“We wanted to bring a new audience to Gears, and we looked at a number of different ways to do that,” Tyler Bielman, Publishing Design Director at The Coalition tells me. We’re discussing Gears Tactics, which sees the third-person shooter series set its sights on the strategy genre. We’re also discussing the past, four or so years ago, a time when The Coalition began looking at new directions it could take the long-running franchise.
Up until this point each new release had been a large-scale cinematic action game, one of those Microsoft published, first-party, Xbox Game Studios releases that came out during the holiday season. As a series, Gears has always lived well within this AAA console space. “What was almost immediately appealing was the idea of creating a PC game that could potentially reach hundreds of millions of PC gamers around the world,” Tyler says.
With Xbox now a part of the Windows 10 ecosystem, thanks to Xbox Game Pass and new first-party Xbox studio acquisitions with long histories in the PC scene, the console-to-PC shift for Gears makes sense. “A PC-first title was the general idea we had,” Tyler continues. “And when we looked at what genres worked well on PC, we realised that it was by far the preferred platform for strategy gamers. PC strategy games feel very natural when played with a keyboard and mouse, so we started kicking that idea around.”
“What was almost immediately appealing was the idea of creating a PC game that could potentially reach hundreds of millions of PC gamers around the world.”
Diving into the strategy genre, across a broad range of titles, the team at The Coalition began to see a natural synergy emerge between the turn-based tactics genre and the cover-based shooting of Gears. “If we were going to make a turned-based tactics game,” Tyler adds. “Then it had better feel like Gears.”
Capturing the Feel
Defensive cover and being tactical about where your units are positioned - to avoid being flanked or overrun - is not only a staple of the genre but applies to the heavyweight in the sci-fi turn-based game, XCOM. During the initial development and design meetings for what would ultimately become Gears Tactics, the teams at The Coalition and its partners at Splash Damage began breaking down Gears combat into granular detail. The result: pouring over each move, weapon, enemy AI, and how each level was designed.
“At its core using and staying in cover is a big part of Gears, but it's not just cover as a defensive haven,” Tyler explains. “Cover is how you move through the world, it's how you perceive the fronts of battle, how enemies set up against you, how you flank and break through. That first development step was breaking it all down, and it allowed us to come up with a roadmap of what combat in Gears is all about.”
“The second piece was looking at the enemies,” Tyler continues. “Enemies in Gears have roles and it's not something we necessarily advertise to the player. For example, a Wretch is a Flusher and their job is to come in, violate your cover, and push you out into the open. We have Flushers, Pinners, Mirrors, all these terms for what these enemies are. Functionally, they're the same role in tactics - we just translated it from a third person action game to a turn-based game.”
“Cover is how you move through the world, it's how you perceive the fronts of battle, how enemies set up against you, how you flank and break through.”
This is the synergy previously alluded to; the combat in Gears is a natural fit for a turn-based tactics game because Gears is at its core tactical, deep, and nuanced. With defined rules around being defensive, getting into position, and eventually running up to a Locust soldier to brutally execute them in the thick of battle. That mix of skill, strategy, and intense action has become as synonymous with Gears as its focus on camaraderie and soldiers coming together against all the odds to make a difference.
“We had an incredible combat core to work from but getting all of it to feel right was years of work,” Tyler admits. “To get the combat to feel precise, to feel like your expectations as a player were met.”
Brutal and Intense Combat
Going back to the original Gears of War, released for the Xbox 360 in 2006, the automatic rifle wielded by protagonist Marcus Fenix – called the Lancer – became one of the most identifiable weapons in videogames seemingly overnight. The combination of high-powered projectiles and a chainsaw located underneath the rifle saw an intoxicating blend of intense fire and brutal up-close-and-personal splatter emerge. With Lancer in hand movement to and from cover was measured but unpredictable as Marcus and his squad hunkered down in the middle of a constantly changing battlefield.
“That feeling comes down to those enemy roles and us as a team being willing to throw a lot more problems at the player, a lot more frequently,” Tyler explains. “The battlefield in Gears Tactics is dynamic from turn to turn. We keep careful track of your squad to figure out exactly when to throw more at you and from what angles to do it. To both keep you on your toes and to keep upping the challenge. Rather than having an environment where you’re facing three incredibly high-powered enemies, you're facing 15 Locust that have specific roles that are there to foil you and keep you from moving forward. Ultimately you want to be challenged, but you also don't want to feel overwhelmed.”
