Developer: The Coalition/Splash Damage
Well carve me up with a chainsaw and call me a grub, Gears Tactics is fluppin’ brilliant. I probably shouldn’t be as surprised as I am. While turning Gears of War into a Tactics game might sound like the worst idea since mayonnaise in a squeezy bottle, the truth is that Gears of War has always been a tactics game. It was, after all, the first shooter series to realise “Hey, those guys are shooting bullets at us. Maybe we should hide behind that wall?” Just because it has chainsaws on the guns and characters who look like they’ve climbed out of a vat of horse testosterone doesn’t mean it’s stupid.
All Gears Tactics does is embrace Gears of War’s smart secret identity, digging beneath the performative jock-ness on the surface and revealing the shy tabletop nerd underneath. The result is the best tactics game I’ve played in ages, one that offers both the cerebral satisfaction of tactical puzzle-solving, and the more straightforward satisfaction of impaling a steroid-addled lizardman on a bayonet the size of a baguette.
Gears Tactics is a prequel to the original Gears of War, set in the early days of the conflict between the COG and the Locust. The story revolves around Gabe Diaz, a gearhead trying to weather the storm of war in a COG garage when he’s forced into the fight by one-eyed, moustachioed veteran Sam Redburn. Together, the aim to take down a Locust general named Ukkon, who’s been creating ever-more terrifying monsters for the COG to fight and has the slight advantage of being basically invincible.
As you’ve probably already guessed, Gears Tactics switches out the familiar third-person gunplay for X-COM style mechanics. You control a team of up to 4 Gears, who take turns against an eternally superior force of Locust. Each Gear has a limited number of action points used to move, shoot and set up ambushes with Overwatch.
So far, so perfunctory. But the first thing you’ll notice about Gears Tactics is that, despite the wildly different mechanics, control system, and perspective, it both looks and feels exactly like a Gears of War game. Visually it’s on par with the astounding looking Gears 5. It boasts all the same animations for movement and gunplay, whether it’s the way Gears slide neatly into cover, or that little crouch-bend they do to pick up equipment from the ground.
Gears Tactics makes brilliant use of the foundation previous Gears games have laid, such that even though you aren’t directly in control of your Gears, you get a palpable sense of the actions they perform. You can feel the thud of their boots as they dash for cover, sense the rattle of the lancer up your arms as they blast an encroaching Wretch into mulch.
Indeed, as you’d expect from a Gears game, Tactics is phenomenally grisly. Slicing up a grub with a chainsaw bayonet is just as messy as it was in the shooters, and just as satisfying. But the same slick design has been applied to the tactical elements too. The UI and screen interactions are smoother than a Teflon snake, even compared to X-COM. Moving units around, dragging out Overwatch cones, selecting abilities, it’s all wonderfully intuitive.
In short, it’s a tactics game delivered with the production values of a triple-A shooter. And if that’s all Gears Tactics was, I might not be quite so enthusiastic about it. But this element is tied closely to what makes Gears Tactics mechanically unique too, as it’s a tactics game designed to capture the aggression and powerful forward momentum of an action FPS.
The key element here is the game’s approach to action points. To start with, each Gear receives three action points rather than two, meaning you have more tactical flexibility than say, XCOM. In any given turn your Gears can move, shoot and establish Overwatch. But the reason Gears is so seemingly generous is you’re constantly outnumbered, often fighting three-to-one odds, and sometimes as high as five-to-one.
Gears Tactics sets ups these distinctly unbalanced scales, and then dangles this enticing, blood-soaked carrot at the far end of the battlefield in the form of executions. When you eliminate an enemy, often they aren’t killed outright, but instead become incapacitated. At this point, one of your soldiers can run up to them and perform a gruesome execution, shoving their chainsaw bayonet into the Locusts’ gut, or just pummelling their head into savoury jam. Once the Locust is sufficiently humiliated, all the other Gears receive an additional action point.
In this way, Gears encourages you to perform daring dashes across the battlefield, charging forward like a running-back in American Football. And of course, you aren’t limited to one execution. Stack them up right, and you can pull off several executions per turn. But you need to remember that the person doing the executing doesn’t get an action back, so you have to be wary of pushing too far forward, and leaving one of your men isolated in a sea of Locust.
This is only the base level of how Gears Tactics encourages you to walk the line between bravery and recklessness. There are countless ways to maximise your actions per turn. Insta-kill melee moves like Chainsaw and Bayonet charge can be upgraded to provide free actions, letting you dash halfway across the map, eliminate an enemy, and then rush into nearby cover. Snipers in particular can awesome dealers of death. Their chain-shot ability adds two actions per successful hit, while their Ultra Shot reimburses all actions on a kill.
Looking at the board state and figuring out how many actions you can get out of it is a fantastic feeling. And it’s worth noting that you’re often thinking about this while also dealing with the nightmare scenario the Locust have set out for you. You’ll maybe have a half-dozen wretches bearing down on one unit, another trapped in the sights of multiple enemy overwatch cones, and a third shellshocked from the grenades of a nearby Boomer.
It’s fantastic. Every new turn makes you feel a little bit sick as you see the odds stacked against you, and then you get this awesome feeling of power as you dismantle the Locust step by bloody step. It’s worth noting that Gears Tactics doesn’t have a strategic metagame like X-COM does, opting instead for a Gears-style linear campaign with separate Acts, chapters, and cinematics in between. I thought this would prove to be the game’s undoing, but actually I didn’t miss the geoscape element at all. The decision to focus purely on the tactical combat is the right one, as it lets you enjoy the combat in the moment.
There is a problem with what Gears attempts to replace the Geoscape with, however. Between chapters, your Gears will often embark on side mission, semi-procedural maps with randomisers that make them easier or harder. They’re alright at first, when you only have to do one side mission every couple of chapters, but in the second and third chapters, you need to do two or even three side missions in a row before moving the story on. This massively slows the game down at the point where, really, it should be speeding up. What doesn’t help is that there are only four mission types, which isn’t enough to stop them from becoming repetitive.
Nonetheless, Gears Tactics is way better than I expected to be, both a fantastic Gears game and a superbly crafted tactical experience. In fact, it might just be one of the best games in the series. If you enjoy scratching grubs, this will definitely scratch that itch.
September 18 2020 | 18:30