At first glance, "Gears of War: Judgment" looks like sausage.
The fourth entry of the franchise seems to be a mishmash of leftover ideas congealed onto a disc rather than a coherent whole. There's a multiplayer component combined with a campaign and an unlockable mission called Aftermath that fills in the narrative gaps of the third game.
On the surface, the prequel to the Marcus Fenix saga appears as unnecessary as "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." But play through "Judgment" and the package somehow, miraculously comes together. It's a game that's spiced with enough fresh elements that justifies another story.
In many ways, "Judgment" is more of a spin off that puts players in the role of Damon Baird and members of his Kilo Squad -- Augustus Cole, Sofia Hendrik and Garron Paduk. It's told through five testimonies and a sixth chapter as Col. Ezra Loomis tries the quartet in a military tribunal for disobeying orders. Each section recounts the squad's exploits as they figure out how to defeat Karn, the big new evil Locust on the block.
The gameplay this time around is faster and focused on scoring. Epic Games and People Can Fly divide each chapter into bite-size pieces and scores players accordingly on a three-star scale. It's an addicting addition to the "Gears" formula and gives those neurotic completionists an incentive to replay the campaign.
But a bigger change is the Declassified Missions at the beginning of each section. The system modifies the level and makes it harder, but it's done in a way that works organically with the narrative. The missions offer the real story of Kilo Squad, not the one scrubbed by the Coalition of Ordered Governments.
That translates to moments of Kilo Squad fighting Locusts in the dark or battling the enemy with only Boomshields and double barrel shotguns. It shows players just how deep the combat system of "Judgment" can be and offers up some creative weapon combinations to try out online.
On top of that, the team tweaked the controls so that weapons can be swapped out and grenades can be quickly tossed at a button press. It changes the combat, making it feel more visceral and action-packed. There's still strategy with flanking opponents through cover, but the gunfights feel less methodical as players don't have to fumble about picking weapons or aiming throws of explosives.
Those improvements are a godsend when it comes to multiplayer. In Survival mode, my favorite game type, quick switching is essential when tackling waves of unrelenting enemies. The developer did an even better job streamlining a class-based system so that teamwork among soldiers, medics, engineers and scouts is fast and easy. Most of the time, help involves tossing an ammo pack or healing grenade to friends who need it or repairing barriers to keep out the Locusts.
As for the story, it jumps around, but it's more coherent and straightforward. The fascinating moments come in the back stories. Fans know about Baird and Cole, but the newcomers, Sofia and Paduk, hint at a time before the world went all apocalyptic on everyone. Seeing how the present day missions affect these characters makes the world of "Gears" more intriguing.
And as players get to know them, the Aftermath chapter suddenly makes more sense. It doesn't seem like the detritus of the Fenix trilogy. It's more of "Judgment's" epilogue. This chapter, done in the classic style without scoring, shows parts of the old squad reuniting as Cole and Baird look for reinforcements.
The level design isn't as good as the main campaign, but it has a way of sucking players in. That's when fans will realize just how compelling the characters in "Judgment" are. If they're written this well, I wouldn't mind another sequel. Paduk, Sofia and even Loomis give the franchise fresh blood just when it needed it.
'Gears of War: Judgment'
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Platform: Xbox 360