Gears Tactics Review27 May 2020 2
Gears Tactics Review
Released 28 Apr 2020
The Gears of War franchise has often branded itself as the archetypal bro-shooter, relishing in its over-the-top depictions of violence, viscera, and gore. It is best known in the popular consciousness for its most iconic weapon: the Lancer, with its absurd chainsaw-bayonet. The world of Gears is populated by inhumanly buff manly-men stoically defending humanity from a species of equally jacked mole-people. But that outward appearance belies the fact that the series has always been much more cerebral than it might originally let on.
That more deliberate side of the series is on full display in the recent XCOM-style turn-based tactics spinoff Gears Tactics. The series has long walked the razors edge between fast paced combat with mass market appeal and more methodical, team-oriented squad-based tactics built around positional warfare.
In a crowded shooter market with carefully crafted Skinner’s boxes like Halo, Battlefield, or Call of Duty, those internal contradictions haven’t always helped. But all the things that made Gears something of an oddball shooter are also the things that make it perhaps the best property to turn into a turn-based tactics game.
A Perfect Fit
Thankfully, Gears Tactics largely sticks the landing, especially in the moment-to moment combat of its roughly 20-hour campaign. Its five classes, each with four possible skill trees, feel distinct and specialized. The scout infiltrates and excels at close combat; the heavy is excellent for defense and overwatch; the sniper has long range, high accuracy, but low ammo; the vanguard is your battering ram and tank; and the support provides bonuses and healing. Missions let you take between 1 and 4 units, either the story characters or one of the generic recruitable gears, into battle to complete various objectives; usually one mandatory and another optional objective with a reward for completion.
The most enjoyable bits of Gears Tactics come from learning how, and in what combinations, to use these units as a coherent squad. There are various loadouts and playstyles that can add significant variety to how you solve the problems presented to you.
In many ways, TBT is the perfect fit for Gears. Much of the raw material that makes a good tactics game has been inherent in the DNA of the series since its first installment. Positioning, flanking, and, above all, cover have always been pillars of the core design. All these elements have made a smooth transition to Gears Tactics. The cover system especially has been expertly converted to the new format. Locking into cover feels great and leaves little ambiguity about which directions are defended and which are vulnerable. That’s an important detail to get right when navigating cover makes up a bulk of the game’s combat.
The transition from over-the-shoulder third person to an isometric perspective is not nearly as radical as it would have been for a first-person shooter. Because of this, Gears Tactics retains much the same aesthetic, both visually and tonally, as the mainline games. This goes a long way in making it feel like less of a spinoff and more of a successor to the original Gears of War.
Down, But Not Out?
Like many a TBT game, Permadeath is a key draw. Here, permadeath gives some heft to your decisions and provides a strong incentive to stay below cover and be cautious when moving into the fog of war. The feature feels fitting for a series whose flagship 'Warzone' game type pitted squads against each other with no respawns — a drastic departure from the near omnipresent quick-respawn TDM style gameplay of most other shooters.
This permadeath option, however, is significantly watered down by the fact that it only applies to the generic gears you recruit. A death by one of the main story characters results in mission failure, as those characters are needed to keep the linear story on track. While losing someone from your B-team can still be meaningful, it makes the kinds of failure cascades that happen in other TBT games (XCOM and Battle Brothers come to mind) very unlikely, except at the highest difficulties.
The franchise’s iconic Down-But-Not-Out system, in which critically wounded characters are defeated but not killed and can be revived by allies, has also made the shift. It meshes incredibly well in the domain of TBT, where finite action points are the most valuable resource. Balancing the risk/reward of saving your allies (or finishing off your enemies) when doing so means expending your means of moving, defending, and attacking causes some interesting tactical dilemmas, especially with permadeath looming over your shoulder.
At its core, this is a game that presents you with open-ended tactical problems and asks you to find solutions. This leads to many tiny eureka moments throughout each mission, whether that be figuring out how to free a trapped ally from enemy overwatch, synchronizing different abilities together, or throwing that grenade in just the right spot to take out a bunch of enemies at once. The minute-to-minute tactical gameplay is where Gears Tactics really shines, which is good, because outside of the tactical battles, there isn’t all that much to do.
Unlike TBT trailblazer XCOM, there is no strategic side to Gears Tactics: no managing resources, no choosing where you are going to send your assets, no choosing which paths of research and development are worth pursuing. It’s that secondary layer that should make the tactical gameplay feel like it is contributing to something larger. The closest thing Gears has to this is its linear main story and loot management system. There is some customization and skill trees to tinker with, but there is not enough there to make up for that missing strategic element.
This is perhaps the game’s largest missed opportunity. The setting of Gears seems tailor made for these kinds of issues. In the world of Sera, resources are scarce. The COG can’t be everywhere at once, but the underground Locust can appear almost anywhere at any time. Humanity is walking on the razors edge between survival and extinction, where they must make hard choices. That no system, even a mediocre one, is in place to let you make these kinds of choices seems like a huge blind spot.
The lack of any strategic element could be more forgivable if the story could carry the extra narrative weight. Unfortunately, while the plot is serviceable, it doesn’t exactly break new ground for the series. Those familiar with the franchise will recognize the well-trod story beats. The story missions themselves are generally fun variations on the procedural side quests with a big, meaty boss fight at the end of each act. The boss fights aren’t too difficult but serve as an interesting deviation from the repetition of the normal mission types.
Getting to those boss fights can be a bit of a slog, however. With only a handful of mission types and locations, the mandatory side quests begin to seriously slow down the pace of the game, especially in the second half, as you will need to complete three side quests for every one main quest mission you complete. It pads out the playtime, but the experience is watered down for it.
A leaner campaign with less fluff would have made for a better experience overall. Jettisoning the story wholesale and replacing it with a barebones strategic layer and maybe a few more mission types would have gone a long way towards complimenting the excellent tactical gameplay.
Worth Your Time?
So, is Gears Tactics worth your time? The short answer: yes. Its finely crafted tactical battles are worth the price of admission (especially for fans of the series), but it’s worth noting that the lack of any strategic dimension is a serious drawback. Still, despite these hiccups and missed opportunities, fans of both the turn-based tactics genre and the franchise proper will find something to like in Gears Tactics. It may not totally sate your appetite, but the teams at The Coalition and Splash Damage have delivered on a game that is both faithful to the series’ origins while also showing that Gears can be just as at home in the turn-based tactics format.
This review was kindly donated to Strategy Gamer by the author.