- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The start of Emergence Day and the exploits of Kilo Squad come to heroic light in the third-person, sci-fi shooter Gears of War: Judgment  (Microsoft Studios and Epic Games, Rated Mature, reviewed for the Xbox 360, $59.99).

After three popular adventures tied to Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad’s struggles against the Locust Horde, gamers get a prequel to that epic story starring less grizzled versions of COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) soldiers Lt. Damon Baird and Augustus Cole while introducing new warriors Garron Paduk and Sophia Hendrick.

As standard to the Gears of War franchise, up to four friends can work through the evolving campaign on the besieged planet Sera.

The plot ties to saving the crumpled resort town of Halvo Bay from being overrun by an aggressive and dunderheaded enemy packed with firepower.

Taking part in an extended series of episodic flashbacks during the ad hoc court marshal trial of Lt. Baird, the testimony of each Kilo squad mate transforms into the action as a player or players take control of the principal soldiers.

Fans will be happy to know that the war against such ferocious, Orc-like foes is as gritty, nasty and gross as ever with plenty of reason to take cover or run and get followed by that signature shaky camera.

Some of the rogue’s gallery to attack across the battlefield include creatures such as Boomers (wielding grenade launchers), massive flying insectoid Reavers (with a drone gunner mounted on top of them), shrieking Kantus (spewing poison ink) Serapedes (really big, acid-spitting centipedes), exploding Tickers (with jets of flame shooting from their backs before they blow up), enraged Ragers (that transform into horned red bullies) and Corpsers (large, spider-like creepy crawlers).

Characters have access to dozens of weapons culled from either side of the conflict, readily switched from squad mates or picked up from fallen foes. Some have enough power to literally blow apart Locusts into pieces one might find in a local butcher shop.

The cleverly named arsenal includes a Scorcher (blacken grubs like marshmallows over a fire pit), a Tripwire Crossbow (blue beacons shot in place and set to explode when getting too near), a Mulcher (gatling gun), Booshka (grenade launcher), Gnasher Shotgun, Markza, Breechshot (high caliber rifle), Scorcher and Butcher Cleaver, to name a few.

Of course, the Lancer Assault Rifle, a COG’s best friend, is back to inflict its sadistic damage through a chainsaw attachment on its end to literally cut through an enemy.

The violent onscreen spectacle is heart pounding at every turn, punctuated by a more colorful landscape and high-speed action. So much so that the lesser player will find himself stopped in panic mode as the hordes of foes attack from all sides.

The twist to the constant barrage of overtly violent, frenetic firefights is not only collecting a possible three stars for fighting Gears of War-style but a choice to make life even more difficult by choosing Declassified Missions to discover facts omitted from official record. Look for the Gears glowing red skull logo on a wall before entering a battle and choose wisely before taking that mutated assignment.

Examples of these mission extras include evacuating an area in under 4 minutes (before a Hammer of Dawn strike occurs), fighting unknown Locust variants (giggle), protecting ancient armor in a museum, restrictive use of weapons, destroying all Locust egg sacks and having a soldier’s vision impaired by toxic gas during the assault.

It’s always worth taking the Declassified Missions because players are rewarded stars quicker for efforts at the end of each micro mission. Accumulating stars leads to helping unlock weapon skins and characters for the various modes.

More importantly, the quicker you accumulate 40 stars, the quicker a player can take part in the unlockable campaign called Aftermath.

The roughly three hour long event connects the Judgment story to the Gears trilogy while wrapping up some loose ends.

It plops us on Halvo Bay again, 24 hours before Marcus Fenix unleashes the Immulsion Cure. The foursome of C. Carmine, Paduk, Cole and Baird go looking for reinforcements but players find more traditional Gears of War game play.

Epic Games also tries to satisfy the multiplayer maniac with new options.

I’ll mention two of the five that I really enjoyed.

First, OverRun is a class-based (engineer, soldier, scout and medic) competition of five versus five, pitting COG soldiers versus Locust. That’s right, just like Beast mode (from Gears of War 3) with control of bad guys such as the medic like Kantos (scream to heal), an awesome Serapede, and the chance to scurry around as a too-cute Ticker. Cash upgrades during success in matches against the COG leads to using stronger Locust forces.

Action involves either protecting or attacking areas featuring generators and Emergence hole covers. Teammate coordination is key here, so break out the mics and headphones.

Next, I loved the enhanced Horde Mode now called Survival. Once again, like OverRun, protect areas against 10 waves of increasingly difficult Locust attacks.

So far, 2013 is shaping up as the year of the prequels with amazing efforts from Lara Croft in Tomb Raider and Kratos’ return in God of War: Ascension.

The bloody streak continues with Gears of War: Judgment. It may not break much new ground but delivers action-packed comfort fodder for fans of the franchise that loved being tossed into the dire straits of the Gears fantasy war universe.

Parental advice: The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), after watching Sofia Hendrick charge a pasty Locust Grenadier and use the blade of a Retro Lancer to skewer it like a living shish kabob decided to label this game “M” and that stands for mature — adults 17-years and older need only try to control a Gears of War: Judgment. So don’t let your 14–year-old convince you that “the Locust look like plastic action figures, and I’m just fighting against some really creepy monsters” The game rewards aggressive kills and delivers gratuitous content featuring heavy firepower with blood often spurting on the screen. I will mention a filter can be turned on to lessen the gore, but this is still a game loaded with graphic moments.

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