“Locust has opened the E-hole,” reads the message across the screen. Really? E-hole? That’s the best name Gears Of War: Judgment’s creators could come up with for the point you have to defend at all costs in the game’s Survival multiplayer? I can just picture my fiancée walking in as I’m yelling into the headset, “Everyone get back to the E-hole, it’s under attack!” It sounds like the gristly aftermath of explosive hemorrhoids.
The fourth installment of the popular space-bug war series is a prequel of sorts. The single-player campaign, while blissfully free of E-holes, is not short on a-holes. When the game begins, Colonel Loomis, your commanding officer with the classic villain mustache, is accusing your team of treason. Fortunately, Kilo Squad will have its day in court. Unfortunately, that court is a military tribunal in the middle of a warzone.
It’s all Loomis can do to restrain himself from putting you all in front of a firing squad. He agrees to at least go through the motions of a fair trial. At worst, it’s a half-step up from Guantanamo-level jurisprudence. The main thrust of the campaign is the four members of Kilo Squad recalling the events that led to their arrest. You’re basically replaying their memories.
Judgment is the first Gears game missing the services of Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago, the heroes of the main trilogy. But it’s not all new faces. Damon Baird and Augustus Cole, third and fourth fiddles in the original, now play a starring role. Kilo Squad is comprised of this wisecracking pair plus straitlaced cadet Sofia Hendrik and wry burn victim Garron Paduk. The characters all get a chance to tell their story, and it adds up to a relatively coherent whole.
Each stage is as brief as it is violent, and players have the option to play the game “Declassified”—adjusting the soldiers’ memories to maximize your personal enjoyment. It makes zero sense in the context of the story, but the mission tweaks are generally more fun and rewarding than playing them straight. Some declassifications fill the room with gas or smoke, obscuring your sight. Others require the use of only certain weapons. A few set a time limit before some catastrophe ends the mission. I was hoping one of the declassifications would reveal how to stop getting repeatedly shot in the face during the game’s Team Deathmatch multiplayer mode. No such luck.
Judgment’s story—penned by writers Tom Bissell and Rob Auten—is a fairly standard set piece. It’s not bad, exactly. It’s not really anything. There’s some banter, some ominous foreshadowing, and some laughs, but Judgment’s campaign lacks for believable motivations. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything at stake. And I like the idea of giving secondary characters their own game, but the second-banana dynamic is not exploited for all it could be. For his star turn, I was hoping for a little more screen time from the “Cole Train,” who’s voiced by Lester Speight (an actor also known for his turn as “Terrible” Terry Tate, Office Linebacker in Reebok commercials). The shining star of the group, though, turns out to be the disaffected Paduk. Hailing from the quasi-Soviet splinter state of Gorasnaya, Paduk’s sarcastic fatalism feels like the appropriate response to the rather gloomy situation. I kept waiting for the punchline: “In Soviet Gorasnaya, you eat Locust…”
There’s a lack of meaningful variety between the four accounts. Playing as Baird is essentially the same as Paduk, Cole, or Hendrik. Contrast this with the Survival multiplayer mode, where you’re tasked with fending off waves of Locust invaders. You can choose between an engineer, a scout, a soldier, and a medic, each with different abilities and weaponry. There are clear advantages and disadvantages to each, and the campaign probably could’ve benefited from similar distinctions between the single-player chapters.
There are a few notable changes. Judgment has bravely moved away from the popular multiplayer options of Gears 3. In place of Horde and Beast modes, there is OverRun. Each team gets a chance to both defend and attack the dreaded E-hole, playing as both the COG (humans) and Locust (not humans) by turn. Players who consider Gears 3’s multiplayer the pinnacle of the form—like my Gameologi-colleague Ryan Smith—will likely be disappointed by the changes. It seems more a gratuitous lateral move than an improvement.
But here’s the thing. Gears Of War has changed remarkably little since the first game’s release in 2006. I know this because the retail copy of Judgment comes with a download code for that big, beautiful dinosaur. It’s a testament to the first game’s design that subsequent installments have had to revise so little. So yeah, Judgment’s mere existence is gratuitous. There is no reason for this game to exist. But that doesn’t make it less enjoyable. Just don’t go in expecting a reinvention of the E-hole.