When Gears Tactics was first announced back at E3 2018, which feels like 10 years ago, I was excited. I had never thought about it until then, but Gears of War seemed like a perfect fit for a turn-based strategy game, similar to XCOM. It turns out I was right to be excited. Gears of War, with its big dudes and scary monsters, is a perfect match for this kind of game.
There is no way to talk about Gears Tactics without at least mentioning XCOM, one of the most beloved strategy game franchises of all time. XCOM is what all turn-based tactical strategy games must be compared to forever and ever. Them the rules. And yes, at first glance, Tactics has a lot in common with the popular alien invasion simulator. You move small squads of soldiers around different levels, one turn at a time, using cover and elevation to avoid or ambush enemies. You can put a soldier in overwatch, having them observe an area, ready to shoot when an enemy enters their line of sight. You can even customize soldiers in both games, naming them after friends and dressing them in different colored armor. You might mistake Tactics as a reskinning of XCOM.
But it is a much different game in a lot of interesting ways.
The biggest distinction between Gears Tactics and other strategy games is how fast and aggressive the game plays from turn to turn. Tactics, which was developed by Splash Damage and main franchise studio The Coalition, wants you to hide less and push forward instead. It communicates this in part by empowering your characters to be aggressive. Every soldier in the game can execute enemies, shoot multiple times in one turn, shoot and then move, pick up big weapons and use grenades.
The focus of Tactics is on ground combat. There is no world map where you plan out attacks, no council you must talk to every few hours to get more funding, and no base building. It is all about going out onto a battlefield and fighting. Soldiers who are injured return to full health at the end of every mission, with no downtime or waiting. What is here is lean, mean, and a lot of fun.
Tactics is set about a decade before the first Gears game, when a talented soldier named Gabe Diaz becomes disillusioned with the COG, the army and government all Gears fighters are a part of. He hides away as a mechanic in the army motor pool, but an old veteran named Sid, with orders from the leader of the COG, comes to him with a mission to take out Ukkon, a smart Locust leader who is responsible for creating many of the nastiest monsters players have encountered in the series. Diaz is known to have a great tactical mind, and that’s just what this mission needs. The mission is understaffed, so Gabe and Sid have to scrape together a mini-army to take on Ukkon and stop his evil plans.
It’s a classic story of scrappy underdogs working together, learning to trust each other, and eventually becoming more powerful as one united group. And it works. It also explains why you are recruiting random soldiers and why you don’t have great weapons immediately. The game follows a loop of Gabe and his growing army of soldiers and civilians working together to get more supplies, track down Ukkon and stop him and his evil plans.
The mission loop is fine at first but is a little tedious by the end. Each chapter consists of a half dozen or so missions and side missions, though there’s little variety to them. About halfway through the game, I stopped encountering new types of missions and new areas. By the end, you’ve done a lot of the same type of missions. I started to feel burned out on guarding supply drops or blowing up Locust stockpiles. Thankfully, the combat is so good that this wasn’t a dealbreaker.
This might get me in trouble, but I need to say this: I like XCOM but I find its combat too hard and annoying to really enjoy. I know some folks just read that and have already scrolled down to the comments to yell at me. I don’t hate XCOM, but I never finish the games, and I often feel annoyed by how much the game wants you to struggle.
Gears Tactics is different. Combat is less about barely scraping by and more about being fast, deadly and aggressive. There are some moments here and there that forced me to really slow down and take my time, but most missions can be played aggressively. I like that. The combat is quicker and more focused on offense. For one, all soldiers in Tactics can shoot and move multiple times in a single turn, assuming they have enough action points. This opens up a whole bunch of possible options. Charge forward, but save one of your three action points and you can save yourself from a deadly ambush. Or maybe you take a shot and miss. Well, now you can move up and try again, closer and with a higher chance to hit. It’s a small change from XCOM, where only certain soldiers can move and shoot in a single turn after getting special upgrades, but it immediately makes the game feel more flexible. It also lets the developers toss more enemies at you because you can shoot more of them per turn. So be prepared for large swarms of wretches, those annoying tiny monkey things from previous Gears games.
