Gears Tactics Review
A streamlined spinoff for fans of turn based strategy
As we approach the next generation of consoles, everyone is readying their major blockbusters. But in the meantime, to keep players engaged, there is opportunity to create something new and different with existing franchises. And that's just what Microsoft has decided to do with Gears Tactics. Much like Halo Wars before it, Tactics is a spinoff entry for the third person shooter franchise. While it delivers some solid gameplay and fits effortlessly into the Gears lore, this turn based strategy game grows repetitive and lacks a memorable story.
Gears Tactics' campaign follows the story of Gabriel Diaz, war vet and father of Kait Diaz from Gears 4 and 5. He now commands a motor pool, but after the Hammer of Dawn strikes eviscerate the land, he's called back into action to find and eliminate a Locust scientist, Ukkon, who just happens to be the one responsible for creating other monsters in the Locust army. While the story initially starts off promising, it fizzles out quickly, as the narrative moments are far and few between. This may be a typical approach for a strategy game such as this, but it's a bit disappointing not to have an exciting narrative that would fit in a mainline Gears title. We barely get to know these characters, and the further you get into the campaign, the fewer story missions there are. In the end, it all falls a bit flat and very little actually happens.
Gears Tactics is an XCOM-inspired strategy game, which means the campaign follows a series of missions to undertake. Between missions, you'll be able to manage your squad of soldiers, split between three story characters and random recruits. As you might expect, the story characters must survive, and you can only customize their weaponry and armor, while the recruits may be lost and can also have their faces and names adjusted. You can choose different colors and material types for the armor and weapons, to create a unique look for your squad.
Each character falls into one of five classes - Support, Vanguard, Scout, Sniper, and Heavy. Supports are healers and well-rounded fighters; Vanguard are focused on defense; Scouts are close-range fighters with cloak ability; Snipers are deadly at long ranges, and Heavies lay down a ton of firepower. The class defines the weapon the character yields, and their skill tree. As this is a Gears game, the arsenal will be familiar to fans – the Mulcher, Gnasher Shotgun, and of course the Lancer make an appearance; characters also wield a Hammerburst pistol as secondary weapon, and have two grenade types. Everyone also has a slot for helmet, body armor, and boots. Over the course of the campaign, you will find and be awarded crates – which contain randomized armor pieces and weapon mods – to improve the capabilities of the squad with stat boosts and passive abilities.
As for the skill tree, characters gain new points to spend after earning experience from missions. The tree for each class features a couple of different paths, and a wide variety of passive and active skills; the game isn’t shy about characters having a long list of passive skills that notably improve their effectiveness overtime. The game often finds reasons (sometimes arbitrary) to make certain squad members unavailable for the next mission, so you can get a decent rotation going. If you happen to lose someone, or your Scout becomes under leveled, you can grab someone new from the rotation of characters that are always available for hire, usually at the same XP level as your top brass. However, because the campaign is linear, you may find yourself under leveled and have no way to gain more experience for your roster. So the general advice is to use the story characters as much as possible – as they are required for story missions.
Once your loadout is set and squad is chosen, it's time to head into the mission. Gears of War is a cover based shooter, so translating it into a cover based tactical game fits together quite nicely. In turn-based fashion, you command a squad of 4 (or often less) COGs across a few different environments - run down industrial areas, dune structures, and stone-laden city streets. The user interface is clean and easy to use; you can see how well your unit will be covered, and if it will have line of sight on an enemy. Perhaps that latter line of sight – represented by a thin white line – could have been made easier to see. There is a tactical view that lets you see detailed information and percentages affecting your chance to hit an enemy, but it is optional. All characters have three Action Points to use in a turn, which can be spent on movement, shooting, abilities, or even reloading. More actions can be earned by certain skills and enemy takedowns. Once you've done all you can, the enemy gets a turn. Whenever you or the enemy shoots, the camera can sometimes switch to a cinematic mode and show the action from a close-up perspective. Character skills include the typical actions like shooting, throwing grenades (which helpfully show what damage they will deal), and using the Overwatch ability that shoots any enemy which enters their view. So far, so standard for the XCOM genre.
