DISCLAIMER: For this review, we thought we’d try something a little different. If Microsoft wanted to get a little XCOM mixed into their Gears, it seemed only fair to speak to an avid, long time XCOM fan to get his take on what Gears Tactics does right, and what needs work. In steps “A1BASE”.
Gears Tactics is a squad-based game where you control individual Gears taken from 5 generic classes from a top-down perspective in a turn-based environment. All of the classic Gears enemies will show up and you’ll have to maneuver you small squad of Gears to complete the mission while moving toward the overall goal of killing a single protagonist through a linear series of story missions.
Completing missions gives gear modifiers and experience points which can be spent on a frankly overwhelmingly detailed skill tree for each class of soldier which further specializes and differentiates them as you progress through the campaign.
Human nature being what it is, it’s almost impossible to describe something without doing so in relation to another existing entity. Utilizing comparisons (however unfair) gives us the writer and reader, a common point of reference to base our experience around, and in this case the obvious comparison would be the paragon of Turn-Based Strategy games, X-Com. So that’s where we’ll start.
The first and most glaring difference in the two games is how each handles the ‘Strategy’ part of the game.
In X-Com you have a strategy layer where you manage your bases, troops, research, manufacturing and overall plan to achieve the game objectives in your own way before heading into the tactical turn-based layer. Gears quite literally hits the ‘DEL’ key and does away with that in its entirety.
To be clear, there is no strategy element in Gears Tactics (hence the name), which is why I’ve been so confused and frustrated that other early previews have been holding this up as a superlative strategy game. I’ll be generous and assume that some others don’t understand the difference between Strategy and Tactics, rather than my usual cynical self, so let’s clear that up now.
Tactics are the means used on a small scale to complete an interim objective, the moves you make in the battlescape or the gear and soldiers you take. Strategy is the overall complex campaign plan that govern how tactical decisions are made. In gameplay, a strategic game would have you deciding how to achieve the endgame objective, and how to obtain resources and recruits. The tactical element I made once a mission is selected.
It took me a while to understand this, coming from a 25 year long X-Com background. Gears Tactics is not a Turn-Based Strategy game. It’s not selling itself as one – it’s a Turn-based Tactical game, and if you remember that you’ll be less jarred by the differences in our comparison. Whether that’s an improvement or not depends entirely on what you enjoy, but the lack of a strategy layer means that Gears is very much a curated and linear experience.
The second fundamental difference is how each game handles the abilities and equipment of your squad, and in a large part it is these differences that define the feel of the tactical layer of each game.
In X-Com, powerful abilities or equipment are given a limited number of uses in each mission, causing the player to deliberate on the best time to use them. Take in a grenade and you typically get one use of it in a mission… This inevitably leads to a considered approach to combat and a slower paced tactical layer where optimization of your limited resources is critical.
Gears Tactics has obviously made a deliberate effort to turn this convention on its head and make the battlescape a fast-paced and brutal affair, appropriately in keeping with the feel of the other games in the series. Abilities and equipment in Gears are on a turn-based cooldown system, meaning that (for example) in an infinitely long mission you could throw an infinite number of grenades or use special abilities an infinite number of times. When you combine this difference with squad member upgrades that reduce cooldown times of those abilities and equipment based on specific squad member actions such as using your chainsaw or getting a long range kill, it’s a recipe for using these powerful abilities as much as possible while making them available as often as you can.
This difference in approach to the pacing of the battlescape is probably the most significant fundamental difference Gears Tactics has to other games in the genre and I found myself enjoying the change of pace.
The final significant game-altering mechanic is how Gears Tactics deals with the distribution of enemies on a map, or ‘pods’ as they’re known.
When a mission loads in, X-Com populates the map with a specific number of pods, each having a specific number and type of enemies in it. These pods roam the map (within limits) and have specific trigger distances when they’ll engage your troops. The key tactical skill to beating X-Com is management of your unit positions to ensure you only ever engage one pod at a time. There is always a risk if you try a flanking run that you’ll trigger a second pod that was hidden in the fog of war and all of a sudden you’re overwhelmed. Once again, this approach necessitates a very slow, considered approach to tactical combat, paarticularly at higher difficulty levels.
Gears, on the other hand, shows you exactly where enemy groups are when they spawn in. On hostage rescue missions you see the enemy units crouching around your objective before you ever get there and when pods spawn they’re either dropped from giant flying beasties or crawl up from emergence holes. This has two major effects on gameplay. First, you’re never, ever, going to be surprised by the appearance of an enemy, and second you always have the ability to confidently make long flanking runs without getting into too much trouble. Once again, these fundamental changes are either a good or bad thing depending entirely on what you enjoy.
Personally, I like the tactical difficulty of trying to engage enemy pods without getting surprised by a second or third, and the likely personnel losses that come with that particular mistake are, I think, one of the defining characteristics of the X-Com series. Pushing too hard has drastic and often game ending consequences. While I found the ability to move as I wished in Gears Tactics very liberating, that, when combined with the complete knowledge of enemy positions, made the tactical game extremely easy, and for me, less enjoyable.
