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Gears Tactics

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Splash Damage
Release Date: April 28, 2020

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PC Review - 'Gears Tactics'

by Cody Medellin on April 27, 2020 @ 6:00 a.m. PDT

Gears Tactics evolves turn-based tactics games combining signature fast-paced brutal action and character-driven storytelling with customizable squads, upgradable weapons, and, of course, massive boss battles.

Gears of War is a third-person shooter franchise. First and foremost, it was about cover shooting with occasional use of the chainsaw bayonet. Developer Splash Damage is primarily known for its work on first- and third-person shooters. Brink, Dirty Bomb and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars are just a few of the games that it has developed while also providing some assistance on other titles, like Gears 5 and Halo: The Master Chief Collection . Even if you took into account the developer's work on the Android/Chrome title RAD Soldiers more than seven years ago, you'd never peg them to take the Gears franchise into the uncharted waters of turn-based strategy, yet here we are with Gears Tactics, a game that will surprise fans of the series and the genre alike.

Tactics is set 12 years before the first game, and it has you playing the role of Gabe Diaz, eventual father of Gears 5 protagonist Kate Diaz. A former lieutenant in the COG, he self-demoted to sergeant and transferred to the motor pool after a mission went wrong. With the ongoing war against the Locusts going in the wrong direction, he's been pulled back to the frontlines on a mission to go after Ukkon, a Locust geneticist who's been responsible for the creation of some of the most dangerous entities of the Horde.


The flow of the story should come as no surprise to those familiar with the series. You've got a main character betrayed by his higher-ups and being forced to work with them for the greater good. Your hero is trying to broker a temporary peace between his team and a group of civilians who hate the COG only a little less than the Locusts. You've got a main villain that only shows up periodically and a leader on the side of the heroes that can be looked at as equally as bad. In short, the story hits familiar enough beats without feeling like a copy of the main games yet also doesn't try to create a tale that dwarfs what you get from the mainline titles, either.

If you're coming in from the Gears franchise with no experience in the turn-based strategy genre, you'll find Tactics to be wildly different. Prior to the start of each level, you'll choose up to four people to form your squad, but most of the time, you'll be forced to include heroes such as Gabe Diaz, Mikayla Dorn or Sid Redburn. Unlike the main games, each character has a specific weapon, since everyone is in one of five classes. For example, Scouts wield the Gnasher shotgun, while Support characters get the famous Lancer as a primary weapon. By default, each member of your party can take three actions. Unlike other games in the genre, you can opt to use all three actions to shoot enemies, or you can decide to shoot first, move to a new spot, and shoot again. You also don't have to spend the moves all at once, so you can dart back and forth between characters using one move each, something that you'll appreciate by the time you reach the first boss fight. Once everyone in the party has exhausted all of their moves or the player decides to end their turn prematurely, the enemy has a chance to make their moves, and the cycle goes on until all of the enemies are dead or the player's party is dead, whichever comes first.

Since there's a good chance that a lot of players will be experiencing turn-based strategy for the first time, Tactics does a number of things to ease them into the general mechanics. For starters, the game features lines to let you know whether you can target an enemy from your position. Percentages and auto-kill indicators let you know how likely it is you'll hit your enemy and how likely that hit will produce a kill, respectively. The absence of a grid also means that you're able to tweak how far each movement action can go; this comes in handy when a tiny cursor movement can mean the difference between making it to half or full protective cover or standing out in the open. While you'll still worry about reloading guns, at least you have infinite ammo on hand; grenades are also infinite but are governed by a cooldown timer.


The assists don't mean that genre advancements are absent. Each person gets two skill points when they level up to spend on their skill tree to unlock abilities such as intimidating enemies or creating explosive shots. As vast as the skill tree is, it feels impossible to give one character every skill due to the level cap, so the ability to reset stats and start over is appreciated. Overwatch is here as well and plays out a little better, since you can determine the width of the scan range to balance range and accuracy as needed. You can also see your enemy's overwatch range and plan accordingly. Instead of improving your base, you'll be tasked with tweaking your armor and guns as a means of improving stats such as ammo count and evasiveness.

Tactics may be a strategy title, but the Gears influences are more than skin-deep. Since the main games already emphasize strategic cover shooting, it should come as no surprise that this title also places a lot of importance on using cover. Campaign progression is very linear; you have to complete a few side missions before moving on to the next essential level. Characters still bleed out when they lose all of their health; picking them back up, either by letting them use healing packs or utilizing help from someone else on the squad, gives them lower max health. Emergence holes are still a thing and still spawn more enemies over time until they're either exhausted or closed with a grenade. That becomes a problem because, even without emergence holes, the game throws out quite a number of enemies in a few waves, so an enemy kill count hovering over 20 is considered normal.

Executions are a signature of the series, and the actions include using a regular bayonet to lop off heads, bashing Locusts with a flurry of pistol-assisted punches, and chopping enemies in half with a chainsaw. Cool factor aside, the move is more valuable here, since executions give other members of the team one more action in their arsenal for that turn, even if they've already used up all of their previous actions. While it can be tricky to set up, you can get into situations where your turn lasts much longer than normal due to your team chaining together executions.