But Gears Tactics makes a few clever changes that help it stand out, streamline, and also integrate with the lore. There's no grid system for character movement, though it doesn't make a whole ton of difference to the gameplay. Instead, if your movement ends in cover, the characters can go just a little bit further and slide into cover, much like in the main games. Some missions have Emergence Holes that spawn enemies for a few turns (or less, if you can close them with a grenade). Many enemies will be downed instead of outright killed; you can let them bleed out, or eliminate them with melee, which grants your squad an extra AP but might leave you out of position. You can also use trademark moves like a Lancer chainsaw attack to splice weaker foes into bits instantly. It's satisfying, bloody, and very much in the spirit of Gears.
You'll encounter the usual Locust Drones, Tickers, and more. Specialized foes, such as enemy snipers, can pin your units down and cause massive damage if you simply try to move; tickers explode if they get close but you can kick them away; and shotgun wielding Grenadiers have larger health pools and pack lots of punch. Some foes stick at the back and offer boosts for the enemy, like increased defense. You'll also encounter large enemies like the Boomer and Torque Bow wielding Guards; these require smart positioning and concentrated fire to take down. They do offer a reward though, as you can pick up their heavy weapon and use it a couple of times. Lastly, the boss battles will test your strategic mettle as you must juggle keeping the team alive, dealing damage to the large health pool of the boss, and counter smaller foes that keep popping up.
There are four difficulties to choose from, as well as the ability to toggle Iron mode. On Normal, the campaign feels fair and will only occasionally make you sweat. Enemies don't always make the most punishing moves, and lack the grenades that are lifesavers for the Gears (both the damage and healing types). All characters have an important self-revive skill that can be used once per mission; they can also pick each other up, or use a remote healing skill / grenade. Those who go down lose a chunk of their health bar for the rest of the mission. Because this is a linear story campaign rather than a roguelike, you won't lose anyone; you can choose to restart the mission or load the previous checkpoint, so there's no need (or an option) to savescum.
Where the game runs into issues is its mission design. Two mission types have you eliminate all enemies to reach a location, and sometimes have you go elsewhere to extract. One mission type sees you try to defend two resource points for a certain number of turns to extract materials; in another, you must reach two prisoners within the allotted turn limit. Lastly, a Scavenger Run mission has you moving through the map as a deadly wall of bombardment encroaches behind you with every turn. All of the mission types are fun to play a few times, but they begin to grow very repetitive over the game's 20+ hours. Some chapters offer you a choice of what type you want to play, but with story missions being identical to the optional ones in structure, the campaign grows very monotonous. Developers try to spice things up by adding optional objectives, and gameplay modifiers (boosts for you or the enemy), but this is hardly enough for playing the same missions over and over. Boss battles are unique, but there are just three of them.
The map design is equally repetitive. There's not a ton of visual variety – perhaps something Gears fans might be familiar with – but even beyond that, many map elements are reused. You'll become quite familiar with the way certain bridges, staircases, and elevated platforms look and their relative placement. In fact, some maps simply get re-used as is.
After beating the campaign, you can keep going and do Veteran Mode missions, but it's likely by that point players would have had enough of the same missions over and over. Other than managing your squad and their gear, there is no base building or other progression elements. Another bit of poor design is the menu system – it is not very well laid out, and it takes many clicks to get anywhere. The gear you accumulate over the campaign is not numerous, but still a pain to sort through. In battle, the camera takes control away from the player to show enemy deployment, but then it stays in place, even as foes move off the screen. There were a few bugs here and there – enemies stuck in geometry, UI elements disappearing – but nothing major. The Unreal Engine does well and performs without issues.
Gears Tactics looks okay for a strategy game. It has a good level of detail, nice lighting and good sound and visual effects. Some of the textures and up-close character models are a bit lower resolution, but animations are solid. The cutscenes and voice acting are of good quality, and the soundtrack does the job of filling in the background.
While other games – such as Microsoft's own Halo Wars or Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle – simply take a gameplay formula and put their franchise skin on it, Gears Tactics feels very well integrated. The cover-based shooting, the violence, the weaponry and the abilities are all carried over without skipping a beat and fit into the new genre comfortably. The very solid gameplay design makes a few streamlining choices that work well, but unfortunately missions get repetitive, and the story is thin. Still, fans of the Gears franchise can easily immerse themselves in this new title, and strategy fans waiting for the next hardcore-focused XCOM title will find this to be a pleasant enough distraction.