Cogs in motion.
Platform: PC (via Steam)
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy Game With Chainsaw Guns & Terrifying Mole Men
When you think Gears of War, you think “chest-high walls”, “brick s***house armor”, “guns with chainsaw attachments”, “emergence holes”, and explosions. Oh, and real-time cover-based shooting with some semblance of tactics. And a gun-toting squad to work with.
The last thing that pops to mind is “RPG elements” and “turn-based combat”. In fact, the furthest thing from my mind is a turn-based strategic Gears game that somehow does things better than 2012’s de facto strategy title XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Wouldn’t you know it, these two elements are what an Xbox-exclusive series like Gears needed to jump-start the franchise in a logical direction. After all, it’s entrenched in military and sci-fi tropes and knowhow; strategic combat and squad management is part and parcel of the experience.
Gears Tactics not only is a fresh new squad-based tactics spin, but it takes a lot from past high-level combat-savvy strategy titles and introduces a number of novel concepts that improve the genre. All while wearing its gib-tastic coat of paint loud and proud.
Narrative-wise, you play as Gabe Diaz who is tasked with leading a convoy squad of Gears to combat a Locust mad scientist named Ukkon. There are a few tidbits and nods for fans of Gears 4 and Gears 5, but generally it’s what you would expect from a mass market action title.
First thing first: you can’t quick save and quick load your way out of trouble. Gears Tactics offers a checkpoint system halfway in lengthy story & side missions. But generally, the gameplay flow is structured so that you think and commit to your decisions on the field.
Luckily, you have a lot of information on display to help you make informed decisions and weighting the risks/rewards in doing them. Turning on the TAC-COM lets you see what kind of buffs & skills your foes have, as well as remind you what your team is capable of.
Coupled with an intuitive control scheme and a non-grid system that uses Action Points (with all the movement and calculation done off-screen), you can focus on the action & your movement. The movement system is pretty generous and flexible; it minimizes Action Point usage provided you’re getting to cover. With all the enemies being adept at firing at you, you’ll need to scan the area and find the best spots to park your units while also counter-attacking.
At that point is where Gears Tactics’ gameplay features come into play: executions, its version of overwatch, and weapon-reloading. While pulling off executions in past Gears shooters gives you bragging rights, it’s an essential gamechanger in Gears Tactics.
If you execute a downed Locust unit, you give every other squad member an extra Action Point. This means that if you play your cards right, you can have your other pals pull off extra moves consecutively. It’s possible to even eradicate a squad of Locusts in a single turn if you plan accordingly and create setups. Plus, it’s fun to just watch one of your guys smash a bad guy’s head with a butt of their rifle.
Overwatching enables units to drag out a cone representing the zone overwatch will trigger in. The wider the cone, the less accurate your shots will be. If any enemy runs into that zone, your unit will fire automatically. Overwatch shots are determined by how many Action Points you have left and how many bullets your gun contains.
Yes, you also need to keep check on your gun magazine for each unit. If you run out of ammo, you need to spend one Action Point to reload. Without bullets, you cannot use Overwatch or certain skills that require more than a single shot.
Again, if you plan your turn right, you can wipe out an enemy squad by just camping, baiting, and securing perimiters-slash-corners. That industrial “click” sound whenever some fool triggers overwatch will never get old; trust me on this.
Coupled with the fact that most units start out with three Action Points from the get-go, and you’ll have to get really creative in strategizing. And I haven’t even talked about the Locusts’ methods of attacking.
Enemy Not Quite Unknown
You’ll be fighting all manner of Locust uglies, now in turn-based form, while sorting out different objectives. These include the usual “kill them all” to protecting defense zones until you accumulate enough cargo for the mission.
The Locusts will use tricks from previous titles: they can break out from Emergence Holes that will spawn more enemy units unless you blow it up with a grenade. Wretches can hit you when you get too close. The new-to-the-series Disciples and Zealots emit toxic gas when they die, weakening the attacks of whoever was close by. And you’ll fight bosses like the Brumak and Corpser, each with their own patterns of attacks and their propensity to summon Locusts enemies during intervals.
Fortunately, they still retain their trademark weaknesses: Wretches can die quick, Grenadiers lose focus when they’re in berserk status (making them prone to Bayonet and Lancer one-hit kill attacks), and Theron Guards have terrible defence when against up-close and personal threats.
The aforementioned bosses are also easier to hit because they are, well, huge. Each of them present a challenging threat from the early training wheel stages to the side missions that throws E-Hole levels of curveballs at you.
Speaking of missions, different objectives means different team setups and customization. Which brings us to Gears Tactics “role-playing” squad management bit. You have 5 types of classes to put in your squad: Vanguards, Supports, Scouts, Heavies, and Snipers.
All of them have their own set of guns and are combat-ready; it’s up to you to figure out which class combination fits your turn-based play style. Each of them have their individual skill trees with skills that are relevant to their roles. For instance, my side Support soldier Coleen can either take the Combat Medic route to prolong the lives of the team, or the Paragon route and give your units additional Action Points and a damage buff from afar.
