STAFF REVIEW of Gears Tactics (Xbox One)

Monday, November 30, 2020.
by Adam Dileva

Gears Tactics Box art As a long time Gears of War fan, I’m always excited when anything related releases, be it a toy, board game, novel or obviously, a game. I have quite the collection too, including two full sized lancers among a ton of other figures and such, so I know my Gears. What I wasn’t expecting though was such a drastic departure from its signature third person cover based shooters with the latest in the series, Gears Tactics. I previously reviewed Gears Tactics back at its PC launch in April, and while I enjoyed it, I, among many others, were waiting for the console version. Thankfully they waited, as the new Xbox Series X and S are here, and Gears Tactics looks absolutely fantastic on the new hardware.

Gears is synonymous with Xbox. When you think gears you most likely picture huge buff dudes that spend way too much time in the gym and shoot Locust from behind perfectly placed waist-height cover. Gears has always had the same gameplay throughout its series for the most part, but Gears Tactics completely changes all of this.

Instead of the typical Gears formula of third person cover based shooting, instead, Gears Tactics is more like an X-COM style of game. I know, quite a drastic change, and I wasn’t sure how the gameplay would translate or if it would even still feel like a Gears game at its core. Once I took the time to figure out its mechanics and start to develop strategies, I’m happy to report that it still feels very much like a Gears game, just obviously controlled in a different manner. Even better, Gears Tactics takes from some of the best games in the genre and not only utilizes what makes them great, but even improves in a few aspects as well.

Gears lore is massively robust. Not even including the games, there are at least a half dozen novels and a comic series as well that go into the history of the characters, settings and of course, the war between mankind and the Locust. Set a dozen years before the first game, Sera is under attack from a Locust Horde that’s starting to rise to the surface. You play as Gabe Diaz, which should sound familiar if you’ve played Gears 5, as he is Kait’s father, the protagonist of Gears 5. Gabe was a decorated Lieutenant Colonel for the COG, but after a mission with huge sacrifices, he demoted himself to Sergeant and and refused to work for the COG any further. This is of course when COG comes calling, essentially forcing him back into action begrudgingly.

Gabe’s mission is to find the leader of the Lucust army: Ukkon. It’s said that he’s the one behind the creation of some of the biggest Lucust Sera has ever seen, like the Brumak, so he must be stopped at any cost. Major Sid Redburn will fight alongside Gabe, a veteran who’s been on numerous top secret missions, as will other characters you meet along the way. Gabe can’t fight this fight alone, so he’s going to have to convince others along the way to help save Sera, something only a true leader could manage.

Regardless of everyone’s reason to joining and helping Gabe in their mission, they all agree to Ukkon must be stopped, regardless of the cost. While Ukkon may not be quite as memorable as Skorge or General RAAM as the main antagonist, once his background is revealed, he’s just as important to the overall Gears lore as any other main character, which is incredibly exciting for hardcore fans like myself that are enthralled into its narrative. Luckily, Gears Tactics’ narrative is very self-contained, so if you’re not completely up to par on Gears lore to this point, you can still enjoy an interesting story, though fans are going to get the most out of it when major plot points are revealed. I won’t lie, I had more than one jaw dropping moment watching the beautiful cutscenes play out between missions.

The biggest change is obviously the drastic shift in genre and gameplay, swapping third person shooting for top down strategy. Now you’ll need to think very strategically with its turn based gameplay as you’re given numerous goals and objectives in your missions. If I’m being honest, I was somewhat expecting Gears Tactics to essentially be a reskin of popular games like X-COM and the like. Thankfully I was wrong and they didn’t simply copy other games, but added and tweaked a few features that I would argue is much better for the genre overall.

Instead of simply defeating all enemies on the battlefield, you’ll almost always have some sort of secondary objective you’ll need to meet before finishing a mission, such as destroying something or reaching an extraction point with all your team members. Most missions allow up to four squad mates, though some are designed for less. Even though the camera view and gameplay has drastically changed from what Gears fans are used to, the levels and environments still feel like a Gears game with its semi destroyed landscapes and rubble strewn areas.

Even with its isometric view, it’s easy to appreciate the level design and even the verticality when having to deal with a Locust sniper in a perch locking you down from advancing. While the camera isn’t always perfect, as it was sometimes a little confusing to figure out specific pathways your squad can maneuver without trial and error, there’s enough complexity to add variety to the gameplay where there’s not simply one way to defeat enemy Locust. Some players may opt for a more aggressive flank, while others setup overwatch areas to prevent enemy advancement like I did often.

The campaign flows very well and fluidly in the beginning, that is, until you hit the required side missions. At first I was fine with having these added in, but it eventually started to feel like filler between campaign missions. As a huge Gears fan, I wanted to experience the campaign for its narrative quickly, but was arbitrarily slowed down with these side missions that can’t be skipped. These missions aren’t bad per-se, but have simple objectives compared to the core campaign missions when I simply wanted to progress the narrative more than anything else.

