There's been a lot of moving and shaking behind the scenes at Epic and People Can Fly, and the carnage hasn't stopped at the digital divide; along with Mike Capps, Cliff Bleszinski, Rod Fergusson, Adrian Chmielarz, Andrzej Poznanski and Michal Kosieradzki, Marcus Fenix has also moved on. The new installment of the blockbuster action series stars familiar underdog Baird.
Why Baird? Level Designer Jim Brown says it's because, in the previous three games, Baird is the only one of the four major characters who has yet to have his story told. Also, as writer Tom Bissell puts it, "this game was actually already there for someone to tell. All you had to do was just look at the character and how he is. ... This game is, in a sense, the story of why Baird is never again a leadership figure."
With Baird as the lead, players of Gears of War: Judgment will get a (somewhat) fresh perspective, while still keeping it in the family. Baird may not be Fenix, but you wouldn't know it from your side of the controller. He's still a tougher-than-life action hero who's just enough of a jerk to keep things from getting sappy. Story elements aside, you could plausibly believe you're still playing as Marcus Fenix, just in a bluer shade of breast armor. This "have your cake and eat it too" approach permeates the entirety of what we were able to see of Judgment, a game that is, on the surface, attempting to try new things while keeping as much as possible of what made Gears of War so ... Gearsy.
"It continues to be a major evolution in the Gears of War franchise," says Producer Alan Van Slyke. "It's still within the Gears of War franchise, the Gears of War world. But we’re always pushing boundaries and evolving the title in aggressive ways."
For the heavy lifting on the pushing and evolving, Epic has called in Polish development team (and wholly owned subsidiary of Epic Games) People Can Fly. The Epic leads in Raleigh and the writing team in Los Angeles collaborated closely with PCF, visiting frequently in person and communicating via email and video conference several times a day. The result, says Brown, is a game that's very much a Gears game, but with an added vision that only PCF could provide.
"I think the biggest thing they brought to the table was a fresh perspective," Brown says. "It's cool. They approached it from the perspective of, 'Hey, we're fans of the franchise.' One of the biggest tenets we had going into this was reaching out to the fans and seeing what the fans wanted. [PCF] got to play both sides of the fence in that regard. They were the fanboys, and they were also the developers. Coming in and working with us together was … It was interesting. It was a lot of fun to see what they could come up with and how well and how easily it all slotted into our universe and our systems. It became the game as it is."
The good news here for Gears fans is that the approach seems to have worked. You will have fun with this game, and you will not have to think too hard or feel too much while playing it. If you enjoyed previous Gears games, in other words, you will also enjoy Judgment — probably more.
Judgment's single-player campaign is a prequel, told almost entirely in flashbacks. It begins 30 days after E-day (Emergence Day, the day the Locusts arrived on the planet Sera, even though they were already always there, because they ... oh, who cares.) Baird has joined up with the COGs to defend his planet and has been promoted to lieutenant because he is smart and aristocratic. His first mission: Return to base. He will fail.
You will have fun with this game, and you will not have to think too hard or feel too much while playing it.
We know out of the gate that Baird will foul this up because the very first scene of the game is a flash-forward, in which we see the beginning of the end before the beginning: Baird is in chains. He's about to be court-martialed for ... something, and since we know from the previous games that he is no longer a lieutenant (having been bucked back down to private) we also know that his court martial will not end well. Which means we know the game will not end well. Which means we, basically, know everything.
As Bissell said, the story practically writes itself. One wonders, then, why they needed two writers.
Part of the reason may be the three additional protagonists. Baird's story is only part of this tale, unfolding, as it does, during the court martial of his squad, in which each member must defend his or her actions. As they tell their stories, you, as the player, get to live through them. In addition to playing as Baird, you'll play as Cole, who makes a reappearance as squadmate number two; Paduk, a recruit from the defeated UIR and Sophia, the token female, a cadet in the storied Onyx Guards. Sophia is inexperienced but feisty, and her inevitable sexual misadventure plays center stage during a mission to rescue her much-older lover. Paduk, meanwhile, is a crusty, experienced soldier with a charming (if outdated) Soviet personality.
The theory is that the additional protagonists will provide depth and variety to the gameplay, although in all honesty, this was hard to discern in the brief playthrough we were given. We played a Baird level, near the beginning of the game, and a level in which we played as Paduk, near the game's end. While both offered plenty of variety in terms of what we were doing, the variety in the how we were doing it seemed lost. Both characters felt exactly the same: big, slow, hilariously well-armored yet occasionally easy to kill. Further missions may flesh out this approach somewhat, or the whole effect may simply be an illusion. From playing only two levels, it's impossible to say.
What could make up for a lack of diversity in the cast lineup are the "Declassified Testimony" options. At the start of each mission you may select whether or not to enable the DT options. These will reveal new aspects of the mission while making them harder to complete. Nothing here is mission critical, but it can be fun. Examples include being forced to use only shotguns and pistols, or having to face down more or more difficult enemy types, or seeing the map encased in a thick fog. You'll earn more character points (stars) by enabling these options, but I found them to be fairly challenging.
The Beacon (left) and Stim (right) Grenades.
That said, the actual play itself somehow still manages to be fun (again, just like every other Gears game), and a few minor enhancements to the control scheme and major additions to the formula stand out, making Judgment more than just a trip down memory lane.
