The original Gears of War helped redefined what was to be expected from a third-person cover shooter. Before Gears, there was no automatic cover-taking; no good implementation of blind-firing mechanics; and no true third-person blood and gore. Gears of War beautifully managed to bring all of those facets together in a neat and surprisingly sophisticated story – and it has done so markedly well right up to the latest release of Gears 5. Gears Tactics, however, is a bit different… in the best possible way.
Where Gears of War was a complete and brand-new take on third-person shooters, its prequel spin-off is almost the exact opposite. Instead of rocketing off in a brand-new direction, Gears Tactics takes a look back at other well-established franchises and poses the question of what it can do better, and by golly does it accomplish this notion with aplomb, and then some.
From the moment Gears Tactics begins, it is very clear this is not the Gears game you are used to. In fact, Gears Tactics may resonate with XCOM fans more so than Gears fans, and the reasons are twofold. To begin with, Gears Tactics is a tactical shooter – a turn-based, tactical game where the player is torn from the confines of the over-the-shoulder point of view and thrust squarely onto an isometric perspective – where all characters are now under your beck and call. Furthermore, it completely removes the rushed and fast-paced shooting that action players have grown used to. Instead, it favours a slower and more strategy-focused gameplay based on taking turns and spending actions. To XCOM fans, this will sound awfully familiar. Where similar games usually take a page or two from the XCOM playbook, Gears Tactics takes the entire book, tears a few pages off, and uses those to completely reinvent the genre.
Gears Tactics largely follows three characters as they live through the first weeks and months after Emergence Day. The leading character is named Gabriel Diaz – Kait Diaz’ father. Players also immediately meet fellow Coalition Gear Major Sid Redburn and, later on, get to befriend former Stranded Mikayla Dorn. As it goes, Gabe Diaz has chosen to detach himself from the war and run a motor pool for the Coalition of Ordered Governments Army (COG). Having been dragged back into the front lines, Gabe immediately shows his leadership prowess and founds a new group of Gears. A group dedicated solely to ‘taking out’ an important Locust figurehead and mastermind known as Ukkon.
Unlike basically every Gears game, there is no multiplayer in Gears Tactics. It is a singleplayer game through-and-through. This lends itself well to its genre since multiplayer in a game like this only tends to annoy and frustrate. However, there are a few modes to be aware of. These include the Veteran mode and Iron Man mode. Iron Man mode is a tactical game mainstay where you start the game with a single save that gets overwritten every time you perform an action. There is no way to roll back to a previous version of the save, and absolutely no way to get out of tight spots. If your Gears die amid battle, you will never be able to load up and perform a different action. Similarly, if you lose a mission, that mission is lost forever. Most important of all, however, is that if you lose a key character vital to the story, like Sid or Gabe, the game is over and the save gets deleted. Poof, gone.
This happened to me during the first few hours of the game. As an XCOM veteran, I often replay the campaigns with Iron Man mode for the extra challenge. I foolishly turned it on from the get-go… to much regret. Even without the Iron Man option, Gears Tactics is a challenging game. Iron Man simply takes the challenge to an almost impossible level. Naturally, I restarted the campaign and opted out of Iron Man mode. Instead of braving perma-death, I chose to employ an “honest man” means of playing – XCOM players will know this as a term for playing on ‘normal difficulty’ and being ‘honest’ enough not to go back to a previous save if something drastic happens (like a character dying). The benefit of this is your game does not get deleted in the event you get a game over, but you have to live with the repercussions of your choices.
Beyond the game modes, the campaign in Gears Tactics makes up the bulk of the gameplay experience. The setup is clear from the onset: gather a group of soldiers and make your way through a predetermined map while keeping your Gears alive. At first you will only have Gabe and Sid at the ready, but the game quickly lets you recruit and/or rescue new procedurally-generated soldiers – each of whom can be customised.
One of XCOM’s largest draws on video streaming platforms is its level of customisation. As such, these Gears will essentially become the bread-and-butter for the game as streamers and creators start to name and customise them for their Patrons and loyal fans. The good news is how customisation in Gears Tactics is shockingly vast. There are many preset faces, hair, facial hair and much more to choose from. Equipping gears with armour also changes the way they look, while equipped helmets can be hidden from the equipment screen.
In addition to serving as a means of customisation, equipped armour also has benefits for gameplay. Out of the gate, recruits will usually don basic Cadet Armour. As you make your way through missions, you will collect crates holding pieces of armour and/or weapon modifications. Each of these contain modifiers to completely change the way you build your Gears. Most armour will always have a set modifier like extra health, more evasion, better movement speed, and more. Many armours will also be capable of a little extra by way of unique passive skills. These include, but are not limited to: All Out, Utility Belt, and Blitz – my personal favourites.
Like with XCOM, all characters you recruit can gain experience and increase their proficiency in battle. Each gear earns two skill points after every level up, which can be spent on passive skill trees. There are five types of Gears (classes) in the game, each with more than 30 unique skills and signature weapons. Support Gears (like Gabe) carry Lancers – the famous assault rifle/saw combo that lets you make short work of Locusts. Scouts carry shotguns, heavies carry Light-machine guns, and snipers carry, well, rifles. Sid Redburn is a Vanguard, which means he has a snub-nosed assault rifle with a bayonet. Naturally, every class has its pros and cons. As you make your way through the campaign, you will get a real knack for which skills to level up, what mods to attach to weapons, and which armour pieces to equip. There are very powerful combinations you can unlock this way!
