I am not a very tactical person. Ask anyone who plays games with me and chances are they’ll tell you that I tend to do stupid things in games because it’s entertaining. Part of that is because I tend to use all my tactical thoughts to play (and lose) on Civilisation V or VI (depending on what leaders tickle my fancy). That being said, I never was that big into XCOM, not through lack of trying though, just more a matter of when I tried XCOM 2 it was not exactly in the greatest state and I just haven’t found the time since to revisit it. The Gears franchise, however, is a franchise that I found myself quite invested in over the years. First taking the dive in with Gears of War 2, I spent numerous hours in the world of Sera fighting against hordes of Locust enemies for the good of humankind. I was really happy with how Gears 5 turned out, with it being probably my second favourite Gears campaign (with Gears 2 at the top and Judgement proudly taking last place). With all this, I found myself quite keen to play the tactics spinoff game, Gears Tactics. Thankfully, even with a surprising lack of notable marketing regarding the game, The Coalition and Splash Damage have worked well together to make a great tactics experience which, for many players, could serve as a great entry into the genre itself.
Set before the events of Gears of War, Gears Tactics sees you assume control of Sergeant (formerly Lieutenant) Gabe Diaz and Sid Redburn. These hardened Gears have been tasked by the Chairman of the Coalition of Ordered Governments, Richard Prescott, to locate and execute a key figure in the Locust army, Ukkon. Not much is known about Ukkon outside the fact that he is the one responsible for all the (awesome) horrible creatures that the Locust use, like the Brumak and the Corpsers. By taking him out you are effectively crippling the creation of new and horrifying weapons (which doesn’t really do a whole lot when you consider the events of the following games). As you make your way through various places in Sera (and away from the city of Ephyra) you begin to encounter both new and familiar faces, and they’re all presented and written in a way that adds an extra layer of depth to the story of Gears.
The general story writing is probably one of the facets that really took me by surprise. I’m still cooling off after the impressively well-paced and well-written story that was Gears 5 (I loved it so much that it was my surprise of the year for 2019). Like Gears 5, Tactics’ story is more focused on the character drama and how the growth of these characters can lead to significant events in the overarching plot. The attention to detail within the facial animation doesn’t appear to be at the same level of Gears 5, but it doesn’t exactly need to be. The voice acting does a great job at properly conveying the tone and emotion of each piece of dialogue. You can tell when people are pissed and you can tell when they are empathetic, and characters still have a level of emotional depth that is used in a similar way to Gears 5 and enhances the game overall. You quite easily figure out which characters you like and dislike and the game makes it a point to try and challenge you on those preconceptions. The story feels like it adds an extra layer to the Gears universe and answers some questions that had previously just been completely ignored. The ending is also more or less open-ended and ties into the endgame for Gears Tactics.
Gears Tactics’ progression is a fairly smooth and consistent path. While it is weird to say that about a game with a linear story, there is still a certain element of a power climb that ties into your progress through the game’s 35–40 hour campaign (at least that’s how long it took me, your mileage may vary). In between every couple of main story missions, you are given a number of side missions to complete, with the amount required to progress to the next block of story missions increasing the further into the story you are. Each side mission has an optional objective and can have modifiers which can either be positive or negative. At first, this system is really cool, with you doing a skirmish-like mission to break up the main story while also granting you the upgrades and mods necessary for quickly dealing with the enemies that are to come. This system quite quickly outstays its welcome though as you find yourself doing more side missions than actual story missions and it changes from occasionally breaking the pace of the story progression to just impeding the storytelling and very clearly existing as a form of padding to make the campaign feel longer than it actually is. It’s because of this that I found myself underwhelmed with the game’s endgame, which isn’t inherently bad but is sullied by the sheer amount of side missions you had to do during the campaign itself. The endgame is more just skirmish missions, and completing a certain amount gives you a ‘veteran mission’, a type of mission that can have some incredibly high-quality/powerful rewards allowing you to take on more challenging missions that have harsher modifiers against you.
Gear and skill customisation is something that I found myself quite pleased with in Gears Tactics. There are five unit types: Support, Vanguard, Sniper, Heavy and Scout. Each unit type has its own primary weapon (I’ll let you guess what the Sniper units use) and each primary weapon can be customised with a number of benefits, ranging from higher accuracy to critical chance. There is enough variability within the skill trees that you can make the roles for individual units within a given unit type wildly different to one another. The potency of each weapon part is determined by its colour-coded rarity (white, blue, purple and yellow in order of radness), but within this there are some parts (and armour pieces, for that matter) that can have a really high positive but also a negative to balance out how crazy powerful the positive is. It’s a nice balance as the gear that only has positives often is notably weaker than the gear that has a positive and a negative. It’s a give-and-take system that I’ve always loved in Warframe with the corrupted mods and it’s fun to play around with in Gears Tactics. It’s quite easy to turn your units into overpowered beasts but there is a good chance that you might leave them incredibly vulnerable in some aspects and risk losing them if you don’t place them correctly when they are in use.
