boring, After a few encounters, the combat felt repetitive and slog. There are a few additions like meatshield, timed or deployable covers, and some close-range options, but they didn't add depth all that much. Vanquish, Tomb Raider, Max Payne 3, Army of Two, Mass Effect, The Last of Us, Splinter Cell: Conviction, even Uncharted 4 have all made strides toward improving the Gears formula in their unique ways, so playing Gears feels redundant. It is like playing GTA3 today. Why would you play it when there are so many better openworld games that improve on it in so many ways.

So when I played Judgment, I was pleasantly surprised. Now, it isn't a departure from the main series. On the surface, the game looks identical to the other games. The story is still full of overly serious muscle machoman screaming tropes. But with the new developers, People Can Fly, have carried their know-how from their previous work, Bulletstorm. It features a new feature called Declassified Missions–a challenge for each encounter in which you can complete to earn more points and ratings. Like Bulletstorm, these secondary objectives or obstacles force the player to fight the enemies in different ways. You have different weather that shrouds the visibility, new enemies, limited weaponry, time limits, new targets, etc. Mind you, these are optional, and the player doesn't have to play it at all, but I did and I am grateful I did. It offers diverse gameplay scenarios. Even if you don't play these optional challenges, the game still offers more gameplay variety than the entire trilogy alone.

The level design saw a change, too. All levels feel like arenas rather than corridors. Each encounter seems to be designed with the mind that they are combat sandboxes. I found myself dodging and rolling rather than constantly hiding behind a cover. It also helps that they threw out the disgusting sepia filter of 1 and 2 and the overly bright orange and yellow filter of 3. The game has veracious color schemes and visuals I would have liked to see from the series. Another loss from having a more arena-like level design is the set-pieces being less memorable. There were so many spectacle set-pieces in the trilogy, but this game has only a few.

There are still the gameplay improvements I would have liked to see. There is a severe lack of verticality. Most of the fights are still happening on the flat terrain, and this is the thing that Uncharted 2 already figured out. There is no team command when it would have been perfect for this game. I might be misremembering but I remember the first game having a semblance of squad commands, but this game has none.

While the point system is cool, it has no function in the campaign itself. It is only there to unlock skins for the multiplayer. I would have liked something like shops from Bulletstorm in which you can actually use the points you earned to buy upgrades or ammo.

Also, there are challenges that make no real sense. Like, how the weather is foggy as hell and I can't see anything in the gameplay, yet in the cutscene right afterward, the weather is perfectly fine. There is a challenge in which the enemies will bomb the place in a few minutes. In the cutscene, the characters are totally chill and slowly walk around. There is no bombing. There is a challenge that tells us the mansion is rigged with explosives. The time is up, I left the mansion, but none of my squad is leaving the mansion because their AI doesn't register the time limit. They are stuck in the mansion still fighting the enemies. The mansion explodes, and for some reason, even the outside explodes too even though I am out there like 50m from the mansion. Me and my team is in the building, but because I didn't reach the exact endpoint at the door inside the building, the artillery clips through the building anyway and I die.

I dislike how the film forces the two-weapon limitation. In the previous games, you had a shotgun, a rifle, a grenade, and a pistol. In Judgment you have a primary weapon (a rifle or a shotgun), a grenade, and a pistol. Changing a weapon is done with the Y button.

The biggest grip I have for the game is the story. At first, with the trial premise and the change of POVs, I thought they would do a Rashomon style flashbacks with an unreliable narrator at play. Considering how optional challenges change the narrations like how Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, in which some gameplay choices you make change the narration and level design. Maybe I play the same event through a different character or something like that. It turns out the flashbacks play out in the linear progression and switching to different protagonists is rendered meaningless. Instead, the story is about Halo 4 style the boss being a piece of shit for a flimsy reason. Judgment does it worse. There is not even a genuine ethical disagreement with the Colonel. For example, he holds a trial IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BATTLEFIELD. There is a literal firefight right outside. A soldier rushes into the court and tells them they are gonna be overrun. But no, continue. The ceiling literally collapses on top of the characters during the trial, almost killing them. But no, it's fine, continue. The enemies literally BREACH through the door and assault the court. They murder the guards and almost kill your characters. Why would the Colonel hold the trail in the middle of the battlefield? There is no reason to do this at all. They have helicopters. They took the characters to this building through the helicopters. Open the trial in the chopper. That's at least safer.

When the trial ends and the verdict reaches, the Colonel takes out the pistol and is about to shoot at the characters, and that is when another wave of the enemies ambushes the trial. Now, apparently, they can't continue the trial even though it just happened before.

The campaign is damaged by the constant coop gameplay of forcing the four characters to always be near you. In the first game, there are some levels in which you have to break up and be paired with one guy, or maybe alone. These were some of the tensest scenes. None of that here. There is no difference in how each individual character plays. Shifting the character would be a cool opportunity to create a new playstyle, but everyone plays the same. In fact, every character in the team feels like the same character. The Gears trilogy's story was never good, but at least I can remember the characters. Some scenes were memorable. The characters are one-dimensional. But in Judgment, I can't even say they are one-dimensional because they are zero-dimensional. They act the same. They have the same personalities. There is no conflict among the team. None of them is memorable. There is no introduction. The game just tells the player they are friends from the start. Remember in Republic Commando in which you start out alone, then you progressively meet each of the teammates, and their introduction is distinct and cool, so you begin to know about them? Yeah, there is nothing like that in Judgment.

The ending is awful. After defeating the finale boss, they find the boss is still alive on the ground. They are about to execute the wounded enemy, but a teammate says, "There is a difference between war and cruelty". Lady, YOU WERE DOING THE SAME SHIT A FEW HOURS AGO. I was literally chainsawing dozens of fallen enemies. Where does this moral grandstanding come from? Then the Colonel comes out of nowhere and shoots the enemy with the pistol, saying the line, "War is cruelty!" Then he drops the charges against the team, so I guess he is now a good guy? The hilariously edgy dialogue that seems written by a 12-year-old aside, what is the purpose of this scene? What is the message here? The game fabricates the bullshit ethical dilemma about whether to kill a wounded enemy or not, the Colonel, who was the bad guy all this time, justifying such an act. It looks like the game is saying the Colonel is still a bad guy, then a few seconds later, he literally drops the charges, saying he is now a good guy now? He changes his mind apparently because my character saved him one time. What about the moral dilemma about warfare before? That didn't get resolved.

If you want to make a message about the morality of warfare, you can't just hammer a few lines of dialogue just to make your story sound deep. It is as if this theme was plastered to appeal to the critics who complained about the violence of the series instead of the developers actually wanting to explore the theme.

Overall, Judgment is a fun spin-off. It is unfortunate People Can Fly is exclusively developing multiplayer games now after the Epic acquisition because their talent for creating a single-player campaign shines in this game.

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