Gears Tactics is published by Xbox Game Studios and developed by The Coalition Studio and Splash Damage. In the early days of the war against the Locust Horde, the Coalition of Ordered Governments’ (COG) President Prescott unleashed the Hammers of Dawn in an attempt to rid the planet Serra of the Locust. It failed. In the aftermath of the devastation caused by this desperate gamble, a small squad of gears led by one Gabriel Diaz must search out a new Locust threat. But before they can truly take on this enemy, they are going to have to find some help.
With two of my favorite games of the past generation being Gears 5 and Xcom: Enemy Unkown, it shouldn’t come as a shock that I have been looking forward to getting to check out Gears Tactics since its first announcement at E3 2018. With the Gears style of shooting always a bit slower-paced than many other shooters on the market, a tactics driven spin-off felt like a great fit for the franchise. Having played Gears Tactics, I can say it combines the cover-based shooting of its parent franchise and blends in some excellent turn-based strategy elements. Then to top it off, they threw in a surprisingly deep leveling system just for good measure. I have absolutely no regrets with my choice of having this be the game I broke in my new Xbox Series X with.
The game opens its narrative one year after the first appearance of the Locust Horde and before the events of the original Gears of War. With the bulk of humanity’s cities overrun, the COG orders the Hammer of Dawn satellite network to rain fire down on every city captured by the Locust. This includes areas that may yet contain refugees and other stragglers who haven’t managed to escape. Just before those iconic pillars of fire begin raining down, however, Sargent Diaz receives orders to go acquire some documents from a nearby COG official’s office. And the clock is ticking.
Not wanting to put unnecessary lives at risk, Diaz brings only the bearer of this bad news, a soldier named Sid, with him. Having just the two characters to control for the tutorial mission begins Gears Tactics’ perfectly paced progression through the game’s mechanics.
While many of these mechanics will be instantly familiar to long-time tactics players, such as the now-standard action point system for ordering troops around, there are several wrinkles to the gameplay that change up the formula a bit. Concepts like overwatch are present, but function with an added twist. In this instance, characters assigned to overwatch get to take a number of shots equal to how many action points they had remaining when the order was given. Little additions like this adjust the gameplay, but there is more to gameplay than just a few new additions that make this game stand out.
The standard mission in Gears Tactics usually ran between 40 minutes to an hour for me. The objectives varied some, though a large portion of the game just requires you to clear the level of bad guys. Some of the other objectives included rescue missions and take-and-hold positions. Along with tactically challenging, cover-based gameplay, Gears Tactics also delivers a surprisingly deep leveling system. Every soldier acquired belongs to one of several classes. Each class has access to an expansive upgrade tree. Furthermore, every time a character levels up they get to unlock two new enhancements. This makes leveling always feel both exciting and meaningful.
Players are given plenty of opportunities to fully utilize their carefully chosen skills thanks to Gears Tactics’ excellent level design. No matter what my teams’ set up was, I never felt like I couldn’t fight my way through a scenario. The Coalition clearly went out of their way to allow players to approach the challenges present on the battlefield in the way that works best for them.
Along with skill unlocks, Gears Tactics also allows players to customize their characters through the acquisition of loot, which is procured in one of two ways. At the end of every mission, the player will generally receive a couple of mods for their weapons or armor pieces. While this delivers a steady drip of upgrades, the bulk of the equipment a player can expect to gain will come from cases that they come across on the battlefield. When found, any squad member can run up and open the case. This will grant the player extra equipment to strengthen their growing cast which is extremely helpful because Gears Tactics makes the player expand beyond just a one-team roster.
Whether through narrative or random recruitment between missions, players will gain access to a wide range of soldiers they can deploy into the field. This is largely due to the way secondary missions work. Sometimes, between story missions, the player will be tasked with completing a number of secondary missions. You will have several options to choose from, but no one trooper can participate in more than one secondary mission between any two story missions. So if you send Diaz to fight in the first of two secondary missions, until you reach the next story mission he cannot be assigned to another mission. This necessitates players build out a strong roster of troops to face the numerous challenges that Gears Tactics throws at them.
