It seems to be prequel season in videogames. Especially when it comes to cult series. We had just been given a glimpse of what Lara Croft was before she became THE Lara Croft in the latest Tomb Raider game, while God of War: Ascension took us to the early days of the mighty Kratos, before he started tangling with Zeus and the other Gods. And now we have Gears of War, one of the most popular titles for the Xbox, yanking us into territory that does not feature perhaps the game’s most iconic character, Marcus Fenix, in its latest title, Gears of War: Judgement. Interestingly, this is also the first Gears of War game to be made by Polish studio People Can Fly (best known for the uber violent Painkiller and Bulletstorm).
Mind you, the new developers have not tampered with the core strength of the game--a futuristic world based on the planet Sera on which humans battle against creatures known as Locusts, with guns and explosions galore. Leading the human vanguard are special soldiers known as “Gears” and your task is to slip into their ample boots and prod some alien buttock, as you help the Coalition of Ordered Governments battle the Locust, who, of course, want to occupy the planet and kill everyone. Judgement sees you step into Gear boots again, but this time the main character is not the charismatic Marcus Fenix but two characters who have appeared in the series but in a secondary role, Damon Baird and Augustus Cole.
What’s more, they start the game in the dock, facing a military tribunal, accused of a crime that we know nothing about (that’s why the game is called Judgement, see?). The game then unfolds as a series of flashbacks, with a number of missions, involving taking out the Locusts and fighting for territory. The testimony of each squad member is a chapter in its own right and gives one different perspectives of events. Sounds confusing? Well, it works so well that for the first time, we must admit that we found the story of a Gears of War game a lot more compelling than the action-- Baird and Cole are not the smart alecks that we have seen in the past but are much more uncertain and vulnerable and their teammates in Kilo Squad also have their problems.
Apart from the enemy, of course. There are Locust hordes in sackfuls in this game and they are not exactly gun and grenade fodder - we were stunned at the number of times we engaged a group, only to discover some of them having sneaked up behind us. Incidentally, the environs have lost that grimly grey look that was a Gears of War signature--they are much more colourful and spectacular. Gameplay is pretty much the shoot-run-jump-dive type, although a spin thrown in is the inclusion of Declassifiers which change the difficulty levels of a mission (your ammo could get slashed or you could face more enemies). A huge improvement is also the AI of your squadmates, who actually act intelligently in battle instead of charging headlong into it.
It has got the story. It has got the looks. And even a couple of new multiplayer modes once you are through the approximately 15-hour-long single player campaign, including Overrun. It is typical Gears of War fare, only with more action, better graphics and hey, a story that extends beyond the “they-are-bad-we-are-good-so-let’s-kill-them” theme that marks its predecessors. If we had a problem with the game, it was with the slightly non-stop action, which got a bit predictable after a while and the absence of some really hefty boss battles. But not enough to stop us from calling Judgement the best game of the series.