Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Gears of War: Judgment (Xbox 360) (Epic Games, People Can Fly, 2013)
The original Gears of War (2006) was the technological showcase game that, after a couple of false starts (Perfect Dark Zero, anyone?), marked the proper beginning to the 360/PS3 console generation. Now, as we finally seem within sight of the finish line for this console cycle, I would contend that Gears of War has been the series that has most defined the generation (only talking 360/PS3 here; Nintendo is kind of in its own universe). Maybe it hasn't sold as many units as Call of Duty, and maybe it will never garner altogether as many awards as the BioShock or Mass Effect series. But it practically invented—well, standardized, anyway—the third-person cover-based shooter, subsequently (consequently, I'd say) one of the most ubiquitous genres of the generation. Moreover, for three installments, it remained consistently the technological best-in-class (alongside its PS3 counterpart, Uncharted)—the games that Epic used to sell other developers on their Unreal Engine. Even if you've never played any of the Gears of War games, even if you've never even owned an Xbox 360, the influence of this series cannot be denied.
But how often is it that a non-annual franchise (or an annual franchise, for that matter) manages to sustain interest for a fourth installment within a single console generation? Even the developer seemed to lose interest; Epic handed the bulk of the development duties off to subsidiary People Can Fly (Bulletstorm) for this non-numbered entry. Cliff Bleszinski, Epic's lead designer and public face, even departed the company after Gears of War 3 (2011). And, while any series this popular is certain to see many more sequels, the first three games formed a definite trilogy, with the last one wrapping up the story begun in the first. So soon after the release of that third game, where was there left to take the story? They went the now semi-cliche route of a prequel/side-story starring not the usual main characters, which, to the cynic, can feel an awful lot like a final cash-grab, rushed to fill out the release calendar only because the market wasn't ready yet for new consoles. Having now finished the campaign, I can say that maybe Gears of War: Judgment is indeed that, but at least it's also still a technically well-made game that, in some ways, may even be the most enjoyable in the series.
Although People Can Fly perhaps had the opportunity, with this non-numbered release, to craft a more daring, more experimental Gears, they ended up going in much the opposite direction, dispensing with any even slightly gimmicky elements and instead focusing on refining the core action gameplay. There are no vehicle stages, no on-rails sections, very few objectives involving anything other than killing or surviving, and only two sequences that would even qualify as boss fights (although those two are far and away the best boss fights in the series). There's nothing resembling the "avoid the flesh-eating shadows" stage in the original Gears, or the ridiculous "Marcus and Dom have to lug around a bomb three-legged race-style" section of Gears of War 2. And, to be honest, I didn't miss any of that stuff. I didn't even notice, until my brother pointed it out toward the end of the campaign, that there had been none of those moments when the story would dictate that we split up. On paper, the omission of this Gears staple—rather, a staple of just about any co-op shooter—would seem to be a step back, but I think this was a case of a developer with a fresh set of eyes coming in and, after three installments, asking simply whether these obligatory inclusions were ever truly necessary in the first place.
People Can Fly opted to concentrate on putting together a purer shooter. The series already possessed the tightest mechanics of any cover-based shooter, yet somehow Judgment improves upon the design with just a few simple control tweaks. I never really questioned, for example, assigning weapon switching (including grenades) to the D-pad, but Judgment reassigns switching to one of the face buttons, while giving grenades their own dedicated shoulder button, and, I must say, it seems so obvious that I can't believe it took four games for anybody to think of this. The change does mean that players are able to carry fewer guns (down from 3 to 2), but, in practice, this mostly just means no longer having that last-resort pistol to go along with the typical assault rifle-plus-shotgun/sniper rifle load-out.
More prominently highlighted among the new features are the "Declassified" modifiers. Near the beginning of every stage, players are presented with the option to activate an additional challenge that will make the stage more difficult in some way. The idea is that the story is told through flashback, as the characters, on trial for some mostly irrelevant reason in an altogether forgettable story, narrate their own recollections of the events for which they are being tried. Some details having been redacted for whatever reason, it's up to the player whether to "declassify" them. Chrono Trigger this ain't, however, and none of your decisions have any repercussions whatsoever toward the progression of the trial or the story.
