The announcement of Gears Tactics during the Xbox 2018 E3 show was a surprising one. One that was quickly delivered while nestled between a full-fledged Gears sequel and a mobile game unveiling, nobody expected to see a PC strategy game on stage. Still, the XCOM fan in me and the similarities to the Firaxis series Gears Tactics displayed made me cautiously look forward to the game. The Gears of War franchise's cover-based gameplay, tough enemies, and squad-based combat sounded like a match made in heaven for a genre jump like this, but could it appeal to fans of the original action formula? Now, almost two years later, I got my hands on the title to find out if it can live up to my expectations and answer that question.
Turn-based strategy games are not exactly rare in the gaming space, but XCOM has always been a monolith in the genre that sits head and shoulders above the rest. Gears Tactics is developed by Splash Damage and the current Gears franchise developer The Coalition. I have now had a couple of weeks to go through the game and see what it has to offer, and what I experienced was a rare tactics game that didn’t make me roadie run back to XCOM. Read about my complete thoughts on the game below.
Let us get the biggest departures from the norm out of the way. This is not a grid-based game. All units can move anywhere they want within their turn, though sticking to cover will save you from a lot of headaches (the bullet inflicted kind). This is also an extremely aggressive title, the availability of three action points as a base is the first indication, letting your squad of four move, shoot, and use any ability in any order with complete freedom. Want to kick a ticker down an Emergence hole, take a shot, and saw a Locust in half? Go right ahead. Want to try your luck at hitting a 10% chance shot with all your points? Also an option.
Most COG weaponry is atrocious at long ranges, Emergence holes continue spewing new enemies until closed, Locusts are tough opponents, and many missions have timers attached. Add all that and more together and you get a game that encourages aggression like no other. Wagering on the traditional defensive plays using overwatch, presented here as a lookout system that shoots enemies performing an action within a cone, is a recipe for disaster. Those three action points and ammo will undoubtedly get spent on one or maybe two Locusts, letting its huge party of friends stroll up and use your squad as very muscular Piñatas.
Much like the main series, emptying any character of their health pool only makes them go "down" and begin bleeding out from a secondary pool. An ally can do the Gears of War signature handwave technique to get them back on their feet if quick enough. The more permanent type of death happens if that pool runs out too, which means an immediate game over if it's a hero character from the story, but if it's a randomly generated soldier – recruited between missions -, you can cut your losses and carry on.
Diving deeper into the action points, you can amplify them often during turns, as finishing off a downed Locust with a melee action as well as a multitude of active and passive abilities provides additional points to the squad, building a frantic tempo to let you quickly overrun enemy positions. Once momentum is on your side, it is not uncommon to have turns where a squad is armed with five, six, or more actions to flex on the AI that continue pouring in enemies like you’ve struck the jackpot on a terrible Locust slot machine, as electric guitars shred in the background no less.
However, this can lead to a false sense of security. Even shotgun-equipped Grenadiers you begin encountering fairly early can effortlessly take down an out-of-cover Gear with a single shot, leaving your masterful (apparently not) plans in shambles. The game likes to throw curve balls at you with unorthodox combinations of enemy types in each mission as Locust troops you might be familiar with from the original trilogy return with a vengeance.
The introductions start slow, beginning with Drones that love to flank and use overwatch alongside a flood of Wretches and snipers, and as the going gets tough, the AI sprinkles in Boomers, Theron Guards, and other heavies. Soon, I was making a mental to-do list on which enemies I should prioritize taking down first, as every Locust comes with its own quirks. The Kantus, for example, likes to hide in the backlines and drastically improve the defense of nearby Locusts, making a frontal assault deadlier.
There is a definite bright side to the presence of heavies, seeing that you can commandeer the devastating explosive weaponry after their defeat. Simply turning the tables should not be this entertaining, but somehow, it just is. Watching the same projectiles that were terrorizing your squad now beautifully arching towards groups of Locusts before they are rendered into confetti never gets old. By the way, you can turn off the gore if it is not to your liking.
In the impressively modeled and massive Locust strongholds, ruined cities, abandoned towns, and harsh desert battlegrounds where the fighting takes place, oddly angled cover is a common sight thanks to the grid-less design, leading to more dynamic environments. Pitfalls (which Emergence holes also count as) must be kept in mind also. They can end a unit’s life with a simple push.
Even in the most narrow and straightforward layouts seen a few times in the campaign, flanking routes are dutifully present. Also, fans of the series will be happy to know that units gracefully slide into cover in Gears Tactics. This slide action provides a little more distance to your action point movement range as an advantage, letting you reach cover that would have been just out of reach if you had run instead.
