Epic's newest installment in the massively successful Gears of War series is surprising in many ways.
Baird has stepped up from side character to starring role. The popular Horde mode has essentially been replaced with new multiplayer experiences.
But no matter how many tweaks Epic made to this prequel, it still manages to unmistakably feel like Gears of War.
A co-op story mode is nothing new to the Gears franchise, but Judgment brings major changes to the campaign experience. Most of the changes are relegated to the gameplay, but the narrative is structured in a new way as well. Instead of telling a linear, straightforward story, the entirety of the campaign is told via flashbacks as Baird and Kilo Squad describe previous events during a military trial.
Gears of War has never had masterful storytelling, and narrative clearly takes a back seat in Judgment's cooperative campaign. Instead, this entry focuses on the series' greatest strength — loud, violent, intense shootouts. Epic breaks up sections of the campaign into digestible, standalone battles as frequently as possible. Instead of feeling like you're following a story from beginning to end, Judgment shuttles you from skirmish to skirmish with nothing to break up the action. Enemies come in massive waves, and you're rarely given a moment to relax.
If you're looking for a game that you can jump into and immediately start ripping enemies to shreds with high-powered weaponry, few games scratch that itch like this one.
While this is satisfying on one level, it comes at the sacrifice of memorable set piece moments. I have fond memories from the previous games of exploring the innards of a giant Riftworm, riding on the back of Rig 314, running from streetlight to streetlight to avoid Kryll, fighting a Brumak, and being introduced to the Lambent. I enjoyed the more traditional action of Judgment, but looking back, the campaign is a foggy mess of explosions and bullets with no standout moments.
The campaign might be more fragmented, but it does have its advantages. Rating your mission-to- mission performance on a three-star system and offering extra difficult declassified modifiers make the campaign more replayable, and it's easy to jump straight to a section you want to play over.
As always, the Gears multiplayer suite rivals anything else on the shooter market. Horde and Beast modes are technically gone, but the new marquee Overrun mode takes the best elements of both and turns it into the best multi player experience in the franchise's history. Defending emergence holes and generators as the COG is intense and challenging, and taking control of various Locust creatures is a blast. This mode is unlike any other, and it should keep shooter fans coming back for months.
Despite its questionable approach to the campaign that abandons huge set piece moments in favor of smaller skirmishes, Gears of War: Judgment is a polished, replayable experience. Even if you never touch any future downloadable content, the game disc has enough content to keep you busy for the better part of 2013.
Judgment is likely the final Gears game in this console generation, and the timing couldn't be more fitting. As a franchise whose debut helped establish the Xbox 360's identity, it bids farewell to this generation with an installment that benefits from the iteration and improvement that its predecessors provided.
VIDEO GAME REVIEW
'Gears of War: Judgment'
About: The latest in the series of first-person-shooter games.
Players: Single, multiplayer
Pros: The game is polished, as always, with excellent graphics, sound and gameplay.
Cons: The story mode is carved up into more standalone battles, losing some of the build-up to standout moments in prior games.
Availability and price: $59.99 on Xbox 360
ESRB rating: M
Game Informer rating: 8.5/10
Metacritic rating: 7.9/10