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GAVEL OF DAWN: ‘GEARS OF WAR JUDGMENT’ TRIES TO ADD EXTRA BUZZ TO CLASSIC FORMULA

Hola muchachos … and muchachas, of course. This time, yours truly will be taking a look today at “Gears of War: Judgment” for the Xbox 360. Don’t judge me!

So just in case you don’t play shooters or have been marooned on a desert island the last seven years, Judgment is the fourth entry in the popular Gears of War video game franchise. Now people normally say that the third time’s a charm so what does that make the fourth? That’s a question a lot of Gears of War fans were actually asking prior to this game’s release, particularly given some high profile departures at Epic games and the handing of the Gears reins to Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly.

Set before key events of the original trilogy, Judgment is a prequel that chronicles the exploits of Kilo Squad and its smart-mouth leader Damon Baird. The story is of special interest to veterans of the series as it reveals the reason behind Baird losing his rank as a lieutenant in the COG Army. The tale itself unfolds via flashbacks as Kilo’s band of misfits find themselves in deep legal doodoo for insubordination against a certain Colonel Loomis — no relation to the maker of fine undergarments, Fruit of the Loom. I think. As the campaign progresses, you find yourself taking control of the various members of Kilo squad while they recount their trials — pun so totally intended —  and tribulations to their superior officer

As with every Gears game, the campaign features solid gameplay for fans of third-person shooters. You can go solo and have the rest of your team controlled by the AI, which thankfully isn’t as dumb as a rock. You can also play split-screen co-op, which is always a nice plus, and team up with up to three people for some four-player campaign fun. To freshen things up, Judgment throws in some new weapons such as the Union of Independent Republics’ Markza semi-automatic rifle and the wildly fun Booshka grenade launcher, which you can bounce of walls. It’s like playing tennis against a wall, though I don’t remember that exercise ever being this bloody.

The most notable feature for the campaign, however, is the addition of optional Declassified missions. Basically, you trigger them by finding large Gears symbols such as this and they give you the opportunity to earn more stars by adding a handicap or extra layer of difficulty to the mission. These include finding and destroying a certain number of enemy eggs, for example, or having your vision heavily obscured by sand or darkness while a swarm of Locusts try to send Baird and company to meet their maker — and I don’t mean Cliff Bleszinski. Declassified mode combined with dynamic, semi-random enemy spawns and the scoring system make Judgment’s campaign more engaging than your typical shooter.

Of course, we can’t talk about any Gears game without addressing versus and competitive modes and Judgment still delivers when it comes to online multiplayer mayhem. One controversial change is replacing the popular Horde Mode with Survival Mode. In Survival, the goal is to have up to five players survive 10 waves of enemies while defending a limited number of objectives. You can also pick specific classes to round out your group, including support characters such as engineer or medic. It’s actually fun but also different from Horde and I could see folks who enjoy the latter’s fierce boss waves having an issue with Horde’s elimination.

For folks who want to test their might against real people, you also have versus options such as the  requisite deathmatch and team-objective based Domination. Most notable, however, is the new Overrun, which is akin to a cross between Survival and the old Beast Mode. You can play as the Locust and troll your enemies as a wretch with your kara-tay or your sugary sweet singing voice, for example. When playing as one of the COG, you can also pick classes yet again and being the nice guy that I am, I typically pick medic and, well, you know what they say about how nice guys finish...

So what do I think of the game as a whole? Well, overall, Judgment’s story — while OK by shooter standards, which admittedly aren’t that high — doesn’t seem to have the same overarching and expansive feel of Gears of War 3. I’m not sure if it’s due to the absence of Marcus and Dom or because Gears of War 3 had a more fleshed out tale thanks to its finality but Judgment feels a bit more like the Gears of War: Damon Baird side story. Then you have some of the aforementioned changes involving multiplayer, which might not sit well with some fans. (Adding back the old Horde Mode, though, would fix a lot of that.)

Still, I think the gameplay for Judgment is quite good and should satisfy fans of third-person shooters — or even shooters in general for that matter. Add the fact that the game has both solid multiplayer and a solid campaign and I think Judgment is worth a look for shooter fans.
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