There are a number of subtle gameplay changes which improve the XCOM formula and some which feel like they were made to make it more fitting of the Gears name. Ask any Gears fan and they’ll tell you that part of the Gears charm lies within the gorey executions that the games feature, spearheaded by the mascot weapon, the Lancer. Executions have been cleverly implemented into the game’s basic XCOM formula and are a prominent tactical feature. Successfully performing an execution will grant the rest of your squad an extra action, which opens up numerous tactical possibilities. You do have to be careful, as being too trigger happy with executions can leave your unit completely exposed. When a unit is downed it sits in a bleed-out state, similar to how people are downed in the mainline Gears games. Generally, your unit will sit in this state for two or three turns and then die. If they are a key character, like Sid or Cole, you cannot allow them to die. Units that are not key characters can die (though I never had that happen) and picking them up leaves them in a weakened state where they lose a quarter of their max health. Getting new units isn’t exactly difficult, but you should consider your options when you first start the game as you don’t have many available slots for recruiting new members.
The two forms of Lancers also have instant kill melee abilities (chainsaw bayonet or the old-fashioned bayonet) which may sound overpowered but this is where the unique abilities of each enemy type in Gears Tactics take the stage. Units like the Kantus or the Wretch have unique traits that make them threatening in their own way. Each enemy type is given an appropriate range of lethality. Some units are better at close range, others at long range. When you begin to encounter the special units is where things get mixed up and you have to change up potential strategies. For example, Grenadiers have a large health pool and they counter the instant-kill melee abilities but lose their attack of opportunity when they have been damaged enough (with an extra tradeoff being they deal an insane amount of damage in this state). The fact Gears Tactics tries to keep the player on their toes by throwing units with unique traits at them is refreshing as each encounter is satisfying to beat (and chances are you will know when you mess up). Even smaller changes like Overwatch being based on your remaining ammo and actions rather than a singular target that moves into your field of view, or how the game subtly shows you what lines of sight you will have on opponents when you preview a positional change. All of these changes just enhance the XCOM formula and help the game serve as a great entry into the Tactics genre of gaming.
Visually speaking, Gears Tactics looks pretty good. Gears 5 is arguably one of the best looking games this generation and The Coalition really showed some technical talent with how much they were able to achieve while maintaining impressive performance targets (running at 4K 60FPS on the Xbox One X). Gears Tactics is not much different, truth be told. While there are some things that have been toned down, the general texture quality has been brought up as the result of a more closed rendering environment. Where Gears 5 had a lot of open areas and landscapes, Gears Tactics has highly detailed combat arenas viewed from a raised camera perspective. Post-processing has been cranked and things like volumetric fog really get to take hold of the scene. For the most part, my PC that consists of a Ryzen 7 2700X paired with a GTX 1080 Ti managed to stay above the 60FPS target. There were moments when the camera would be brought in for a cinematic view on a unit’s action where the frames would dip to around 45FPS but, honestly, they were so minor and the render distance is cranked in those moments so it’s pretty forgivable. The animation is also very good, a benefit of being able to use the Gears 5 animation set. I was pretty happy with the animation for going into cover remaining the same, so you see people throwing their whole bodyweight into pieces of cover and then hearing them become slightly winded as a result. This also just ties into the excellent sound design that the Gears games have always had.
I’m not going to do a performance analysis here, as I don’t want to risk bloating out the review any more than it has to be but expect a follow-up article which properly looks at the performance, but overall it is pretty solid. However, there were a couple of odd bugs here and there that I did encounter. There were a few moments where the lighting on the periphery would bug out and almost look like some form of artifacting (it was not artifcating) which was a bit strange but it was not hugely prominent in the game. I also had a pretty amusing bug where an enemy unit got animation-locked and I had to reboot the game. Lastly, the final encounter had a pretty frustrating bug that occasionally just forfeited one of my units’ action for a turn which I did not appreciate very much (but I did still get through it). My only other real complaint has to do with the ultrawide support. While it was nice to see that the game natively supports ultrawide resolutions like 2560×1080 and 3440×1440, the HUD is bound to the edges of the screen and cannot be moved towards the center. I’m not sure whether this is fixable or not but it’s such a simple thing that should be put into consideration when supporting ultrawide aspect ratios.
Gears Tactics is a spinoff that The Coalition and Splash Damage should be proud of. Through their hard work and effort, these developers have shown the industry that Gears, as a franchise, is capable of more than just being a cover-based shooter. It also helps move the IP in the modern day away from the expectation of setting standards in the third-person cover-based shooter as it initially did. Great storytelling, solid characters, impressive performance and subtle changes to the formula set by XCOM not only allow for this game to stand out by itself but also serve as a great entry into the turn-based tactics genre as a whole.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- The Coalition / Splash Damage
- Xbox Game Studios
- April 28, 2020