“Watch those rockets!” “Grubs are moving!” “He’s turning around!”
The Locusts are relentless. In threes and fours they take to the field, emerging out of the ground until I can get close enough to toss a grenade down the hole. The Locusts don’t make it easy though, setting up complicated webs of cause-and-effect. Step here, get shot. Flank, and another is watching the first’s back.
And on their turn, a swarm. Luckily I can set just as deadly a trap. As the drones and wretches sprint towards my position they find a wall of bullets, a double pincer that cuts them to pieces. But even as I cut this first force down, more are emerging behind.
I sit. I stare at this moment, frozen in time—my four ragtag Gears facing down an unstoppable army. I pour myself a drink and I think it over, calmly and quietly, the way Gears Tactics demands.
A new perspective
I haven’t finished Gears Tactics yet. I haven’t even come close, actually. It’s split into three acts—not five, like most of the mainline Gears games—but I’ve only finished the first so far. The usual caveats apply. Everything I say here is subject to change.
I’m surprised, because my expectations were low. It’s co-developed by Splash Damage and The Coalition, neither of which has a tactics background. And leading up to release, everything I’d seen looked like knock-off XCOM.
Cloning XCOM isn’t necessarily a bad decision, but ever since XCOM: Enemy Unknown released in 2012 I feel like the tactics genre has sort of “solidified,” if you will. Same interface, same over-the-shoulder action shots, same pacing. This happens in every genre occasionally, and always leads to the same problem: Why play the knock-off when you could play the original instead? That goes doubly for strategy games, where authored narrative usually takes a backseat to the mechanical moment-to-moment of directing troops.
But Gears Tactics tells one hell of a story. That’s the first surprise. Taking place before even the original Gears of War, Gabe Diaz and Sid Redburn are sent on a seemingly doomed mission to assassinate Ukkon, a Locust geneticist. Again, I’m only a third of the way through, but with Gabe Diaz the father of Gears 5 protagonist Kait, there’s a chance Gears Tactics has real ramifications for the overarching series. It’s definitely a spinoff, but feels meatier than I was expecting.
Main missions are usually bookended by cinematics, which give them a real in media res feel. Where XCOM often presents itself as a series of discrete encounters, with the team flying in from and evaccing back to base at the end, Gears Tactics often strings its missions together. You’re fighting across the city, the Hammer of Dawn reducing entire blocks to burning rubble. Day turns to night, night turns to day again.
The presentation is top-notch and keeps missions from blurring together. Some of the side missions feel disposable, but the main missions are typically themed around a unique idea or aesthetic. The Hammer of Dawn mission is an early standout, but there’s a holdout mission at the gates of a resistance base, a sunset assault across a heavily fortified dam, and even a boss fight against a massive brumak.
And that’s all in Act One.
It’s pretty incredible, at least the first time through. The downside of such heavily authored missions of course is that they’re less replayable. If you’re deep in your fifth XCOM 2 campaign or whatever, that might be a drawback.
As someone who typically plays games through only once though, I’m finding the variety refreshing. The main missions have all felt noticeably different, both the overall vibe and the end-goals. Some are quick jaunts through small environments. Others have been sprawling hour-long slogs through never-ending reinforcements. It’s helped solidify Gears Tactics in my head, anchored individual missions and moments in a way I rarely see with tactics games. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in Acts Two and Three.
Gears Tactics also differentiates itself mechanically though—and I’m loving that aspect even more, I think. It’s fast and fluid and lively in a way XCOM 2 never managed, even after patches fixed the worst of the stuttering. Gears Tactics isn’t a shooter, but it inherits shooter sensibilities. Combat encounters are brief, and the body counts high.
Soldiers typically have three actions per turn. These actions can be split in any way you’d like. If you want to fire your gun all three actions? You can do that. Likewise, if you go into Overwatch with three actions in reserve, you’ll still fire three times at any enemies who enter line-of-sight—which they do almost in real-time, with groups of enemies moving all at once in a rush to minimize downtime.
