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As the next generation of home
consoles slowly emerge into the
limelight and enter the minds of the mass consumer, it’s
great to see some current gen games continue to show their potential.
Take Gears
of War, a series that
practically signaled the start of this current gen back in late 2006.
At the time, developer Epic Games delivered a memorable and new
third-person shooter IP that certainly looked impressive, but also
ushered in fun gameplay mechanics through an impromptu cover-based
system — one that urged players to use cover as respite from the hail
of enemy bullets. But who knew the idea of campaign coop over the
Internet could possibly impact the experience the way it did? And post
GoW, the entire shooter genre followed suit.

In hindsight, those three
pillars of visual bombast, fun combat loops, and cooperative play over
the net defined lots of shooters during this console cycle, but after a
trilogy of GoW games — delivered relatively closely over a five-year
span — how can the series possibly stay fresh and fun? Surprisingly
the latest game, Gears
of War: Judgment, makes a strong
argument that the series isn’t only surprisingly relevant, but that the
developers also figured out some neat tricks other video game makers
should crib.

Judgment’s key gameplay twist
lies in its storytelling. The developers use the backdrop of a military
court-martial hearing as a setting for this side story, one that takes
place weeks after Emergence Day — the day the Locusts surfaced and
attacked the people of the planet Sera. But even Jeremy Parish marveled
at the surprising
sophistication of Judgment back
at E3, and it’s definitely refreshing to see a developer try to
approach genre conventions from a different perspective.

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Judgment accomplishes so much
because of its gameplay structure, a setup that focuses action into
faster paced missions and optional player challenges called
Declassifications. As players complete said challenges, they unlock
additional perspectives and testimony from a quartet of burly soldiers
in campaign — OK, so maybe newcomer and female soldier, Sofia Hendrik,
isn’t as gruff as her male counterparts, but she’s still as
tough as they come.

And those Declassification
challenges can be quite difficult, too. Each one I played presented an
interesting twist to my squad’s enemy encounters. Sometimes they’d tack
on specific restrictions, like one where we had to clear an area in a
specified (and short) amount of time. In another challenge on a
separate level, my squad was forced to use Torque bows and the
Breechshot — a new middle to long-range rifle that doesn’t use a
scope. Put the latter restriction in a sniper-filled zone where every
shot counted and it presented some wild scenarios and reactions from my
squad.

In yet another challenge, where
we had to use shields as our primary weapon, my team accumulated a
string of crushing back-to-back failures. The repeated do-overs
prompted one of my squad-mates, IGN’s Mitch Dyer, to shout, “Alright,
f*** the shields! Let’s try something else.” The maddening difficulty
of some of the challenges in Judgment can urge even a veteran squad to
carefully weigh what they’re up against and suppress typical bravado.

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But optional Declassifications
aren’t the only new trick up Judgment’s muscular sleeves. In fact, the
new enemy spawning system also threw me for quite a loop at first. I’m
not entirely sure if the technology works on par with the cruel AI
Director in Left
4 Dead — a system developed by
Valve that ravaged players with excessive amounts of zombies from every
direction at different intervals — but it still had a similar (and
disorienting) effect in the field. I mean disorienting in a good way.

For example, in one of our many
failed attempts at using shields, I decided to follow the same path I
took in our last outing, but this time I’d quickly pick off the enemies
that spilled out of a small bunker at the back of the combat zone. I
rushed in with surprising grace and felt ready
for my adversaries. So imagine my surprise when the same husky Locust
Grinders and Drones I expected weren’t there. In fact, a different
group of soldiers and Grunts appeared in their place and attacked from
the other side of the map. Naturally, I quickly recovered and helped
flank the incoming squad, but the sheer variety I felt every time we
failed provided a nice surprise.

In my time with Judgment, I saw
lots of potential, speed, and variation, something I didn’t expect from
the short missions and optional challenges I experienced. The pacing
felt much faster too, especially during my brief time with multiplayer.
However, I still left with a few small reservations. Mostly, I don’t
understand the recently announced GoW: Aftermath, a separate playable
campaign that comes bundled with Judgment. As indicated by the title,
the story takes place in the wake of GoW3
and follows a more traditional makeup of the series. That means no
Declassifications, no scoring modes that evaluate performance, or enemy
spawning changes as far as I could tell.

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Is Aftermath fun? Sure. Does it
also feel like a small step backwards compared to the bold changes I
found in Judgment? Also, yes. Perhaps these impressions appear a bit
harsh, and more time could turn them around, but I don’t see as many
reasons to re-play Aftermath. The opposite seems true with Judgment,
even despite the game’s shorter mission structure. Each combat-lined
section in Judgment felt satisfying and carefully considered, a
refreshing discovery in wake of what developer 343 Industries did with
their coop Halo 4
campaign Spartan Ops — where players revisited the same terrain often
to clear landing zones and activate switches. It unfortunately pointed
out minutiae I’d never associated with Halo previously.

I only hope Aftermath isn’t a
signal that the campaign of Judgment itself falls shorter than
expected. Again, it’s unfair to assume, but there’s no way to know
until release. More importantly, Aftermath appeared to bridge the
narrative gap between Judgment and a post-GoW3 world, so maybe that
storyline will make it worthwhile in the end. In either scenario, the
way Judgment subverted gameplay expectations still made it something
worth experiencing. The changes I discovered ranged from small — like
when I found out I could perform a melee attack with the Lancer by
tapping the B button, instead of simply revving up my chainsaw — to
large scale — like one particular sequence that involved an open
elevator with no cover(!) as my squad fought to fend off rival snipers
and enemies using the deadly One Shot.

As expected, information about
the next generation of consoles slinks around every corner of 2013 –
perhaps that’s fitting for the Year of the Snake — but it’s great to
see an established series like GoW try something a little different.
Hopefully developers of this gen can follow suit and find their own
ways to take these types of risks, because, sadly the shooter genre as
we know it feels filled with repetition and Call of Duty wannabes these
days.

By Jose Otero