‘Gears Tactics’ review: a shockingly good strategy spin-off full of gory flair

This addition to the Gears Of War franchise may just give the XCOM series a run for its money

The ease with which the Gears Of War franchise manages to transpose itself into the strategy genre is genuinely mind-boggling. I never expected a tactics tie-in game to be so full of innovation and passionate franchise charm, yet I’ve been surprised and hooked on Gears Tactics for the past week.

Designed by the fine folks at Splash Damage and The Coalition, Tactics coaxes out the same kind of carefully crafted, addictive gameplay that has kept legions of XCOM players up at night for the past two decades. Still, it never feels too derivative of its influences, flattering the player with plenty of the charm that has made the franchise a mainstay for Microsoft across console generations.

Gears Tactics is refined in a way that strategy games usually aren’t – environments are lovingly detailed with patches of grit and metal, and the tightly woven arenas feel alive with danger. Enemies flop to the ground convincingly, with short, fluid cutscenes interjecting when you fire on a Locust and explode its fleshy cranium, colouring each combat engagement with Gears Of War’s unmistakably gory flair.

The way fights pulse with crunchy back-and-forth gunplay and the trepidation that surrounds close-quarters combat worked to give me the impression that the developers took a Gears Of War prototype but swapped out the perspective – and honestly, I thank them for the ingenuity. Tactics is just as exciting as any of the console games that precede it, perhaps even more so with the adrenaline-pumping introduction of procedurally generated permadeath troops who can quite easily be executed in the heat of battle – after you’ve spent half an hour liberating them.

The beauty of Gears Tactics is in how it refuses to put you on the front foot. Combat can be calculated at times, but it is always brutal, and when I’m surrounded by drones threatening to gnash at my defenceless teammates, it’s hard not to buy into the experience. In one situation, I spent nearly an hour reloading a single checkpoint to extract the soldiers I’d fought so hard for who were mere steps away from the extraction point. The release I got from finally figuring it out was sweeter than sugar. As if these moments couldn’t feel any better, Tactics also grafts those wonderful audio stings from the original that ring out at the end of a battle to recognise a job well done.

The Overwatch system allows you to cover a flanking position by aiming your weapon in a cone to catch the enemy off guard if they foolishly move into your eye line, and catching Wretches – creatures that the Locust Horde use as cannon fodder – out as they barrel towards your squad is profoundly satisfying. The variety of weapons that players can use is also perfect for crafting tactical lockdowns where you can trap and unravel a fortified formation.

And that’s not mentioning the pièce de résistance: Gears Tactic’s execution system. When their HP reaches 0, enemies can be downed just like in Gears Of War, but if you double up and sprint out of cover for a gruesome execution, you’ll receive an additional action in battle. If you work to down multiple enemies and string together a series of curb stomps, you’ll have tons of actions to use to gain a tactical advantage.

It’s got that wonderfully gritty Starcraft 2 marine feel to the way the Gears will risk life and limb to pound their enemies into a fine mist. It’s a ‘smart risk vs reward’ approach, and in a strategy setting, that often leads players to turtle and be too conservative with their actions. It’s a fantastic spin on the formula that won’t let you fall into the same tactic in every chapter.

There are plenty of eureka moments waiting in Gears Tactics for curious players too, and a lot of the innovation is left to the player as they tinker with the boundaries of the physics system. I found out by chance that you can use a grenade to propel grunts into your squad’s Overwatch cones to fill them full of holes, an unexpected delight, one among many in this super sandbox.

Gears Tactics Brumak
Credit: Xbox Game Studios

Gears Tactics also positions its narrative in a spot rife with potential for expanding the world’s lore, delivering a genuinely interesting prequel story that complements the events of the original games. The jingoistic, authoritarian government announcements are juxtaposed with the real suffering civilians on the ground in the early throes of Emergence Day, and this combined with the ruined social spaces that litter the Locust occupied settlements gives Gears Tactics this peculiar, retrofuturist vibe that hasn’t been executed so perfectly since the original trilogy.

It’s also brave enough to at least prod and question the actions of the Coalition Of Ordered Governments and its fascist underbelly – the game proceeds in the wake of the Hammer Of Dawn Strikes, a series of utilitarian government-ordered airborne attacks on the planet’s human-occupied territory to try and wipe out the Locust Horde. The government killed millions of innocent people, and the survivors you meet as you push through waves of Wretches are naturally not so happy to make your acquaintance because of what your squad represents.

Gears Tactics Corpser
Credit: Xbox Game Studios

Our protagonist Gabe Diaz appears on the surface to be your typical ‘get the job done’ style hero with a dark past centred around a painful “incident”, but even he has moments of reflection about the liberation campaign and the morally shaky world he’s fighting for.

Yet the story’s main antagonist is an emulsion-vaping immortal death god called Ukkon, so there’s plenty of belief suspension elsewhere. Overall though, I’d say they get the balance right.

As someone who was invested in the first three games on the Xbox 360 but hasn’t been interested in anything Gears Of War-related since, Tactics proved itself to be an excellent reintroduction to the series without the overblown cinematic flab of the current-generation sequels. Even so, it’s still gorgeous, and when it zooms out and flips the script by grafting in big beasties as boss characters from the heights of Gears lore, the game is typically gorgeous in its own gory way.

Gears Tactics Woody and Buzz

The characters you collect can each be customised in intricate detail, from the chrome of their armour to the style of their hair. Still, it’s not as exciting or easy to create a troupe of procedural underdogs as it is in XCOM 2 given that you have a set of essential characters that must be used in the campaign. However, I did customise Gabe and Sid to make them look like Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody from Toy Story, which fit their archetypes surprisingly well and made the experience a bit more light-hearted.

Sure, the cutscenes introducing new enemies in combat can be a little choppy, and some of the UI elements could be sleeker to look at. Even so, I’ve found myself struggling to nitpick at this game when the main meat of its tactical gameplay is so bloody good.

One thing I noticed was that the ‘heroes’ you pick up along the way are far too interesting not to use, so I ended up struggling to deploy my troops and recruits who do actually have permadeath functionality, beyond when the game bans them arbitrarily. I imagine this may have been beyond the scope of the game, but that line of thinking is probably not what the developers would have wanted. Losing soldiers in missions offers some of the most exciting bits of gameplay in Gears Tactics, when the stakes are as high as they can be.

Gears Tactics is out on PC and Xbox One now.

Our Verdict

Gears Tactics a brilliant bayonet from the blue – a tricky-to-master test of strength for the strategy-minded and an exciting, accessible entry point for mainstream players looking to get into tactics games. With a surprisingly probing narrative and an impressive series of innovations that force the player to think outside of the vicious sandbox they’re immersed in, Gears Tactics is more than worth your time.

Pros

  • Plenty of meaningful innovation to bring Gears Of War into the strategy space
  • A lore-probing story full of exciting and tricky set-pieces
  • Brutal combat that forces you to think tactically and prod the game’s boundaries

Cons

  • Immortal hero sap some of the joy from making a squad of underdogs
  • The UI is relatively lacklustre
Advertisement

More Gaming Stories: