Gears Tactics Review — Time to Switch Gears
Effectively blending the Gears of War universe with strategy gameplay, Gears Tactics is a fast-paced experience that succeeds on both fronts.
In the last few weeks before I started up Gears Tactics to review, I had played through Gears 5 since I hadn’t quite gotten to it when it released last fall. Since it’s been some time since playing Gears of War 4, I felt familiarizing myself with the gameplay elements of Gears again would be good context for how the developers at Splash Damage and The Coalition would approach a tactics game take on the third-person shooter series.
Thankfully, when I started up Gears Tactics and went through its opening levels, I didn’t feel nearly the whiplash that I expected coming to it from Gears 5. While it took some time to adjust to the feel of playing a squad tactics game versus a third-person shooter, through and through, Gears Tactics is still very much a Gears game, just interpreted differently. All of the familiar elements that fans would expect from the series have been translated authentically into a new genre, and now it just makes me wonder why we didn’t have a strategy Gears of War game a lot sooner.
The core campaign of Gears Tactics takes place over a decade before the events of the original Gears of War and follows the story of Gabe Diaz, who is the father of Gears 5’s protagonist, Kate Diaz. After being enlisted by veteran COG soldier Sid Redburn, Gabe and Sid go on a mission to recruit Gears to hunt down Ukkon, a Locust scientist that would lead to the creation of the Locust’s most dangerous foes like the Brumak and Corpser, while encountering other challenges and rising tension to try and save humanity.
As a prequel to the events of the first game, Gears Tactics slightly treads some familiar ground and scenery for series’ fans, but its production value and extra dimensions to the lore shouldn’t make you doubt that it’s a Gears game all the same. Each mission starts and ends with excellently-produced cutscenes that feel like they could be right at home in Gears 5, and given Gabe’s relationship with Kate, longtime fans are in for some interesting connections and revelations. Though it may not be one of the series’ deepest or most interesting stories, Gears Tactics still offers worthwhile moments that fans will want to experience for themselves.
To put it in the simplest way, Gears Tactics is essentially Gears of War meets XCOM, as its gameplay borrows liberally from the mechanics that have made XCOM the household name in squad-based tactics games. The core elements of XCOM’s gameplay–commanding a squad of characters, using action points to command them, and Overwatch–are all here as you might expect them to be. While things might feel familiar at first if you’ve played any XCOM game before, Gears Tactics takes the foundation of what works well in XCOM and layers in its own elements to make it feel like a more distinctly Gears of War experience.
Make no mistake, even though Gears Tactics is in a completely different style of play from the core games, it still looks and feels like a Gears of War game in the right ways. All of the small touches from the series are here; you can chainsaw Locust into a bloody mess, slide into cover, turn enemies into globs of meat with a Mulcher, and kick Tickers into groups of baddies for an explosive surprise. Even the distinctive Gears guitar riff that plays once you’ve cleared the battlefield of enemies makes its way into Gears Tactics, making it feel right in line with the games that have come before it.
However, Gears Tactics isn’t just simply Gears of XCOM. Though its core gameplay is largely inspired by XCOM, Gears Tactics makes a few fundamental changes that reinterpret how it plays. By comparison, Gears Tactics is meant to feel like a much faster-paced and action-driven experience, largely because each unit has three actions per turn compared to two in XCOM. This small but impactful change in Gears Tactics gives players a much larger degree of flexibility, as you can now move a unit, fire at an enemy, and use an ability or reload all in the same turn. Gears Tactics also frees players from the constraints of a grid-based movement system, as instead you can move and place units wherever you see fit, with the distance they can move being governed by the amount of action points they have left. With so many areas offering cover that your characters can use to mount their defenses, the battlefield naturally sort of has a “grid-like structure” to begin with, and gives some agency to how and where you are moving.
One of XCOM’s signature abilities, Overwatch, similarly has a neat overhaul in Gears Tactics by having players drag a cone onto a section of the map to determine what area they will guard. It’s a simple but effective implementation that not only easily shows players how far a unit’s Overwatch will see an incoming enemy, but also affects its range and accuracy. Dragging the Overwatch cone out will increase its spread but decrease its accuracy, while keeping its range closer and less spread out from your character will make them way more likely to deal greater damage to an approaching enemy.
Though these larger overall changes are a big departure from the limitations that XCOM purposefully imposes on players to increase tension, Gears Tactics doesn’t let up in any way on difficulty or challenge (including whether you decide to play with Ironman Mode enabled or not). But while Gears Tactics has changed up some of the rules of XCOM, what really sets it apart are the Gears-inspired gameplay touches that add extra depth and elements to a strong tactical gameplay foundation. The ways that Splash Damage and The Coalition have integrated some of Gears’ most familiar elements are more than just fan service, but actually have vital roles in the gameplay and can wildly change up your tactics.
