I’ve been playing Gears Tactics with every spare moment of the last week. The second I’m done writing review, I’m going back for more. It’s superb. In fact, it’s good to the extent where, as risky as it is to say such a thing, I’d argue it sets the new gold standard for turn-based tactics.
I say that as a lifelong XCOM (and X-COM) fan, too, and without disrespect to those games. After all, the formula set by 1994’s X-COM is the foundation for pretty much the entire genre, and Gears Tactics sits squarely atop it. It’s a game about assembling squads from a pool of soldiers, and sending them on missions. There, they have a set number of actions each turn, to spend on moving around the map, shooting baddies, or using special abilities. After your actions run out, the baddies have a turn. In that much at least, little has been reinvented. But just as happened when XCOM arrived in 2010, Gears Tactics has redefined just how much fun can be had with that simple recipe for squad-based xenocide.
I don’t think anyone really expected a turn-based tactics game from the Gears Of War series. I was pretty nonplussed when I heard about it, to be honest. At best, I was expecting something like the Halo Wars games. That is to say, a solid effort, but one which measured up neither to the depth of its strategy peers, nor to the blockbuster charisma of its license. But Gears Tactics, it transpires, is full of hybrid vigour: overflowing with action game brawn, but with plenty of brains behind it all. It turns out that, even in the preposterously hench world of Gears, the mind really is the strongest muscle.
Perhaps the fact that nobody had any expectations for Gears Tactics has worked in its favour. Its designers were free to pick and choose from the classic squad tactics toolkit, as they had no community to alienate, and no features to include out of a sense of duty to tradition. The most notable omission, as a result, is the lack of any strategic/management metagame at all. As soon as a mission’s done, you re-equip your soldiers with newly looted gear and skills gained from levelling, and jump into another one. Story missions are bookended with cutscenes, and sometimes there’s a choice of side missions to go on. But beyond that, there is only beasting.
If that sounds like a drastic amputation, bear with me. Because I am, let’s not forget, a lover of management games. I enjoy base-building, fighter-intercepting, fund-wheedling and gun-procuring as much as anyone. But they offer a slow drip dopamine release, rather than the rush that comes from wrangling a chaotic guerilla fight towards dramatic victory. And while I loved XCOM 2’s War Of The Chosen DLC, and all the complexity of its strategic layer, I did find the gear-shifting between the modes of play faintly jarring. Sometimes fights felt like annoying distractions from my global resistance management simulator, while sometimes the geoscape felt like a stressful, baffling diversion from up-close carnage.
Gears, meanwhile, has only one gear: “of war”. It’s thrown nearly everything it has into the tactical layer, and it does everything it can to keep you there, like a Vegas casino bringing you whiskey sours to keep you anchored in the depths of shitfaced blackjack. Mission leads into mission as you chainsmoke fights, and you can lose whole nights of sleep to the urge to push just one mission further. Again, I stress: management layers are not in any way bad. But this game does not suffer for lack of one. Action frenzy after action frenzy, broken only by OTT cutscenes, is the flavour of big budget shooters after all, and particularly of the Gears series. In that way, The Coalition did have an expectation to meet. They knew that, to stay true to their source material, they had to let as little as possible get in the way of constant, chainsaw-facilitated life cancellation.
This “GO, GO, GO” mentality is written through the whole of the combat system, too. At its heart is the execution mechanic, which you can see in the screenshot above. Here, a locust trooper has been escorted to the threshold of death by a number of bullets, and I’m about to send one of my squad charging round the bus to finish the job. At that point, the game will cut to a close-up execution vignette full of grand-guignol revving and splattering. And then, when the deed is done, everyone else on my squad will gain a fresh action point, allowing them to squeeze off another shot, get into cover or – if I’m lucky – run forward to conduct an execution of their own and expand the wealth.
