Gears Tactics Preview
We get a look at the upcoming strategy game spinoff
Creating a spinoff game for a top franchise is always a risky proposition. You want to keep the series DNA intact, so to speak, while shifting either into a new setting or genre. Such is the task for Gears Tactics, an upcoming turn based strategy game. It's a departure from the franchise, best known for its third person action. Perhaps after seeing the success of Ubisoft's take on the XCOM formula with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, Microsoft decided to try their hand at a similar experience. For this task, they recruited developers Splash Damage, who most recently helped with multiplayer on the main Gears games. Halo Wars attempted a similar cross-genre spinoff and managed to succeed - albeit with developers that were already leaders in the genre. We had a chance to observe an hour-long presentation of Gears Tactics, as the game nears its April launch date.
The presentation was hosted by Tyler Bielman, design director on the title. He began by giving us a quick overview - at its heart, Gears Tactics is meant to be a PC experience (hence there being no Xbox One version), which means the team could focus on creating mechanics that fit the platform. We got a quick look at some of the advanced visual and control menus, including textures and post-processing, and were told that the game will have a benchmark mode.
While this is a top-down turn-based strategy experience, of which there are many on PC, the team wanted to differentiate itself from the pack. To that end, they wanted to preserve the aggressive nature of Gears; while you're always free to take as long as you want, the developers hope that players will choose to rush the battlefield and defeat its many foes. And there will be numerous foes, as another unique selling point. Unlike most games in the genre, there is no movement grid, to give players a bigger sense of freedom; though from the demo we saw, the movement still looks quite familiar for the genre. Players can choose from one of four difficulties, and can toggle an Ironman mode.
The first section of our live gameplay demo was at the very start of the game. The campaign takes place about 12 years before Gears of War 1, and follows Gabe Diaz, the father of Kait from Gears 4 & 5. The story follows Gabe on the hunt for a Locust scientist that's responsible for creating monsters. In the opening cinematic, that leads into the tutorial, we observe the events of Emergence Day once more, and a call for the Coalition forces to fight back. Gabe is just a leader of a motor pool, but he's thrust into action when a Gear named Sid shows up with orders to retrieve an important document. As the pair arrive at the target building, we get a look at some live gameplay.
If you've played the abovementioned Kingdom Battle, XCOM, Mutant Year Zero, or other games in this genre, the interface and look of Gears Tactics will be immediately familiar. You control up to four characters on a battlefield from an isometric camera perspective, and try to think ahead as you take turns with the enemy doing battle. Each character can perform up to three actions per turn, whether that be moving, shooting, or something else, and in any order. The goal is to clear the field, without losing your own. You click around to move, bring up a small menu to perform actions, and so on. When there's action, the camera swoops in and shows things up close.
Through the brief section of the introductory tutorial, we observe the pair of heroes take turns positioning and flanking the enemy, who try to do the same. Icons helpfully indicate if you have half or full cover, as well as line of sight. A familiar text box appears that shows your chances of a successful shot, and chances of a critical hit. This display is optional, if you just want to wing it. Perhaps the game's difficulty is balanced for the aggressive play that the developers mention, but as this was a hands-off demo, it was not possible to tell either way.
With the few starting baddies dispatched by using flanking and high percentage shots, we moved on to the second demo, taking place later in the campaign. Here, we had a look at some of the character options. There are 5 character classes in the game, each with over 30 abilities that are unlocked via a spread out skill tree. Each class has a signature weapon, and three armor slots (helmet, torso, legs). The armor pieces can be swapped out, while the weapons can be enhanced with attachments such as scopes and stocks. Everything carries with it various stats, so you can adjust the loadout to suit your play style. Beyond the gameplay effects, you can also apply visual customization to the armor and weapons, from paint to patterns and colorful accents. When it comes to the troops in your squad - non story characters that are randomly generated - you can customize them even further, by adjusting their faces and body features.
Before starting a chapter, players will be able to see the rewards as well as any optional objectives, and apply difficulty modifiers. Venturing out into the next mission, the squad of four now included a heavy and a scout class hero. The team wielded classic Gears weaponry such as a Mulcher, Gnasher shotgun, and two types of Lancers. The squad as positioned on the highway littered in debris as to best provide flanks for incoming foes. In this combat encounter, we observed some more maneuvers, such as using grenades (you can equip a choice of either frag and healing), using a chainshaw takedown on a basic enemy by rushing into them, and melee executing a downed enemy - which earns the team an extra action point that turn. There is a radius field of view, similar to a fog of war in other games. Also like elsewhere, you have to spend an action to reload your weapon, and you can also utilize the Overwatch mechanic. In this title, Overwatch is manually positioned as a cone - the larger the size, the less chance to hit the enemy who wanders into range. We also saw a special shot from a Snub Pistol which removes an enemy's Overwatch. This special action, like most others, has a multi-turn cooldown.
After clearing this area, we moved on to the end of the chapter, which featured a boss. Like the main Gears of War titles, the developers wanted to end on a large encounter, and they tried to design it in a way that makes sense for a strategy game. In this case, the map featured a large Corpser, positioned at the edge of the map. It was protecting itself, so the squad positioned to take down the nearby stragglers first. After a few moves however, the Corpser opened up, and a large attack line appeared that shows where it will strike next turn. The squad had to balance dealing damage to it while exposed, and getting out of the way for the next turn. To complicate things further, an emergence hole appeared, which can be closed with a grenade, but the team was short and so enemies appeared, including a Boomer. We don't know how this particular situation played out, as the time for the demo had ran out.
From what we observed in our brief but detailed overview of Gears Tactics, the game is shaping up fairly well. It certainly has plenty of familiar Gears DNA with its setting, characters, weapons, and even good quality story custcenes. But time will tell if it's able to provide the satisfying and challenging gameplay that fans of this particular genre always seem to expect. From what we've seen, perhaps using the "aggressive" moniker to describe the game isn't totally accurate; it looks more like a relaxed and streamlined approach to the genre - not too different to the Halo Wars approach to the strategy genre. The game looks fairly polished, as it leads up to launch on April 28 for PC via Steam, Microsoft Store, and is included in Xbox Game Pass for PC / Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.