Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, as I attempt to review Gears Tactics without mentioning XCOM. And before you say anything, the review hasn’t started yet…
I was among the apparent majority of people who were surprised when Gears of War developer The Coalition announced that there was going to be a turn-based strategy Gears spin-off. After all, Gears of War is not a franchise often associated with tactics or, indeed, thinking in general. These are games about large men with large guns sawing monsters in half. Gears, as a series, is rather like a five-year-old splashing in a puddle; loud, messy and gleefully mindless. It’s just in this case the five-year-old is a heavily armed bodybuilder and the puddle is some bastard’s ribcage.
It wasn’t until I started playing Gears Tactics that I realised this meathead-and-potatoes franchise is actually quite a good fit for the genre. A lot of the required elements are already in place. After all, “small group of soldiers with their backs to the wall try to fight off a monstrous invasion” describes more than one game of this type. Add to that the varied enemy types, the defined aesthetic and the established (if rather convoluted) backstory of the main series games, and there’s a lot to work with.
Despite the shift in genre, Gears Tactics is unmistakably a Gears of War game. Developed by Splash Damage, with assistance from The Coalition, they’ve stayed true to the look, feel and themes of the third-person shooters that came before. As it happens though, the story is actually set before the very first Gears game.
It follows Sgt. Gabe Diaz, and opens on the day Chairman Prescott of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) orders planet-wide strikes using the Hammer of Dawn weapons system against the invading Locust horde. At the last minute, he gets orders to accompany Maj. Sid Redburn on a special mission. This kicks off a series of events which require the pair to build a team of soldiers to hunt down Ukkon, a high-ranking Locust responsible for creating some of their most fearsome creatures.
If none of that makes sense then don’t worry. The plot is not the main selling point here. As with the earlier games, it’s serviceable enough so long as you don’t stop to ask too many questions. The point is, there’s a job to do and it’s up to you to get it done. Along the way, you’ll need to recruit soldiers, scavenge weapon upgrades and equipment, and fight through hordes of increasingly tough Locust.
The first thing I noticed when starting out is that they didn’t skimp on the production values. Spin-off this may be, but the cut-scenes are essentially of the same quality as the main series. In fact, the art design in general is pretty good. Yes, it’s stuck with the same largely brown-grey colour palette as the older games, but it’s well executed. The main cast voice acting is great, and the general sound design is entirely reminiscent of the other Gears games.
Although the camera does sometimes get a bit lost, particularly when the action is spread out, there’s none of the “shoot through walls” jank of similar games. That’s partly because there’s not that many walls in most environments, but its good design too. Every level is well laid out and has multiple options for attack. High ground here, flanking positions there. That goes the same for the enemy.
The emphasis of Gears Tactics is very much on action. It has multiple ways of forcing the pace, like timers, control points and encroaching areas of instant death-from-above. And even during missions where you need to dig in, you’re encouraged to split your forces. This is a game which rewards aggression. But you’ll be on the defensive at times as well: Gears Tactics chucks enemies at you by the bucket load.
There’s good variety to those enemies too. They’ve all been lifted from the previous titles, but some have been tweaked a bit. Drones act defensively and try to lock down areas with overwatch. Wretches suicidally swarm your soldiers. Boomers are lumbering bullet sponges. Although there is often a high volume of targets, even a handful of Locust can be dangerous.
Fortunately, your own soldiers are pretty handy too. Your troops are split into five classes, ranging from snipers to shotgun-wielding scouts. Weapons are locked to class type, but are modifiable using equipment recovered from missions or given as rewards. Each class has an extensive skill tree, with soldiers levelling up as they gain experience.
Your squad size is limited, but that expands as you progress. Some story missions are followed by side missions, which encourage you to vary your squad. For example, you might be required to complete two of three available missions in order to proceed. You can choose which missions to do, but you won’t be able to use the squad members on both. Additionally, side missions have optional objectives and/or modifiers which encourage certain play styles.
