The announcement of Gears Tactics during E3 2018 caught me off guard for sure. Yeah, Halo had already tried its hand in the tactics genre with great success in two Halo Wars games, but when it came to Gears of War, Epic Games had a lot to prove, especially thanks to the recent resurgence of the brand with last year’s by all accounts fantastic Gears 5. I’ve still yet to complete that, but the little that I played of it, it was most definitely a Gears of War game.
Gears Tactics for as much as it initially might not look like a Gears game, is by far the one that I enjoyed most so far in my COG career. I don’t know if it’s the slower paced in comparison to the action heavy main series games, or the obvious tactical elements that are introduced as the combat shifts from an over the shoulder to an isometric viewpoint. Regardless of my initial reservations, I’m way into what Gears Tactics has been serving up.
Taking place soon after the cataclysmic events of Emergence Day, you play as Gabe Diaz, a former COG soldier turned mechanic for the army who’s brought back into service by the government leaders in order to put an end to a particularly nasty Locust geneticist’s work called Ukkon. But before he can do that, he has to assemble a crew. Cue the montage! No, I’m just kidding about that last part. Joining him is COG lancer and all around gruff bastard Sid, who just happened to be the carrier of the message calling him back into action.
If you’re familiar with the modern XCOM games you’ll immediately know how Gears Tactics base gameplay works. You get to control a squad of soldiers in the field and point them towards cover and into attacking enemy troops. Except that this game injects the Gears flavor by upping the pace and pushing you to be way more aggressive in your approach, as well as thoughtful, since just like the main series games, a certain strategy rarely works the same for every encounter. That’s not to say that Gears Tactics is entirely devoid of the usual shade of XCOM BS like shot percentages and such, but ultimately it’s a much faster game to get through and works surprisingly well as a pick up game due to its friendly mission structure.
Your team composition is broken up into character classes that fit in well with the established style of Gears of War and general tactical strategy games. You get support units, snipers, rangers, the usual heavies and such, who play to their strengths and weaknesses through a really neat skill tree progression system that works well in tailoring each unit into unstoppable killing machines as long as you manage to keep them alive. Unlike XCOM, however, there are also hero units that get a unique set of bonuses that can be activated during missions, who cannot die and are paramount to the story, like Gabe, Sid, and Mikayla, who’s introduced early into the story. Whenever one of them bites the dust, it’s an instant game over.
In true Gears fashion, however, there are ways to avoid losing your dear grunts as they’re damn resilient and don’t quite die when their HP bar reaches zero. As with the mainline games, you can pick them back up regardless of having a medkit or stim pack by simply reaching out with another member of your squad, or by using their one-time-per-mission revive ability that gets them back up and into the fray again. Of course, they can indeed go the way of the dodo if you take too long or they are finished off by an enemy’s curb stomp, but in this regard this game is way more lenient than the usual flavor of XCOM or XCOM-likes.
Other Gears elements play off extremely well in the tactical gameplay of this new game. I’m especially fond of how grenades are used here as they are positively devastating to the enemy, but they also see use in sealing up emergence holes, basically cutting off the Locust’s reinforcements during levels. At least in normal difficulty they’re in infinite supply, so as long as their cooldown is up, you can keep chucking them as needed. The entirety of the arsenal in Gears Tactics is ripped straight out of the action games and fit in naturally to the style of play.
Gear in particular is a part of gameplay that Gears Tactics treats somewhat differently than what you might expect, since a lot of it has to be discovered in crates strewn throughout missions and also come as completion rewards for special objective challenges during the campaign. While the bulk of your team’s weaponry will come as they’re recruited — recruitment is done by rescuing COGs during missions or by calling them in in-between levels in the barracks screen — the gravy’s all in the assortment of lock-on items that you’ll click into each of their slots that will make all the difference in the field. It’s the sort of stuff like +10 to CRIT and the like, or special skills proccing whenever a certain something happens while you’re playing.
Those boxes come in different rarities that influence what kind of loot is inside, and I’ve found them to be easy enough to run into during my time playing the game, enough so they don’t feel like a throwaway thing added in for the sake of adding extra fat. In fact, Gears Tactics is a pretty tightly designed game that does wonders when it comes to serving up missions that are quick to get through than your usual tactics game. The level variety so far has proved to be good enough to keep me on my toes, and I’ve been treating my time playing conservatively, taking it slow, mission by mission, with breaks in between.
That’s mostly because of how tense all the action can get while playing this thing. True to the series it’s spawned from, Gears Tactics doesn’t let down as enemies are quick to plop into overwatch or get in right in your face, interrupting your skills that would otherwise work like a charm in other games. Say a wrech ends its turn just sitting right by your guy and you decide to chainsaw it to death with that same unit, it’s bound to get a reaction attack that negates that, wasting precious action points. Thankfully, the AP in Gears Tactics is much more generous than what you’d come to expect in games of this style and there are plenty of ways to get more in a pinch.
One of them is positively hilarious and comes from nailing a finisher on an enemy by a nearby squaddie, who then pumps up the rest and gives them a bonus point that can be used straight away on the same turn. Then there’s an assortment of skills in a number of different progression tree choices that can be activated to provide bonus chances for your crew to act in a turn. But just with the three points you get per turn there’s plenty you can do since all of your actions only cost a single AP, unless you move too far off to different cover. Say you’re in a good spot and can get shots into the enemy, you’re able to shoot them more than once in a turn if needed, as long as you’ve got enough ammo. And even reloading only takes a point without requiring you to end a turn afterwards. It all makes Gears Tactics move much more quickly and play more intensely for sure.
It also helps that this game looks fantastic thanks to UE 4, the same that powers the previous main series title. Even with the pushed back camera angle, everything is ridiculously detailed, so much so that when especially cool shots are pulled off, the game zooms in and shows off just how great all the models are, in line in quality to the rest of the series. It’s all cartoonishly violent too, and I absolutely love it for that. The same goes for the music that draws in the usual cues, including the guitar riff whenever an enemy wave is finished off and you’re given a little breathing room during combat.
I’m in awe with just how well The Coalition and Splash Damage have nailed this game overall. I’ve been remiss with the franchise ever since the move from Xbox 360 to Xbox One and me not owning the latter, but this is making me want to invest in it, or at least give these modern entries a go on Game Pass PC. It’s been great coming back to the bonkers world of Gears of War and I just can’t wait to see what else Gears Tactics has in store the more I play it.