This simple mechanic leads into wild, snowballing chains of opportunity, and if you judge your initial risk right, ugly deadlocks can blossom into routs. But getting too carried away can leave you dangerously overextended, as your luck finally runs dry in the middle of a horde of snarling grey muscle lizards. It’s all very finessed, all very finely balanced: objectives and level designs give you every motivation to play aggressively, but unthinking recklessness will be punished. Your constant challenge is to be cleverly hyperagressive, and you soon begin to develop a stockbroker’s instinct for calculating risk and reward.
In some missions, for example, you’re tasked with rescuing troopers from enemy “torture pods”, and can only take one or two of your usual four-person squad onto the map. There’s a time limit on getting to the pods and escaping again. But once they’ve been opened by your soldiers, their occupants join you in the fight, after a turn spent walking off all the torture. Approach each pod in turn, however, picking off guards in a staggered advance, and you’ll risk running out of time. Often, it’s better to send one beefcake to either pod, charging into the middle of massive knots of enemies, and then try to fight your way out of both shitshows at once, with the aid of the rescued soldiers. It feels like lunacy, but somehow it works. The more hectic the situations you throw your squads into, the more opportunities you find to work their skills.
And things do get hectic. You’re always massively outnumbered by your enemies, with the locust horde coming at you by the dozen, and there’s an increasingly punishing array of enemy classes mixed in as the game goes on, from scampering bomb-creatures that move closer when you miss a shot at them, to anvil-faced priests who make the troops around them nearly invulnerable. But you never feel bullied, for lack of a better word. I’ve come across a few missions that stopped me in my tracks repeatedly, but I never got to the point of swearing at my screen, or throwing my hands up in appeal to an invisible referee. Yes, there were shots that totally should have hit, and legions of snipers I had no place to hide from. But I can’t think of one occasion where the game didn’t give me the tools, or the information, I needed to find a way out of a mess, whatever the RNG had in store. The constant brinkmanship makes you feel powerful and clever, rather than just stressed – you’re faced with ludicrous odds, but somehow, you almost always find a way to pull it out of the bag. You feel, in other words, like the protagonist of an FPS.
Crucially, however, the difficulty curve never swerves too far in the other direction either. On the default difficulty setting it’s pretty forgiving, but not easy. I never really encountered that slightly deflating moment of “oh, is that all it’s going to throw at me?”, or felt like my troops had become too powerful for the situations facing them. Partially, this is because Gears has a backbone of fully designed story missions (I didn’t count, but it felt like 20-odd), interspersed with partially randomised side missions, so it knows roughly where you’ll be in terms of power level when you reach each of its many milestones. More than that, though, it lets you set your own difficulty within missions. Each one has an optional objective, such as troop class restrictions or time limits, which award weapon and armour upgrades if accomplished. And if that’s still not enough, further loot is scattered around the map in crates, leading to yet more risk/reward calculations as you try to work out whether it’s worth diverting soldiers into hotspots to retrieve them.
Of course, the pacing of a Gears game wouldn’t be complete without ridiculous boss battles, and Gears Tactics has ’em. There’s only a small number of the really big lads to face, but they’re grand old fights. The first is the Brumak, which is sort of like the product of a loveless marriage between a T-rex and a cave troll, with massive guns strapped to it. The second is a honking great spider with goggles called a Corpser, and it’s a proper disaster. Both are utterly massive on the field of play, and put you through the wringer with great long batterings that – in classic monster boss style – transition through three distinct phases as you chip away at the big red health bars.
This Gearsiness seeps into every element of GT’s design, beyond just the mechanics. Everything is either made of needlessly chunky, battered metal, or needlessly chunky muscles. Even the vehicles, somehow, look totally ripped. The narrative design too, is appropriately meatheaded. And I don’t mean that at all as a dismissal. Yep, it’s full of melodrama and time-worn cliche, but every last grunt of it is exactly where it needs to be. It takes genuine talent and craft to write good, engaging pulp, and GT’s writers have done a bang-up job of doing just that. It’s not a complex story, but it’s more solidly told than your average big action flick, and I enjoyed it lots.
