I guess it’s not surprising that a game about slamming huge meat-slabs into cover before gunning down Locus translates so well into genre that’s about slamming into cover and gunning down bad guys. It would be easy to write it off as nothing more than a basic XCOM reskin if Splash Damage hadn’t done such a damn good job of making it feel like a Gears game through and through. The production values for a game within this genre are nothing short of lavish, with cutscenes being up to Gears 5 standards and actual gameplay being able to pass itself off as one of the main games when it zooms into an over-the-shoulder viewpoint. From the stellar sound design to the way special abilities mirror the main series, Gears Tactics feels like a lot more than just some cheap XCOM clone wearing bulky armour and running around with a chainsaw strapped to a gun.
That isn’t to say Gears Tactics isn’t built on the foundations that 2013’s XCOM reboot laid, because it very much is. You spend action points to move your troops around, open fire, set up overwatch points and activate abilities, then the enemy takes their turn to do the very same things. Still, Gears Tactics takes the formula, applies some of its own ideas and then executes the whole thing with supreme confidence.
Before we delve into the gameplay though, let’s chat about the story and where it fits into the Gears universe. Gears Tactics takes place just one year after Emergence Day and thus is the earliest story told in the Gears’ games. We catch up with Gabe Diaz (father of X Diaz from Gears 5) as he is given the job of hunting down and killing Ukkon, a unique Locust enemy. Having been given nothing in the way of help except for the grumpy Sid Redburn, Diaz heads out to find himself some troops and some equipment to tackle Ukkon.
The story is nothing special, featuring a cast of shallow characters. However, the impressive cutscenes and strong voice acting do put Gears Tactics leagues ahead of every other game in the genre in that regard. It’s basic, but fun enough to justify all the shooting and chainsawing stuff in half. Whether the lore presented fits in with Gears as a whole is a trickier question. Though I am a Gears fan and have been with the series since the start I’m far from knowledgeable about the timeline. Bigger fans than I will be able to determine if the revelations in Tactics make sense in the broader storyline.
Another thing we need to tackle is how Gears Tactics handles death. Your main hero units can never die, so if they go down and get finished off you’ll simply have to restart the mission, or the entire game if you’re on Iron Man mode. Outside of these heroes you also have randomized grunts that you recruit, and losing them means nothing more than losing the time and effort you’ve put into levelling them up. Of course, why would you bother ever taking the random grunts? Well, because the game often limits what heroes can be sent on some missions, forcing you to grab a few rookies and head out. It’s an interesting system that lets Gears Tactics tell a story with proper characters while still having some semblance of perma-death in the game.
Right, now we get to the gameplay proper. When you want to take a shot you’ll be presented with the usual percentage-based chance of actually hitting your target. But by tapping the R key you can bring up the Tac Com which gives you a complete breakdown of every factor influencing those numbers. It’s nice to be able to check out the actual maths behind it all. And to its credit it feels fairer than the likes of XCOM which has a nasty habit of giving you a 50% chance of hitting your target despite standing in front of said target with a shotgun.
What’s interesting is how Gears Tactics manages to encourage both defensive and aggressive play styles. Take Overwatch as a good example; this lets you set up a cone of fire, and when an enemy wanders into they’ll get shot. It’s a staple of the genre, but Gears Tactics makes it more dangerous because your soldiers can fire one for every action point they have left. In other words, by default if you don’t move a character they could shoot three times in Overwatch. Couple this with maps often having savage choke points, aggressive enemies and the fact that you’re typically outnumbered, Overwatch becomes a valuable tool indeed.
But on the flipside, if you run up and perform an execution on a downed foe you’ll not only get a gory animation but also a bonus action point for every other squad member. There’s no limit to this madness, so if the stars (or dying enemies) happen to align you can rack up a bunch of extra actions. And by the gruffness of Marcus Fenix’s voice does it feel good! Then there are the uber-powerful grenades, chainsawing Locust, bayonet charges and a host of other abilities that make going on a rampage feel gooooooooooooooooood.
Going up against the Locust horde means seeing some familiar, ugly faces. That includes swarming Wretches who just love to bunch together for a well-placed grenade; Therons and their Torque bows; Grenadiers wielding shotguns; and hulking Boomers who take considerable firepower to put down. There are also some new Locust that probably won’t show up anywhere else in the franchise but make for welcome additions to the action. They all feel distinct on the battlefield, behaving in their own way that makes them fun to fight.
The standard Locust Grub is the most common foe you fight, and they are extremely fond of using their own Overwatch ability to pin your troops down. That makes you use various skills, like the disrupting pistol shot, to kick them out of Overwatch, or pushes you to flank the enemy and take them out so that your other Gears can get into the fight. This is all thanks to the fact that you can freely swap between Gears whenever you like, and Action Points can be spent in any order. Compared to the more rigid XCOM system where shooting almost always ends your turn this provides a lot more freedom to combine abilities, set up killing fields and generally just mess shit up.
In total there are five classes and each of those has four skill trees to invest in that all offer very different variations. The result is a bunch of different possible builds, plenty of cool skills to use and a nice depth when it comes to figuring out the best combinations across your squad. The Support class is your all-rounder, armed with the iconic Lancer. They can buff team-mates and provide healing on the field. The Vanguard gets a retro lancer that dishes out heftier damage at the expense of accuracy, and can bayonet charge enemies. Standout skills include Intimidate, which throws nearby foes out of cover and breaks their Overwatch. The Scout class is armed with a Gnasher shotgun, and can do things like cloak. The Sniper is exactly what you would imagine, but with the right build can recoup action points on successful shots and kills. Finally, the Heavy wields a Mulcher machine gun, and is probably the class I found the least useful of the bunch, but maybe I didn’t find the right spec.
