Gears Tactics is the latest game in the Gears universe, and while it may eschew its third-person heritage in favor of an over the top turn-based-tactics style of gameplay, this is still a Gears game at heart. Currently available exclusively on PC, Gears Tactics is one of the best-looking games in the series, including the Xbox One X enhanced edition of Gears 5, and its obvious PC counterpart. Character models look even sharper and more detailed than its predecessor, especially during prerendered cut-scenes where facial animations and hair quality really stand out as top notch. This game was reviewed on a top-tier PC, and with all the bells and whistles enabled I was still hammering out over 100 frames a second. Congratulations to The Coalition, this is one incredibly optimized game.
The story takes place 12 years before the events of Gears of War 1 and introduces players to humanity’s first encounter with the Locusts Horde. You play as Gabe Diaz, a disgruntled COG Soldier who ends up as a Motor Pool Sergeant after being burned by top brass thanks to a mission gone wrong. Gabe soon gets tapped by Chairman Prescott with an offer to hunt down and kill a high value locust target, Ukkon. Over the course of around 25 hours, players will also get to know Sid Redburn, a grizzled veteran with his own motives and several other COG soldiers, including a few surprises, if you’ve managed to avoid spoilers.
Soldiers come in 1 of 5 archetypes: Support, Heavy, Vanguard, Sniper, and Scout, each of which can be further broken down into 4 sub-classes such as the grenade-spamming Scout, or the debuff-heavy Vanguard. Each of these specialized character builds plays wildly different, and thanks to the quickly growing roster, it’s easy to experiment with different combinations to see what fits your particular play style.
There are also weapon and armor upgrades that are earned through completing mission objectives and bonus objectives, such as deploying without a sniper, or completing a mission without the use of grenades. These gear upgrades aren’t all just extra power, they come with certain trade-offs, forcing players to think… well, tactically. Snipers might get a barrel attachment that increases damage by 30 but reduces your overall accuracy by 5%. When you understand that a sniper can miss a shot with 76% accuracy from 20 yards away, this trade-off isn’t as simple as it first appears.
Missions start with players picking from their ever-growing roster of COG Soldiers to form a 4-person squad, with optional objectives such as “deploy without a sniper” or “complete mission without using grenades” forcing players to mix things up and provide some variety to their squad setup. Variety, however, is something that the missions themselves start to lack by the end of the first chapter.
Missions come in 5 flavors: Rescue – where 2 COGs are sent to rescue 2 more soldiers for your roster, Capture Point – 4 soldiers are sent to hold 1 or 2 points of interest while earning supplies between rounds, Scavenger – 4 soldiers making a mad-dash across a battlefield, picking up supply caches, while trying to stay ahead of constantly advancing missile barrage, and Incursion/Sabotage – both of which play similarly in that the objective will be interact with a certain object on the map, triggering the next phase of the mission where you goal is to either eliminate all enemies, or get to the predesignated completion area and escape with the cache of materials.
These limited mission structures wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the over-reliance on side missions, which take place in groups of 2 or 3 between each core mission. These side missions do very little to advance the story and really only act as a means to level up and grow your COG forces, and add length to the overall campaign, which is something I think would have been improved without. The problem with some of these missions, besides their repetitive nature, is that they completely derail the flow of the campaign. With no noticeable connections to the plot, these lengthy missions often left me having to struggle to recall what plot thread I was supposed to be following. It was a little jarring to say the least and something that I hope future iterations learn from and scale back on.
The game would have been better suited to lose a couple hours so that the strength of the campaign could shine through a little brighter. Also, the extra squad members that become unlocked ultimately act as fodder, used only when my primary squad was unavailable for story related missions, or arbitrarily restricted from a side-mission in order to force the role to be filled by one of your recruits.
In true Gears fashion, each act culminates with a giant boss fight, each with its own twist on already established mechanics. Thanks to the turn-based gameplay, and the extreme difficulty spike, these boss fights go out of their way to test your skills, and your patience, as a gamer. These bosses include a Brumak, a really pissed off Corpser, and one of the most frustratingly difficult boss fights ever in the form of a Locust Hydra.
Without getting into fight specifics, the final boss in the game commits one of the biggest sins in boss-fight gameplay, in which the game ratchets all the way up to “Fuck-You” levels of difficulty, and becomes much more of a game of chance than pure skill. The final mission sends you in with a pre-defined squad, comprised of the 4 named protagonists, but ends up splitting your team into a way that throws the previous 20 or so hours of critical thinking out the door and puts most of your squad on the defensive, leaving the bulk of your boss damage up to 1 squad member, who you better hope has a higher chance to hit than mine did.
Playing on normal difficulty, I would wager a guess that I spent a total of 4 or 5 hours across different play sessions trying to take down this flying son of a bitch, and when I finally did, it felt like it was luck of the draw with chances to hit and to crit more so than my own ability to strategize and keep my team alive.
Overall, Gears Tactics proves to be an entertaining spin on my favorite Microsoft-branded IP. The Coalition should be applauded for stepping out of their comfort zone and trying something radically different from what they’re known for, and as a first attempt, I think they nailed it. I would really like to see them make a sequel, perhaps something leading right up to the events of the original Gears of War, or even another side-story akin to Gears Judgement. With a bit of refinement in some gameplay elements, some fat-trimming in regards to side-missions and the over-reliance on squad building, I think the Gears [of War] franchise is in a great place to be the next big turn-based strategy game, should The Coalition feel up to the task.
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