that's_no_kantus

Gears of War Judgment isn’t a new game. It’s a remix. And a pretty good remix that fits Gears of War like a glove. What better way to present a game world that consists of a series of boxes than as a series of boxes? Judgment is divided into discrete bite-sized chunks of shooting that derive meaning not from the story — a series of flashbacks from B- and C-list characters — but from a scoring system. It’s no surprise that People Can Fly, the developers of Bulletstorm, know that there are other ways to make you want to shoot things than making a good game.

After the jump, I shoot, I score

The scoring system rewards the usual headshots and gibs, and punishes you for getting killed, but what it really wants you to do is play each box with an optional modifier. Maybe you’ll play the next ten minutes in four minutes, or you’ll use pistols only, or you’ll be socked in by a heavy fog, or extra monsters will pile on. It’s like the skulls in Halo, more varied, but not as flexible. What an inventive way to tweak the difficulty without simply tweaking the difficulty!

The main incentive to tweak the difficulty is collectible stars, which unlock a new campaign. Collectible stars make the whole thing feels like a Mario game, which isn’t a bad thing. Need for Speed: Shift is every bit as hardcore as Gears and it benefited from its Mario-esque collectible stars system. Judgment’s less effective gimmick is its emphasis on earning experience points to unlock visual frippery. Do you want Cole in a candy pink outfit with zebra stripes on his lancer? Of course you do. Level up, earn prize boxes, or just buy the stuff at the Microsoft Store with Real World Money. And then go online and enjoy the cavalcade of Gears players’ ridiculous fashion sense. Gears games play best when no one’s taking them seriously.

The online stuff is tweaked nicely, as you’d expect from a remix. The new horde mode doesn’t replace the long demanding grind of Gears 3’s 50-level horde mode; it instead complements it with shorter matches that give you three lives by pushing you backwards across a map. You also get a class system that encourages players to stop running around as if they were playing a deathmatch. I’m not convinced it works in public matches, but does anything ever work as designed in public matches? When I’m in public games, everyone but me sucks at horde mode, but Judgment makes them suck less.

Given the smaller scale of the action, cramming up to four AI players into every moment probably isn’t the best way to proceed. Anyone who isn’t charging forward with a chainsaw is going to spend a lot of time waiting for Baird et al. to get their fat asses out of the way. Except for Sofia, the obligatory Gearsgirl who I will never mistake for a monster. Okay, maybe a kantus. As usual, far be it from Epic to do anything with a female character that isn’t cringeworthy*. Sofia says she got to work on a secret missile project because the professor had a crush on her. You go, girl!

Some players might feel cheated that this cool new remix is a standalone retail package, especially considering how many maps were sold for Gears 3 instead of meaningful gameplay improvements (although the fortification upgrade and RAAM campaign were welcome exceptions). In light of all those maps, it’s easy to see why there are so few maps included with Judgment, which encourages you to buy a season’s pass for double experience points and therefore faster pink outfits and zebra stripes. But the bigger issue is that there’s no substantially new content. Yeah, sure, there’s a healing grenade and a creature who grows spikes to charge at you and a new d-pad-less weapon swapping scheme. But these are mostly the same guns, monsters, and combat sandboxes you already played, just arranged differently. Same gameplay, new framework. But given that this is currently my preferred way to get my Gears on, I can’t complain too loudly when I’m so busy trying to three-star each of the levels. Speaking of which:

3 stars
Xbox 360

* Judgment co-writer Tom Bissell — yes, that Tom Bissell — politely pointed out in the comments section that my take on Sofia isn’t entirely fair. I’d encourage you to read his comment below.