Gears Tactics Review: Brutal, Thrilling, Tactical, Lonely
With the next generation of consoles rapidly approaching, it’s not surprising that we’re not getting a new Gears of War for the soon-to-be-last-gen Xbox One. Instead, Microsoft has made the rather surprising move of creating a Gears game specifically for the PC, something the company’s game division hasn’t done in a long while.
The result is Gears Tactics and unlike their real-time strategy (RTS) Halo off-shoot, Halo Wars, these Gears play only on PC, for now.
Microsoft did an excellent job giving Halo its strategic bent with Halo Wars, but Gears Tactics is another sort of animal entirely. This isn’t an RTS for one thing. It is definitively a tactical combat game and the parallels to the modern XCOM series are unavoidable.
The two games are in many ways remarkably similar. On the highest level, both are sci-fi-themed, four-member squad, turn-based combat games played out mostly on burned-out urban maps.
Gears Tactics Review: Brutal, Thrilling, Tactical, Lonely
They control similarly as well. You command each squad member in turn to move, attack, or interact with something, using a limited number of action points. Every action costs a specific amount of points and special attacks take several turns to recharge after use. Gears Tactics even has overwatch mode like XCOM, where a soldier stands ready to fire on any enemies entering their line of sight.
Admittedly, XCOM is far from the only game to use these mechanics and there’s a fair bit of streamlining in Tactics to keep the action fluid. Full camera controls are a vital part of the control scheme for one thing. You can look over the battlefield from nearly any angle, zooming in, rotating, or just sliding the view around the map. Using the "WASD" and "QE" keys for camera controls and the mouse to click on the map and command troops, the user interface is excellent.
The game can be controlled almost entirely with the mouse if desired, or even with a control pad (suggesting it could easily be ported to console, which Microsoft seems to have plans for).
Without a doubt, the game simply feels best using the mix of keyboard and mouse, right down to hitting the space bar to initiate an attack command. The only real problem I encountered with controls was when the mouse pointer was near the edge of the screen, resulting in the map camera flying in that direction.
Gears Tactics takes place 12 years before the original Gears of War. The Locust Horde is decimating the human population of the planet Sera and in a last-ditch attempt to kill their enemies, the humans fire the devastating Hammer of Dawn super-weapon on their own cities. Gabe Diaz is one of the surviving super soldiers. His goal is to recruit more soldiers and take the fight back to the horde and their mysterious new leader.
If you’re into the lore of Gears of War, Tactics is definitely an essential play. The characters are interesting if cliched, the plot effective, and very little of it gets in the way of the actual gameplay. As you progress, you’ll earn potential new recruits by either rescuing or encountering them through a mission, or just randomly generated between missions.
Characters run the gamut of classes. There are heavies with chain guns, snipers, medics, scouts, and all-rounders to choose from. The random joiners flip in and out quickly, enabling players to constantly have an influx of new bodies to try out, along with the main characters.
Surviving characters gain experience and skill points, and better equipment and supplies. There’s a surprisingly robust skills tree for every character, offering a wealth of variation. Some skills apply passive perks like damage or health bonuses, while others are active skills requiring action points to use. Weapons and armor are divided into parts, which can each be upgraded with better gear.
Gears Tactics, being part of a AAA franchise, doesn’t skimp on the presentation. It presents a gorgeously polished view of the Locust apocalypse, with fantastic use of multi-level battlegrounds that greatly enhance potential tactical choices. Since it’s using the assets of the main Gears games, Tactics offers the chance to get a bird’s eye view of landscapes players have been shooting through for years.
Over the course of a few acts (each divided into about 10 chapters), Tactics throws the player into a wide range of scenarios. There are straight-up bug hunts to just kill enemies, rescue missions, escape chases, missions to stand and defend ground and other things, and even gigantic boss battles. Missions can easily take 20-30 minutes to battle through and are consistently entertaining.
Gears Tactics skillfully takes all the familiar gameplay of the action games and translates it into a turn-based affair with surprising skill. The gameplay succeeds because the combat manages to have nearly the same visceral excitement as the rest of the series. It’s still a cover-based shooter with brutal melee chainsaw attacks and executions (which, of course, gift you with bonuses). The action and pacing, simply put, feel right.
This dedication to parity with the rest of the series, unfortunately, makes Gears Tactics’ biggest flaw stand out. While the series has always had excellent single-player campaigns, multiplayer is inherent to the secret of Gears overall success. Multiplayer is also an expected element of tactical strategy games at this point, yet there’s none here.
All Gears Tactics comes with is the (admittedly beefy) single-player campaign. There are no skirmish modes for random one-off battles, no co-op, or competitive play. This lack of extra content hurts the replay value and will likely make the game a hard sell, especially since 2K Games coincidentally dropped a new addition to XCOM so recently.
Gears Tactics Review — The Bottom Line
- Superb, polished turn-based tactical gameplay
- Great presentation
- Complex, frequently multi-layered maps
- Terrific transition of familiar Gears gameplay to a new genre
- No multiplayer
- No skirmish modes
If the lack of extras and multiplayer isn’t a big issue, Gears Tactics is great fun. The tactical combat is violent and satisfying, the story is solid, and the presentation is excellent.
Thanks to intuitive controls, Gears Tactics is easy to get into even for players who have never played a turn-based tactical squad game before. It’s just a shame there’s not more here.
[Note: A copy of Gears Tactics was provided by Microsoft for the purpose of this review.]