Whilst playing through Marcus and friends’ saga in the Gears series, who hasn’t at some point thought “this is all great, but I wish it was turn-based strategy?”. The answer may well have been nobody, but as it turns out Gears Tactics makes a lot of sense and fits into the milieu of the Gears story far better than we had any right to expect!
Gears Tactics (which has already been available on PC for a good few months now) is the latest game to take on the XCOM concept of a small squad of soldiers taking on legions of baddies in turn-based combat. Many of the familiar elements are there but there are some clever amendments that keep the whole thing feeling fresh.
Your squad, made up of no more than four people drawn from five character classes, take three actions per turn to move, shoot, reload, throw grenades and take other actions as they move around a grid-less map. Movement is nice and simple and can be broken up into three different small moves, or you can make one long move with three actions, though occasionally the pathing is a bit daft. Luckily the game does a really good job of clearly presenting when you’d be moving through an overwatch or triggering some other action, as well as letting you know if you’ll end your move in cover. And you’ll need to end your move in cover or you’re going to get shot quite a lot.
Shooting is fairly simple too: you can cycle through targets with the shoulder buttons and the chance to hit shows up over each target, though once again you’re at the mercy of the RNG gods and will miss the occasional high percentage shot. Hits from weapons will reduce the hit points of the target, though most out-of-the-box weapons will need a few shots to put down even the average Locust grunt; thankfully the melee-centric Wretches can be cut down by just one good shot. If a target is reduced to a low number of HP, then they will be “down” and can be finished off, Gears-style, with a brutally graphic execution animation.
These executions aren’t just gory eye-candy; they serve a key tactical function. When you execute a bad guy, all the other members of the squad get an extra action. This means that the game rewards you for closing in with the enemy, for being aggressive, and the game has a much more dynamic feel than the overwatch-heavy games of XCOM. Melee attacks are particularly powerful and the bayonet charge and gun-mounted chainsaw attacks are usually one-shot kills.
Mind you, overwatch is a function of the game and boy do the Locust like to overwatch. They’ll prioritise this over taking low percentage shots and set up overlapping lines of fire. You’ll always be outnumbered, sometimes heavily so, and picking apart these collages of gunfire is tough work. Luckily Gears Tactics equips you with several tools for this, ranging from the “disabling shot” option of the standard issue sidearm the Gears carry to lobbing a nice grenade into the enemy ranks.
The enemy, as well as outnumbering you, come in all shapes and sizes. Each new bad guy is introduced with a quick cutscene which gives you a tip about what to expect from them. The Locust have all sorts of troops to call on from the series and you’ll recognize them before sawing them in half with your chainsaw-blade. The AI is actually pretty bright, with very few wasted moves. They use cover well, they put up overlapping fields of overwatch, and they try to flank you. Even on lower difficulty levels, you’re in for a tough fight here.
You command a convoy of Gears, up against the odds and trying to defeat generic evil Locust general Ukkon. You have a handful of named characters whose death means the mission needs to start again, and then randomly created generic troops who you can, XCOM-style, customize with haircuts, gear and paint-schemes. These poor supporting characters can be killed and the game goes on. Tactics does use perma-death, with a small twist: characters when reduced to 0 HP can be revived or get a second wind, coming back into the fight with reduced HP. However, if they get put down a second time, then they are dead. The Locust can also give you an execution if they get close enough!
The cast of characters aren’t especially exciting, with square-jawed hero Gabe Diaz offering a bland renegade hero in the mould of Marcus Fenix. Tough-bitten veteran Sid is a bit more interesting and his banter exchanges with sniper Mikaela are kind of compelling. You can also use “Cole-Train” in your squad, though he’s not really referenced by any of the other characters.
As you proceed through missions, you pick up loot drops as rewards for completing missions and side-quests, as well as finding loot-crates which can be opened by your team and then added to your equipment post-mission. Weapons and armour can be upgraded in a myriad of ways, giving you plenty of option in customizing and specializing your squad.
The characters also get upgraded as they take part in battles, level up and become more experienced. There are two distinct directions for each character class, ala XCOM, giving you plenty of ways to create nice synergies in your team. For example, Sid’s bayonet charge can be made far more powerful, as well as gaining back an action after killing an enemy in close quarters.
You’ll need to use all of this equipment, skill and your tactical expertise to overcome the Locust as the missions get tougher and tougher as more enemies of various types stack up against you. Some of the boss fights are epic and rather tough, though the sheer number of HP involved makes some of the fights a bit grindy at times.
Gears Tactics delivers a fairly long campaign but there are no major decisions to make to change the fairly generic Gears plot, which may limit replayability. That said, the new Jacked mode will add Jack as a member of your squad as well as new enemy types, which may be enough to bring you back for another runthrough of the game.
The sound effects are good with the usual raucous sounds and music you’d expect from the Gears universe. The voice acting is up to standard, though as I’ve stated they don’t have much to work with in terms of characterisation or dialogue.
Whilst Gears Tactics is a great game and one of the best attempts to follow up XCOM, it isn’t without its faults. The plot and characters aren’t overly exciting and at times are fairly generic. I’ve always felt that the Gears world is quite interesting but sometimes the stories provided are quite run-of-the-mill. There are also pathing issues, though these are easily dealt with if you take one move at a time. There are also problems with line of sight as your characters do suffer damage from friendly fire and can block your fire, unlike your guys in XCOM who duck under each other’s fire.
I have some mild gripes too with the generic level of zoom which takes you quite a long way from the models, losing some of the texture. The maps are often quite muddy – lots of grey and brown colour schemes are present – which can make them a bit hard to make out at times. There are some minor issues with camera angles too as they can be obstructed and you get the colour wire-frames rather than the full character models.
There’s also something to be said that commanding pre-generated characters whose death ends the mission is somewhat contrary to the XCOM spirit. The tension around perma-death of your lovingly crafted characters is a key concept in XCOM, and whilst you get a bit of that in Gears Tactics it’s not a key part of the game and its absence is felt.
Still, in balance, Gears Tactics on Xbox is one of the best attempts to craft a new turn-based squad shooter game. A rough-hewn, challenging game with a long campaign and lots of options to customize your characters, along with a whole new game-mode, means that Gears Tactics is a must play game for any fans of the Gears universe, turn-based strategy titles or squad tactics games.