Story and Campaign
Gears Tactics takes us to the past, years before the original Gears of War, to experience an untold story surrounding Gabe Diaz, father of Kait Diaz from Gears 4 and 5. This is right around the time the COG decides to scorch the surface of the planet in a desperate attempt to halt the Locust invasion. Our new hero is thrust into a top-secret mission hunting a high-ranking enemy named Ukkon. This is the bad guy who is responsible for creating and unleashing the Brumaks, Corpsers, and other behemoths we've seen across the franchise. A ragtag group of Gears and hastily trained civilians are the troops stepping up to the task, two groups that really do not mesh with each other, something that is also explored during the campaign. There are three acts in the storyline, each split into multiple chapters that jump between story and side-missions.
I won’t go deep into major plot developments to avoid spoilers, and it isn't some unpredictable spectacle or on the level of the main series. But, as a whole, it builds on solid characters and an enjoyable mystery to keep you hooked until the end. Although it’s not a requirement, if you've played the series Gears of War 4 onwards, the twists and turns will probably make more sense and elevate the connection to the characters.
Regarding those behemoths of Ukkon I mentioned. Yeah… you must fight those too, because what is a Gears of War game without boss battles? These incredibly tough encounters serve as finales to each act, and bosses require a liberal amount of lead applied to them before their passing. The multiple phase battles get tougher as they go along. Oh and, did I mention the continuous devastating area of effect and melee attacks? Also that endless Locusts keep pumping into the arena? These rare treats are both exhilarating and draining, as if you’re trying to play a game of Chess but this rude monstrosity keeps flipping the table and decimating your strategies.
If you think save-scumming will help you, reloading saves to undo mistakes, there is some bad news. The developers have opted for a different route in Gears Tactics. Here, instead of manual saves, a checkpoint system is in place that stores your progress a couple of times a mission, basically anytime a milestone is reached. You can reload to the most recent checkpoint at any time or go back to a point before you began the mission to perhaps carry out changes to your squad and equipment. This approach makes every decision made on the battlefield an investment that hopefully pays out in the end, since pulling the wrong move halfway through a task could mean starting over from scratch. Lucky breaks rarely happen twice.
At a moderate pace, the main campaign took me around 33 hours to complete, and I put down over 1,000 Grubs in the process. However, the journey does not end there. Once the storyline reaches its finale, you are given the opportunity to continue your campaign with randomly generated Veteran missions. I never liked restarting games I enjoy after investing so much time and effort into them, and this is a perfect resolution for continuing the journey while hunting for even better loot with the now star-studded squad.
While Gears Tactics has taken inspiration from other successful titles for many wonderful features, it has also streamlined them and added arcade-y twists: You can’t choose when you can attempt a main mission or a side-mission during the campaign and there isn’t some deadline you need to meet. The developer has crafted a specific course that furthers the storyline, mission by mission, instead of the open, map-based systems of Firaxis games.
There are four types of side-missions sown in-between story ventures. These include rescues, sabotages, and control point missions, plus - my favorite – a looting run with a Seeder artillery barrage on your tail, while Locust charge from the front. The side-missions are further spiced up by modifiers that add twists like buffing a certain enemy type or limiting the squad size. There’s certainly room here for additional mission types, as I fear objective fatigue would eventually set in especially in the post-campaign Veteran missions.
What I wish wasn’t streamlined, however, are the base activities, bringing us to my only real complaint about the game. The lack of base management, soldier training, tech research, equipment manufacturing, or any type of side activities to distract myself with while in between missions is a noticeable omission.
Aside from the obvious strategic and customization layers further base activities would have added, I think they would have given me time to rest my poor brain a little after intense missions where thinking through multiple upcoming turns for each unit is a requirement to survive. Charging into another mission that sounds even more challenging is not the first thing I want to do afterward. As I will get into next, there are equipment crates to open and Gears to customize during these downtimes, but nothing meaty enough to replace what’s missing.
Equipment and Customization
Outside of battlefields is where Gears Tactics touts its customization capabilities, both in the beneficial and cosmetic departments.