That last point brings us nicely to another discussion point. Without save scumming (saving a game before a turn and reloading if you get a poor result when you take it), it’s almost inevitable you’ll lose troops in more traditional Turn-Based Strategy games like X-Com. The loss of a high ranked squad member to a lucky RNG roll by the enemy can be crippling to a campaign and while purists (or masochists?) like myself will say that adds enjoyable tension and consequence to a game I’m completely aware that others think it’s deeply unfair and takes the fun out of it.
Gears Tactics however, goes too far in the other direction, making your troops almost indestructible. The ability of your squad members to tank fire and then either revive themselves or be picked up by a fellow squad member with only a minimal impact to their overall health pool for the remainder of that mission does synergise well with the faster, more free flowing movement of Tactics, but also makes the game trivially easy.
There are other, more subtle differences between X-Com and Gears Tactics that can be discussed, but those four in my opinion, are responsible for the largest differences in feel to how the tactical layer plays out.
So far what we’ve talked about can be taken as either a positive or negative spin on traditional Turn-based squad games depending on your own preference, and that’s as it should be, but unfortunately there are some things about Gears Tactics that are simply bad. Almost game-breakingly so.
The big elephant in the room is the Squad Management and Gear Selection mechanic and the weapon modifiers.
The reward for completing each mission is a number of equipment cases that contain randomly generated weapon modifiers. Additional cases can be found and collected in each tactical environment and it won’t be long until you’re swimming in various percentage upgrades to fundamental skills like accuracy or critical damage.
The problem is that each class has a unique weapon, and each unique weapon requires unique upgrades. You can’t put a scope from a Lancer machine gun onto a Retro Lancer machinegun, for example. Each weapon type has 4 modifier slots and to alter each modifier slot you have to be four levels deep in a menu. And that’s just the primary weapons. You can do the same for secondary weapons, grenades and armor, which further breaks down into helmets, chest pieces and legs. It’s an utter shitshow of micromanagement.
You typically take out 4 squad members on a mission and once you’ve expanded your roster you’re going have multiple members of each class to pick from. At higher difficulties taking the best equipment you have available is pretty important to being able to reliably deal large damage, so for every mission, for every member on your team, you have to drill down into their particular weapon and from there into each of the 4 modifiers and review and select what you want to take out. It takes a good 5 to 10 minutes each time and only gets longer the more you play and the more modifiers you accumulate because there’s nothing to do with any surplus you have. You’ll have dozens of 5% increases that you’ll never use but you have to scroll through because there isn’t even a sort function.
It’s further complicated that you can’t easily see who’s carrying what modifiers and why, so while you might have 2 snipers on your roster one might specialize in chaining together multiple shots and buffing the ability reload time of squadmates while the other is s single shot high damage machine.
Remembering which modifiers go with which of the myriad of different skills each unit in the same class has without some form of matrix or spreadsheet is tedious in the extreme and is such a jarring change of pace from the fast and fluid combat that I’m absolutely serious when I say that whoever designed this UI should have been fired for it. And whoever approved it should have been fired as well. Preferably into the sun by a very large cannon, because it’s that awful and that out of place in this game. Perhaps we can hope for a patch that will include some improvements in the extremely near future.
Other issues with the game include only a very limited number of mission types, and an extremely linear campaign and tiny tactical maps with a real shortage of verticality. The latter makes sense when you remember Gears Tactics is all about running up to your enemies and chain sawing them, but it still makes the tactical layer feel overly simplified.
On the plus side, the inclusion of boss fights into the genre is a welcome addition, even if the execution of those fights again jars with the fast chaining mechanics that you’ll be prioritizing in every other mission type.
The game is extremely pretty and runs nicely, and if you’re into detailed customization of your characters there’s a huge selection of weapon and armor options.
Is it a good game, though? Will you, a reader I know nothing about, enjoy it?
Well that’s the rub, isn’t it? Gears Tactics is a strange game to recommend because it’s so limited in who it will appeal to.
If you enjoy the Gears of War franchise and design then you’ll like this. It feels and looks like a Gears game, from the stupidly overly-macho Gears themselves and their incessant grunting, to the continuous and gory chainsaw kills. If that’s your thing and you’d like an easy entry into turn-based game-play then yes, get this game, play it on an easy difficulty and completely ignore the micromanagement needed through the weapon and squad modifier process. Like the other Gears games, it’s a pretty, if brainless game.
If, however, you’re a fan of more complex Turn-Based Strategy games you’re going to feel like a large portion Gears Tactics is either missing or dumbed down so far that it feels completely unfinished. As a veteran of other games in the genre, at every moment this very much felt like babies-first turn-based tactics game. All it needs is for the instruction manual to be printed on thick cardboard with a disclaimer on the back saying ‘these instructions are waterproof and chew-able’.
Microsoft kindly provided digital copies via Steam and Windows 10 for review.
|Reviewed on||Windows PC|
|Available on||Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC|
|Release Date||April 28th, 2020|
|Developer||Splash Damage | The Coalition|
|Publisher||Xbox Game Studios|
- Fantastic graphics and plenty of graphical options
- Fans of 'Gears' will feel right at home
- Triple A cinematics in a tactics game
- Omission of a strategic layer simplifies gameplay
- Side missions are unnecessary filler
- Limited variation in mission types
- Unnecessary micro-management