Gears Tactics on PC
Back in September 2006, during Microsoft’s XO6 media briefing, Halo Wars was officially announced. It took the Xbox’s most prized exclusive IP and turned the sci-fi first-person shooter into a real-time strategy game. Despite being such a major divergence from the series’ roots, Halo Wars just felt right. Developer Ensemble Studios captured everything fans knew and loved about the Halo universe and packed it into a fast-paced, compelling real-time strategy title that was worthy of being associated with Master Chief’s epic series.
Now, in 2020, it’s time for the Gears of War series to get its own makeover. The end result is Gears Tactics, a surprisingly excellent turn-based tactics game I struggled to put down.
A collaborative effort between mainstream series developer The Coalition and Splash Damage, Gears Tactics puts the focus on strategy and intelligent play, over muscles and chainsaw bayonets, and obliterating a Locust’s head with a shotgun.
Taking place not long after Emergence Day (E-Day for you Gears veterans), Gears Tactics follows the story of Gabe Diaz, the father of Gears 5’s protagonist Kait, as he’s tasked with taking down the Locust eugenicist, Ukkon. In other words, he’s the guy making all the horrifying Locust creatures you’ve filled with shrapnel in previous titles.
Initially, I wasn’t all that sold on Tactics’ story. It’s serviceable in the sense that it gave me a reason to progress through the campaign and look forward to its story missions far more than the side missions (we’ll get to these later), but it wasn’t until the latter half where things really picked up.
Because you know just how much chaos the Locust threat unleashes on human society, there’s an added sense of significance to guiding Gabe and the rest of your Gears to success.
You could be the one to put the dent in the Locust forces. Even if in the grand scheme of future events in the series, it doesn’t seem all that major, it feels as if your strategic decisions could prevent things from being a lot worse.
It’s during these later chapters that the Gears Tactics piece begins to perfectly slot into the larger Gears of War story puzzle so to speak, and fans are sure to enjoy these revelatory moments. Also, a quick shout out to sniper Mikayla, the biggest badass in the civilian ranks and a welcome addition to the roster of characters in Gears of War.
One of my biggest concerns going into Gears Tactics was just how strongly its Gears of War DNA would come across. How would it translate, I wondered, after being ripped from the third-person shooter series, and placed into a far less “gore-heavy” genre such as turn-based tactics?
Ask anyone what comes to mind when you say Gears of War, and nine times out of ten they’ll say something about chainsawing people in half with your gun’s bayonet.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about. You can still execute Locusts in typically gory ways, and yes, you can still chainsaw them in half. Headshots will literally tear Locust heads off, and blood splatters on the screen just to make sure you’re aware of your horrifying, but incredibly satisfying deeds on the battlefield.
Everything about the game feels authentic and true to the series. From the sound effects, the aforementioned gruesome executions, and the cheeky references to features in the main series like Active Reload. Also, using the Tac-Com to get a more detailed breakdown of the chance a shot hitting its mark is a nice touch.
The only shakey inclusion was the voice acting for preorder bonus character Thrashball Cole, whose inconsistent performance varies from how fans expect the Cole Train (baby) to sound and then something else entirely less convincing.
It’s not all style and no substance, though. Gears Tactics has a surprising level of depth to its tactics gameplay, with characters divided into five different unit types on your side. Each unit type has its own skill tree, and it’s own primary weapon.
The sniper, for example, dons the Longshot as you’d expect, while the Scout reps a Gnasher Shotgun, the Support has the standard Lancer, while the Vanguard opts for the Retro Lancer and the Heavy wraps things up with the Vulcan Minigun.
With a maximum of four unit slots for each mission, you’ll constantly be rotating your team, trying to find the best unit or combination of units to tackle the scenario. Inside the mission, it’s a standard ‘tactics’ game affair.
You’ll move your units about a map, trying to get the perfect angle on enemy units, utilizing unit abilities to turn the tide of battle in your favor, and completing objectives as you go.
You can also pick up ‘Cases’ on the map, or earn them from completing optional objectives that contain a random weapon or armor part. Equipping these to characters grants stat boosts and additional passive abilities, making them more effective in battle.
It’s these unit abilities that make Gears Tactics a sandbox for experimentation. Do you utilize the Scout’s ability to cover large amounts of ground and go undetected, but force yourself to get up close and personal with enemy units due to the limited range of the shotgun? Or do you choose the Heavy for that final slot, the perfect unit for suppressing enemy onslaughts with its Anchored passive ability that increases its accuracy and damage when in cover?
The more you use a character, the more EXP you earn, leveling it up and netting you skill points to unlock even more abilities.
There’s a serious amount of customization and fine-tuning you can do to your units to help them better fit your playstyle, as well as complement one another in the heat of battle.
It was near the end of the campaign that all my planning and hard work with my beloved Sniper, Mikayla, was beginning to show.
I was able to chain various skills together to extend her Actions from three through to over eight and completely eliminate the need to waste one of those actions reloading her weapon. She’d pick off teams of enemy units from a distance single-handedly, allowing me to move my other units into my strategic, counter-attacking positions.