The five flavors of soldiers available are differentiated by unique skill trees and primary weapons they wield: Retro bayonet Lancer, chainsaw bayonet Lancer, Longshot sniper, Gnasher shotgun, and a Vulcan Gatling Gun. The skill trees, weapon attachments, and armor pieces are where these units come into their own. The latter two are found in crates of various rarities – also in mission rewards, but mostly crates - spread across maps, placed just out of the way so grabbing one means putting a unit in a positioning nightmare. Since the innards are random, it could be a valuable armor piece that reduces cooldowns, or something spectacularly useless to your cause. The point here is that the risk you take in one mission may perhaps translate to an easier time in future endeavors, adding to the pile of difficult decisions.
As can be seen in the image below, skill trees have four branches to spread your points around, and the corners are where the high level active and passive abilities lay waiting. Through a campaign playthrough, at most you should be able to spread a unit’s sparse level up points across two channels if you’re willing to give up on some abilities on each section.
These decisions matter as respec tokens are rare. Planning out a route before investing points early on goes a long way. A support class unit can become a pillar that keeps teammates alive using heals or lean into providing buffs. A Scout could be a cloaked killing machine that excels against wounded enemies or simply a grenade spammer. Specializations to this effect exist for every class, and even abilities I first thought were average turned out to be very practical in the end. Anything is viable.
Obviously, as with other tactical games, the community will quickly find some overpowered combination that trumps others; still, the blank slate Gears Tactics offers for making up your own overpowered, wonky combinations is very enjoyable.
As for the cosmetic portion, the random assortment of armor pieces and weapon attachments arrive with a great number of customizable colors, metal finishes, and patterns. The armor is where the changes are most apparent, unlike the relatively smaller changes you see from weapon attachments, armor styles change from piece to piece, at the same time altering the surfaces where the colors and finishes are applied. Your fashion choices also appear in the in-engine cut scenes. While that’s it for the Hero characters from the story, the generated Gears that join your cause have a bit more customization options, letting you change their hairstyles and colors, facial hair, face accessories, headwear, and even names.
Performance and Graphics
If you witnessed the in-engine rendered cinematics of Gears Tactics in Gears 5, you probably would not think twice of them being there. This game is a looker, perhaps the most high-fidelity turn-based tactical title I've seen, probably owing to the engine and assets that are clearly shared between the two games.
After years of experience with strategy games such as these, I’m conditioned to expect a multitude of glitches and bugs, but surprisingly, in the dozens of hours I’ve put into Gears Tactics, I crashed exactly once and didn’t experience any other issues. My AMD Radeon RX 580, Ryzen 3700X, 16GB RAM machine ran the game like a well-oiled chainsaw bayonet. I did have to turn down a couple of settings to hit 60FPS due to the obvious GPU bottleneck, which the in-built comprehensive benchmark clearly conveyed.
From the moment you start Gears Tactics, it is easy to see that it is a PC game at its core. There are enough tweakable graphics options available (with preview images) to easily reach smooth performance levels and look good at the same time even on a low-powered machine, which are paired with customizable hotkeys plus perfect mouse and keyboard controls, among many other beneficial additions. Also, I said from the moment you start the game because you can even skip the launch splash screen sequence, an endangered practice in high profile games nowadays.
Gears Tactics is a delightfully challenging experience where the cards are always stacked against you. New threats are introduced constantly to keep things fresh while new abilities your troops unlock keep them from slowing down their aggressive pace. Each encounter is a puzzle that has perfect solutions, but substantially more flawed solutions that look just as enticing. Getting a perfect combat encounter down just as you planned is an addicting feeling and it's fascinating the number of times you arrive at seemingly hopeless situations before some combination of strategy and luck saves you by the skin of your teeth.
I don’t know how much overlap is there between Gears of War fans and turn-based tactics players, but in addition to the clearly presented UI, the experience here is streamlined, gorgeous, and action-heavy enough for anyone to pick up and enjoy. On the flip side, I am a little disappointed about not having a deep base management layer or further activities in between missions. I also wanted to see additional mission objectives to spice things up, especially considering the post-campaign experience’s longevity relies on them.
All in all, Gears Tactics gets an easy recommendation from me. It kept beating my expectations and remained alluring throughout with well-built playgrounds that allow the player’s decisions to shine through, resulting in a genuinely fun game. Splash Damage and The Coalition have done a remarkable job at translating the Gears of War setting, characters, bosses, satisfying weapons, and traits to a new perspective while nailing the turn-based strategy experience.
Gears Tactics is launching for Windows on April 28 at 8AM PT. It is available for purchase on the Microsoft Store and Steam with a $59.99 price tag. It will also enter Xbox Game Pass for PC subscriber libraries on day one.
This review was conducted using a pre-release copy of Gears Tactics provided by Microsoft for Steam.