Executions are also important. The smallest enemies, wretches, are killed outright. Anything larger than that is typically “Downed” first though. If a Locust goes down, you have a chance to send in one of your soldiers to execute them. Doing so gives every other member of your squad an extra action that turn.
And lastly, Gears Tactics is generous with its heals. One class, the Vanguard, heals itself at the start of each turn and with every wound inflicted. Another, the support class, carries grenades that can revive and heal a downed squad member. Your Gears can also self-revive once per mission, an ability known as “Second Wind,” and no matter how badly a firefight went your soldiers still heal back to full in between missions.
These three factors—more actions per turn, bonus actions through executions, and the ability to tank damage—mean Gears Tactics can throw hordes of enemies your way. It’s not uncommon to find yourself outnumbered three or even four to one, wretches and drones and grenadiers all closing in on your position. The odds are against you. Every battle feels desperate.
It’s not a punishing game though, or at least I’m not finding it punishing. XCOM likes to kick you when you’re down. Plan A breaks down, and then Plan B collapses, and then when it tells you that your sniper has a 95 percent chance to hit she misses anyway and XCOM twists the knife.
Gears Tactics has no manual saves, which I think is blasphemy in a tactics game. But with the exception of one terrible mission (where I found myself completely taken by surprise by enemy reinforcements) I haven’t really missed the ability to save scum. Not as much as I expected, anyway. Your soldiers seem to hit more often than not, and finding yourself out of position doesn’t mean instant death like it usually does in XCOM.
It’s a friendlier tactics game, made even friendlier by the lack of an overarching strategy layer. Like the recently released XCOM: Chimera Squad, there’s no base-building or anything. There’s not even an equivalent to Chimera Squad’s less stressful “City Anarchy” meter. You do outfit and recruit soldiers, and assign skill points, but in Gears Tactics these are mere moments to catch your breath between missions—and to put all your soldiers into hot pink armor. The better to dazzle the Locusts with.
I still have some complaints. The armor and gear customization gets really unwieldy. At the end of Act One I already have dozens of attachments with the usual arcane stat bonuses. Does “+15 damage” actually matter when I do 450 damage per shot? How about a 10 percent bonus to accuracy? I don’t know, and worse I don’t really care. It’s just menu after menu after menu.
Your soldiers are also split into two tiers. You have hero characters, with a fixed name and appearance, and then you have random recruits. Trouble is, Gears Tactics rarely gives you a reason to use your random soldiers instead of the named characters—especially if you preordered, in which case you get Augustus “Cole Train” Cole (in his football gear, no less) who fills the fourth slot early on when you’d otherwise have only three heroes.
I guess if you’re really invested in naming and outfitting all your random soldiers (a la XCOM) you might choose to use recruits. Even so, the system is a bit weird. You can’t actually customize the appearance of soldiers you recruit—meaning gender, race, face, et cetera. Hair, facial hair, and clothing are all fair game, but you can’t whip up a clone of Nicolas Cage or whatever, the way you can in XCOM. That’s given me even less reason to use my random recruits.
And lastly, the side missions feel (as I said earlier) fairly disposable. This hasn’t been a problem yet, as Act One only runs you through two of them. I’ve heard from a fellow reviewer though that Act Three pads out the length with a bunch more side missions, which is disappointing. They’re not really “side missions” because you’re forced to finish a certain amount of them before moving onto the next story beat, so they’re just…boring missions, with randomized goals. I’d rather a leaner campaign focused only on blockbuster story missions.
Still, Gears Tactics won me over. These are small complaints in what’s quickly become one of my all-time favorite tactics games. It’s a little less thoughtful than its peers, but the action is smooth and satisfying, and I love turning my squad into unstoppable death machines by chaining execution after execution. At one point I got five in the same turn, meaning each of my soldiers took seven actions. Relentless.
As I said, I’m enjoying it more than any mainline Gears game this past decade. I’m looking forward to finishing it up and seeing what the rest of the story has in store, and curious whether it can keep coming up with new tactical challenges. Maybe it will falter in the back half—but if not, you just might see Gears Tactics on a few end-of-year lists. Not too shabby for a spinoff.