It’s these kinds of moments, where your unit perfectly executes a chain of commands that shine as some of the most satisfying moments in Gears Tactics.
When, for example, you turn the tide of battle in a single turn, leaving the remnants of the enemy backpedaling to regroup. Or when you’re aware that you’ve held down the control points for those two extra turns before the enemy’s has even begun. These types of immensely satisfying plays stick with you long after they’ve happened.
There are four key mission types in Gears Tactics: Control has you holding down two control points to gather supplies; Sabotage sees you clearing enemy units to blow up Imulsion stockpiles; Rescue tasks you saving units from torture chambers in a set amount of moves before fighting your way to safety, and finally, Scavenger Run has you picking up cases as you’re pushed up the battlefield by Nemecyst airstrikes.
The fact that each of the core mission type feels distinctly different should help keep Gears Tactics feeling fresh from mission to mission.
Then you’ve got the boss battles. We’re not going to spoil all of them for you here, but considering the first is a Brumak and they only got more formidable, that should tell you just how epic these fights can be, living up to the grandiose spectacle of taking these beasts on for the first time in the main series.
That being said, the spike in difficulty that comes with each of these boss battles sometimes frustrates. Act 1’s Brumak, for example, took me over an hour to beat, while I’d been breezing through all the missions leading up to it. Similarly, the final boss battle becomes a real slog, teetering on the borderline of fun and a chore.
Around Act 2 is when you’ll start to notice Gears Tactics’ biggest problem though: the side missions. While extra content is always welcome, the way in which these have been implemented into the campaign had me rolling my eyes every time they popped back up.
As you complete story missions, you’ll eventually be greeted with a list of side missions to choose from. Act 1 sees you completing one of these each time a side mission segment appeared, which is normally after one or two story missions. In Act 2, however, you then have to do two side missions, and in Act 3 three side missions per segment.
Had these been completely optional to dive into as and when I wanted, I wouldn’t have an issue with side missions. After all, the game clearly states their purpose is to make later story missions easier by offering a chance to score better gear. I could happily dive in, complete a couple, and then move on.
Instead, the game forces you into completing side missions before you can progress through the game. By Act 3 I had completed more than nine side missions and only took part in three or four story missions.
It felt like unnecessary padding just to bump up the campaign’s playtime and often crops up just as the story beats are at their best (particularly in Act 3). It doesn’t help that they use the same four mission types that you’ve seen in the story missions.
The only difference are the modifiers, which are entirely random. Some gave my units an additional 50% accuracy, others prevented me from using any type of grenade or limited each unit to two actions per turn. They’re a fun challenge, but not when you’re forced to push through them in order to get to the good story bits.
Add onto this the fact that a single character can only be used in one side mission per segment, and it means you’ll have to spend some time going through all of your recruited Gears (unlocked as you progress through the campaign) and ensuring they’ve got the best weapon and armor available to them. Not to mention ensuring they’re a high level and thus have enough of their skill tree unlocked to hold their own on the battlefield.
In other tactics game like XCOM, side missions are optional, but will help make things easier for you further down the line if you complete them, Gears Tactics’ side missions are compulsory whether you like them or not. Had the game adopted a similar approach to side missions as XCOM, the game would have been all the better for it.
Upon finally reaching the end of Gears Tactics’ 30-hour campaign, I was a little disappointed by its endgame Veteran mode. Here, you’ll be forced to complete another three side missions from a list of four or five, all with their own modifiers or restrictions on the units you can use. Completing three of these allows you to take on a Veteran Mission, which again is one of the same four mission types you’ve been playing for the past 30 or so hours.
The best weapon and armor parts in the game can be earned by completing these Veteran Missions, and you’ll increase your Veteran Rank for completing one. But that rank is quite hollow when there’s no multiplayer or social element to show it off, and the best gear in the game seems pointless once the story content is done and there’s no ‘new game plus’ option to embark on.
It’s equally disappointing that there’s no ranking system in-place for missions. Where we could have been graded on how many moves we completed a mission in, the number of Locusts we defeat, the damage we take and whether or not we completed optional objectives, there’s nothing, you either pass or fail, and complete the optional objective or you don’t.
Were missions graded, going through and replaying them (something you cannot do on the same save file) would have given the game an added bit of replayability. For those that do want to take on the campaign missions again, you’ll have to start an entirely new game.
Despite its rather shallow endgame and pace-slowing side missions, Gears Tactics is Gears of War like you’ve never experienced it. A blend of excellent gameplay and a compelling story that feels true to the Gears universe is guaranteed to turn the COGS of series veterans and newcomers alike. Gears Tactics should be on the radar of all Gears fans, even those entirely new to the tactics genre.
Now, c’mon Mikayla, time to decimate some more grubs.
- Story adds to the grander Gears narrative
- Retains that authentic Gears feeling
- Compelling tactics gameplay
- Plenty of customization options
- Epic boss battles
- Side missions are compulsory and feel like unnecessary padding
- Veteran Mode feels shallow
- Difficulty spikes can be frustrating
- No mission grading system
Splash Damage, The Coalition
Xbox Game Studios
PC, Xbox One (Coming Soon)