The spin-off or franchise off-shoot, where an established property ends up dabbling in a different genre, can quickly become an exercise in raising questions. Stuff like, ‘How exactly would Call of Duty work as a Dating Sim?’ and ‘If Sonic is managing a farm now, how will he find the time to collect Golden Rings?’ With the release of Gears Tactics, the big questions relating to the latest bicep-bound entry in the long-running franchise boil down to how well the third-person action series works within the tactics genre.
With the answer to just about every single one being ‘turn-based Gears is kind-of brilliant’, the transition away from third-person real-time shooting by studios The Coalition and Splash Damage is as seamless as it is impressive. At once retaining the look and feel and spirit of classic Gears of War action, whilst also making the case for expanding the Gears-verse into other gameplay realms.
With the camera zoomed out a little and the presentation now isometric, Gears Tactics is as much a turn-based Gears of War as it is something you could compare to an already established property. Just about every aspect of the core third-person cover-to-cover shooting of classic Gears has not only made the transition to turn-based but has done so in a way that make it feel like a great fit. Bordering on, ‘this is how Gears should be played’.
“The transition away from third-person real-time shooting by studios The Coalition and Splash Damage is as seamless as it is impressive.”
In fact, when separated from the source material one wouldn’t be at fault in thinking this was a built from the ground-up tactics game. Isn’t just like XCOM though? Sure, but even then, Gears Tactics has its own feel. A Gears of War feel. From sliding into cover to take advantage of a slight movement bonus, executing a Locust foe via chainsaw or Retro Lancer bayonet for a bonus action point, firing off a grenade into an Emergence Hole to stop little nasties from creeping out from underneath the surface of Sera. Moments that could describe traditional Gears of War combat excel and are wonderfully executed in Gears Tactics.
This extends to weapons as the basis to build classes and a four-person squad from, with various skills and mods to choose thanks to the number and percentage-filled RPG like progression system. The Longshot rifle serves as the weapon of choice for snipers, Mulchers for the heavy defender classes, the Gnasher Shotgun for scouts, and the iconic Lancer for support classes and general all-rounders.
For those new the genre Gears Tactics isn’t a “my first” proposition, or a simplified off-shoot that does little to justify its own existence. New, well, gear unlocks after each mission with bonus gear awarded for any cases found or secondary objectives met. From common to rare to legendary mods they provide simple damage or accuracy boosts in addition to passive abilities that can alter an entire build. The combat grid-free mechanics are equally deep, the tactical complexities nuanced and exciting. Where it excels comes with the focus it places on diversity and quick thinking.
The pace here is a lot faster than many tactics games we’ve played in recent times - in a way that adds tension and accelerates the flow of action. Gears Tactics achieves some of this by ramping up the number of enemies you’ll face with your four-person squad and giving each soldier multiple Action Points each turn. This can, quite easily, lead to a situation where you throw a Frag Grenade to take out a group of Creepers, slide into nearby cover, reload your Retro Lancer, and then create an Overwatch field on a nearby path to ambush the next wave of foes. And all within a single turn.
It’s tactical, engaging, and again has a flow that makes playing through missions feel like their own little combat stories. In fact, side missions that feature modifiers and act as remixes on ‘hold the point’ or ‘keep ahead of the falling explosions’ scenarios continuously throw new challenges that require experimenting with gear or weapons or skills you may have previously waved away.
“Moments that could describe traditional Gears of War combat excel and are wonderfully executed in Gears Tactics.”
On that front, the mentions of the Locust Horde in this write-up - as opposed to the Swarm - will let you in on the fact that Gears Tactics takes place before the events of the most recent trilogy. Timeline-wise its tale of big armour and cool scars is set years before the Marcus Fenix-starring original. The main protagonist that you’ll follow through each mission, Gabe Diaz, serves as a calm, measured, and calculated vessel – perfect for the genre - but also, the connective tissue to the current games. He’s Kate’s pa.
Split into Acts with real-time cinematics between most missions, the production values of Gears Tactics put it more than a step-above what one might consider an experimental low-stakes off-shoot. Although certain locations repeat and the between-mission banter can and often disappears for stretches at a time, Gears Tactics successfully recreates the cinematic structure of the core titles. Which although works, is at times the weakest aspect of this release – in that it’s linear to a fault. Something that cannot be said of the combat itself.
In fact, with the villain and antagonist revealed very early-on, outside of a few plot twists and turns it’s hard to shake the feeling that the narrative in Gears Tactics is an unmovable freight train barrelling toward a singular destination. And those last few stops before the grand finale feel like a story simply ‘going through the motions’. With the level of customisation and variation found in putting together and building a roster of fighters, not to mention the engaging encounters themselves, it would have been nice to see some tangible narrative cross-over with this level of freedom.
Fighting grubs or members of the Locust en masse, each displaying its own aggression and behaviour, is pure edge of your seat action. Even though you have the time to sit there and figure out the best path forward, the combat in Gears Tactics never loses its intense gore-splattering edge.
From the rushing melee-based Creepers to exploding Tickers to enemy snipers that can pin one of your squad members into place, there’s diversity in how each firefight plays out. Oh, and the boss battles that close out each of the campaign’s Acts are insane. In all the right ways. Challenging without being punishing, being able to experiment and pause and retry is a welcome touch. From the visuals to the sound design (the classic ‘all’s clear’ returns here and is just as soothing as ever) to the art direction to the animation when the camera zooms in to showcase a finishing move – Gears Tactics’ polish matches its style.
“There’s diversity in how each firefight plays out, and the boss battles that close out each of the campaign’s Acts are insane.”
Even with full knowledge of the Gears arsenal and baddie line-up, there are still plenty of surprises and strategies to be discovered. And in the end, that’s probably a good a word as any to describe Gears Tactics – surprising. To say that an experience was ‘surprisingly good’ or ‘surprisingly fun’ has a somewhat negative connotation. In that there’s the assumption that heading in expectations were set to ‘low’. To call Gears Tactics surprising is not that at all, it’s all about coming to terms with the realisation that at its core, Gears of War combat is tactical, deep, and full of its own style and flavour. And that all of that, when given enough time to develop and flesh out and expand upon, makes up the perfect list of ingredients to create a great turn-based tactics game.