Gears Tactics turns a flagship franchise into a smart, pacey, and aggressive turn-based tactical game, while still feeling exactly as a Gears title should.
On some level, it’s a bit of a surprise that Gears of War has taken this long to get a tactical makeover since the series lends itself so well to the idea and Microsoft’s other flagship franchise, Halo, did it first. But the two real-time strategy spin-offs in the enduring war against the Covenant were in the old Command & Conquer mold, whereas Gears Tactics, available now on Steam and Xbox Game Pass PC, has much more in common with the Firaxis XCOM games. In fact, being released so close to XCOM: Chimera Squad only helps this new reinvention of the brand stand out from its closest competitors, most of which it speeds ahead of on the strength of a story and character focus, unusually fast and aggressive combat, and the preservation of everything that makes Gears what it is.
Story-wise, Gears Tactics is a prequel, earlier even in the timeline than Gears of War: Judgment, and concerns a ragtag group of Gears setting out to take down “a monster who makes monsters”, which is more or less the macro plot of all the games in this franchise. But the devil is in the details, as people say, and the charm of these stories has always been in how they unfold; mountainous men with hearts as big as their preposterous armor trundling through genre-splicing adventures chock full of interpersonal conflicts and interesting world-building. Gears Tactics retains a vague anti-authoritarian streak and a clear affection for the rank and file, and its clichéd characters are given dynamism and life by committed vocal performances, allowed to flourish in handsomely-produced cinematics of a kind that most games of this type never bother with. For all their macho bluster, the Gears games have always cared about telling a decent story, and this one is no different.
It’s the preservation of these essential aspects of the brand’s identity that help to elevate Gears Tactics, and they’re most obvious in the mechanics. Objective-focused battles are nothing new, but some simple alterations to the core formula radically reshape the overall feel of the tactical combat. Each of up to four squadmates get three actions per turn, allowing for more movement, more shooting, and more usage of abilities, some of which, like the chainsaw mauling and the bayonet charge, are series’ staples. The defensive merits of cover feel of a piece with a shooter that has always been cover-based anyway, and that combined with the inherited Overwatch mechanic, which allows players to set up overlapping arcs of fire, feels perfectly on-brand. The familiar wretch enemies, annoying melee attackers that always move in groups, are particularly susceptible to these pre-emptive kill zones, and watching them dumbly hop into the crossfire never gets old.
But the most significant addition is of messy executions, lifted directly from the main series, which make for a compelling risk/reward dynamic that can also completely alter the pace of a battle. A successful execution gives everyone on the team another action, and it’s difficult to overstate how much of an impact this can have. Sending one of your team lolloping out of cover to stamp out a frail locust is an always-tempting judgment call – it can just as easily result in that soldier’s death as it can energize the rest of your team enough to wipe out the whole map.
This gameplay demands control over those maps, and Gears Tactics gives it to you, though there’s nothing revolutionary in how it does so. You can spin the battlefields around for a better look at the terrain, and push the edges of the screen around with the mouse, but what’s most striking about the game’s environments isn’t your control over them but how faithfully they recapture the series’ iconic aesthetic of battered Regency architecture. It’s a crisp-looking game, this, but it communicates a lot in what you already know of the world and its lore; what the ground being cleft open in a circle portends, for example, or how cover looks as it begins to degrade. While its story is self-contained, and its genre is suddenly very different, Gears Tactics is largely designed for existing fans to delight in.
This, perhaps, is why the game does away with most of the between-mission strategy elements that are integral to something like XCOM – they’d have felt like too much of a departure. In the absence of base-building or city-managing, what you have instead is basic RPG-style development and customization of your squad, all of whom level up, learn new abilities, and can be outfitted with improved gear. It’s a simple enough system that still feels robust, particularly in its skill trees, which provide enough options to really customize archetypal roles. There is perhaps slightly too much fiddling with weapon upgrades and pieces of armor; the micromanaging could have been leaner there, but it’s a mild annoyance more than a dealbreaker.
The most substantial issue of Gears Tactics is that it’s too long – not cripplingly long, you understand, but just a bit too long, with every mission seeming to possess just a few too many encounters, and every encounter just a few too many objectives or enemies or both. The introduction of side missions should have helped to alleviate this but exacerbate it with limited objective styles and steep difficulty spikes. The core content is excellent, and there isn’t actually too much of it, it’s simply spread too thinly across a story campaign that is needlessly padded here and there.
What’s interesting about the game’s pacing woes is that they’re so intimately tied to the innovations that make it so great. The unreasonable number of enemies in comparison to your four-person squad is intentional and intended to be fodder for the increased number of actions per turn and the execution mechanic. The line between battles feeling like a tense standoff and a chore is incredibly thin; likewise, the game’s attempts at act-ending boss fights, another series’ staple, can be a fantastic climax in one moment and a grueling endurance test the next.
Still, some inconsistencies here and there were perhaps inevitable when transplanting a longstanding flagship franchise to an entirely new genre, and on the whole, Gears Tactics is an extremely distinguished and fresh-feeling entry into the turn-based tactics canon. It’s able to energize that classic gameplay with clever aggression, and not only does it retain most of what makes the Gears games great, but it also puts those elements to work in livening up a familiar formula.
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