Tactics also rewards you for taking risks and getting out of cover. You can down enemies in this game, just like in Gears of War games of old, which means that those downed baddies can be helped up by their friends if you don’t finish them off. You could just shoot them, which is sometimes a smart move, but you can also have a soldier run over and execute the enemy. This grants all members of your squad a bonus action point. As you level up soldiers and find better gear and weapons, you can start creating more complex and fun combos. For example: one soldier executes an enemy, which grants everyone a free move, which your medic uses to heal your scout, who uses that bonus point and the damage boost from the heal to run over and down another baddie, who they execute and earn the whole team more action points and…. Well, you see how this goes.
The more I played Tactics, the more I was reminded of a different turn-based strategy game: Mario + Rabbids: Battle Kingdom. One of my favorite things in that game was how you could bounce enemies around while using pipes and other characters to boost your movements. If you were skilled enough and the battle was set up just right, you could create super elaborate combos. It was great. Gears Tactics feels similar. I felt like I was always planning out different ways to get the most bang for my buck per turn. Or like I was building a Rube Golberg machine of chainsaws and bullets.
Tactics handles the genre’s overwatch mechanic very well. Like other games, overwatch lets you position a soldier so they will shoot any enemy that moves into their line of sight. But in Tactics, overwatch is more flexible and can be used to set up intricate moves and massive ambushes. When you place a soldier in overwatch, they emit a blue holographic cone, which you can aim. You can overlap multiple cones, so that, if a big enemy like a Boomer walks in, it will get ripped to shreds. Or you can space them at different angles and distances to take on large waves of enemies who don’t need 100 bullets to kill. Enemy overwatch works the same way, letting you dodge around an enemy and their red cone of overwatch to slip in and catch them in a blindspot. It feels a little bit like an exploit, but the AI does it too, so screw them.
The AI, by the way, is totally fine. They never felt too smart or too dumb. I always had fun fighting them, and I never felt like they were cheating or making tons of mistakes.
Gears Tactics features a cast of new characters, who are also playable heroes in the game: Sid, Gabe, and Mikayla. I also got access to the pre-order character, Thrashball Augustus Cole. The Cole Train is great, even if his inclusion in this game doesn’t make sense canonically. Whatever, the Cole Train runs on whole grain, baby! These hero characters, including Cole, can die, but if they do, you fail the mission.
You can also build a large roster of snipers, shotgun-toting scouts, medics, heavy weapon experts, and assault soldiers. These guys and gals are randomly generated and can be fully customized and renamed. They can also die, but the mission doesn’t end if they do. At first, I felt connected to my first few recruits. But the game continued to give me tons of new soldiers who were leveled up, and it became harder to use older, less powerful troops. These regular troops are expendable and hard to get attached to. They are just, cogs in a war machine, if you will.
Even though it plays very differently, Tactics looks, sounds and often feels like Gears of War, For example, when you kill some bigger enemies, like Boomers or Theron Guards, they drop the same powerful weapons that those deadly enemies dropped in older games. Just as they do in the main Gears games, enemies will sometimes appear via emergence holes. These e-holes have to be plugged with grenades. If you don’t toss a ‘nade in these holes, enemies will keep pouring out, just like in Gears Of War. Lots of little details are right, too. Chainsaws sound correct, reloads look the same, enemies behave the same, and even some of the big boss enemies from Gears of War appear in Tactics. These boss fights are some of the best levels in the game.
If you love Gears of War, which I do, the story, world, and details are all there. But if you have never played a Gears game or barely care about the series, none of this stuff is intrusive. You might not get a few of the subtle references that appear in the story, but none of them is important to this tale. Likewise, not knowing how the world of Gears works won’t hurt you, as Tactics does a thorough job explaining most of its mechanics and features.
There is just one classic element of previous Gears games that is missing from Tactics: Multiplayer. There is no online co-op or competitive play. There is also no Horde mode. It leaves Gears Tactics feeling barebones compared to other games in the series. I can’t help but want to share this game with a friend. Chainsawing Locust is always better with a friend.
Two years removed from its surprise announcement, Gears Tactics is a creative success. While it lacks multiplayer and features a few too many repetitive missions, its aggressive combat and dedication to translating all the details from Gears of War into a tactical game are impressive. This isn’t a gimmick or reskin of XCOM. This is something great that stands on its own.