It’s always risky when a series expands beyond the genre that made it famous. You never know if the audience will like the change, or how well-suited the franchise is to new systems. But when its done right, the results are often spectacular. Blizzard’s willingness to experiment with their most famous franchise led to World of WarCraft and Hearthstone. Nintendo’s gave the world Mario Kart, Paper Mario, and the Mario sports games. Square’s got us Dissidia and Final Fantasy Tactics. Those are just a few examples. Say what you will about the way Microsoft handles their franchises, but they aren’t afraid to try new things with them. Halo’s been an RTS and a twin-stick shooter. Forza’s raced as a sim and an open-world game. Now it’s Gears of War’s turn. The result is Gears Tactics, a strategy game in the vein of X-Com that marries the series love for gratuitous violence and mashismo with its penchant for tactical shooting.
The premise is simple. About a year after E-Day, Gabe Diaz, the father of Gears 5’s Kait, is issued orders to retrieve a classified file before the COG starts nuking their own cities with the Hammer of Dawn in a last ditch effort to stop the Locust. Gabe works the motor pool, and is more than happy to be away from the frontlines, but orders are orders. He completes the mission with the help of Sid Redburn, a no-nonsense hardass, but things are rarely so simple with the COG. Afterwards, Gabe and Sid are tasked with assassinating the subject of their file: Ukkon, the Locust baddie behind monsters like the Brumak and Corpser. The COG can’t spare any soldiers, and intel is limited, so it’s up to Gabe and Sid to recruit Gears for the cause, find Ukkon, and take him down. Along the way, they meet up with Mikayla, a poet with a sniper rifle, and her group of civvies. They form and unlikely alliance, and work together to hunt “the monster who makes monsters” down.
"As fun as the narrative is, what’ll keep you coming back for more is the gameplay. You control a squad of up to four characters as they move, take cover, use abilities, and fire on their way to completing various objectives."
The story is a simple one, but the characters are entertaining enough to keep it interesting. It’s fun to watch Mikayla call Sid a fascist and watch Sid yell at everyone while Gabe tries to keep everything together. It’s also nice to go back to the conflict between the COG and the Locusts, and get a glimpse of what the war looked like before we met Marcus and co. Gears Tactics isn’t going to win any awards for its writing, but it feels like Gears, and that’s a good thing.
As fun as the narrative is, what’ll keep you coming back for more is the gameplay. You control a squad of up to four characters as they move, take cover, use abilities, and fire on their way to completing various objectives. Your soldiers come in five classes: Support, Scout, Heavy, Assault, and Sniper. Each comes equipped with a primary weapon, pistol, and grenade, in addition to any abilities they have. Supports are your all-arounders. They carry a Lancer and have access to the attached chainsaw, and their abilities buff and heal their allies. Assaults have a Retro Lancer, which means more damage and less accuracy, and the ability to charge enemies and impale them on their bayonet. Heavies wield a Mulcher and gain damage and accuracy the longer they stay in one position. Scouts rock the Gnasher shotgun and can cloak, and Snipers, well, snipe.
Choosing the right team for the job is crucial since you can’t have every class on the field at once. Gabe (Support), Sid (Assault), and Mikayla (Sniper) are Hero units, so you’ll have to have them for some missions, and they may be banned for others for storyline purposes. If they are on the field, they have to survive, or it’s game over. You’ll build the rest of your squad from characters you recruit. Some you’ll rescue during missions, while others will appear at your barracks. Your squad size is limited, so choosing wisely is essential unless you dismiss units or acquire more room for them.
"If you’re holding a position, you can activate overwatch, a universal ability where characters sacrifice their remaining AP to project a cone of fire over an area."
Whatever squad you decide to roll with, you’ll have to be smart in combat. Any action, whether it’s moving, shooting, throwing a grenade, or using an ability, costs AP. Each unit starts with three per turn, and unused AP doesn’t carry over. Most actions only take one AP, but movement and certain abilities may take more. Speaking of movement, Gears Tactics doesn’t use a grid-based system, so you can go anywhere and take cover against just about any object you see. Cover’s just as important here as in the main series, as it keeps you from getting hit and provides damage reduction if you do.
Typically, you’ll move your squad from cover to cover and fire at enemies you can hit, but there are wrinkles to consider. If you’re holding a position, or trying to protect a squadmate, you can activate overwatch, a universal ability where characters sacrifice their remaining AP to project a cone of fire over an area. If any enemy moves into or inside or that cone, your character will fire at them. With enough AP, you can often kill units outright, though that usually means the unit in question doesn’t move at all. Different units have different overwatch cones. Lancers are the most well-rounded, while shotguns cover a smaller, wider area, and so on.
Balancing your AP takes practice, and you’ll often have to make tough decisions. Do your cloak your Scout and run her into a group, knowing she won’t be able to fire until next turn, or have her fire from cover? The latter is safer, but she’s less likely to hit anything. Do you reload now, or switch to your pistol to fire again? Should you use that ability now, and start the cooldown, or do you wait for when you really need it? Should you fire at that enemy, or just use overwatch? Managing your positioning helps with some of this (you should never be out of cover if you can help it), but you’ve still only got a little AP to work with. At least until you start executing downed enemies.
