Gears Tactics is unlike anything we’ve seen from the Gears of War franchise, yet it managed to make me feel right at home. Despite offering a radically different gameplay experience, the collaborative effort between Splash Damage and The Coalition stayed true to the Gears name.
Admittedly, I was a bit hesitant when Microsoft announced that the Gears franchise would be deviating from its roots. Alongside Gears POP!, it was clear Microsoft wanted to branch out and expand what Gears of War could be.
Since 2006, Gears of War has promised a blockbuster third-person experience, filled to the brim with brutal executions, tight cover systems, and a cast of beefed-up soldiers. Adapting those promises to a framework similar to Final Fantasy Tactics and XCOM is no easy feat. Gears Tactics opted to bring a strategic, turn-based, top-down experience with the same Gears DNA flowing throughout.
Gears Tactics is a prequel entry to the Gears of War franchise. Taking place 12 years before the original, players are introduced to Gabe Diaz, the father of Kait Diaz. Gabe is a veteran Gears soldier, reserved from the frontlines. Following the Hammer of Dawn Strikes, Gabe is assigned a new task by COG’s Chairman Richard Prescot. Aided by fellow soldier Sid Redburn and former Stranded Mikayla Dorn, Gabe must recruit a new squadron of trained fighters and take the Locust head-on.
Gabe’s priority is taking down and stopping the Locust’s lead scientist Ukkon. It’s been quite some time since the Gears franchise has introduced us to a formidable and compelling antagonist. Ukkon is very intelligent and cunning. He quite possibly stands alongside Gears of War’s General Raam in terms of sheer character design and aesthetics. Gears Tactics continues to build on the reestablished lore, giving players more information on the origins of the Locust and how the events leading up to the original came to be.
Gears Tactics quickly finds you recruiting new soldiers into your squad, all which bringing their own specializations: Support, Scout, Vanguard, Sniper, and Heavy. They will occasionally join the fixed character roster alongside Gabe, Sid, and Mikayla.
Unfortunately, Gears Tactics’ narrative does suffer from the rotating roster and the small number of character moments. You never have the chance to attach yourself to Gabe, Sid, or Mikayla the way you do with Marcus, Dom, J.D., or Kait. While the game still features beautifully rendered cutscenes, those in-mission character moments found in other titles don’t exist here. Instead, all squad members will only repeat the same call-outs over and over during each mission. The narrative only builds during the cutscenes between missions over the three-act story.
Just like Final Fantasy Tactics and XCOM, you’ll level up your heroes and unlock their skill trees. Gears Tactics include a bevy of customization options and upgrades including new armour, weapons, and a long list of class-based abilities. The systems to create sub-classes and customize weapons and armour are incredibly deep.
Squad members will have access to a primary weapon, secondary, and grenades. Finding crates during missions and completing optional tasks will award you with new pieces of armour and weapon mods. Attaching and swapping mods will add stat boosts and other perks to take to the battlefield. Each has its own pros and cons, giving ample freedom to experiment with roster builds. Don’t get too attached to your recruits, though. Outside of the main trio, all recruits have permadeath enabled. Playing on the harder difficulties, you’ll likely find more than a few fall prey to the Locust’s onslaught. Fire Emblem veterans know the pain.
The dynamic shift from third-person to a top-down perspective changes quite a bit. However, Gears Tactics managed to keep the underlying gameplay true to what the franchise was built on. During each turn, every squad member will be assigned three Action Points. These points can be used to move across the map, shoot enemies, and use special abilities.
Victory is spent by strategically using each hero’s Action Points effectively to disable the Locust army and complete the objective. The game offers an Overwatch ability, letting you automatically shoot enemies during their turn, possibly interrupting their moves. While abilities and classes have found their way into Gears Tactics, covering from enemy shots is essential. Of course, it’s not Gears without letting you shred through an enemy with your Lancer, which I’m pleased to say is still a key component.
Naturally, Gears Tactics’ pace is a lot slower than the core titles. Being a turn-based game, you’re going to want to take your time and methodically craft your approach. That said, the game itself is more condensed and shorter than your typical outing with the Gears.
Interspliced between the main missions, the game will force you to complete a set amount of side missions. While still handsomely rewarding you for your efforts, they do become a bit of a distraction from the experience. Side missions are all based on predetermined objectives. Rescue missions will find you rescuing captured soldiers in a set amount of terms. Scavenger missions will task you with obtaining crates while avoiding a barrage of Locust missiles, decimating the map. While these were fun additives at first, the number of side missions became a bit bothersome. Add to that the fact that the maps are regularly reused.
One of the biggest compliments I can give to the game is how creative Splash Damage and The Coalition were when designating classes to the different Locust soldiers. None of the enemies in play break the established rules set by the preceding games. Grunt enemies don’t typically offer a real challenge. However, when a Boomer or Theron Guard is thrown into the mix, gunfights become a bit more precarious. Learning enemy vulnerabilities and weaknesses is critical.
Gears Tactics really kicks it up a notch during its boss battles. Facing familiar faces like the Corpser and Brumak, you really have to bring your A-game to achieve victory. Bosses possess multi-turn abilities and have thick skin. To make matters worse, grunts will be dropped in and Emergence Holes will pop up, bringing more enemies to the field. Coordinating hero abilities and taking advantage of every Ability Point is essential when fighting off waves of enemies, all while chipping away at the boss’s health bar.
Gears Tactics does not offer any multiplayer components. However, the game does offer a variety of difficulties to explore if you want to build up to a larger challenge. There is also a Veteran Mode, which lets players replay campaign levels with additional modifiers for bigger rewards.
Overall, Gears Tactics is a surprising addition to the long-running franchise. Gears of War has refined what adrenaline-fueled cover-based shooters can be for more than a decade. Gears Tactics takes the fundamentals of the franchise and puts a delightful, albeit bloody twist on it. The deep customization systems in play ensure players can build their roster to their preferences. The continuous acquisition of of new mods and armor paired with the character skill trees add a nice RPG flair to the experience.
Gears Tactics will be available on Steam and Windows 10 on April 28.
A copy of Gears Tactics was provided for review purposes.