A delicate balance at the best of times, challenge and difficulty in Gears comes from a place separate from frustration. For the team, the freedom and tools given to players has to rise to the level of challenge. In order for it feel fun, for it to feel like Gears.
“We keep careful track of your squad to figure out exactly when to throw more at you and from what angles to do it. To both keep you on your toes and to keep upping the challenge.”
“There’s a way to design games where you put a lot of constraints on a player and those constraints dictate their strategic decisions and, in a sense, limit their creativity,” Tyler says. “Another approach is to give the player a deep and powerful tool set, which is what we chose to do with skills and multiple Action Points. But to do that, again, you have to be clear on the enemy's role in combat. And a player’s understanding of that.”
“Some of our decisions, not having a grid for example, was a deliberate choice to make the game feel like it was more open,” Tyler continues, as we discuss the faster-than-usual pace of Gears Tactics. “Giving you three Action Points and not just one shoot action and one move action. These were all choices that weren’t simple to execute, but they were investments made from the very beginning, knowing that at some point all of it would come together and hit that feeling of playing a Gears game.”
Role-Playing Gears - From Weapon Mods to Skill Trees
“We've got to throw a lot at you because we're giving you a lot of toys,” Tyler tells me. As a turn -based tactics game there’s a complexity found in Gears Tactics that has a different flavour to other releases in the franchise. Having the Longshot rifle or the spinning Mulcher be the weapons of choice for snipers and heavy defenders makes sense. But there’s also a, well, gear game within this Gears game. Full customisation of armour pieces and weapon mods across your entire roster. Where numbers alter damage output, accuracy, magazine size, and even passive abilities that could offer a bonus to a specific build, skill, or load-out.
“I really wanted to make a game that had a really fun equipment meta game for the player,” Tyler confirms, noting that this part of the experience was on the table long before the animation department began fine-tuning executions. “I love getting new weapons and armour and equipping them and figuring out, ‘Oh, how do I combine things?’ Allowing a player to change a Lancer with scopes and stocks and barrels, that's something we haven’t done in Gears outside of cosmetics.”
As the team began prototyping the various classes with different loadouts and weapons, each had their own class-defining Signature Skill. A triggered ability that screams ‘Sniper!’ or ‘Heavy Gunner!’. Internal feedback was promising, and with the team able to use the same Unreal engine and codebase to build Gears Tactics as Gears 5 - getting to this stage was relatively quick.
“About a third of the way into production we recognised, ‘Oh, we've got a little more magic here than we thought’,” Tyler recalls. “The tools we used to make these Signature Skills were so well implemented that we could create and modify them very quickly to try different variations. When reports were coming in from people saying that they were loving the skills and saying that they felt great, we doubled down and started creating a lot of different skills.”
“Allowing a player to change a Lancer with scopes and stocks and barrels, that's something we haven’t done in Gears outside of cosmetics.”
The big change would come in the form of each class having their own detailed skill and progression tree, something that wouldn’t feel out of place in a full-blown Gears of War RPG. Do you make this Scout a master of stealth or do you go the shock and awe approach worthy of the shotgun? Is the main protagonist Gabe a healer or a damage dealer? These choices are not only left up to the player but leave room for a full and diverse roster to be created – each with their own quirks and strengths to match the cosmetic differences in hair-style, scars, and what colour gun they might take into battle.
“It doesn't take much to squint and call it an RPG,” Tyler says of where the team ended up. “For PC gamers who are RPG fans, I hope they find the game and that they enjoy it. We really leaned into the skill system once we had it in hand, whereas the equipment and weapon mods were there from the beginning.”
Going Back - The Return of the Locust
“Bringing Gears to tactics, we knew there were some things we wanted to try,” Tyler recalls as the discussion shifts to the cinematic side of Gears. The intense battles against giant creatures interspersed with character development and personal stories. “One was bosses, could we do big Gears-style boss battles in a way that nobody else has in a tactics game? Let's try. Another thing was carrying over how we tell Gears stories. Where you get high quality, high fidelity, real-time cinematics that tells a story about a character who's in trouble and they’re having to rely on friends and allies.”
