After the seemingly conclusive ending of Gears of War 3, it would appear that Epic Games had exhausted the narrative of Marcus Fenix and his Delta-one squad companions. We as gamers had followed Marcus and his squad through hell and back as they fought in the Locust War, the Lambent Pandemic, and finally against Queen Myrrah, all within the space of three titles. There were also a plethora of novels and comics released as well, each detailing events that took place in the Gears of War universe, filling us in as to their significance and influence upon Marcus and his squad. By the end of the original game trilogy, we find Marcus as a man grieving those dear to him that were lost, but also a man finally able to be at peace. It certainly wasn’t a happy ending per se, but it was one that offered hope for the surviving characters as they begin their lives anew. It was a solid, effective finale that really went against the aggressive and often overtly violent tone of the overall series.
But when one truly looks at the general narrative of the original Gears of War trilogy, it certainly would not be defined as having great writing. When one considers the abundance of backstory hinted sporadically throughout the first three games, the ability to elaborate on such a rich history within those games could have made them all the more engaging to play through, but alas, the Gears of War trilogy suffered from the old “read the novels/comics to find out more” syndrome. This would have been fine, but to present a vivid universe—with the video game series being the most popular form in which to express such a universe—as one where you only receive minute hints as to the larger contextual world and the characters that accompany it, it all just seems lackadaisical on the part of the game series’ writers.
This approach can be most prominently seen in Gears of War 3, a game which offered a narrative that crammed in so many new characters, enemies, and plot elements, that the unnecessarily elongated nature of the game’s story was blatantly, almost embarrassingly obvious throughout playing it. So much could have been done to remedy this aspect of the game, but it appeared as though Epic didn’t know where to go in terms of writing a cohesive narrative, let alone one that generally felt more for its characters and their dire circumstances.
It certainly came as a surprise to me then to hear the announcement of Gears of War: Judgment at E3 2012. What came as even more of a surprise was that Gears of War: Judgment was going to be a prequel to the original game trilogy with a heavy focus on multiple playable characters in an attempt to revitalize a series that even I will suggest was, well, getting somewhat stale. The most surprising aspect of the announcement to me though was the considerable attention that Gears of War: Judgment was given in terms of its story. The whole premise of the game is based upon the retelling of previous events told through the perspective of multiple characters, an approach that separates Gears of War: Judgment from any of the previous entries in the series. This was a game that would, at least from a conceptual point, attempt to bring the narrative of Gears of War to the forefront as a viable form of storytelling rather than appearing as a mere afterthought to its gameplay.
As with any long running endeavor though, the announcement of a fourth entry in a series that hasn’t exactly tried to do too much in terms of stepping outside the traditional boundaries established by its first game, Gears of War: Judgment was initially seen by me as a bizarre attempt to rectify a premise that had simply depleted itself. I mean, regardless of what I may have thought about the new direction that the game would take in terms of storytelling, it would all boil down to the same experience; fighting Locust, ducking mechanics, and witty banter from the characters. While this is not to suggest that I dislike these elements of the series, it does leave much to be desired. These feelings collided with my initial impression going in, but after playing through Judgment, one can’t deny just how much actually has changed due to the additional focus on its narrative.
Firstly, Gears of War: Judgment in and of itself is a game that from the very beginning focuses on the relatively immediate aftermath of Emergence Day, an event in which the Locust horde ascended from the subterranean depths of the planet Sera to attack the human race. What makes this an interesting starting point for Judgment is that E-Day was an event that held considerable importance in the Gears of War timeline. This is an aspect of the series’ universe that we never were able to play through, with Gears of War: Judgment providing the opportunity to do so in exceptional fashion. Along one’s journey we see relatively still intact buildings, uncontaminated human corpses, and on occasion, even bright blue skies. Gears of War: Judgment’s world is essentially one that remains mostly untouched by the Locust horde, free of the post-apocalyptic landscapes witnessed in the original trilogy.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Gears of War: Judgment focuses intently on providing a more simplistic, yet engaging narrative structure that integrates both story and gameplay rather seamlessly. The strength of such a development decision relies on the narrative structure being told essentially through flashback sequences, allowing us as the player to view how specific events are interpreted by the game’s characters. As the game proceeds, we are given first hand accounts of the events that transpired through these characters, each offering their own perspective, reasoning, and motive towards being in Kilo squad. This is all going on as one plays, without the need for many cutscenes to interject in order to explain the story. This approach also develops a sense of suspense as the narrative unfolds, easing us as gamers into the mysterious circumstances surrounding Kilo squad’s charges of treason.
Whereas the original trilogy relied mostly on a traditional “us versus them” narrative framework intermixed with minor character development, Gears of War: Judgment provides greater character development as it consistently shifts its attention to individual members of Kilo squad. We begin to view them as a collective group of distinct individuals, rather than mostly exploring one man, as in the case of the original trilogy. Whether this is viewed in Sofia’s reevaluation of her ethical boundaries, to Garron’s adjusting to his status as a COG soldier given his past, to even Baird’s moral dilemma in unleashing a weapon of immense destruction, Gears of War: Judgment’s narrative twist and turns as we learn more about these characters, the decisions they make, and the far reaching influence they had in regards to the original trilogy.
This unique approach broadens how one perceives the ability of the Gears of War franchise to remain interesting. While some individuals may view this entry as simply an unnecessary promotion of a series long past its prime, the story development found within Gears of War: Judgment is largely an improvement over its predecessors. The extensive backstory of the Gears of War universe called for such approach, and while the fact of the game being a prequel may dissuade some gamers from investing time into playing it, the game’s narrative elevates the strength of the franchise as a whole, in turn making Gears of War: Judgment’s story a refreshing experience that even the most jaded Gears of War fan can appreciate.