Gears of War and tactical strategy have seemed like strange bedfellows since Gears Tactics was announced. The Coalition and Splash Damage have worked to take the action-packed and burly soldiers, weapons, enemies, and lore of the Gears franchise and pull players back to a strategic point of view of the battle. Does it work? Yes. Surprisingly well, in fact. But it feels as though Gears sacrifices a little bit of what makes Gears of War good and what makes games like XCOM good to find a safe middle ground.
Back to E-Day
Gears Tactics story kicks off as a prequel to the original Gears of War 1, taking players back to Emergence Day when the Locust hordes rose out of the grounds of Sera to kill off the human race. As the government chooses to fire the Hammer of Dawn orbital weapons array in a desperate attempt to annihilate the Locust (spoilers, it doesn’t work), players take up the role of a motorcade Sergeant known as Gabriel Diaz.
Having once been a commander of renown, Diaz is conscripted by the government alongside grizzled soldier Sid Redburn to chase down and kill a particular Locust - a geneticist known as Ukkon. Ukkon is thought to have created many of the biological weapons of war the Locust use, such as giant spider-like Corpsers and brutish missile platform-armed Brumaks, so the government wants him out of the picture. The Hammer of Dawn wiped out much of society and scattered soldier and civilian alike to the winds, so Diaz is on his own when it comes to gathering allies for his operation.
Players of Gears 5 might recognize Diaz’s name. He is the father of that game’s Kate Diaz and the game does that for a reason. Other than that interesting connection, Gears Tactics’ story is window dressing to get Diaz chasing down soldiers and allies to take on a Locust army. Every main character is pretty brazen and the villain is your typical Locust monster with the interesting wrinkle that this one creates the other monsters, which is a bit of a nice addition.
Gears gibs, strategized
The main point of Gears Tactics is that it foregoes the usual intense and direct action of previous games to instead offer you a strategic interface in battles against the Locust. Each soldier under your command has one of five classes, including Support, Heavy, Scout, Sniper, and Vanguard, and they have a four-branched skill tree that allows you to vary what soldiers even in the same class can do drastically as you level them up. For instance, Vanguards use the bayonetted Retro Lancer machine gun and you can level them to gain extra actions and combat bonuses when killing foes with the bayonet. You can also give them intimidation skills that make it easier to knock enemies out of defensive skills or positions to leave them open to other squad attacks. You can even upgrade soldiers both cosmetically and statistically with gear you find in the field or earn from mission rewards to make them even more personalized.
As you operate every battlefield, each soldier has three actions that can be split between moving into different positions, attacking, or using various skills. Each class feels pretty good to use and level up as you create your best squad. Battle also feels great when you create a flow in which each of your support, recon, and aggressors set up a wave of kills. The core of Gears is also still there. You’ll be cutting Locust grubs apart with chainsaws, popping melons with shotguns and sniper rounds, and blowing up droves of Wretches to meaty chunks with grenades just like you would in any Gears game. It’s just that you’ll be commanding soldiers to do so instead of pulling the trigger from the role of the character yourself, which may or may not appeal to longtime fans of the series.
The progression of the battle
The progression of Gears Tactics plays out entirely in battlefield missions in which you deploy up to four soldiers of varying roles to accomplish a variety of objectives. Whether that’s clearing out enemies, outmaneuvering an oncoming explosive barrage sweeping the battlefield, saving fellow soldiers from Locust torture pods, or multiple objectives in the same mission, Gears Tactics does a pretty good job of varying up what you’re doing most of the time. The brightest points of this are boss battles, which often have a lot of cool variables to consider that really make you think on how best to run the board with your squad. Will you go right for a Brumak’s back tanks to kill it or take out its arm guns to limit its attacks? Who will you have watch for small fry looking to flank you? The decisions you have to make on the fly to keep these fights under control is fun and impressive in its depth.
What’s not so impressive is the side missions. In between main chapter stories that move the main progress of the game along are these side missions that feature objectives like saving soldiers you can then recruit or collecting gear that can be equipped. They are a little too similar and lack the punch and stakes of the main missions, and you’d think they’d serve purposes of optional fun, loot, and experience given their design.
Nope. The game actually makes you kill time between main story progression by forcing you to do a required number of side missions to unlock the next story mission. What’s worse is that you can’t take the same squaddies on two side missions in the same chapter so you’d better make sure you have you recruit where you can to make sure you have reserve troops for the job. This was, in my opinion, one of the only stand out reasons to recruit backup soldiers outside my favorite squaddies. It wasn’t so bad at first, but as the number of missions increased before unlocking story missions later in the game, it became drag in the flow of the game that I feel should have kept optional like the title “side mission” seems to convey. It might also be unappealing to tactical strategy fans that this is really the only choice you make in the progression of the game - which side missions you do and don’t do to fill out your quota for story mission access. It’s otherwise a pretty linear narrative on the path to Ukkon.
If you’ve followed the Gears series for a long time, you’ve probably come to expect a cutting-edge and visceral experience from the game. Gears games are often some of the most over-the-top and bombastically violent and gory spectacles this side of action games, but it comes with the fact that it’s also absolutely gorgeous in what it does. Gears Tactics has the gore and the over-the-top aesthetic, but there’s something off about it in various areas. For instance, the hero characters are good looking, but other NPC or generic soldiers feel a noticeable step below in quality.
Gore effects have a similar issue. Yes, you get your chainsaw on and pop melons with consecutive shots frequently. However, when the game insists on getting close and cinematic for an enemy execution, you’ll also see your soldiers bludgeon enemies with any weapon or shoot them at close range, and foes will break into pieces in the same ways as if they’d been cut in half. I don’t know what Locusts are made out of in Gears Tactics, but they seem to have a tendency to fall apart diagonally at the torso when killed in a variety of ways. Where the camera almost always hangs high above the action, I don’t feel like I was supposed to see a lot of this so close up, yet Gears Tactics insists on bringing me in for dramatic moments of the gratuitous violence it is known for, which is equal parts satisfying and revealing of the seams.
An interesting middle ground of Gears gibs and squad tactics
Gears Tactics had the difficult mission of bringing the action and spectacle of Gears of War together with the in-depth strategy and squad tactics of games like XCOM. To its credit, the game went the distance to prove it can be done. The game offers a solid experience of squad customization and tactical turn-based battle, but still keeps some of the most satisfying head explosions to ever come out of an action game. That said, I can’t say Gears Tactics achieves new heights in either. If you’re looking for the full depth of tactics, decisions, and consequences in XCOM or the full spectacle, gritty beauty, and intensity of traditional Gears shooters, you’re likely better off playing those, but if you would like an acceptable marriage of the two, Gears Tactics may be well worth your time.
- Squad classes and upgrades are in-depth
- Battlefield control and mission execution is satisfying
- Main characters are generally enjoyable
- Mission objectives are nicely varied
- Boss battles are excellent
- Still the best headshots in gaming
- Gore and NPC graphics sometimes feel underwhelming
- "Side missions" are required for story progression
- Decisions on narrative and progression are almost non-existent
- Recruiting feels non-essential outside side missions
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Gears Tactics review - Strategic gibs
I'm actually much more interested in Tactics than X-Com. Nothing against the latter, but I've "been there" (loved X-Com and X-Com 2) and Tactics looks intriguing--and without all the meta stuff that prevents X-Com from being something you can just pick up and (mindlessly) play.