Older geeks will recall their first experience with fan-made vids: mine was Troops, which debuted at San Diego Comic-Con '97, but I took notice via that new website YouTube. Set on Tatooine, the ten-minute short followed the Empire's finest with a Handicam a la Cops (this was the '90s, after all), and eventually, the guys in white plastic checked in on a "domestic disturbance" at the Skywalker homestead. The whole endeavor was funny and inspiring; sadly, my VHS-edited The Titanic's Cookbook: Meals to Die for has yet to be transferred to digital media.
The latest offering from Epic (developed by People Can Fly, who made the underrated Bulletstorm) is not some game made "by fans for fans"; however, with Gears creator Cliffy B having left the company, Judgment as an experience vacillates from "Cool new tale in the Gears universe" to "Why would anyone think this was an interesting timeline to explore?"
Set 15 years before the events of the original trilogy, the story focuses on the exploits of Damon Baird, Augustus Cole (both introduced in previous installments) and two new members of Kilo squad. Baird, in particular, is much cockier; he has no love for following orders at the expense of saving lives. The experience is akin to someone making a Band of Brothers prequel video so we could see what Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer) was doing before WWII.
Here are the five-best/five worst ways the latest Gears of War echoes whacked-out fan made stuff.
5. Gameplay and Visuals Are Still Gears Great.
The key to any thrilling fan-made material is the attention to detail: having everything "feel" like the original property. Judgment has that in spades. The "destroyed beauty" look is probably the best it's ever been, with rain-soaked trenches and sunburst buildings giving the locale of Halvo Bay a "Gears on holiday" feel. (This is where being published by Epic works to the title's advantage.) The duck and cover is perfect. The red-screened "Objective Failed" looks the same as it has for the past seven years, which a good thing: you don't change certain aspects just because you can. (If J.J. Abrams decides to ditch the opening crawl for Star Wars VII he will be a baaaad robot!)
One change that some might find irksome, but I enjoyed: Instead of using the directional button to change up to four weapons, now you only have two equippable weapons plus a grenade type. Switching guns feels very Halo or COD now by hitting the Y button. I liked this cleaner, less fussy way of playing.
4. The Declassified Element Is Silly From a Narrative POV but Pretty Addicting for Gamers
You all know that big, red-skulled cog symbol, right? At the start of each section you have the opportunity to walk up to the icon on a wall, and hit X to open up "declassified" mode. If you choose this then the character you are currently playing will have voice-over like "You might not believe this, but suddenly we were low on ammo and had to defeat Locusts with only frag grenades." Ridiculous? Yup, but the incentive is earning more experience points. You can gain up to three stars for each section plus bonuses, unlocks and more. Unfortunately, about half way through the assignments recycle ("frag grenades, again!"). Still, any COG vet will want to play this way for bragging' rights.
3. The Dialogue is Actually Better than in the Original Series
"Locust at every-o-clock!" says nervous cadet Sophia. "It's go time, baby!" exclaims Cole over and over. The characters and dialogue of the Gears universe have always been at their best embracing over-the-top clichés, and at worst, dull. Fortunately, the constant bickering between members of Kilo squad is pretty entertaining throughout.
Question for any uber fan: since this takes place on the planet Sera and not Earth, why is new soldier Garron Paduk so Cold War Russiany? He's one of my favorite characters, for sure, but making him so Eastern European is a bit jarring. Has this been the case in other Gears? Am I forgetting this?
BTW, Sophia turns out had an affair with a married scientist. That's good fan fiction just waiting to be expanded on!
2. That's the Biggest Centipede-Thing I've Ever Tried to Stomp with the B Button
Well, I'm not hungry now...
A lot of Judgment recycles beasties from the previous games but there's a moment early on where this insanely big centipede-looking thing just will not stop trying to kill you. It's an exhilarating moment that's so unexpected. The usual Locust creature will duck and cover as you do: they look and sound (and no doubt smell) like monsters but they have the good sense (and code) to not want to get shot, but the endless-legged snapper is all about hunting you down. That sense of "what do I do now?!" is relentless.
1. Best of All, the Whole Endeavor Makes You Remember Why You're a Fan of the Series
The Gears trilogy was about a war-torn world filled with soldiers that were beyond world-weary. While I don't love all the characters (um, see #5 next page) there is no denying that the whole project feels exciting again. Admit it, Gears 3 had a terrific closer, but overall the third outing felt like a different kind of worn. Worn out. That's what new blood - be it writers or artists (probably ones who were fans before) - can do so well: put the boom back in those boom sticks. If you're a fan or new to the series, this is a great way to begin.
Up next, the BAD