Declassified mode is instead just there to add a fun extra layer of challenge, which can take one of a couple different forms, depending on the stage. The most interesting are the ones that add environmental conditions (e.g. low visibility, heat warping, intense wind), as these alter the experience in a serious way and end up defining those stages. Also worth trying are the challenges that force you to use weapons that you might not ordinarily bother with. You might come away with a new appreciation for a weapon you had formerly dismissed, or if not, at least playing with an unconventional load-out (e.g. sawed-off shotguns plus shields) changes up the experience. The most common Declassified change, however, just adds stronger enemy types to the groups you'll encounter. Personally, I always at least attempted the Declassified challenge (in fact, if they had removed the option and simply made Declassified mode the default, honestly the only loss would have been a bullet point on the game's list of features), usually coming out victorious on the first attempt, and there almost never seemed to be anything special about these "extra challenging" enemies. The only exception was one stage where we were supposed to hold a hill against a pack of very aggressive brutes that kept overrunning us. After a few unsuccessful attempts, we finally turned off the challenge and played it the normal way, which proved to be pathetically easy, as the brutes were replaced with more conventional enemy types that we were able to gun down from a distance.
The most significant addition Gears of War: Judgment makes to the series is the new dynamic spawning system, which randomizes the enemies that you'll face through most of the game. The effect of this is felt any time you die and are forced to replay a stage; you'll find that, on the second attempt, the enemies may be different, perhaps wildly so. Maybe there will be snipers, or maybe there won't be. Maybe you'll have to contend with explosive feral dog-like creatures, or maybe you'll be facing mounted riders. Historically, I've never been a fan of randomly-generated elements in games (and it does seem random, rather than based on anything the player is doing), but it mostly works here, forcing you to play more in the moment, rather than formulating your game plan around what you know you'll be up against (either because it's not your first try, or because you consulted a guide). Whatever the game ends up throwing at you, in general, the groups of enemies you face tend to be far more diverse than in previous games. Even as you contend with guys shooting at you from afar, you may also be hounded by other foes charging you, who are themselves closely followed by shield-wielding giants. This all highlights how much the series has evolved since that first game that popularized cover-based shooter action. In the original Gears of War, you spent most of the game exchanging fire with enemies from behind cover. In the much faster-paced and more frenetic Judgment, I spent very little time sticking to cover, because it simply isn't safe anymore to just stay in one spot.
The random element does mean fewer memorable set pieces than in previous games, since the designers are ceding some amount of artistic direction in favor of unpredictability. Judgment also doesn't offer anything quite as large-scale and intricate as the multi-phase "Battle of Anvil Gate" from Gears of War 3, but it boasts a good half-dozen or so battles that actually match or exceed the action, if not the spectacle. Taking some cues from the previous games' arcade-y "Horde" modes, Judgment's campaign stages several sequences tasking players with defending a fortified position against waves of enemy forces. A timer counts down between waves, and players are able to use the time to plan out defensive strategies and set up auto-turrets against possible points of entry for the enemy. As the waves escalate in intensity, almost all of these battles begin with your team spread out and picking off enemies from the high ground, but then end with you and your allies closing ranks against swarming foes that are near enough to punch. I've mentioned previously my fondness for the barricade cabin from Resident Evil 4 as an unforgettable sequence evocative of the Battle of the Alamo, but these stages in Gears of War: Judgment are, in many ways, actually more perfected versions of that same idea, albeit without the inspired ambiance. Alas, I never found there to be much context for these battles in Judgment, and the settings seemed always to be no more than random unidentified and nondescript ruins atop a hill or cliff side. But the arc of the combat itself is executed to near perfection, and actually that goes even for most of the normal battles in Gears of War: Judgment; despite the random element, encounters are almost always paced for optimal intensity, getting increasingly desperate, before ending right on the brink of becoming overwhelming. It's remarkable how perfectly this game manages that sweet spot between a fight dragging on and it ending prematurely.
