The Gears universe is vast, and while we’ve only had fourteen years to expand upon it, feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface. It has been only recently Microsoft has been expanding the franchise outside of its traditional, over-the-shoulder roots, with a small mobile game partnered with Pop! figure company, and now also an XCOM-esque strategy game that has players take control of a number of COG soldiers as they’re thrust into an all too familiar battle ground. You’ll still be sliding into cover and popping out to kill your Locust enemy, but now you will do so in a turn-based format, taking place in an isometric camera angle. We take a look at what Splash Damage and Microsoft have brought to the table with the Xbox Series X version, as there are a number of graphical improvements, but more importantly, just how well does the game control on a controller?
Gears Tactics rewinds the clock twelve years before the events of Gears of War and centers around a new squad led by Lt. Col. Gabriel Diaz. Sera is overrun with Locust and the threat is only deepening thanks to Ukkon, the Locust scientist responsible for creating monstrosities like the Brumak and Corpser. Out of options and with little time left, Diaz must raise an army of COG and Stranded to track down and assassinate Ukkon before he unleashes new terrors.
Tactics’ status as a prequel allows it to further flesh out the overarching Gears story. For example, fans of Gears 5 protagonist Kait Diaz get to discover her father’s origins. The story also serves to further flesh out the COG and Stranded’s relationship and explain why, even following Gears of War 3, things are so icy. Aside from fleshing out the Gears universe, Gears Tactics’ story stands on its own. Gabe and his companions have strong chemistry from start to finish, though it does take a while for their gruff personas to soften up. Though many of the revelations may not be that surprising to longtime fans of the franchise, there are enough twists and turns to keep players on their toes. Ukkon, Tactics’ main antagonist, may not be as physically intimidating as RAAM or Skorge, but he does pack more personality than them or any of the franchise’s other signature villains, besides Myrrah.
Gears Tactics, as a prequel, doesn’t answer any of the questions Gears 5 left us with, but is still a tale worth exploring, whether it be for the new characters or the additional context the game provides to the universe. It will also provide many hours of gameplay. Gears Tactics will last players between 20-30 hours, depending on the difficulty. It’s a lengthy campaign with an additional Veteran Mode available upon your first completion. Unfortunately, not all activities in Gears Tactics are created equally. That length is split between main and side missions. Main missions are by far the best with impeccable design that forces players to study the battlefield and make smart decisions. It’s here that the gameplay and design come together to create truly fantastic moments that rival the best encounters in the main series. Boss fights particularly stand out as moments that require players to balance positioning, ability usage and range to stay alive and claim victory. Gears Tactics is at its best when playing these missions.
Gears Tactics’ structure crumbles around the side missions due to a lack of variety. The game features four types of side missions: Rescue, Sabotage, Scavenger Run and Control. In Rescue, you need to save two soldiers from torture pods. Sabotage sees the squad attack a Locust stronghold and destroy its Imulsion supply. Scavenger Run tasks players with grabbing equipment as Nemacyst bombings inch closer each turn. Finally, Control has the squad holding two positions to collect supplies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these types of objectives, but Gears Tactics overly relies on them to its detriment. It regularly sidelines its own story and main missions to task players with these side missions. It’s not bad until you realize that the game interrupts the flow of the campaign after nearly every main mission and completely throw off the pacing of the entire game. One mission you could be laying a trap for Ukkon, and the next, rather than springing it, you must complete two side quests. In an effort to increase the length, Gears Tactics actively sabotages the pacing of its campaign. Considering the campaign makes up the entirety of the Gears Tactics experience, the amount of required side missions to continue the story is just too much.
The game also, surprisingly, doesn’t have much to do once the credits roll. Outside of Veteran Mode, which does tweak the formula with modifiers, there are no additional multiplayer or co-op modes to jump into. For a franchise that built itself on robust multiplayer and co-op options, Gears Tactics feels light on modes. While it may focus too much on side quests, it makes up for it with solid gameplay. Like a traditional tactics style game, Gears Tactics is played from a top-down perspective with players taking turns to maneuver around the map, attack and set up tactical positions. During your turn, each character gets three actions to move, take cover, fire on enemies, set up overwatch, use abilities or execute downed enemies.