And while we are on the subject of diversity, Gears Tactics follows Gears 5’s lead in another area as well: it delivers another ethnically diverse cast. Whether it’s in the actual story characters or the random recruits you pick up, the game delivers characters of all skin tones and age groups. While this is a continuing step forward in the modernization of the Gears franchise, there is a sticky spot that has not aged well within the story’s core narrative.
Early in the game’s story, Diaz and company come across some civilians under attack from the Locust. The Gears quickly dispatch the attackers but do not find a warm welcome in return for their good deed. With the recent Hammer of Dawn strikes having ravaged the countryside, the COG is viewed in an extremely bad light. And given that this isn’t the first less than democratic decision the COG has made, there is ample reason for these recently rescued civilians to be throwing around terms like “fascist” at the Gears. Diaz’s response to the feelings of the civilians is to simply say, “Don’t judge us by the uniform we wear.” Now, even in the best of times, this sort of argument doesn’t get one off the hook when that someone is working for, fighting for, or supporting a corrupt regime. And it sounds even worse these days.
Aside from this mishandling of some uncomfortable facts for the Gears, the game has only a couple of small problems for me. The most recurring is a lack of clarity where movement and cover are concerned. Repeatedly, I believed I had moved to the edge of a piece of terrain so my trooper could shoot around the corner only to discover that a tiny bit of debris that juts out actually counts as another square of terrain. This would force me to waste an action point moving again so I could then line up my shot. I eventually learned to be extra thorough before pushing the confirm button, but I wish there was a better visual indicator of where a piece of terrain ended.
The other noteworthy problem I had while playing Gears Tactics is that some of the boss fights drag on a bit too long. What would begin as an exciting moment facing off against an impressive foe like the Brumak quickly faded into a draining war of attrition. Eventually, the fight would devolve into me blasting away at a gargantuan bullet sponge.
While I’ve said lots about how the game plays, I’ve said little so far about its visual performance. Quite frankly, it’s lovely. If you have loved the look and aesthetic of the Gears franchise to date, there is nothing here that will disappoint. Even the various mods and armor types all look perfectly placed in the hard-worn world of Serra. Every scrape of ruined beauty and vicious monstrosity is present. Also, if you are one of the many fans who can never get enough of the Gears trademark executions and chainsaw kills, don’t worry, they are present here as well. Though the gore can be turned off for anyone who simply wants a tactical experience without the mess.
The final element of Gears Tactics itself that I appreciated is the disability menu that greeted me when I first loaded up the game. Lots of options from colorblindness and font scaling to a menu narrator were present. And even though I have corrected 20/20 vision, I was thankful for the large print. My TV is not very large and the text would’ve been a struggle without it. It’s nice to see game devs continuing to strive for accessibility.
As previously mentioned, I had the pleasure of experiencing Gears Tactics on my new Xbox Series X. However, since I was unsure of whether or not I would receive an X on launch day, I had already installed the game on my standard edition Xbox One. Since it was already loaded up I figured I’d give it a spin on the older machine to see how it fairs.
The only significant improvement I saw between the X and the One is in the vastly improved load times. Mission loads on the X average about six seconds for me while the One’s loads average at around 30 seconds. There was no significant visual improvement, but bear in mind I’m still playing on a 1080p TV, so all the snazzy 4K improvements are lost on my setup.
Another thing to note is that save files can be passed back and forth between the X and the One with ease. As long as the last system you played Gears Tactics on has had a chance to sync with the Cloud, the other will have access to the save file when you boot up. So if you are someone who has a primary and secondary setup, bouncing between consoles will not be a problem.
When all is said and done, I have loved my time with Gears Tactics. It melds the action, world, and personality of the core Gears series with a new style of play I thoroughly enjoy. Its challenging yet flexible battles frequently gave me the feeling of true accomplishment when I succeeded in getting my squad through another fight. Combine that with an engaging skill system and plenty of loot to collect, and Gears Tactics could have armchair strategists fighting the Locust Horde for a long time to come.
Gears Tactics is available now on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X and is part of Xbox Game Pass.
When all is said and done, I have loved my time with Gears Tactics. It melds the action, world, and personality of the core Gears series with a new style of play I thoroughly enjoy. Its challenging yet flexible battles frequently gave me the feeling of true accomplishment when I succeeded in getting my squad through another fight.