The story is one of the weaker aspects of Judgment. Previous games had always alluded to volumes of back story for the Marcus Fenix character, a veteran of a previous war, who began the first game in prison. Undoubtedly, we will one day see a series of prequel games delving into that back story. In the meantime, Judgment is clearly a one-off—more of a side-story, adding almost nothing of consequence to fans' understanding of the Gears universe and its history. At least new characters Sofia and Paduk make for interesting additions to the cast. In fact, they're easily the most likable, least obnoxious protagonists the series has ever had, which leaves one wishing Judgment had gone with a cast of entirely new main characters. As it is, the decision to feature Baird as the leading man is the game's greatest blunder.
I enjoyed Baird and Cole in the previous games, but they were always the B-team (or at least the B-team of the A-team). Primarily a comic relief duo, neither would have been believable as the leader of a unit, but Baird especially was always the whining loudmouthed pessimist, who absolutely did not want to be in the fighting if he could avoid it. For Judgment, he's been rewritten as a more collected character, but, for those who played the previous games, the change just comes across as the writers having a poor handle on an established character. Cole is even worse in this game. Previously, "Cole Train" had been a borderline-offensive racial caricature. Judgment downplays his attitude but replaces it with nothing else, leaving him uncharacteristically stoic through most of the campaign.
In addition to the main campaign, Judgment includes an additional act titled "Aftermath," which doubles as both an epilogue to the Judgment campaign and a lost mission from Gears of War 3. There had been a notable section in Gears of War 3 where the team split up, and it was never shown what Cole and Baird were up to as the game continued to follow Marcus instead. There had been promises of substantial campaign DLC for Gears of War 3, and many had speculated that that would include the missing Cole and Baird mission, but instead we get it now in Judgment. It's hard to tell how much, if any, of "Aftermath" is genuinely previously unreleased content, but, new controls notwithstanding, it does play more like Gears of War 3, eschewing Judgment's Declassified challenges and random spawning system. It also feels less segmented than Judgment, with more drawn-out engagements, larger arenas, and no arcade scoring system. And it contains the only memorably eye-catching sight in the game: a ship lodged in a skyscraper. There's even an on-rails segment. And "Aftermath" also closes the story on a total downer, in contrast with the fairly upbeat ending to the main campaign, but rather like the total downer of an ending to Gears of War 3.
Is Judgment the biggest, best, most badass Gears of War yet? Well, it's certainly the least momentous release in the franchise, the least artistically and technically impressive for its time. There are few moments as distinctly memorable as the best (or worst) set pieces of previous games. But Judgment is more a game to be enjoyed in the moment. One could argue that it's the least ambitious. Or perhaps, rather, it's the least pretentious, the one that best recognizes its own strengths and plays to them, delivering a lean yet meaty shooter for anyone who just wants to enjoy an action game. People Can Fly take a consistently satisfying formula, compress it into a few minutes of gameplay, and basically repeat that over and over again for the entire campaign. Judgment has much more of a classic arcade feel than previous installments, with none of the needless and historically poorly executed fluff. Mercifully gone are the days when you could get lost just trying to find the path forward during a lull in the action; now, you clear a room, then move on to the next one and do it again. It may sound shallow and repetitive, but the strength of the core mechanics keep it from ever becoming tedious. On the contrary, it does nothing but deliver over and over again what it knows you'll enjoy, rather like food that has been chemically distilled from its natural form into something maybe less balanced but more immediately satisfying and addictive. With food, that sounds unhealthy, but we don't play shooter games for health but for pleasure. Toward that end, if you were to play only one Gears of War—or, for that matter, only one third-person cover-based shooter—Judgment is the one I'd recommend.