To begin with, the controls have received an update. Gone are some Gears-specific pretensions (such as cycling through weapons with the D-pad). Reloading and weapon cycling are both now much closer to what you would be familiar with from other action games, although the not-quite-fun reloading mini-game persists, and is still annoying. Overall, though, the controls felt sharper and more responsive than in previous Gears titles, and the cover mechanics in particular feel a lot more tuned. You will spend less time struggling to get into and out of cover and more time using that cover to survive longer to kick more ass.
In the ass-kicking department, you will be aided by the new UIR weapons the "Marzka" sniper rifle and "Booshka" grenade launcher. The Marzka is your basic sniper rifle, which the Locusts have copied in the form of the "Breech Shot." The Marzka features a 2x scope while the Breech Shot has a heftier melee. The Booshka's claim to fame is a bouncy grenade that will explode on impact or after a few bounces. Joining these Soviet-esque arms on the list of as-yet announced new weapons are the Beacon Grenade, which identifies targets on the battlefield and the Stim Grenade, which can revive your squad mates from afar or keep them alive before they fall.
The big shift, in terms of play, comes from the new defensive missions. These missions take a page from the "overrun" multiplayer matches, in which you must hold your position against an onslaught of online foes. In the campaign, this finds you defending or holding various maps against swarms of enemies, or capturing those positions from your enemies and then defending them. This is actually so much fun, one occasionally wishes it were the entire game.
"Compared to other Gears games, it's really simple. There's a bad guy in town. We have to get the tools to get rid of the bad guy."
Bissell says these defensive missions were added to help solve the "forced failure" problem, which he believes stood in the way of previous Gears titles making more sense and being more fun.
"I love the previous Gears games," says Bissell. "But there’s a sense that they're so big and so sprawling that it's often very hard, in the game, to remember what the hell it is you're doing. I hope that this game, given its geographical smallness and the simplicity of the goals — Kill This Guy — that that story problem gets solved a little bit this time. That was one thing that Adrian Chmielarz at People Can Fly … It's the first thing he said. He said, 'I want no missions where you get your hands on the thing and then the bad guy swoops in and takes it away.'
"Forced failure is a cheat. It's a story cheat. So many games do that. ... What you wind up doing is chopping up your missions just to generate more content. You go here, but then you get diverted to get the key, and then you have to come back to the gate, but then the guy isn't there and you have to go over here. … By the end you don't even know what the hell you're doing anymore. I really hope that, in this game, you never have that core confusion about what it is you're doing."
"Compared to other Gears games, it’s really simple," says Auten. "There's a bad guy in town. We have to get the tools to get rid of the bad guy."
And that's where Baird comes in. Your missions will (hopefully) progress logically as you get one tool to get the next tool to get the next tool to finally (one assumes — but remember the beginning) get the bad guy. In our experience playing through two Epic-selected campaign levels, we did indeed experience this tonal shift; missions seemed logical and there was never the typical Gearsy feeling of not having any damn clue what the hell was going on. Campaign mission accomplished.
The Marzka sniper rifle (top) and Booshka grenande launcher (bottom).
The multiplayer, for its part, is nothing but dumb, loud fun all day long, and is where one feels the heart of the changes has taken root. In the Overrun mode, the four individual characters do have distinct "personalities" and play styles. Selecting one of four character classes will give you one of the four character models, who each have a unique skill and/or weapon. The "Medic" (played by the token female Sofia skin) gets a Lancer and the ability to heal other players. (Epic said specifically they didn't want the medic to feel weak, and, in practice, she does kick a fair amount of ass.) The "Engineer" class gets you the Baird skin and the ability to repair fortifications and deploy turrets. As the "Soldier" you will be Cole, with the ability to dole out ammo to squadmates. Last, as the "Scout," you will get Paduk, his UIR sniper rifle and the ability to climb to sniping positions only he can occupy.
This mode is gigantic amounts of fun, and considerably shakes up Gears 3's Beast mode, giving you a bit more of a mission feel while keeping the game short and ramping up the intensity at the same time. As part of that goal, PCF has eliminated "Down But Not Out" in multiplayer. Instead of falling and having to crawl to safety and be revived, you will just die. This is aimed at relieving players of the drudgery of crawling endlessly towards help and spending an entire play session on the ground. And it works. Gears multi has never been more fun.
On the Locust side, you'll have access to the rogues' gallery of enemy types — including the new "Rager" who transforms into a hulking, red rage beast when damaged — as you attempt to overrun the COG defenses while they attempt to repel you. At halftime, the two teams switch sides. As the Locust, overrunning the COG quickly will earn you points, while as COG, holding out longer will do the same. The game does the math and one or the other team will win — and immediately want to try again.
Another notable addition to multi is the arrival (finally) of COG vs. COG free-for-all, which is essentially the "deathmatch" style of online play you may be familiar with from every other shooter ever made. As Brown says: "It goes back to asking, 'What do the people want, the people that play our game?' As opposed to a question like 'How do we want them to play it?' A lot of it was a mind shift for us.
"It started, honestly, with Gears 3. ... Another big component to that is accessibility. How can we get more people into the game? How can we keep people playing the game? Getting rid of some of the speed bumps or hurdles that they’ve told us about in forum posts or usability testing or while we were playing the game online. Maybe it was a great idea, but it didn’t quite jell the way we wanted to. Working out those kinks until everything runs smooth."
While the result doesn't reinvent the formula, it's a damn lot of fun.
Overall, Gears of War: Judgment does run smooth. Epic and PCF have improved what worked in the past, ditched some of what didn't and added enough new flavor to make the end result go down like a completely different meal, while tasting familiar enough to be a welcome feast for fans of the franchise. It's a neat trick, and while the result doesn't reinvent the formula (or the genre), it's a damn lot of fun.