The squad building is one of the ways Gears Tactics fell a bit flat for me. Your fighters are split between “Heroes”, who are critical to the story and appear in the cut-scenes, and “Troops” who are the recruitable grunts. The death of a hero character will result in an immediate mission failure, but the regular troops can be killed permanently. However, there are always ready replacements free to recruit. They’ll be appropriately levelled for the current point in the story too.
There is no base management or wider strategic layer in Gears Tactics. While that does lead to more time getting into the action, it also means squad building is the only real area of development. The issue is there’s no risk in it. If a soldier dies, they can be immediately replaced at no cost. Any weapon or armour mods the dead soldier had equipped are returned. There’s no real sense of jeopardy in that respect.
Although that’s a shame, there are a lot of positives here, too. New enemies are introduced at a good rate. I felt like I was always being kept on my toes and constantly reassessing my strategy. That’s not to say I hit any brick walls in terms of difficulty. Maybe it’s just feeding the same power fantasy as the traditional Gears games, but Tactics felt like it walked the line between challenging and punishing quite well. That’s on intermediate difficulty mind you – I’m sure those looking to really push themselves will be accommodated!
This is particularly true during the set-piece boss battles which end each story act. Here you have to grind down a single massive enemy, while also trying to keep on top of the “regular” Locust which threaten to overwhelm your team. Even here, holding a single, defensible point is made impossible by the fact the boss monsters invariably also deny areas of the map with damaging attacks.
There are some neat innovations to the genre as well. The biggest is that Splash Damage has done away with the grid-based movement system common to the majority of turn-based tactics games. Initially, I was worried that would lead to a lot of instances of my characters not quite being in cover, or misjudging what I could and couldn’t shoot at. However, it’s very well implemented. Your soldiers will snap to cover when they’re close enough. In fact, their movement range will be slightly increased if they slide into cover – a nod to the wall-bouncing antics of the main games’ multiplayer modes.
That’s not the only thing directly replicated from the shooters. The franchise’s famous executions are present and correct. Most are animated exactly the same way too. Here though, they serve a purpose beyond just covering the camera in blood (although they do that as well). If one of your soldiers executes a downed enemy, your other squad members get an extra action on the current turn. Again, this incentivises maintaining forward momentum.
Actions, including moving, shooting and special skills, can be performed in any order as well. This affords great flexibility in how you carry out your missions. Putting a character into overwatch will end their turn, but any leftover actions will translate into extra shots taken against any enemy crossing their field of fire.
Another plus for veterans of the genre is that overwatch firing zones are clearly defined and variable in terms of range. Most main weapon ranges are quite short; I suppose that’s what happens when you prioritise gun-mounted chainsaws over accuracy. Adjustable ranges mean you’re troops are less likely to waste shots on impossible targets.
All things considered, I was impressed by Gears Tactics. It’s taken well-established fundamentals of both its chosen genre and the Gears franchise and merged them into a fun and challenging original title. I’m still a bit surprised, and not just by the fact that it exists at all. For starters, Gears Tactics is, at least for now, only available on PC. An Xbox version is in development, but there’s no release date as yet, which is a first for a series so synonymous with the console.
There’s also no multiplayer mode. I don’t see that as a negative, as I’d have no interest in it anyway, but it underlines how much of a departure this is for a franchise where multiplayer is usually such a focus. There are also no micro-transactions, which is a relief, especially given the increasingly egregious monetisation of the main series. Given that the equipment upgrades you earn in game come in ‘cases’ of varying colours and rarity that you open up, there is a hint that maybe this wasn’t always the plan. Either way, I’m glad it’s worked out the way it is.
In summary, if you’re looking for an enjoyable game which is a combat-focused, innovative spin on the XCOM (ah, shit) formula, then check out Gears Tactics. Even if you’ve never played a Gears of War game in your life, you’ll pick up everything you need to know within the first 20 minutes. An intellectually-stimulating Gears of War game – what a time to be alive…
Gears Tactics was developed by Splash Damage and The Coalition, and is available on PC.
Disclosure statement: review code for Gears Tactics was provided by Edelman UK. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.
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