Developed by: Splash Damage & The Coalition
Published by: Xbox Game Studios
Platforms: Xbox One and PC
Released in 2020 for Windows PC and Xbox One, Gears Tactics combines the grim and gory ultra-violence of Gears of War with tense precision of turn-based strategy games, such as XCOM. Set before the events of the original Gears of War, Gears Tactics focuses on new protagonist Gabe Diaz and his rag-tag group of fellow survivors, including mysterious veteran Sid Redburn and civilian sniper Mikayla Dorn, as they attempt to take on the deranged Locust scientist Ukkon. Despite the game’s position as a prequel to the mainline games, Gears Tactics features plenty of references to the original franchise – most notably tying into the revelations found in Gears 5 regarding Kait’s parentage and the origin of the Locust. Ukkon makes for an interesting antagonist, equally as menacing as his counterparts RAAM and Skorge, but with the intelligence to mutate his own race – providing an in-game origin for the monstrous kaiju threats of Corpsers, Brumaks & Reavers, which act as sub-bosses at the end of each chapter.
The game is played from a top-down perspective, although graphically, the game is identical to the Gears of War series. According to Alex Grimbley, the game’s executive producer, “[the team] actually just took existing Gears and just moved the camera up“. This creates a stronger connection between this spin-off and its source material, making it feel authentically Gears of War in look and style. Similarly, iconic weaponry from the series such as the chainsaw-bayoneted Lancer, the brutal Gnasher and explosive Torque bows are all present and correct; with the game actively rewarding players for performing the franchise’s recognisable executions on enemies. Despite the turn-based nature of the game, Gears Tactics feels remarkably fluid and captures the frenzied nature of the core games, especially when swarms of enemies begin to pour out of emergence holes. The giant-sized boss fights are equally impressive, capturing the wonder and majesty of those epic battles against Brumaks, Riftworms and other gargantuan monsters.
The game has five distinct character classes; each of which revolves around a specific weapon and key skills. For example; the Support class is equipped with the Lancer and can also heal other units the Vanguard class has a retro-lancer and can do a bayonet-charge, the Sniper snipes from afar, the Heavy unleashes his ferocious mini-gun and the Scout unit can turn invisible and perform close-combat kills with the Gnasher. In addition to this, players can customise the units with different weapon add-ons and armour types, adding passive skills and bonus attributes to aid the player in combat. While there is a decent amount of options to upgrade the character and learn new skills, it feels less involved and less rewarding than XCOM’s complex research projects and management options. Items are discovered in chests located on the battlefield, or through completing bonus objectives, with random loot found in each chest making the process of outfitting your troops dependent on whether you have good fortune or not. Players can pick up some of the Locust weapons from corpses, but unfortunately these often have limited uses and do not carry over between missions.
Outside of the campaign’s main storyline, the game has a handful of ‘side-mission’ scenarios that have to be completed between each chapter, although players can select which ones they take part in. There isn’t much variety in the mission types or the locations, which makes playing them somewhat repetitive. The biggest variable is the mission modifiers which can aid or hinder players, taking away bonuses or making enemies stronger. In terms of the mission types, they fall into the following categories; Rescue, which as the name suggests involves rescuing captive soldiers; Control, which mimics the capture-the-flag game type from the Gears of War multiplayer; Scavenger Run, a fast-paced race against waves of exploding Nemacysts and the standard Sabotage/Incursion missions, which involve wiping out all the enemies on the map. While there is enough variety between the story mission chapters, it becomes extremely monotonous once you hit the post-game Veteran mode, which involves a series of never-ending randomly generated side-missions to obtain the best loot in the game. It would have been nice to include some of the sub-bosses to add a degree of diversity to those post-game missions.
After the initial release of Gears Tactics on Windows PC in April 2020, a free DLC update was released to celebrate the game coming to Xbox One in November 2020. This “Jacked Mode” update included the robotic companion Jack from the original Gears of War trilogy alongside some new “deviant” enemies and “supreme” equipment to extend the lifespan of the game. Jack offers an entirely different way to play the game, offering offensive and defensive buffs to the team, as well as hijacking enemies and letting players attack the Locust with their own kind. The deviant enemies are effectively enhanced versions of previous enemy classes, identified by glowing skin and they also provide offensive and defensive buffs to surrounding troops. Playing as Jack makes the game slightly easier – despite the new enemies – as he acts as a fifth member of the team and can perform plenty of tasks and cloak himself after every turn. He was particularly useful during the Rescue and Control missions, adding that extra bit of manpower to make achieving the tasks slightly less difficult.
As welcome as the Jacked Mode is, Gears Tactics feels pretty sparse when it comes to DLC content and cosmetic micro-transactions, especially when compared to the abundance of DLC available for Gears 5. It would have been nice to have some alternate skins featuring other Gears of War alumni, or even additional story chapters akin to Gears 5: Hivebusters. The lack of a multiplayer component, whether it was online or couch co-op, also hinders the game greatly – removing a potential PvP mode that would extend its lifespan once the solo campaign was over. I’d also have liked to have seen a Horde mode option, with waves and waves of enemies coming out of emergence holes. It feels like a lot more could have been done with this IP beyond its bare-bones campaign.
While it may lack some of the detailed resource management and customisation elements found in other tactical strategy games, Gears Tactics works perfectly well as an entry-level title for the genre. The game was originally conceptualized as a table-top board game before it was developed into a videogame, and this shows through its simplicity and its focus on fast-paced combat. The actual combat flows extremely well and it is only the lack of diversity in its missions that prevents the game from stealing hundreds of hours from my life. Once the campaign is done, there isn’t much else to see unless you are running through multiple playthroughs to get all the achievements, which is a shame as the concept works so well. Definitely worth checking out if you are a Gears of War fan, especially since the main storyline ties in nicely with the plot of Gears 5, but also because the switch in gameplay styles is surprisingly well-matched with Gears of Wars’ ultra-violence.