Gears Tactics is something of an enigma in the franchise it belongs to. Whereas Gears of War has been a console franchise first and foremost since its inception, this game is a timed PC exclusive (releases for Xbox One and Xbox Series X are planned for later in the year). Whereas most campaigns in the Gears franchise last between 8 and 12 hours, this one runs a cool 24 hours. Whereas all prior Gears of War titles have had boundary-pushing multiplayer, this one has none at all. In spite of all of this, I am beyond happy to report that not only is Gears Tactics a true Gears experience from top to bottom, but it may also just be the best one. I know that can be hard to believe, especially in a series that has made hit after hit, but what Gears Tactics does with the formula is beyond special.
With all of this being established, let’s dive deeper into the intricacies of the game to discover why you need to play it (even if you wait for the console release). Beginning with the story, Gears Tactics tells the tale of Gabriel “Gabe” Diaz, and his mission to take out the wicked Locust tactician Ukkon. If that name sounds familiar, it probably should: he is the father of Gears 5‘s protagonist Kait Diaz, and frankly it’s not hard to see where she gets some of her kickassery from. Along the three acts, Gabe will cross paths with new characters (including the lovably grumpy Sid and the sly Mikayla) as well as a few returning characters I dare not spoil. Rest assured, the story (particularly the third act) is packed to the brim with fan service and references, while still remaining accessible to series newcomers. Ukkon himself is also among the best villains in the series, rivalling only Myrrah and Raam for the title.
However, where Gears Tactics truly shines is in the gameplay. Turn-based strategy games can be incredibly difficult to make, as establishing a balance between challenge and control can be of the utmost difficulty. Too often, games within the genre make concessions in order to reach a wider audience, but in doing so lose sight of what makes them engaging in the first place. Gears Tactics does not do this. What the team at Splash Damage and The Coalition has done is they have upped the speed of turn-based combat, with an emphasis on executions and loot. However, they never lose sight of the trappings of the genre, and put immense focus on achieving a balance between enemy and player phases (an increasing rarity in the genre today) and have filled the game with ample anti-turtling incentives. Gears Tactics never punishes the player for playing subpar, but rather encourages them to play better.
Levels are divided up into six types. Control levels have you hold a position for a certain number of turns to gather resources. Sabotage levels have you lower a gate, and then rush into enemy territory to destroy Emulsion stock piles. Scavenger levels have you collecting supplies while Nemacyst bombs destroy the map behind you. Incursion levels are similar to sabotage ones, but your goal is to recover a resource instead of destroy it. Rescue levels see you attempt to save kidnapped COG units from Locust before time runs out (these often have a 15 turn limit). Finally, boss levels cap off all 3 of the acts in a brutally difficult but fun way. All of these levels can have side objectives to earn extra loot.
Also of note to the gameplay is the Permadeath mechanic. Unlike in some games, it is not optional, but it is handled extremely well. Throughout a level, your forces can go DBNO (Down But Not Out), and you will be forced to revive them. If you are too late, they may be executed by enemy forces (in typical Gears style) or bleed out. When they are dead, they are gone, and it’s up to the player to either restart from a checkpoint or the start of a level, or forge ahead having lost a valuable unit. Main hero units cannot die (if they do, it’s game over) but randomly generated ones can, and if you have invested a lot of time into them it can hurt. Tactics still offers plenty of new recruits to replenish your numbers, but it just isn’t the same.
Customization is another truly important aspect of Gears Tactics. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the game an SRPG (like Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre), it is still rich in customization options. Units can be equipped with different outfits, weapon parts, skills and even appearances for randomly generated ones. These can enhance their abilities in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways, and can make some of them absolute forces to be reckoned with on the battlefield.
Units themselves are divided up into 5 classes with different attributes, weapon types and skills. Support units such as Gabe utilize Lancers and have valuable healing prowess. Vanguards such as Sid come equipped with Retro Lancers and can buff your units and debuff the enemies in several important ways. Snipers such as Mikayla use Longshots to pick off units from a far distance and often have high crit rates, while the Scouts make the most of Gnasher shotguns and as such are particularly strong in close-range combat. They can cloak themselves and travel far distances as well, which helps them scope out enemies hidden in the fog of war. Finally, Heavies are high in defence and utilize Mulchers to tear enemies to shreds at medium range. All of these units are also equipped with a Snub Pistol and grenade of your choice (Stim or Frag), and can also pick up special weapons such as Boomshots and Torque Bows.
Moving on to the aesthetics: Gears Tactics is an absolutely gorgeous-looking game. As it is a prequel to the original series, the aesthetics are firmly grounded in the style found in the original trilogy, but with the graphical fidelity of the modern games. It looks amazing, and environments are rich in detail. I will admit that I was surprised that the game utilized an overhead view for its gameplay instead of a third-person view like Valkyria Chronicles or Code Name S.T.E.A.M., but it still looks incredible nonetheless. The camera will also zoom in on the action, showing the delightfully gory executions up close and personal. The music itself is also incredibly evocative of the series while also having a distinct identity of its own.
To briefly touch upon performance, I only ever encountered one glitch and one crash on my mid-range gaming PC. Otherwise, it ran incredibly smooth, averaging around 90-100 fps on Ultra Settings. The game is not the most graphically or performance demanding, and can be enjoyed easily on even 30fps, due in large part to the strong optimization efforts of the devs.
Finally, I will admit that a few things were a tad disappointing. The lack of multiplayer is a shame, as I think multiplayer offerings in the TBS genre are limited. Also, I found that the campaign (especially Act 3) had a lot of side mission filler that, while absolutely fun to play, did detract from the pacing of the story. Neither of these have done enough to derail my enjoyment of the game, but I know that mileage may vary, so I believe they are worth addressing.
All in all, Gears Tactics is a critical hit. It’s a fresh take on the Gears formula that doubles as an incredibly engaging strategy game. The difficulty is tough but fair, the characters are great (looking at you, Ukkon) and the game looks amazing. It is an incredible experience on PC, and is destined to surprise and delight console gamers when it hits the platform later this year. I hope that Splash Damage and The Coalition continue the series like Halo Wars has, as I think it could be one of the marquee strategy franchises alongside XCOM and Fire Emblem.