The main protagonist in Gears Tactics is Gabe Diaz, who in terms of cannon is the father of Kate Diaz, the star of 2019’s Gears 5. But defining Gabe didn’t happen overnight. Once it was decided that Gears Tactics would feature a cinematic story with the same high-production values that fans of the series have grown accustomed to it then became a question of when, why, and who. “We chose to create a new main character in Gabe Diaz because this is a different kind of game and we wanted a different kind of hero,” Tyler explains. “We wanted someone that felt like he was a tactician, someone who was intelligent, someone that could match wits with Ukkon in a way that maybe strategy game players could identify with.”
As for the setting Tyler and the team all agreed that going back felt like the right idea. “It's kind of a throwback story, a couple of soldiers on the road that are cut off. A bad situation about to get worse and they’ve got to save the day. With that premise we loved the idea of throwing it back to just after the Emergence Day time period. We realised that kicking off Gears Tactics with the Hammer of Dawn offensive was not only dramatic but worked perfectly in setting up a scorched world where the main characters are stuck.”
“We chose to create a new main character in Gabe Diaz because this is a different kind of game and we wanted a different kind of hero.”
For those a little rusty on their Gears lore, the Hammer of Dawn is that massive beam weapon that fires from orbit and can level an entire building faster than those aliens in Independence Day. Or perhaps, quicker. With the same Act-based structure found in the larger series, the story in Gears Tactics pits a group of outcasts against an extremely dangerous Locust threat – Ukkon. “As this is a throwback story, we wanted to have a big bad - a villain,” Tyler tells me. “So, what does a smart Locust do? Well, a smart Locust would be making more badass Locust. Early-on we locked into this idea that Ukkon made the Brumak and the Corpsers, and that he was a driving force behind the merging of technology and beast that you see across the Locust that has never really been explained.”
The decision to make Gabe Diaz Kate’s father came later and wasn’t one the team made lightly. “We spent months thinking about the ramifications of doing that,” Tyler admits. “We had the idea of Gabe well in hand and it was just one of those things where we looked at each other and said, ‘Wait a minute we can tie Gabe with Kate’. Do we even want to do it? We continued to develop Gabe where we could go either way, but once we made that decision, we were able to drop a few little Easter Egg lines in Gears 5 where Kate talks about her father.”
It's Your Turn Now
As one of the most beloved franchises in the Xbox stable, a series that not only hits the right action and cinematic notes, but everything from creature to weapon design feeling like its own thing - it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gears Tactics has been created with the same level of care and detail befitting its pedigree.
“We were able to add a lot of production value to the game really early because we were using the same engine as Gears 5 and other titles”
At a glance it may look every bit like Gears, but much like breaking down the combat and prototyping and creating new mechanics to capture a specific feel within the strategy genre, even this took time to get right. Being a strategy game means playing from a zoomed-out isometric perspective, having command of the battlefield, and moving all the pieces of giant armour and heavy weaponry around a board.
“Again, we were able to add a lot of production value to the game really early because we were using the same engine as Gears 5 and other titles,” Tyler says. “A great way to think about animation and art and effects is that there are a lot of adjustments in Tactics. Actually, tonnes and tonnes of little adjustments. Those dynamic camera moments where we go in close for the executions or an interactive moment, those took a lot of tuning to get right.”
As a PC-first release it’s worth noting that Gears Tactics was created to not only take advantage of modern hardware but offer visual customisation and high performance across a range of configurations. As a PC game, Gears Tactics is polished and extremely well optimised. Two things that don’t always go hand-in-hand, let alone show up on launch day.
In the end, the best way to sum up this side of the experience is to look at the detail within. At one of the ‘little adjustments’. As a turn-based tactics game executions and melee finishers can be carried out by most, with the team going so far as to answer the question, ‘What happens when you select a finisher with a grenade equipped?’ The answer, a new and dynamic animation that involves the use of a pinned frag about to get a fresh coat of red paint.
“We wanted to keep the spirit of those moments alive but be dynamic,” Tyler concludes. “This has been a four-and-a-half-year journey, and I am just ecstatic to see how people react.”
Gears Tactics is Available Now for PC via Windows 10, Xbox Game Pass, and Steam. An Xbox release is planned for some time in the future.