Gears Tactics plays very aggressive. You rarely get to take a breather and relax, as reinforcements are almost always a turn or two behind any Locust clearings you manage. Even if you manage to clear the battlefield, there’s almost always an emergence hole or new swarms of enemies en-route to your position, so you must always be maneuvering with purpose and deliberately thinking of your next move.

Most games in the genre give you one maneuver turn and one for actions like shooting or setting up overwatch. Gears Tactics changes this up and not only adds three actions per character a turn, before any extra bonus actions which can be augmented with gear and abilities, but they can be used for any action. If you want to use three action points (AP) to move your squad further ahead or away, you can do so, as you’re not restricted to a move action then combat separately. Conversely, if you’re in position, you can take utilize 3 AP to fire at enemies each time as well if you wish. This adds a ton of utility, and it wasn’t until the first major boss fight where I realized I could swap between characters between AP use as well, which is substantial when it comes to strategy.

For example, you may become trapped behind cover with enemies using the overwatch ability in your direction. You could flank with one character, disrupt their overwatch, then change back to your hunkered down squad mate and return fire before going back to your flanker for more AP moves. I also fell in love with the overwatch system as you can essentially setup kill areas for any Locust crossing your watched path, but keep in mind, each attack utilized one of your rounds, as reloading takes one AP as well. Factor in that there’s other ways to add more actions and abilities that open a variety of different gameplay options, and you can start to see how robust the tactical side of Gears Tactics truly is. In true Gears fashion, executing a downed enemy will reward you with a bonus action, so there’s always a risk versus reward in your battle strategies. Do you jump out of cover to try and get that execution for special bonuses, or play it safe and try for one more shot for the kill?

Gears is also known for its epic and intense boss battles. Hell, I still remember the General RAAM boss fight after all these years. Gears Tactics is no different, as at the end of each act you’re going to face off against a massive boss. I won’t spoil what you’ll face off against after your first Brumak encounter, but you’re in for some surprises. Boss battles not only has you utilize different strategies from regular missions, but you’re going to have to constantly adapt and adjust based on what the boss is doing or what reinforcement Locust arrive to the battlefield.

While these boss battles are much more drawn own than regular Gears gameplay, they almost feel like they have a puzzle element to their strategies. For example, the Brumak can launch rockets which will explode on the marked areas on the next turn, so you need to balance not only moving out of rocket range, but being in position to attack the Brumak itself but still in cover from regular enemies. Just like most videogame bosses, you’ll need to generally deplete the major segments of health to trigger each battle phase, forcing you to adjust, usually quite drastically. Factor in that Locust reinforcements constantly arrive and emergence holes can appear at any time, and you’ll have to constantly adjust your strategies, not only for your current turn, but thinking ahead as well.

An unexpected surprise was how much customization Gears Tactics allows for your squad. Not only can you change and customize your gear (pun intended) visually, but you’ll also earn statistical mod upgrades for your weapons and armor as well. If you want Gabe to rock an all pink suit of armor, go ahead. When you start to earn new armor pieces with different stats and abilities you can really start to customize your squads to suit your preferred play style. Each character has a set role and abilities, so some missions will favor more sniper ranged characters, where other missions will be much tougher and require Gabe to use his med grenades to heal the squad.

With a decently robust skill tree, you can customize each character how you like, and even respec if needed. While I’m glad tons of work went into the customization, it’s a little monotonous to constantly check and rebalance my teams between each mission. Missions will grant loot chests, and if you’re able to grab chests strewn around the missions, you can earn bonus packs. Thankfully there is no microtransactions, so these loot boxes are all earned by simply playing, even if their rewards seem completely random at times.

You may have noticed that I’ve not mentioned any sort of co-op, skirmishes or multiplayer at all, and that’s because Gears Tactics is solely a single player experience. While there are multiple difficulty options ranging from Beginner to Insane, there’s even an Ironman Mode for those that want an extreme challenge where no deaths are allowed throughout. With no multiplayer component, some may complete it and never touch it again, even though its campaign is a decent length if not padded with side missions.

I was curious how the controls would transition over to console with a controller, and even though I already played through previously on PC with a controller, you just never know what might change since then. Thankfully the controls are tight and intuitive and feels like it’s at home with a controller in your hand. Sometimes games like these must be played with a keyboard and mouse to play properly, but Gears Tactics feels at home on an Xbox controller. Also, some cool bonuses has been included as well since the PC release, like being able to have the awesome Jack robot from Gears 5 join your team with his own unique skill tree, and of course, 4K/60fps on a Series X.

Even though Gears Tactics is a shock to the franchise’s core gameplay, the new strategic take still works for its unique setting. It may not play like any Gears that you’re used to, but it still fits and feels like a true entry into the series without feeling forced. While I could have done without the padded side missions, Gears Tactics still has amazing visuals, writing, gameplay and everything else that fans have come to love about the series. Super fans will obviously get the most from its narrative as it has deep ties into the series’ overall narrative, though strategy game fans can jump in and still enjoy the experience without being a Gear-head.

**Gears Tactics was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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