Your main lad, Gabe Diaz, is an extraordinarily wide man, whose adventure precedes the original Gears Of War by 12 years. The horrid locusts are in the process of overrunning the planet of Sera as the story starts, and Gabe – a lieutenant who demoted himself to sergeant because the horrible government kept making him do horrible things – finds himself as the only ranking brutus in the middle of all the carnage. He is, therefore, the only person capable of organising a fightback against a particularly horrid locust called Ukkon, and so must regretfully become the King Of The Army once more.
In the process of hunting Ukkon, Gabe puts together a squad of very wide men and normally proportioned women, recruited from a group of civilian workers. They initially loathe Gabe because of the aforementioned horrible government and their atrocities, and think he is a nasty fash. But Gabe is actually a decent, thoughtful sort of bloke, as befits this more thinky instalment in the Gears series, and he wins them round. He won me round, too. Him and all his burly colleagues are impeccably voice-acted, and are well-versed in the bants of war.
But for all of GT’s sledgehammer attitude, I can’t stress enough that it is not a simple game. Any loss of depth it might have suffered from foregoing a strategic layer is more than compensated for by the complexity of the battlefield, and in particular by the interplay between character skills. There are millions of the things. Well, about 150, actually, with each of the five character classes having a skill tree of thirty-plus passive and active abilities, split into four subclass quadrants.
There are your classic Snipers, your minigunning Heavies, and your shotgun-toting, cloakable Scouts. But there’s also the Support class, which can be hammered into a medic, an action-point-granting commander, or some sort of chainsaw messiah who makes everyone stronger by cutting aliens into lumps. And most interesting of all is the Vanguard, a sort of shock trooper class whose skills exemplify the game’s tactical philosophy of solving dangerous messes by making them more messy and dangerous. Every class has a creative, varied set of skill upgrades with very few dull or useless picks, and working out team build compositions is a constant pleasure.
This brings me to my one significant criticism of Gears Tactics, which is the UI of the loadout segment in between missions. You would think, given everything the developers have done to keep the action flowing, that the one bit of Gears Tactics that doesn’t directly involve killing would be as slick as possible. But it’s really not. Efficient play means constantly switching up peoples’ loadouts to match their skills, and moving second-tier gear to less experienced soldiers as your A-team get the best new toys. It’s quick and slick when you’ve only got a few troopers, but as your roster grows and you pick up more and more loot, it gets to be a bit of a fucking task to outfit them all.
There’s no way of quickly seeing who’s got what kit, or of checking which bits and bobs match a soldier’s passive abilities, without navigating back through tabs in a way that’s not quite intuitive enough to sink into muscle memory. When a cracking new pair of trousers comes in, you begin to groan internally, as it will mean tabbing through screen after screen, constantly doubling back to check numbers, as you shift less astonishing trousers down the ranks. It’s like being a harried Victorian parent, trying to co-ordinate hand-me-downs between sixteen children, and it soon begins to take the edge off the fight-loot-fight compulsion. It’s not a gamewrecker by any means, and I’m pretty sure it’s easily fixable, but I had more than one twenty-minute rummaging sesh that I could have done without.
So, in conclusion. This is 100% a Gears Of War game, that also happens to be a top flight strategy effort. Arguably the best of its kind on the market, in fact, despite a bit of trouser trouble. It’s a spectacular thing to play through, and it’d be more than enough to merit the fifty quid price tag if it deleted itself on completion. Thankfully, however, the replay value is much greater than you’d expect. There’s the randomised side missions, for a start. And even for the linear-ish story missions, the massive spread of subclasses and squad compositions allow for way more playstyles than you can feasibly test out in one run. Plus you can play them on “veteran” mode after one completion, offering a new suite of game rule modifiers to present you with fresh challenges. It’s the first game in ages that gave me the urge to start a second playthrough in the same session as my first completion, which says a lot.
Speaking of which, I think it’s time to play a bit more Gears Tactics. You should do the same.