So, here’s something exciting – Gears of War: Judgement comes out tomorrow! Wasn’t that fast?
First of all, let me get something straight, especially because I don’t think I’ve ever written about Gears before on this blog.
I friggin’ love Gears of War, but I’ll be honest here, because the series doesn’t exactly deserve applause all across the board. The characters are fairly flat and uninteresting, and the writing won’t win any awards anytime soon, even though John DiMaggio does an absolutely fantastic job as Marcus Fenix. His voice is the very essence of large testosterone-fueled men with chainsaw guns, and I can’t see it any other way. As for the setting, ask a bunch of Gears fans what planet the games take place on, and a sizable bunch of them will probably answer Earth – a testament to just how forgettable the world of Sera (as it is actually called) really is.
But when it comes down to actually playing Gears – y’know, the part that matters most – oh man, does it deliver. The original Gears of War won me over the second I laid eyes on it back at Video Games Live in 2007. The characters feel grounded, the weapons feel weighty, and combat is intense, in-your-face, and relentless – and I love that. Shooters today embrace the idea of massive maps, but large arenas create some distinct problems – Battlefield players are well-acquainted with being shot from cross-map with a sniper they most likely never even saw. Gears keeps things up close and personal, with maps that promote and often force close-quarters confrontation, leading to combat that feels fast-paced, but also distinctly grounded. Players are encouraged to rely heavily on cover in order to stay alive, but the best Gears players play off their environments in a form of acrobatic platforming, bouncing off of walls and evading enemy fire with ease. It’s an aspect of the series that I think many people are quick to overlook, and it’s what makes the multiplayer simply irresistible. To this day, nothing gets my heart racing like a one-on-one shotgun duel in Gears – all it takes is a misjudged barrel roll, and suddenly you’re splattered all over the floor, reduced to mere piles of flesh and blood. That’s another thing – Gears certainly makes an incredible effort to satisfy bloodthirsty gamers like myself, and in terms of digital brutality, few other games compare.
So to me, any new Gears title is very much a good thing. However, I was skeptical when Judgment was initially announced, seeing as how at the time Gears of War 3 had only been out for a year. Epic has a good reputation for not shoveling out yearly sequels, but suddenly, I was presented with a situation where that seemed very much the case.
Cliff Bleszinski leaving Epic back in October only made things seem worse. At first, I wondered if it was because he felt the game wasn’t up to his own standards. Fortunately, he would give it his blessing in a tweet later on, which helped ease my fears and gave me a good laugh in the process.
Then came the gameplay videos and the controversial changes, and here’s where I got worried. In particular, there were two changes – or should I say removals – that really irked me. Suddenly, Judgement getting CliffyB’s praise wasn’t enough. Nope, this was some serious shit.
The first was that the down-but-not-out system was going to be completely removed from Judgment multiplayer. Yeah, you know, one of those satisfyingly brutal, signature mechanics that had been in Gears from the start, the one that made up at least 33% of the fun involved in taking someone down in multiplayer? Poof – gone!
Say goodbye to half or more of these delicious executions from Gears 3.
To me, this made absolutely no rational sense. Gears had been building the execution system up from the start, and in Gears 3, it’s brutal evolution had grown to near-perfection. Why throw away all of that devilishly gruesome goodness for nothing? As Epic claimed, it was to speed up the game – as they see it, players are tired of having to make sure enemies are 100% dead before moving on. My answer to that is this – sure, gamers aren’t accustomed to having to double-check. Call of Duty encourages the player to shoot first and ask questions later, to constantly be moving with the finger ready on the trigger. But is being different really a bad thing? The DBNO system may have slowed down the game, but for good reason – it was empowering, beautifully grotesque, and above all, satisfying – an attribute that Gears has in spades. So why take that all away?
The second change is a lot more cosmetic, but it affects the gameplay a lot more than I initially thought. In Judgment versus multiplayer, there are no Locust to be found – none. You can’t play as them, and don’t expect to be shooting them either. Instead, expect to be shooting at your own friends from the friggin’ single-player. That’s right. Hear Baird screaming in pain from around the corner? Get Marcus (you) over there and finish his whiny ass off with a shotgun blast to the mouth – because this is all totally canon, right?
The idea here is that Epic wants people to feel like they can really customize and get behind their player character. In previous Gears games, you picked a skin for both COG and Locust teams, because you’d be randomly assigned into either of them when playing online. This was a good thing, and it’s entirely self-explanatory. The game is about humans fighting Locust, so why would the multiplayer be any different? This is going to remove a fundamentally strategic aspect of Gears versus forever – auditory cues. No longer will you be able to rely on your own environment to pinpoint enemies, because everyone will have a human voice. I can’t tell you how many times I got the upper hand on an enemy in Gears 2 & 3 because I heard them shouting or breathing heavily from around a corner. But nope, throw away your sense of hearing, because that’s irrelevant in Gears Judgement! Get used to shooting everyone and everything out of extreme paranoia.
So, those two things scared me. In fact, they almost got me to cancel my pre-order plans entirely – that’s how weirded out I was. I mean, what were the developers thinking? Are these just dumb changes for the sake of making changes? It sure seems that way.
Then I played it.
On a whim, something convinced me to give it a chance. I mean, this is Gears. I can’t get enough of it. Of course I’m excited. So, I pre-ordered, got my beta code, and went online to play some OverRun, the new gametype that is essentially horde mode versus.
Suddenly, I forgot all about my fears regarding the game. There I was, blowing people’s heads off cleanly again, landing perfect nade sticks, and generally having a blast.
Then I remembered something. This mode that I was playing and enjoying so very much was one of the only modes not affected by Judgment’s big dumb changes (the ones outlined above, at least). It’s still classic Locust versus Human, with even more guns and Locust to choose from. There’s a DBNO system, and medics that can revive downed teammates. Well shit – no wonder Judgment and I were getting along so well. It was showing me exactly what I wanted!
Watching some early free-for-all gameplay lessened my fears, especially because the consensus thus far is that none of these changes are really worth complaining about. But of course, I will have to see for myself. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on this sick puppy tomorrow. The reviews have been pretty much exactly what I expected – single-player is just okay, but multiplayer is a blast. I’m more than okay with that.
I’ll have some impressions either up tomorrow or for Wednesday’s backlog update. Until then, happy gaming! Good god, Judgment – please don’t let me down.