My Asian Scout “Specter” can either go the Slayer route where she can turn invisible if she kills or downs an enemy, or the Commando path which focuses on planting mines and lowering Grenade cooldowns so you can use them frequently.
The choices are plentiful; you’ll have a ton of active and passive skills to set in stone for your squad, be it giving suppressing fire AND explosive shots for your Heavy, or making a Vanguard’s Bayonet kill sprinkled with loads of party benefits once they’re pulled off.
And with 20+ slots of squad members you can recruit (including the Heroes) and equip with different weapon mods and armour (with a lot of colour options), your personal COG army is whatever hell you want it to be. Parade your army of death in pink and garish yellow; I know I did.
Alas, there is no base-building. But with the aforementioned skill tree and mods system, it’s really not required.
After a story mission or two, you have to clear side missions to progress. Each of the offer different modifiers, from “no grenades” and “no specific class”, to overwatch and accuracy buffs that can make even lowly Hammer Drones a force to be reckoned with. You can also score even more rare weapon mods and armour if you complete a mission’s optional objective, which comes in tough flavours like “no grenades in a match” or “kill eight or more enemies in a single turn”.
I had a hell of a time with side-missions that limit your Action Points and magazine count; prepping for these took quite a lot of weapon mod-switching and pre-planning. Add to the fact that you cannot use the same heroes and squad members from one side mission in another, and you’ll have to figure out which ones are suited for certain missions. Personally, the defense missions are suited for Heavies who get a lot of buffs if they are on overwatch duties. Conversely, the Nemacyst bombing run missions (collect crates, run away from ever-piling hotzones) require Vanguards and mobile units.
However you see it, Gears Tactics wants you to switch up your routine and playstyle so that you can adapt to whatever challenges it shoves at your human face. And no matter the odds, there is always a solution to get your squad out of a tight jam. The rewards are plentiful from epic level mods to the major satisfaction of beating the devs at their crafty gore-filled own game.
Terror From The Deep
That’s where the game gets fun; figuring out different tactics while thinking to yourself on how to get out from a mission’s predicament. At the same time, the aforementioned “no quick save/load” rules mean that you have to really treat your moves and actions with a lot of weight. One wrong move, especially in the harder difficulty settings, can force a mission restart especially if the game’s auto checkpoint puts you in a compromising position.
An undo or rewind button would be nice, but the controls are almost foolproof that you only have yourself to blame if you “accidentally” expose your squad out of cover. Most of my defeats and restarts are usually from underestimating how hard a berserk Grenadier hits, or how painful a Sniper Drone’s pinning shot is.
You’ll definitely learn from your mistakes and take its strategy gameplay seriously within its 30-or-so hour campaign mode filled with its slew of challenges and “brain teasers”. Like figuring out if you’re willing to take one for the team by executing a Disciple; you’ll be weakened, but your pals will appreciate the extra Action Point.
In fact, it’s hard to find any major faults in this Gears turn-based game. True, there are some technical glitches here and there. Sometimes, a tree or a wall will clip and block your cinematic view of your execution. These are minor issues at worst, though it’s odd to see this in a triple-A priced title.
Gears Tactics’ endgame content is a series of “Veteran” side missions that offer a ton of loot and “randomized” maps based on level structures and tilesets from the campaign. This particular mode is fun to just focus on the strategy and gameplay here, the mode can get old after a couple more hours. They’re decent diversions at best.
Challenge-wise, it will test you and make you tense and think hard, but it’s comparatively breezy when you put it side-by-side with the 2012 XCOM series. Still, there are some things Gears Tactics does better, like ditching the tile-based system as well as the fact that you can fire and then move.
Delta Squad? More Like Alpha
To answer the obviously-trolling headline, it’s a resounding “yes”. Gears Tactics is a fun and cerebral-challenging addition to the turn-based strategy line of games that go beyond what is expected. While it’s not wholly original, it presents a lot of time-tested mechanics in a streamlined and intuitive way while also not being afraid of challenging its audience.
Honestly, I’d be more than happy to place this blood trophy alongside the 2012 XCOM reboot, Into The Breach, and Final Fantasy Tactics series as turn-based custom-savvy strategy games that double as black hole level timesinks. If Malaysia’s MCO is going to be extended consecutively after every two weeks, you might as well kill off the remaining days commanding a bunch of brick s***house soldiers with oversized guns-slash-chainsaws-slash-bayonets.
- Streamlined controls and UI.
- Combat and missions are really fun.
- Overwatching and executions add new layers of strategy.
- Offers the right amount of challenge.
- Captures the Gears flavour accurately.
- Some weird technical and input-related bugs.
- Pre-generated Veteran maps get old after the 25-hour mark.
- Might be breezy for hardcore strategy fans.
FINAL SCORE: 80/100
Review code courtesy of Microsoft Xbox.