"Boss fights are multi-stage affairs that test your mettle in unique ways. The Brumak, for example, has to be hit from behind, and launches missiles at the end of every turn"
Some enemies die if their health bar is depleted, but others go down to one knee. If you execute them while they’re in a downed state, every character except the one who does the execution will gain an extra AP. Executing an enemy is risky; you have to be right next to them, which usually means being out of cover, but the reward is often more than worth it. If you play your cards right, you can chain multiple executions together on the same turn, giving you lots of extra AP to play with. It’s an excellent system that combines a signature part of Gears with an element of risk and reward and encourages you to be aggressive. You’ll have to be careful, though. Downed enemies can be revived by other foes, so choose your moments carefully.
Of course, your characters can be downed, too. You can have other characters revive them, which restores any AP they haven’t used. There is a cost, though. Revived units come back with reduced maximum HP, and if someone goes down enough times, or an enemy attacks them while they’re on the ground, they’ll die. If this happens to a Hero, you lose. If it’s a regular character, they die. If things get desperate, each character has the Last Stand ability, which revives them with one AP. It can only be used once per mission however, so save it as a last resort.
So yeah, Gears Tactics has a lot of decisions for you to make, which are only compounded by the games’ enemies. If it’s in the original Gears games, it probably shows up here. Drones shoot from range and can use overwatch. Wretches move fast and attack anything they get close to. Tickers have high evasion, move every time they’re shot at, and explode when they’re close to you. They’re scary, but you can kick them toward other enemies. Boomers have huge health pools, but drop their Boomshot, a deadly grenade launcher anyone can pick up. Grenadiers carry shotguns and enter a berserk state when they’re low on health. And the ever-irritating Kantus buffs its allies and revives downed enemies.
"Every class has four sub-areas you can spec into. Scouts, for instance, can focus on their cloaking abilities and pure damage, among others, while Supports can buff their healing spells, buffs, and abilities. Skill points are limited, so specializing is essential."
You’ll figure out best strategies as you go. Wretches melt under sustained Lancer fire and are prime targets for grenades. Snipers pop drone heads from afar, negating their range, and a disrupting shot from a pistol can knock them out of overwatch. Got an enemy behind cover? Run up and chainsaw them! There’s an answer for every problem, but Gears Tactics isn’t shy about throwing a lot of them at you. Reinforcements can drop from the sky or pop up from emergence holes at a moment’s notice, so it pays to be prepared. You’ll be caught by surprise a few times, but nothing ever felt unfair. Any failures I experienced were due to my decisions.
The levels themselves are well-designed, offering plenty of places to hide, chokepoints to hold, and towers to climb for a superior view. That’s good, because the missions themselves can be a little samey. You’ll hold supply points, advance to objectives, free prisoners, and collect supplies while you run from enemy bombers. There are optional cases scattered throughout every level to collect for weapon upgrades for an extra challenge, but you’ll do a lot of the same things. The exception is boss fights, multi-stage affairs that test your mettle in unique ways. The Brumak, for example, has to be hit from behind, and launches missiles at the end of every turn, often removing pieces of cover from the map. He also comes equipped with arm mounted chainguns that can be destroyed to limit his attacks. It’s a good fight, and a good example of Gears Tactics at its best.
Between missions, you spend time at the barracks. Here, you can upgrade your characters’ gear, which you’ll get from cases you find and optional objectives. Gear ranges from common to legendary, but aside from the differences between tiers, there isn’t a best option. It mostly just reflects what you want your character to be good at, whether it’s damage, health, more ammo or passive abilities. You’ll also be able to spend skill points you get from leveling. Every class has four sub-areas you can spec into. Scouts, for instance, can focus on their cloaking abilities and pure damage, among others, while Supports can buff their healing spells, buffs, and abilities. Skill points are limited, so specializing is essential.
"The barracks is also where you can recruit new units. Units appear after missions and only last a limited time, so if you want them, you should snap them up while you can."
The barracks is also where you can recruit new units. Units appear after missions and only last a limited time, so if you want them, you should snap them up while you can. It’s a good idea to have a few of the same class, so you can level different specializations, but if you don’t like what you’ve picked you can respec, provided you have the item that allows it. You can also customize your characters’ appearance. Customization is limited for heroes, but you can edit other characters’ hair styles accessories, or clothing, though there doesn’t seem to be way to alter their face or skin color, which is a bit disappointing.
Having a sizeable squad also helps you complete side missions. You can only complete so many per chapter, and each character can only go on one, so you’ll have to choose carefully. Side missions have the same level of care as the main missions, and they’re an opportunity to level your lesser-used characters and get gear, so they’re worth doing. Just be careful you’re choosing the right people for each one.
Gears Tactics isn’t X-Com. It doesn’t have the depth or customization. It is, however, a very good game that successfully merges Gears of War’s universe with strategy gameplay. It doesn’t hold your hand, but it should still be a good starting place for people new to the genre, and those who are looking for something new. It also looks good (I ran the game on a combination of medium and high settings), sounds good, and runs well. I wish the textures held up a little better when the camera zoomed in, and there was a little more mission variety, but that’s about it. Gears Tactics works as a tactical game and a Gears of War title, merging the best of both into a package that feels unique, and it’s a game I want to play more of. Microsoft took a risk here, and it paid off. And as in Gears of War itself, it all comes down to the execution.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Entertaining story and characters. Lots of enemy types. Well-designed maps. Easy to learn, with lots of depth. Lots of characters to recruit and level. Solid character customization. Looks and sounds good. Marries Gears mechanics with a good tactical experience.
Textures look a little muddy when the camera zooms in. Characters aren't completely customizable. Mission objectives can feel a little samey.