Executions especially are one of the best aspects of the series that Gears Tactics implements into a strategy game setting. Once you get an enemy unit down to a certain amount of health, they’ll be downed and vulnerable to an execution by one of your units. Aside from witnessing the gory scenes that we’ve come to know and love from the Gears games, executions in Gears Tactics also have the benefit of giving each of your other units an extra action that round, making them hugely advantageous to, well…execute. In one round of a level where I executed three enemy Locust Drones with one of my Snipers, I was able to gain basically an entire extra turn with all of my other squad members, allowing me to set up a devastating turn for the next wave of enemies.
Players in Gears Tactics will command a squad of up to four characters throughout the campaign, which is usually divided in a level between one or two “hero” characters that are crucial to the story (such as Gabe or Sid), and assorted Gears soldiers that you’ll recruit along the way. Each of your soldiers is based on one of five classes (Support, Vanguard, Scout, Sniper, and Heavy) that have their own specialized abilities and weapon preferences. While you can’t change the fundamentals of these classes like what primary weapon they’re using and their feature set, over the course of the campaign you’ll be able to gain new weapon parts that can alter different stats like damage, accuracy, and ammo capacity, along with using skill points to unlock new abilities or passive skills. Each class features their own distinctive skill trees with several paths and specializations, as Splash Damage and The Coalition have given players a lot to work with to make their squad their own in Gears Tactics.
The extensive array of customization options for your squad members in Gears Tactics also adds a whole other level to make each character feel distinct from one another. When I first started gaining new Gears Recruits that I could add to my squad, I spent more than a fair share of time just tweaking the various settings and custom features that you can add to them. While they start out randomly generated, Recruits can be completely altered to your liking compared to hero units, other than their race, gender, and class. You can alter their hairstyle and color, name, and customize each of their weapons and armor down to their color, metal finish, adding a design pattern, and more. Gears Tactics goes all out with customization for each unit, and it’s one of the game’s best elements that I hope makes its way into future mainline Gears titles.
When taking your squad members out onto the battlefield, the core gameplay of Gears Tactics–like the third-person shooter series that inspired it–revolves heavily around utilizing cover and staying aggressive against enemies, maybe even more so than in the core Gears games. With the game being turn-based, players will really have to put a lot of consideration into where they are moving their units and how they are covered, as a unit placed in poor cover or a bad position can easily be overwhelmed by an approaching enemy squad. While Gears Tactics might be challenging for those that may not play a ton of strategy games (or even for those that do), it’s a flexible experience that prioritizes speed and action over hunkering down and playing too defensively.
Like in the core Gears games, each Locust enemy unit that you come up against in Gears Tactics has their own unique ways of being taken down that you’ll have to utilize on the battlefield. At first you’ll come up against units like Drones and Wretches that aren’t huge threats but can overwhelm you with their numbers. Later on you’ll be facing more specialized Locust units like the Grenadier, which can do heavy damage to characters up-close, Snipers that will pin your characters in place, and others that you’ll need to exploit their weaknesses in order to take them out effectively. Gears Tactics can get pretty challenging with the number of enemies that you’ll have to fight in a map, making it easy to get overwhelmed. However, the way it tutorializes each enemy type and teaches the player how to deal with them feels smart and well-developed, especially once things get much more difficult later in the game.
This all culminates in several boss fights during the campaign of Gears Tactics, which put all of the player’s tactical skills to the test and are some of the best encounters in the game as a whole. Each of the bosses that you come up against feature some of the most iconic big bads in the Gears universe, and they’re all thrilling to engage with in their own ways, especially once you figure out their attack patterns and weaknesses to take them down. The very first boss fight that you’ll engage in at the end of the first chapter has your squad going up against a towering Brumak, equipped with homing missiles, chainguns, and a deadly stomp attack if your characters get too close. While at first this fight felt like an overwhelming challenge, once I figured out the key strategies that I needed to employ–splitting up my squad members and keeping my distance–the Brumak fight became a thrill where everything I learned in the game up to that point clicked into place.
Gears Tactics at first seems like a straightforward premise that blends two incredibly popular franchises together, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for it lacking depth or fun. Despite playing in a completely different style compared to the core Gears games, Gears Tactics still feels remarkably in line with the rest of the series and is a thrilling, worthwhile experience that Gears fans and strategy game veterans will enjoy, while being completely accessible to newcomers. If you consider Gears as chocolate and XCOM as peanut butter, Gears Tactics is how they meet: a combination of ingredients you’ve likely had before, but together, they just work so damn well.