Gears of War: Judgment review: Horde mentality

There is a parable at the heart of Gears of War: Judgment, a tale of many people affecting the one. Though the words "Horde mode" are not to be found on its main menu, it is this revelatory multiplayer invention of Gears of War 2 that makes Gears of War: Judgment such a success.

The guiding principles and universal value of its simple proposition – you and your pals fight back against ever-encroaching waves of enemies – have been so bluntly interwoven into the campaign and multiplayer components of Gears of War: Judgment that it's impossible to miss. Horde mode helped put the Gears of War series on the map and, while the mode itself is technically absent from Gears of War: Judgment, the entire game is a learned execution of its logic.
%Gallery-180989% The plot is straightforward. Near the initial moments of Emergence Day, when the people of Sera were attacked by the subterrestrial Locust army, series regular Baird was the freshly-minted Lieutenant of Kilo squad. Together with his band of big personalities, he seizes an opportunity to take out a substantial Locust force near Halvo Bay, directly disobeying orders in the process. Eventually this choice sees Kilo squad on trial for treason.

At present, the foursome is on trial, which sets up the structure for the rest of the campaign. Each chapter is divided into each character's testimony, with a prologue chapter and final present-day chapter to bookend the whole thing. The gameplay segments themselves are composed of the events that each member of Kilo squad recounts, the player controlling the deposed through each chapter.

Each individual's deposition has an added wrinkle thanks to the declassification system, which allows players to opt for a more difficult or sometimes more varied version of the game's missions. Examples include limiting what weapons you or enemies are allowed to use, what types of enemies you'll face or how much time you have to make it through the next skirmish. Declassifications not only change the gameplay, but how each Kilo member recalls the event in question in the courtroom – a nice touch.

Even though the majority of declassifications follow the same pattern, there exist a few that really validate the concept. One mission has Kilo squad pushing through an archives building filled with dusty old books. If you choose to battle through the declassified version, your vision is greatly impaired by all the dust clinging to the air, and you'll face Theron guards who rush you through the gloom with giant cleavers. Compared to the vanilla version of the encounter – where you battle a cluster of random enemies in typical cover-based fashion, with no special modifiers attached – the declassified version proves much more interesting and intense, and it serves as a prime example of the variety that the declassification system brings to the table.

Even without declassifications, though, battles in Gears of War: Judgment are a breath of fresh air for the series. Most of its encounters aren't scripted, thanks to developer People Can Fly's new dynamic spawning system, a sort of AI director that monitors your play and adjusts accordingly. No two encounters are the same. Death in a skirmish no longer means battling through the same group of enemies again – battles play out differently each time you play them. Your first time through a situation may see you fighting Kantus healers and grenadiers, the next a flood of Tickers and lambent Wretches. It's a brilliant addition that makes each firefight feel a bit more vicious, and it gives Gears of War: Judgment's campaign a replay value heretofore unseen in the series.

The Horde mode influence is sometimes so sharp, it slaps you in the face. Parts of the campaign charge Kilo squad with preparing for incoming waves of enemies by setting up defenses – mirroring the Horde mode we've all come to know. Thanks to the dynamic spawn system and its versatility, however, these encounters never suffer from the stop-and-go problems found in previous incarnations of Horde – you won't find stats screens and lengthy pre-wave waiting getting in the way of what's next. These missions are tighter, more isolated executions of wave-based assault, and they don't waste time jumping into the action.

Aftermath – the supplemental campaign chapter taking place during the events of Gears of War 3 – affirms all of the changes made in the Judgment campaign are for the better. Aftermath is a brisk, more traditional type of campaign chapter, full of scripted combat encounters that lack the added depth of declassifications and Judgment's new spawn system. It's proof positive that the design of Gears of War: Judgment's campaign should be the model going forward.

The multiplayer side is also heavily influenced by Horde mode, both in the mode's spiritual successor, Survival, and OverRun, a multiplayer variant of Gears of War 3's Beast mode. These two modes hog the multiplayer spotlight, joined by objective-based capture mode Domination, Free for All deathmatch and the requisite Team Deathmatch.

Survival and OverRun both employ classes, a first for the series. Engineers are responsible for repairing fortifications, while Soldiers have more health than the other classes and throw down ammo for the team. Medics have stim-grenades for long-distance revivals; the Scout has a grenade that can spot enemies through walls and adds debuffs to each tagged enemy, and he can scale certain parts of the environment.

Survival is the natural evolution of Horde, a class-based hybrid of Horde and Battlefield's Rush mode. Five players team up to guard an objective from 10 waves of progressively tougher CPU-controlled Locust enemies. If the Locust destroy the objective, the COGs fall back to the next one until eventually they're either pushed back to the final generator or manage to survive all 10 waves.

Survival works well as a Horde successor because it removes the fortifications management and competitive elements found in Gears of War 3's Horde mode and focuses responsibilities via the class system. Savvy players working together can quickly coordinate, maintain fortifications and respawn as many times as needed – even as a different class – and always know what their duties are. Horde mode may be gone in name, but Survival is a far better and evolved version of it.

OverRun, meanwhile, is essentially Beast mode against human-controlled COGs. In Gears of War 3, Beast mode let up to five players gather together and play as several different Locust unit types, destroying fortifications and CPU-controlled COG members across 12 waves. OverRun takes that concept and builds it out: the COGs defends an objective, just like in Survival, and can be pushed back, while the Locust team attacks. Each side plays a round as both human and Locust.

OverRun is fast and frenetic, sometimes so disparately chaotic that you can't help but just laugh at it all. This is especially true later on, when high-value Locust units start popping up – when multiple Corpsers come into play, burrowing underground and sneaking past COG lines to destroy the objective, things get hectic. The Locust are all about urgency and destruction, charging the humans and their pitiful objective relentlessly; COGs desperately defend vulnerable points as they try to fight back a tidal wave of oppression. Ultimately, OverRun provides a much more competitive and varied version of Beast mode, thanks to the incorporation of online play and class types that weren't present in the previous incarnation.

Whether it's multiplayer or single-player, Gears of War: Judgment proves that, for all of the series' trademark spectacle and flair, it all boils down to executing simple combat concepts well. A diligent approach to ensuring that no two encounters are the same keeps it from ever feeling stagnant or like a waste of your time. You're always moving, constantly pushing through the next enemy stronghold, never sure of what you'll face, and it's always harrowing.

Bringing People Can Fly in was a good choice, because the developer has managed to make fighting the Locust feel dangerous and new again, despite this being my fourth trip to Sera.

This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy of Gears of War: Judgment, provided by Microsoft.

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