Visually Gears Tactics makes the most of the genres limited capacity for graphics, and while there is nothing special about the mission maps, it does a good job of staying clear and letting you see the tactical situation for what it is. I do hope they shorthand the numpad keys for those of us who remap as NUMP doesn’t really tell me which key is assigned…
Where the graphics do come into their own is the cutscenes… of which there are many. Gears has a story driven campaign and regular cinematic moments to sell the drama.
The developers have done a good job of building the engine with the PC in mind; granular settings and the ability to rebind almost anything is always appreciated. Unfortunately, this doesn’t continue through to the game itself.
Your campaign gets one save and it overwrites at checkpoints, a holdover from the franchise’s console heritage. The character UI also features nesting sub sections for each and every change you might want to make… which will leave you going backwards and forwards a lot, and we really do mean a lot. Not that it’s all bad, the UI does make it easy to compare the stats on different gear and allows easy swapping of items between soldiers with a click, it’s just a little tedious when the mission rewards are new equipment meaning you’ll be changing it often.
This, along with recruitment is done in your convoy, which acts as a mobile base of operations. Unlike other games in the genre, the story here is linear so with the exception of mandatory side missions, there really aren’t any strategic choices to make. Tactics… it’s in the title. For me this has proved to be a relief, one less thing to split my focus on, letting me progress at a pace set by the game itself without getting sidetracked.
Your units are split between heroes and troops, the main difference being that your heroes aren’t allowed to die. Both have the same classes and abilities available and can use the same equipment. The campaign will also arbitrarily force you to take or leave behind certain heroes on some missions so you do need regular troops across all the classes to cover for any absence.
The class system determines which skill tree they have access too and each tree branches out to suit your own playstyle with the most powerful abilities in the corners. One part of this we really like is that there is often more than a single path to reach a destination so you don’t always end up picking up skills you don’t really need to reach the one you do.
The combat has been carefully balanced and it’s obvious how much work went in to ensuring you always feel under pressure without it becoming overwhelming. It’s the fun kind of pressure that has you making that Hail Mary play to pull one of your men out of the frying pan, often straight into the fire.
Missions feel varied with everything from hostage rescue to holding against waves of enemies. One of the tensest missions had me collecting crates (loot boxes) across a map as the squad was chased by a line of death, forcing me to charge headfirst into enemy units, reminding me that shotguns hurt. The crates come complete with the loot box animations once the mission is over, but luckily you can open all and skip the suspense if you want.
When you reduce an enemy to zero they have the chance to be downed instead of killed, and after two more turns they bleed out unless they are saved or finished off. Another round of bullets will put them out of their misery but moving to melee range to execute grants every member of your squad one extra action point which you can spend to move, shoot, or use a skill… it’s very worthwhile.
The action point system is really versatile, any of the above actions can be performed multiple times and in any order leading to a lot of run and gun… and run tactics. The points also determine how many shots you can take in overwatch - one volley for every AP you had when you activated it. This is very important as one of the ways Gears keeps the pressure on is by sending in the hordes, where you need every shot you can get. You can switch between your units at will and combine their actions into an unstoppable wave of combos, one AP at a time.
Don’t get too comfortable smashing your way through the Grubs, as every once in a while you’ll encounter something you may not be able to stomp. These are usually in the form of boss battles, and we can tell you they are punishing of any mistake. Bosses have a wide range of unique skills and enough health to soak up anything you can throw their way. Beating one requires coordination and timing, exploiting their single weakness while dodging explosions and guns and the waves of escalating enemy reinforcements. War is hell.
One final note, and totally anecdotal from our own personal experience… but the RNG feels kinder than other games of the genre. It might just be the partial hits you get are maybe taken from the miss table, or that you get so many shots, but we really don’t know. All we know is that we’re not getting as angry with the rolls as we usually do. Take from that what you will.
PSA: Unrelated to the gameplay experience, Gears Tactics does require an Xbox live account to begin a campaign. Had I not been reviewing the game, that might have been an instant exit and refund. I mention it here because I know there are others who feel the same way about third party logins for Steam games. For some laughable reason it did let me log in with GitHub which then linked to a live account I hadn’t used in over a decade. It is then possible to play away from the internet, but the game will keep trying to log in, and this is only viable after you’ve logged in for the first time.
GEARS TACTICS VERDICT
Staying true to the franchise, your Gears are brutal killing machines who live in a soap opera. We’ll add that it’s also rare to find a tactics game which makes you feel powerful but vulnerable at the same time, and that’s worth a lot.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Beating the first boss with no revives left, the horde one turn from swarming me, only a single AP left, and all without a hope of that needed critical.
Clear battle map
Innovative action point system
Horde mechanics add a new twist
Plenty of mission variety
The RNG doesn't make me want to cry
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About Matthew Ralphson
Matthew cut his teeth on Age of Empires and never looked back. He misses the times when games still came in boxes...