Can the Gears series manage the transition from a third-person shooter to a strategy game?
Gears Tactics takes notes from strategy genre giants like XCOM and Fire Emblem: Three Houses but still manages to establish identity to entice both Gears and a broader audience of strategy fans. It’s an enjoyable romp, but one glaring flaw prevents it from reaching the lofty heights achieved by some of its peers.
Gears is one of Microsoft’s flagship properties, but the developers rarely take risks with the series. That’s one of the reasons why I fell off the series after Gears of War 2. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, and The Coalition and Microsoft have started to experiment more with the series’ latest entries. Gears 5's open-world segments, the mobile game Gears Pop!, and now Splash Damage’s PC-exclusive Gears Tactics are all testaments to that.
Developed by Brink creators Splash Damage and Microsoft’s in-house studio The Coalition, Gears Tactics is a prequel that explores a mostly uncharted part of the series’ timeline. It’s a solid first attempt at a strategy game with a few niggles that falls somewhere around "pretty good" but doesn't quite achieve greatness.
Story and world-building
The game follows the father of Gears 5 star Kait Diaz, Gabe, as he works to take down a Locust baddie named Ukkon, who is supposedly the source of all the Locust. Prequels always have to justify their existence without changing too much, and Gears Tactics pulls off this balancing act pretty well, adding some nice context to the earliest Gears games.
Leading with the COG’s destruction of cities was an interesting cold open that kept me engaged, and the main characters are all charming in their own thick-necked ways. At the same time, enough is left unexplored to leave the door open for future installments.
Ukkon is a pivotal new character to Gears canon, though he winds up feeling a bit underdeveloped. Despite an engaging first and third act, Gears Tactics drags in the middle until a big twist kicks the plot back into high gear. More time in the second act could’ve been spent developing the villain, but instead, the pacing is bogged down by repetitive side missions that feel disconnected from the main story.
There’s still a lot of story left to be told from the end of Gears Tactics to the beginning of Gears of War, so don’t be surprised to see The Coalition explore this part of the timeline more in the future. The game’s plot doesn’t capitalize on its full potential, which is unfortunate considering that it’s more character-focused, but it adds some nice connective tissue to the earliest parts of the Gears timeline and is littered with references that fans will appreciate.
Gameplay and customization
The developers’ biggest task with Gears Tactics was to capture the magic of genre stalwarts, specifically Firaxis’ XCOM, while still adding some unique flair. The game mostly manages to pull this off and delivers the exhilarating oomph and thoughtful gameplay that you would expect of a Gears game.
You can jump into any mission with four characters and must move them in and out of cover, completing objectives and killing enemies. Gears’ flagship chainsaws, bayonets, and gore are all on full display here.
Gears Tactics also foregrounds the franchise’s emphasis on character, giving full customization options for recruitable soldiers. (I customized one to look like the villain from Megamind just for fun.) You can give them unique armor, weapon upgrades, and skill specializations within their class. That’s standard for this kind of strategy game, but Gears Tactics also introduces “heroes,” less-customizable characters who cause a game over if they die, like some characters in Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
One of the best parts of games like XCOM is creating a squad based on your friends and trying to see how long you can keep them all alive. Gears Tactics loses some of that charm, as I tended to stick with the preset heroes who are just customizable enough to make the fail state attached to them bearable.
Heroes appear to be a pace killer initially, but they don’t slow the action down as much as one would think because they can revive themselves. Who knew that an element from Fire Emblem could work well in an XCOM-inspired strategy game?
The big catch
Gears Tactics’ overall faster pace comes with one major caveat that brings down the whole experience: You can’t skip or speed up enemy turns. The best strategy games, like XCOM and Fire Emblem, let you do this. This starts off as a minor annoyance in Gears Tactics and becomes a major problem in the late game as battles get bigger.
Oddly, this an intentional decision, according to the developers. “We do not have a feature that allows players to skip enemy turns,” The Coalition Design Director Tyler Bielman told Inverse via email. “We invested in a lot of systems to reduce the amount of downtime in the game (many enemies will take actions simultaneously, for example), delivering a faster, turn-based experience and less time waiting for enemy turns to complete.”
While Gears Tactics moves at a faster pace than something like XCOM, it still isn’t fast enough in longer play sessions. Having to watch the same repetitive animations gets tedious in the late-game, especially in required side missions, or in missions that you have to replay after you fail.
Even though Gears Tactics can be beaten in 25 hours and doesn’t overstay its welcome, this decision still hurts an otherwise competent strategy game. This is a small enough feature the developers could feasibly add in down the road if there’s enough of a demand from fans.
If you can get past that one major flaw, there’s a lot for both Gears and strategy game fans to like with Gears Tactics. Genre diehards will enjoy the unique hero system and more fluid pace, while Gears fans will savor the cleverly translated gameplay mechanics and prequel story. While flawed, this is a subseries Microsoft should continue to invest in, especially after they work out its current issues.
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