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If I had played Gears of War: Judgment in 2007, I’d probably be spending the majority of this review swooning over the gritty, ultra-detailed graphics, Hollywood-quality voice acting, and fantastic cover-based shooting mechanics. And while all those points remain valid in 2013, we’ve also had three full-length Gears of War adventures that have accomplished all of these bullet points already. On its own, Judgment is a high quality title that offers fast-paced shooting in a four-player co-op environment, along with a robust online multiplayer suite. But when compared to the three Gears titles many gamers already have on their shelves, it simply doesn’t do enough to set itself apart.

Set several years before the events of the original Gears of War, Judgment focuses on a military inquiry into the actions of Kilo Squad, led by the cocky and careless Damon Baird. The wealthy residential area of Halvo Bay is under attack by the locust horde and, in the days prior, your crew promptly put its life on the line to aid in the war effort.

The four members of the group – which includes stalwarts Baird and Cole, as well as newbies Sofia Hendricks and Garron Paduk – each provide testimony during the impromptu trial. As each member of Kilo recalls the recent events, you’re tossed into that squad member’s shoes, effectively splitting the game into four chapters. This plot structure is a bit flimsy, but will manage to pique your curiosity just enough to keep you pushing through until the end.

The quest is further divided into sections as the debriefing progresses. Each of these sections can be approached in two different manners: Either a straightforward, basic explanation of events which typically plays out with standard firefights, or a “Declassified” version which usually includes a specific restriction that makes that particular fight a wee bit tougher. The declassified iterations include things like limited health or weapons, or even set time limits to push you through each level faster than normal.

The entire game, both in campaign and multiplayer, is governed by a leveling system. You gain stars by performing things like head shots or explosive kills, and these stars add to your progress. Leveling up lets you unlock items for use in multiplayer like weapon skins and additional characters, but beyond that, this overarching XP mechanic does little more than serve as bragging rights with your co-op buddies.

For the first few hours of the game, this fast-paced, no-nonsense approach feels satisfying, but you’ll soon realize that the payoff you normally expect at the end of a particularly difficult section just isn’t there. Where in previous Gears titles you’d usually cap off an objective with an epic boss battle or major story point, Judgment simply doesn’t offer this type of satisfaction.

Instead, you’ll occasionally be asked to hold down a particular area with your squad as enemies pour in from all angles, which amounts to a slightly abbreviated version of the series’ popular “Horde” mode. These brief moments of frantic gunplay are enjoyable in their own way, but the lack of unique enemies or boss characters leaves them feeling extremely repetitive after the first half dozen or so. Being able to take on a building-sized boss with three friends would have been extremely satisfying if offered on a consistent basis. You do eventually get to take on such an enemy, but unfortunately your first boss battle will also be your last.

The members of Kilo Squad are likewise cookie cutters of one another when in combat. Getting to play as each of the rough-and-tumble badasses would have been much more satisfying if each character brought something unique to the table. Cutscenes and high quality voice acting do help bring some color to the otherwise blank soldiers in your team, but once the bullets start flying those pleasant quirks quickly disappear.

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These complaints aside, the gunplay – and this makes up the overwhelming majority of the game – feels fantastic. Assault rifles, shotguns, and side arms feel appropriately powerful and there’s nothing more satisfying than lobbing a grenade into enemy cover only to watch an explosion of body parts litter the landscape shortly thereafter.

Ducking behind cover and taking shots at well-armored enemies as they rumble towards your defenses is predictably anxiety-inducing, and running for your life is something you’ll do plenty of. Judgment does a great job of not making you feel overly powerful, and particularly tough sections will leave you feeling overmatched. Besting these battles is as satisfying as it’s ever been, and wiping out a locust squad can still leave you smiling from ear to ear.

Enemies move with an impressive amount of intelligence, and just when you think you’ve held down a particular angle, a locust soldier will flush you out and once again put the screws to your squad. When playing solo, your squad mates are also rather well equipped to deal with the waves of grotesque, armed creatures attempting to end your life. If you fall in battle, your fellow Gears are rarely more than a few seconds away from a timely revive, which helps keep the action moving.

After completing the campaign you’ll gain access to a bonus chapter that expands on the story of Gears of War 3. Called Aftermath, the brief add-on follows Baird and Cole as they return to Halvo Bay to complete an objective critical to the success of the crew in Gears 3. It plays nearly identical to the third game – which is to say it plays just like every Gears game thus far, including Judgment. It’s a nice bonus feature, but feels like a bit of an afterthought that will likely only be worth a play through if you’re a diehard Gears fan.

Judgment‘s online multiplayer modes are also a bright spot in the grey and brown landscape of war. There are dozens of customization options for both your weapons and characters, and all-out frag sessions are always a great time. Diving around a corner and blowing someone away with one blast from your shotgun will simply make you feel like badass, but you’ll be humbled when you find yourself on the other end of the barrel.

The maps are full of cover opportunities and chances to plan strategic attacks, but you can also score a respectable number of kills simply by rushing forward with your finger on the trigger. You can even hop into an in-game helicopter and keep an elevated eye on the battlefield in some circumstances, which will instantly make you feel like an action movie hero. While playing through the different modes on offer – including objective-based fights and straight up deathmatch throw downs – you’ll see other players with insane armor camo patterns and flashy guns that’ll push you to keep playing, if only to make sure your own character ends up blinged out as well. .

Bottom Line: Gears of War: Judgment is gorgeous in its destruction and the gunplay is simply unmatched, as has been the case with every Gears title since its inception. The fact that the game doesn’t offer anything significantly new is definitely a point against it, but it remains undeniably fun to play.

Recommendation: Gears fans know what to expect, and they will not be let down, but if you’re a newcomer to the series – or perhaps a lapsed fan who hasn’t had the time to catch up since the first or second title – the lack of eye-popping boss battles could give you pause. If firefights are what you crave, there are plenty on offer here.

[rating=4]

Game: Gears of War: Judgement
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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