When you bring everything together the combat in Gears Tactics feels absolutely brilliant. It’s fast, it’s fluid, and it’s fun. In fact, in terms of its turn-based gameplay Gears Tactics has surpassed the XCOM franchise, at least for me. With that said, it does suffer from some random difficulty spikes in the side-missions. Whatever magic is working in the background that dictates what enemies the game spawns can sometimes conjure up a foot and kick you squarely in the balls. It’s not frequent, but when it occurs it’s frustrating. Still, those moments aside I love the moment to moment action of Gears Tactics and how well the Gears gameplay has been translated into the turn-based medium.
There’s another problem that Gears Tactics does suffer from: repetition. Through the story and the side-missions there’s only four basic missions types, and playing them again and again can be tiring. XCOM is just as guilty of this but it seeks to break up the monotony with a layer of strategy. By expanding your base, choosing what countries to save and researching new technology the XCOM games give you something to do outside of the fighting. Gears Tactics doesn’t have this. There’s no base to manage or stuff to research. There’s no big world map, either, it’s just a linear campaign with some side-missions sprinkled throughout. The closest thing to management is recruiting new Gears, outfitting them and levelling them up.
You get loot in a few different ways, including being awarded cases for completing missions and optional side-objectives during them. You can also pick up cases directly from the battlefield, creating a nice moment of risk vs reward in some instances. For each of your Gears you can swap out four weapon parts and three pieces of armour, plus there’s a good bit of visual customization along with the ability to change soldier’s names. Every bit of loot alters core stats like accuracy, damage or movement distance, but they can also come with powerful abilities. You might equip a set of boots that reduce grenade cooldowns by 2, for example, which is awesome because grenades in Gears Tactics are utterly devastating weapons. Or maybe you’ll add a barrel to your favourite Heavy’s Mulcher which staggers and interrupts enemies, turning her into the perfect defensive soldier. Combined with the skill trees the loot system gives you a lot of ways to build different classes. One Support soldier can feel a lot different to another. And the legendary pieces of loot almost always feel worth the effort of acquiring.
As much as I enjoyed speccing my little army and collecting shiny new pieces of loot, I have to admit that I did miss XCOM 2’s base-building and even XCOM: Chimera Squad’s simpler city management. Having those extra layers gives you a chance to unwind from the combat for a few minutes before jumping back in to the action. It also provides a sense of progression that Gears Tactics only manages to partially emulate with its loot. With that said, it does make Gears Tactics feel like a more focused game – it’s all about the fighting.
Once you’ve worked through the campaign there’s a basic endgame to tackle. Basically you’ll go through a few side-missions before tackling a Veteran mission that comes with more extreme modifiers and chances at the best loot in the game. If you survive you go through the process again and again until you either get bored or you’ve got all the loot, maxed out your roster of Gears and are now King of the Chainsaws. That last one isn’t part of the actual game. But it should be. It’s an okay endgame that obviously will only appeal to the most hardcore fans who really enjoy the tactical action. But the way it works and the nature of the gameplay does mean you can hop back into Gears Tactics easily, playing a few missions and then drop back out for a few weeks again.
On my machine the performance was absolutely brilliant with nary a dropped frame in sight. There’s also an extensive options menu so that you can tweak the game to your liking. Personally, I opted to cap the game at 60FPS and kept the cinematics at just 30FPS with all the graphics cranked up. With so many options you shouldn’t have a problem finding settings that work for your system.
If you’re an Xbox game and are baffled by Gears Tactics being exclusive to PC, don’t worry – it’s coming to Xbox as well, but it will be later in the year. Hopefully they’ll be able to get the controls working nicely on a controller.
It’s a remarkably polished game, too. The only bugs I encountered were an instance of a dead body bouncing madly off a piece of scenery, and one of Gears doing a funny little dance for no reason. Apart from that, no problems.
Now we arrive at a point which has divided many people on forums around the Internet: the price. At £49.99 on Steam, Gears Tactics is not a cheap game, unless you happen to own Gamespass, in which case you can download it straight from the Microsoft store as part of the subscription. I’ve seen people argue that Gears Tactics is too expensive, and I can understand that point of view considering XCOM: Chimera Squad launched just a few weeks back for £16 and offers dozens of hours of content. But Gears Tactics also has dozens of hours of game to play through, plus much higher production values and a reasonable storyline. Sure, it doesn’t have the extra management layer of something like XCOM 2, but it has tighter, more enjoyable turn-based action, in my opinion.
I didn’t go into Gears Tactics expecting very much. Why would I? And yet really it makes so much sense. Those giant walking meat-slabs have jumped perfectly from their cover-based shooting to turn-based cover shooting. Splash Damage have done an outstanding job taking the foundations laid by XCOM and building on top of that before loading it all in a heavy, sweaty layer of Gears armour before strapping a Lancer to it. The lack of a more meaningful metagame between the action hurts it a little, but Gears Tactics more than makes up for it with it’s fantastically fun tactical plotting and in the way it lets you chainsaw Grubs in half. Which XCOM doesn’t. And really, isn’t that what we all want in life?