There’s some inevitable weirdness to starting Gears Tactics for the first time. It looks and sounds – particularly during the cutscenes – every inch a Gears game, and yet it’s not a third person cover shooter. There’s still the gruff, but clearly tender speech, tree-felling weaponry, ridiculously thick legs, and immediately recognisable Locust enemies that you’ll turn into red mulch within moments, but all of that is now viewed through the lens of a turn-based tactical game.
Gears Tactics serves as a prequel to the Fenix-featuring, Locust-mashing Gears of War games that Epic Games first created some fourteen years ago. You’re introduced to Gabe Diaz, the future father to Gears 4 and 5 protagonist Kait Diaz. Mercenary turned motorpool guy, it turns out he hates the scheming Chairman Prescott – doesn’t everybody? – but finds himself swept up in one of the dastardly politician’s plots nonetheless.
The game is framed by the opening throes of the Locust invasion. Set straight after Emergence Day, we get to see the failure of Prescott’s destructive solution to the problem, and while the world burns you’re tasked with seeking out and putting a chainsaw to the neck of Ukkon, the chief geneticist of the Locust army. It’s a proper Gears story, with all of the trappings that go along with it, it’s just that instead of hammering controller triggers, you’re going to be clicking things out of existence instead. Tactically.
Gears Tactics is the lovechild of Gears of War and XCOM. You’ll be leading a small fire squad of four across the ruins of Sera through turn-based tactical battles. Each unit has three actions as standard, and you burn through them to varying degrees depending on how far you move, what skills you engage and whether you shoot or not. This being a Gears game, reloading also comes into play and you’re going to have to factor in how many shots you’ve got left in the clip along with everything else.
In action, this is about as Gears-y as a tactical game could be. You’ll aim to hunker down in cover, fire off a few rounds, time your reload, close emergence holes with a well-placed grenade, and finish off the nearest Locust with a visually brutal execution. Despite the fact that you’re doing it via a completely different control setup, in a new genre for the series, it still feels utterly familiar.
That’s partly due to how well Splash Damage and the Coalition have distilled the feel of the Gears universe, and partly because there’s very little here that you haven’t seen before in other turn-based games. Units sit on Overwatch at the end of every turn, their accuracy diminishing the further away you are from your target, and you work your way through the landscapes with the aim of wiping everything that’s not human out. Barring the few Gears-specific wrinkles, this isn’t a revolution for the genre, but it is efficiently and admirably well put together.
That includes the boss battles. They’re similarly very well done, bringing in instantly recognisable foes like the Brumak and having you face them down in an epic tactical battle. Again, it’s nothing new for the genre, but they serve as refreshing, if tough, counterpoints to the pitched battles elsewhere.
You have access to five different unit types – Vanguard, Heavy, Scout, Support and Sniper – and each of them has access to different weaponry, armour and skills. They’re all pretty self-explanatory, though the powerful Vanguard type is capable of being a one-man army, with skills that allow them to heal at the start of every turn, heal when inflicting damage, and reducing the enemy’s effectiveness in battle. It’s the unit type for Gears icon Augustus ‘Cole Train’ Cole himself, though you’ll have to have unlocked him as a pre-order bonus.
Besides the Campaign’s central Hero characters, you’ll recruit a set of Gears to join you in the field. The advantage they offer is that they don’t have to survive a mission for you to continue, while the loss of Gabe or his close friends ends in instant defeat. You won’t want to lose them though, as they accrue experience and access to new abilities, just as your Heroes do.
Between each encounter you climb back into the Convoy – your mobile base of operations – to level your characters up, recruit new troops and open lootbox-styled equipment upgrade cases that you’ve found on your travels. You can customise your armour or your Lancer’s paint job too if you fancy bringing a splash of colour to the typically dour world of Gears of War. There’s something essentially cathartic to going into battle in bright purple armour. I’m sure it’s what Cliffy B would have wanted.
It’s a shame that the menu system through the back end is a bit of a mess, even when considering that you’re navigating it with a mouse. Red icons indicate that there are new upgrades available for each player, but finding and equipping them doesn’t feel as straightforward as it should. You’ll settle into it, but it’s something simple to trip over, and it reduces the efficiency of what should be an enjoyable respite from the main game. This will need improvement for the still in development Xbox One version of the game. Fortunately the in-game UI is much more user friendly, giving you all the information you need and nothing more.
There are a few other little oddities that occasionally get in the way of your enjoyment as well. For example, one mission wouldn’t let any of my units enter the escape zone because it wanted to unleash a couple more Drones at me in the next turn instead, though it didn’t indicate this to me beyond simply preventing me from moving my characters to where I wanted them to go.
Alongside that, there’s a few missed opportunities, from the obvious lack of any multiplayer through to less incongruous annoyances like Supply Crates being visible through each stage’s fog of war, meaning that they just become something to tick off on your route through the level, as opposed to a reward for exploration.
Fortunately, there’s just enough variety to the mission types, whether forcing you to make unit changes, aim for different objectives or introducing new elements and enemy types to deal with, to keep things fresh through the generous campaign. This remains Gears of War throughout; it’s a new way to experience it, but not a wholly new experience.