When you are finished customising and building your perfect squad, the game lets you choose from several missions. After every main mission, a spate of side missions become available. With this in mind, Gears Tactics has a great way of balancing combat. Essentially, Gears can only participate in one side mission each round. This means that if you choose Gabe and a random Scout for one side mission, they will be “travelling” thereafter. As such, you will need to choose a different pair of Gears for the next mission, and so on and so forth. This is a great mechanic for two reasons. Firstly, it forces you to really think about which Gears should be sent out together. Secondly, it prevents you from over levelling your favourite Gears. The result keeps you on your toes and ensures the game does not become one sided.
Once a mission and Gear loadout have been chosen, the characters will load into the transport and be on their merry way! Players familiar with XCOM will feel right at home here, but also eerily uncomfortable at how strikingly similar, yet different, actual missions are in Gears Tactics. All units get a default of three actions per turn. These can be used to shoot, move, buff allies or debuff enemies, and even throw or plant grenades. Unlike XCOM where you slowly move from cover to cover and overwatch all of the time, Gears Tactics encourages you to be aggressive. The map is not set out in a grid like in other tactics games such as XCOM, Phoenix Point or Shadowrun. Instead, Gears can move freely in whichever direction they want and take as many steps as needed. Movement in Gears is based on distance from the Gear. Therefore, you can spend all three of your actions to move farther and you can do so knowing you are not limited to exact squares or hexagons.
Movement is also a lot more liberal in Gears Tactics, which lends itself superbly to the extensive cover system. Interestingly, full cover and half cover work the same way as they do in XCOM. However, moving from cover to cover is a whole new thing to witness here. As you plan the path for your Gears, take note of how they run. If the next stop is along a tiny wall, the Gear will attempt to crouch-walk along, instead of just rushing over to the next spot you point at. This not only decreases the risk of triggering enemy overwatches, but also neatly falls in line with other Gears games. You know, the very same crouch-walk Marcus Fenix and the gang did all those years ago when the original Gears of War came out and reinvented cover-based mechanics!
Similarly, the cool slide-into-cover action also makes a return in Gears Tactics. While moving in any direction could cost a single action or more, depending on distance, sliding into cover allows your Gear to get into the cover that might be just out of reach. It happens naturally, without activating a fancy skill, and most players will not even realise how lucky they are to get that extra distance in the middle of a firefight. It may be trivial, but seeing how far you can push the movement, especially if you need that extra stretch to get out of the blasting zone, really comes in handy.
I believe the slide mechanic is normal because of the way Splash Damage wants you to tackle missions – quick and dirty. With the lack of a grid, Gears can essentially move anywhere that would make sense. Whether sliding into cover or moving along short walls all to keep out of the enemy line of sight, the choice is yours. Like Gears of War’s frantic and fast-paced action, Gears Tactics actively wants you to keep the ball rolling. An aspect that helps drive this point are emergence holes, which pop out of the ground and keep spawning enemies until you close them with a grenade. They can pop up wherever in a map, including behind cover. As such it is imperative to keep on moving, and also to make sure you always have an extra grenade on-hand. Just in-case. There are other skills like Hunkering Down and Overwatch, but these should be used preemptively, rather than reactionary. Rather take the fight to them, and chances are you will come out of it with only a flesh wound or two. Another movement-based action you can take is called an Execution – an action where your Gear runs toward a downed enemy and finishes them off with whatever weapon they are holding. These afford one extra action for all Gears on the squad, which lends itself beautifully to missions where you need to get away or into cover in true action-movie fashion.
Another facet Splash Damage adopted from XCOM comes by way of its fantastic presentation. While XCOM features a unique almost-Overwatch aesthetic, Gears Tactics is unquestionably Gears of War. Its unapologetically sharp textures work well with the darker undertones and muddy filters. Outside of its gameplay, you would be unable to tell the difference between Gears Tactics and Gears 5. Most cutscenes are beautifully crafted and rendered in-engine, with only one or two pre-rendered cutscenes to mark very special occasions throughout the campaign. In-engine cutscenes are especially great since they are affected directly by your graphical settings. Similarly, graphical settings are also set up in such a way that it prioritises good performance during gameplay and good visuals during cutscenes. There are also a whole host of settings to cater to a variety of setups on PC!
Although keyboard controls are excellent, I must mention how I was surprised to see how controller support in Gears Tactics is a little lacklustre. While the game is releasing on Steam, it is fundamentally a first-party Microsoft title. It is available on the Microsoft Store, the new Xbox Game Pass app, Steam, and the Xbox Store on console. As such, you would think controller support would be thorough, and while largely true, using a controller feels weird when the game gives you a mouse cursor to use it with! To be fair, there are shortcuts you can use. Pressing the bumper buttons switches between targets or allies depending on context; pressing X lets you switch weapons and tapping Y lets you choose from the skill bar. It is just weird how the game has no way of taking the cursor away and letting you intelligently interact with what you are looking at on screen. Just one growing pain in an otherwise great title, however – one I am more than willing to forgo knowing how good the game is overall.
The beauty of Gears Tactics comes by how it marries the best bits of XCOM and Gears of War into a game that truly outshines the original Gears trilogy — a controversial opinion, I admit, but one I gladly stand by. In a truly surprisingly twist, the Gears of War franchise compliments tactical shooter genre – fitting in like a piece of a puzzle. The original trilogy (staring Marcus Fenix as the protagonist) may have been the franchise at its height, but I can see Gears Tactics becoming a whole new beast based on its own merit. From the excellent gameplay boiling down to cover-based movement and fast-paced actions, through to the progression and customisation systems put in place to ensure players always have a choice, it is evident that Gears Tactics is XCOM redefined, and it is exceptional.
|Time Played||25 Hours|
|Difficulty||Experienced (+self-imposed “honest man mode”)|
|Platform||Microsoft PC (Steam)|
|Acquisition||Review code courtesy of Microsoft|