Tuesday, 14 January 2014

"Gears of War: Judgment" Review

by Alex Hill

I... think I like Gears of War: Judgment. But it's not a game that's trying particularly hard to be liked. I'm not sure what it wants to be. It's too big to be DLC for a previous game. The changes are both too extensive to be an add-on, but too grounded in the past to be its' own product. It's too small in focus to be the long-term leveling shooter that Gears 3 was. It doesn't invest in its' characters quite enough to be story-based. If you described it to police, it would be a fat, thin, tall, short, young, old person.

On the one hand, it does encourage playing the standard game in creative and interesting ways with its' "Declassified Missions". Wherein you have to complete a stage using weapons or under circumstances you wouldn't normally try. And I do enjoy the smaller, more focused alterations made to existing franchise game types.

(For example: the streamlined, class-based version of Horde mode called "Survival". As fun as Horde mode can be, it tends to drag on. Survival cuts the otherwise 50-round game down to a lean 10, and I think it's better for it.)

But on the other hand, this game does not understand how checkpoints work. Ideally, a checkpoint is insurance. A divider line between one really difficult, unfair, bullshit group of enemies and the next. It should also take place AFTER a long, boring, unskippable piece of dialogue. Losing is punishment enough. Anything more is just cruelty. I wish more game developers understood this.

While it's nowhere near as bad as the first Gears of War, Judgment does fuck up this concept pretty badly. It operates under the conceit that because "levels" are now split into chunks of theoretically smaller conflicts, that it doesn't need checkpoints. I want to kick the face of whoever at developer People Can Fly suggested this.

"I'm sure they'll like this so much they'll want to do it twelve times!"

The thing I was looking forward to most, a Campaign where Baird, my favourite character in the series is the main focus turns out to be a letdown. He's never really given anything to say or do. And it doesn't even bother introducing the new characters, or explaining why these people are following him. It does prove that the series doesn't need boring slab of muscle Marcus Fenix to carry itself, but this game forgets why Baird brought a lot of colour to a drab and bland First Person Shooter.

A prequel to the main series, in the early days of the Locust invasion, Baird and his squad are put on trial for war crimes which are not entirely clear at first. The game is told through testimony of each member of Kilo Squad, giving small insight into what they'll do to stop a threat that isn't mentioned anywhere else in the series and was clearly made up for this game. The persistence of holding the trial in the middle of a warzone can be amusing, as the testimony is often interrupted by Locust barging in and attacking. But despite the differences between the four characters, they're all fairly interchangeable in personality and in their descriptions of the events.

While there is quite a bit here that's new to the series, I was surprised at the amount of content that is just copied and pasted from Gears 3. Most of the soundtrack isn't new, and even character models are just recycled here.

The mutiplayer matchmaking is bizarrely outdated as well, probably owing(again) to just re-using the setup from Gears 3. You're kicked out of specific game modes if you don't have ALL of the paid DLC, which is probably why no one really plays this game online. The highest number of people online I've seen was around 200. Even Halo 4 can manage to get around 1,000 people playing at any given time, and that game is one of history's greatest crimes. Developers: you don't get to be surprised that no one is playing the game you won't let them play.

Even dumber is the attempt to find a match to play in. If Judgment's matchmaking tries to set up a game, and then finds out you don't have the DLC, it doesn't just tell you. IT LOGS YOU OUT. You have to go all the way back to the "Press Start" screen, then load up your profile, and then to the main menu, and then you have to select which mode you want to try out again.

Wow, it's like living in 1993! Game design this sloppy is inexcusable.

But by far the most infuriating change I've seen involves being the host player of a match. In some games, there's an unfair "Host Advantage". Their connection is better by default, they can take more damage, they can do more damage, they're just better because.

This game does the opposite. It gives you a host disadvantage. Normally if you get hurt too much, you become incapacitated. You crawl around and can't fight until either you die, or a team-mate helps you up. Left 4 Dead does something similar. In Judgment, if you're the host, you always die. Always. Every time. You can never be prone. You can never be Down, But Not Out. You just explode into chunks the moment a gentle breeze hits you. Which means in the campaign, you have to mostly sit in a corner sucking your thumb while your friends get to have all of the fun.

I struggle to understand how anyone could see this as an improvement.

I don't think anyone set out to make this a bad game. I'm glad they tried, I'm glad they experimented with it. But I'm not sure a new Gears of War was really necessary right now. I wasn't really sure of where the series could go after Gears 3, and now I see I'm not the only one.

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