Players can take up to four members into battle with units coming in five different classes (Support, Vanguard, Sniper, Heavy and Support), each with their advantages and disadvantages. Support’s weapon of choice is the Lancer and utilizes healing and motivational abilities. Vanguards serve as the tanks with their Retro Lancers. Snipers, equipped with the Longshot, cover allies from long distances. Heavy’s and their Mulchers plant themselves into a spot and lay down suppressing fire. Finally, Scouts and their Gnashers can move fast and hide from enemy troops. There’s lots of variety and strategic decisions to consider when building a team, especially since you can’t take every class with you and non-Hero characters can permanently die if you’re not careful.
Strategic options don’t stop on the battlefield. In addition to extensive skill trees per class, Gears Tactics features a comprehensive gear system. From weapon parts to armor pieces to grenades, there’s plenty of items to consider as you strive to build your squad. There’s even fun, non-gameplay affecting cosmetics such as changing your gunmetals, adding color or throwing on a pattern. While you can’t alter the main character’s looks, you’re free to change the looks and features of your other squad mates. Gears of War will always be known as a third-person shooter, but Splash Damage has perfectly adapted its mechanics to a tactics game. What you expect from a Gears game (chainsaw bayonets, bayonet charges, emergence holes, brutal finishers, etc.) is all here with few compromises. This is a Gears game, and it feels exactly right to play.
Gears’ strong history of delivering stellar presentations remains intact with Gears Tactics. Though the perspective is different and the action turn-based, Gears Tactics looks fantastic. Splash Damage has managed to provide a presentation that looks and sounds the way a Gears game should. Whether it’s the violent growls of the Locust, the sounds of a chainsaw revving or the brutal popping sound a head makes following a headshot, the presentation perfectly captures the essence of the franchise. Though it may not have the close-up shots of a shooter, Gears Tactics still features plenty of detailed textures and models for players to admire, particularly in the menus. A suite of features allows players to extensively customize the visual experience on PC. Meanwhile, plenty of accessibility options exist to ensure that whoever wants to enjoy Gears Tactics can. It’s another fantastic Gears game to look at and listen to.
For the Xbox Series X version of the game, Gears Tactics runs at a beautiful 4K resolution and upwards of 60fps, even though it warns you regarding cutscenes that they were originally optimized for 30fps. The framerate stays well at 60fps during gameplay and while you’d expect to see lower resolution assets from an XCOM-esque title, Gears Tactics retains a level of visual quality you’d expect from a first-party release. It may not be on the level of what we might expect from a next-generation title, but for a port of an isometric PC game, it’s a looker. A major aspect to Gears Tactics is the controls. You have the advantage of keyboard and mouse controls on PC, and while they’re still the preferred way to play the strategy title, the controls on the Xbox One are done well enough that they aren’t intrusive. They do feel cumbersome cycling between the various different actions, but never to the point where it interrupted the flow of combat in a negative manner.
While it stumbles here and there, Splash Damage was able to take the essence of the Gears franchise and transfer it into a turn-based strategy game. The Xbox Series X version of Gears Tactics in particular has been touched up on, allowing players to take control of their COG soldiers with not-so-intrusive controls. This is on top of the 4K 60fps gameplay the next-generation port offers, allowing for one of the most visually-impressive real time strategy games on the market, even though it’s not the most artistically pleasing. The turn-based combat fits surprisingly well in the universe and provides strategy both on and off of the field. It helps that the main missions are well structured and will have you engaged all the way through the campaign. Sure, it does falter due to the frequently repetitive side quests that damage the pacing, but it remains an absolute joy. Gears Tactics offers a different pace for Gears fans, but at the same time, the same amount of gratifying combat they’ve come to expect.