It’s quite the week for fans of sci-fi turn-based strategy games. After XCOM: Chimera Squad we’re also getting the PC-exclusive Gears Tactics, the long-awaited spin-off from the Gears of War series. How does it hold up?
Ever since its original announcement, Gears Tactics has kind of flown under the radar for me. First it was because Gears 5 overshadowed it, and after that was released we didn’t see it get a lot of attention at trade shows either. Its blend of XCOM and Gears of War had me curious though, and I was especially curious to see where it would fall in terms of pacing because of the clear difference between the two franchises that inspired it.
And while XCOM: Chimera Squad is already a leaner version of XCOM 2 in many ways, Gears Tactics one-ups the experience with a distinct flavor of Gears of War that makes the game more action-oriented and perhaps one of the most spectacular visual renditions of the strategy genre yet. From that perspective, Gears Tactics is a definite success and welcome addition.
One way in which Gears Tactics approaches the genre in a more action-oriented way is by literally giving players more action points to work with, and more freedom in how to spend them. Want to radically change your positioning? Spend all of them on getting to a completely different side of the level? Want to overwhelm with firepower? You can do that too, but fail and you might be left out in the open at the end of turn. You can even unlock additional action points by executing enemies, adding a bit more of the Gears-flair to the game.
Because of these changes, battles become harder to predict, and it’s more difficult to plan ahead. The tide of battle can turn quickly, which all adds to the excitement – especially when facing some of the larger boss-like enemies that the game throws at you. At other times, the ability to keep going through the use of extra points makes it feel almost too easy – but you’re never left with that feeling of combat too long as battles ebb and flow constantly. New enemies can flood the battlefield through emergence holes, and there’s an epic/cinematic scale to everything that’s hard to find within the strategy genre.
Taking place against a backdrop that is essentially a prequel to the Gears of War cover shooters, Tactics has a mostly linear narrative, although who survives which encounter is somewhat open. Hero characters need to survive no matter what (or you have to replay the scenario), but others can fall in battle and be permanently lost to you as you take on subsequent missions. Having a select few in your squad that need saving has ramifications for how you position your team members and which choices you make, sometimes sacrificing one to save the other.
The presence of these hero units is mandatory in story missions, but you have freedom in how you assemble that squad around them. There are additional missions where you can better utilize the more expendable members of your squad, and this translates to the randomly generated missions that you can take on post-campaign as well. These are fun, because you can play around with the customization options for each character – which is always part of one of five different skill classes. Each of these has a variety of specializations that you can boost with skill points, so there’s some replay value in taking a different approach a second time around.
In addition, you also have the option to improve or modify your armor and/or weapons, mostly through random reward cases at the end of a mission. These things help in giving the campaign Gears Tactics some variation in what is otherwise a more linear experience than what other greats of the genre offer up.
What is probably the crowning achievement for developer Splash Damage is the fact that Gears Tactics, despite the big change in genre, still feels like a Gears title. Part of that is the use of characters and weaponry in-game, but a lot of it is also the stellar presentation. Your squad members and the enemy characters don’t just look great, they’re also very well animated and supported with a great soundtrack and ditto sound effects. There are deeper strategy experiences out there, but few that are this much fun to play.