The result of the Gears influence is that Tactics is a strategy game with an emphasis on aggression. Aside from cover, being able to suppress the enemy is the only other defensive maneuver you have. The larger-than-normal number of enemies in each level means that thinning out the herds is your main priority if you don't want anyone in your squad to get overwhelmed. As in the mainline game, the foes have some intelligence and toughness, so it'll take some focused firing to take them down. All of this is to say that the team nailed the feeling of every firefight in the main series and translated it perfectly into strategy form. Encounters are tense thanks to the fog of war preventing you from anticipating strategies too far in advance, and the unpredictability of each enemy adds to that excitement.

The campaign features some pretty lengthy missions and lasts well into the double-digits, which is average for the genre but very long compared to the series' main games. Once you beat the campaign, Tactics features an almost-endless postgame where all of the stages get randomized enemy placement and objectives. It feels like the side missions you're forced to encounter, but you're doing this in service of upgrading your veteran rank. While many people will likely stop once the credits roll, these missions can be compared to skirmishes in RTS titles, where their presence gives you some incentive to perfect your skills before tackling another campaign at a higher difficulty.

Although it is faithful to the series, there isn't a large variety of locales. The layouts are rarely repeated, and each arena is well designed, but the desert towns and ruined cities are going to be familiar scenes from beginning to end, with only a sprinkling of places that feel slightly different.

While the seemingly endless missions do a good job of giving the player something to chew on when the campaign is over, the game has no multiplayer option. One could make the argument that since the developers are relative newcomers to the genre, going after a solid single-player game was a much higher priority, but it is still a shame that players couldn't fight alongside or against one another using this specific strategy blend.


The more pressing thing may be the fact that, at the default difficulty, Tactics can feel brutal for those not too steeped in the genre. It is likely that you'll die in the first level, and thanks to the slew of enemies, the title is simply one unforgiving fight after another. One bad move can end with everyone being killed in very short order. To be fair, you never get to the point where you'll be short on people since the game gives you more than enough people to recruit between levels. You also gain enough stat points to bring them up to speed skill-wise, but losses can hurt since you can customize the non-heroes. Luckily, the difficulty is flexible enough to where playing on easy is still a satisfying game for genre newcomers, while the hard and ironman modes feel perfect for those who thrive on permadeath and no mission replays.

While this is releasing first on PC, its eventual Xbox One release means that controller support is in. Compared to something like both of the Halo Wars titles, controller support is expected, since turn-based strategy games don't require the quick reactions and advanced unit grouping of real-time strategy titles. The gamepad does a fair job when it comes to managing the different actions needed per unit, so while it means that gamepad players will have to deal with extra button inputs, the core functionality is there. Due to the almost grid-less layout of the game, the analog stick movement of the cursor can feel imprecise at times, and with no way to cancel out the move, gamepad players might restart levels more often due to incorrect cursor placement.

Like the mainline franchise, the presentation in Tactics is quite impressive. Graphically, it matches the later entries of the mainline games so well that we see things that normally aren't in turn-based strategy titles, such as detailed skin texture, ragdolling characters, and a few loose objects in the environment. With the cut scenes also using real-time graphics, it'd be easy to believe that this was originally developed as a shooter before pivoting to a strategy game. The drawback is that the scenes also do a better job of exposing the weaknesses of Unreal Engine, namely detailed texture loading and things like metal walls and fire appearing blurry at first before becoming sharper. There also seems to be an issue with some hairstyles, where a very noticeable amount of dithering is apparent during the squad selection screen. As for audio, the soundtrack matches the Gears style perfectly, and the effects pack a punch at every opportunity. The voice acting is also great, with performances for both the major and disposable characters being top-notch all around.


For those wondering about performance, Tactics matches up with that of Gears 5 perfectly. On an Intel Core i5 7600K with 16GB RAM and a GeForce GTX 1070, the game ran above 60fps with everything turned up to ultra on a 1440p monitor. It still needs something beefier to run at 4k 60fps with everything at its highest, but those trying to run the game at 1080p should have no problem with medium-grade hardware. Thankfully, the trend Microsoft has had with giving its top titles a ton of options continues here as well, with a bevy of graphical options available for every imaginable setting. Being able to dial in the perfect options to get the most from your rig will be time-consuming but also worth the effort for the amount of fine-tuning that can be done.

Gears Tactics is a solid turn-based strategy game that has something for genre veterans and newcomers alike. The faster pace and more aggressive style of the game will appeal to fans of the franchise, while the tweaks to established elements, like action usage and overwatch, will also tickle the fancy of strategy fans. The brutal difficulty may be par for the genre, and while the lack of multiplayer will turn off some players, the strong campaign and post-game skirmishes will keep others interested for quite some time. Both the series and Splash Damage are relative newcomers to strategy, but they've done a good job of convincing people that they can handle the challenge.

Score: 8.5/10



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