“It’s about flowing through cover to create flanks, coordination among teammates, and exploiting opportunities to push your offense,” that’s Tyler Bielman, Design Director at The Coalition describing Gears of War combat. With the upcoming release of Gears Tactics, first on PC this month and an Xbox One version expected later in the year - it’s a description that sounds a little turn-based tactics. A realisation that makes the idea of a Gears of War game in the vein of an XCOM or another strategy game feel natural.
“As Gears Tactics developed, we did a lot of comparisons between it and the other [Gears] titles,” Tyler continues. “[There was] a great deal of user testing to ensure that our combat ‘feels’ like Gears.” Up until now the Gears franchise has provided tactical cover-to-cover third-person action in a more traditional real-time sense – single-player or co-op with a squad reacting and making split second decisions in the moment. Via third person shooting.
By going isometric, zoomed-out and turn-based, during pre-production the teams at The Coalition and Splash Damage began playing every tactics game they could find, alongside a suite of turn-based RPGs and portable handheld titles from years back. “For us it was less about specific inspirations and more about how we can grow bring Gears to new players,” Tyler adds. “We decided to make a PC title that could reach a huge audience, and the strategy genre was a perfect fit.”
“As Gears Tactics developed, we did a lot of comparisons between it and the other [Gears] titles."
The result is certainly familiar, using action points to move squad members into position, selecting the right weapon for the task, and viewing the battlefield from a god-like overseer position. Where Gears Tactics differs is how it manages to integrate the intense moment-to-moment action of the franchise into tangible turn-based mechanics. Adding a slide so action-points aren’t fully committed to get someone into cover, leaving plenty of time to shoot.
Secondary fire, grenades, and using items akin to what was found in Gears 5. Of course, melee finishers that utilise the Lancer’s iconic chainsaw have made the translation. In addition to the once last-resort Retro Lancer’s bayonet by the way of machete offering a surprisingly effective tool for Locust disposal.
“We had an incredible legacy to draw from,” Tyler tells me. “So it wasn’t that difficult to find the Gears Tactics ‘spin’ on mechanics. We want the player to feel smart and powerful, and our weapons with our mechanics absolutely give you the tools to make clutch plays.” What may surprise some, or not, is how Gears Tactics isn’t a simplified version of a tactics game – there’s complexity and nuance that encourages experimentation and switching things up.
“The enemies in the game provide an incredible breadth of challenge and difficulty,” Tyler explains. “The game lets players go for aggressive strategies or conservative strategies, but mistakes are still met with consequences. The enemies are designed to push creativity in combat.” Looking back at the debut of the original Gears of War back in the days of the Xbox 360, outside of the cast’s bulging biceps the large screen-filling creatures and the fast and slow-moving members of the Locus Horde presented memorable encounters. The Boomshot Grenade Launcher wielding Boomers, the limb-surplus menace of Corpsers, and the devastating Brumaks.
“The game lets players go for aggressive strategies or conservative strategies, but mistakes are still met with consequences."
“We spent a lot of time prototyping the camera, the mechanics and the types of arenas we could create to bring Gears of War bosses to life in Gears Tactics,” Tyler continues. “These fights take the player into deep waters and provide a significant challenge. However, because the game is turn-based, you have a lot of control over your own session. It wouldn’t surprise me to see people save the game after clearing a portion of a boss health bar and then return to it later.”
With deep tactical mechanics, the development team’s accessibility approach for Gears Tactics is allowing newcomers and veterans to approach the release in a way that suits players and stays true to the spirit of Gears. Be that playing via Steam, Xbox Game Pass for Windows 10, or the ability to pick-up-and-play, save, and pause things mid-battle. Deck out squad members in armour and COG-inspired weaponry too.
For Gears fans that may not have much in the way of experience with the tactics genre, the familiarity of mechanics and high-end cinematic presentation will feel like coming home. “Gears Tactics definitely features the sweeping cinematic story fans expect from Gears,” Tyler confirms. “And we’re excited to bring that element with us into the strategy genre. We saw this as an opportunity to simultaneously expand the lore and history of Gears of War while also building a story that was accessible for new players. We spent a lot of time making sure that players with no pre-existing knowledge of the game could follow both the story and the mechanics.”
“The first hour of the game tells you everything you know in terms of backstory and core combat mechanics,” Tyler adds. “Part of the decision to create a new set of main characters was to ensure that these characters will work for everyone who is new to Gears.” As a prequel, the events of Gears Tactics will focus on the exploits of Gears 5’s protagonist Kate’s father, Gabe Diaz. In a story that takes place roughly 12 years before the events of the first game.
“Gears Tactics definitely features the sweeping cinematic story fans expect from Gears, and we’re excited to bring that element with us into the strategy genre."
By sharing some of the technology of previous entries, the real-time cinematics and quality found across elements like special effects and animation haven’t been scaled back or reduced in the slightest. “We’ve used a custom version of Unreal Engine 4, one that leverages what we've learned and applied throughout the releases of ‘Gears of War: Ultimate Edition’, ‘Gears of War 4’ and ‘Gears 5’," Tyler concludes. “But, while we use UE4 and some of the foundational work from Gears 5, we’ve also had to add new features and tools specific to Gears Tactics since it's a different kind of game.”
Gears Tactics is out April 28 for PC