Gears Tactics is a smart bet on almost every level. The Gears of War franchise has reached the same point in its life as the Halo series — a point where it must diversify or die. For Halo, that moment came in the form of Halo Wars, an RTS that made use of the series’ wide range of military vehicles. For Gears, it is a squad-centric, turn-based isometric strategy game in the vein of XCOM. And like Halo Wars, Gears Tactics works. There are many aspects of the Gears universe that are a neat fit for squad-based strategy, and developers Splash Damage and The Coalition have made the most of every one.
Gears Tactics is set during Emergence Day, a pivotal moment in Gears lore. Emergence Day was a co-ordinated, full scale assault on the planet Sera by the Locust, designed to eradicate the human colonists that had spread across its surface. For a year after, the planet was locked into a desperate struggle between the human and the Locust. Unable to break the Locust stranglehold through traditional operations, newly elected Chairman Richard Prescott gave the order to deploy the Hammer of Dawn and glass the planet from orbit. If humanity couldn’t take the planet back, they could at least make sure the Locust weren’t allowed to keep it.
That’s where Gears Tactics starts.
Your primary squad member is Gabe Diaz, a former Gear who consigned himself to the motorpool as a way of keeping his head down. Gabe is a familiar figure to Gears lorehounds, who will know him as the father of Cait Diaz, the main character in 2019’s Gears 5. Gabe is partnered with Gear vanguard Sid Redburn and given a single, simple order: Find and assassinate the Locust scientist Ukkon. Ukkon has been busily creating bizarre genetic mutants to set upon pockets of human resistance and the COG wants him dead, fast. The order has been given and the Hammer of Dawn cannot be stopped. Ukkon has to die, and if Gabe is still on Sera when the Hammer comes down then so be it.
As the campaign progresses, Gabe links up with numerous other Gears. This allows you to put together a squad of four made up of disparate skillsets to help you control the battlefield. While Gears Tactics doesn’t time lock the player as a way to add pressure to each decision, it introduces complications through squad requirements. You may need to take a squaddie you’re less familiar with on mission with you and their presence is non-negotiable. Gabe, for instance, is a support class. This means he can lob healing grenades to squadmates who are pinned down and low on health. Sid is a vanguard, or assault, class. He’s less agile than other squaddies but makes up for this with raw damage output. Each squad member you take on mission gains experience and levels up, similar to XCOM‘s promotion system. Successful missions reward you with upgrade currency that can be poured into your squad’s skill trees, tweaking their abilities to your liking.
One grub at a time
The mechanical overlaps from shooter to strategy are surprising. Some are simple, like the guitar strum that tells you the battle is over. This is useful in a tactics game because it lets you know when you can breathe again. All of the Gears carry their standard issue Lancers, and yes you can absolutely use the chainsaw. It wouldn’t be a Gears game without it. Cover remains of vital importance, as does control of the flanks.
Gears has always preferred the same kind of push-forward gameplay that was popular at the time the original released — hit an invisible marker on the other side of the battlefield or the game will keep spawning enemies. Unless it is the specific mission objective, you can’t dig in on a single position. You have to move up.
This allows the game to regularly stunt on you. A scenario repeated over and over was my Gears being pushed in a particular direction or forced to spread out only to have the enemy drop reinforcements behind them. Not only will you have to survive waves of foes you weren’t counting on, but you’ll also have to have an answer ready for any given unit.
Each of your units has three actions per turn. These can be used for any action you like, and in any order. You can move from cover to cover, shoot at an exposed unit, and set overwatch. You can lob a grenade, move forward, and use your lancer’s chainsaw on a foe that’s gotten too close. Occasionally, you will have to expend one of your actions to reload your weapon, making tactical reloads as much a priority as they are in the mainline series. However, if you don’t need all three actions, you don’t have to use them. Position your units where you need them, fire if required and if there are no other viable options, simply elect to end your turn.
Gears Tactics is very successful at creating mid-battle drama the same way XCOM does. The swoop of dread in your gut that follows the realisation you’ve made a huge mistake will be familiar to genre veterans. It’s all too easy to become overconfident or, worse, suffer a misclick and leave a unit exposed. Mistakes are punished instantly. The AI locust seems to pounce on any error, no matter how minor, and make you regret it.
Gears Tactics is a pleasant surprise. Not only is the Gears universe a great fit for the tactics genre, it does a lot with little innovation. The story isn’t anything you haven’t seen in a Gears game before, but I never thought it would be. It perfectly recreates the tension and connection of the genre greats and carves out space for itself in the process. I hope developer Splash Damage are given the space to expand upon what they’ve built here in a sequel.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Strong tactical design; Strong meld of IP and genre
Lowlights: May be too grimdark for some
Developer: Splash Damage, The Coalition
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Platform: Xbox One, Windows PC
Review conducted on Windows PC with pre-release code provided by the publisher.