The frenetic cover-based combat of Gears of War was an influential powerhouse back in 2006, but fourteen years after the first adventures of Marcus Fenix introduced players to the meaty testosterone-filled world of Gears has seen the franchise evolve. But while Gears 5’s reinvigoration of the core franchise was a simpler dash of Febreeze to an increasingly stale series, The Coalition and Splash Damage’s Gears Tactics is a deep spring clean that makes the Xbox franchise exciting again.
Taking place before the events of the first Gears of War game, Gears Tactics places you in the role of Gabe Diaz, the father of Gears 5’s Kait Diaz, as he commands a guerrilla army of COG troops on a secret mission to assassinate the horrifying Locust scientist Ukkon.
Moving away from the cliché Hollywood action of the main series’ lustrous gunplay, Tactics’ journey of a ragtag group of hardened marines tackling insurmountable, inhumane threats is an effortlessly enjoyable tactical adventure that never fails to entertain. Instead of running and shooting around brown arenas from a third-person perspective, this sharp spin-off instead opts for a top-down perspective with turn-based strategic combat.
Each member of your four-person squad will be cut from the cloth of various classes: some might wield a chaingun as a heavy; some make use of a powerful, extremely satisfying sniper rifle as a marksman; the stealthy shotgun-equipped scout is able to cloak themselves, sneak around and turn foes into meaty mulch. Every unit is named and modelled with their own stats, skills and levels. If you want to keep using your recruited troops – some of which you’ll rescue in missions – you’ll have to upgrade them with their individual skill trees and armour/weapon parts you find in-game. Also, you’ll be able to paint their armour and give them purple pants: perfect.
Much like the critically acclaimed XCOM franchise – more on that here – you’ll be taking turns with your enemies to move around the environment, take cover, aim at an enemy with a 95% chance of hitting them, miss them and just start screaming. Facetiousness withheld, Gears Tactics makes smart use of its tactical setting. You only have a few soldiers to command and learning how to effectively use every member of your squad is paramount to surviving. With every character having their own skills, you’ll need to carefully pick when to use your favourite abilities.
The more thoughtful approach to combat in this spin-off doesn’t mean that Gears’ action-packed pacing has been squandered at all. Every encounter with the series’ iconic Locust threat is a thrilling, fast-paced experience that may lend more focus to the brains but doesn’t detract from the series’ visceral, crunchy action. Ironically, Gears has never been more intense; battles against the Locust horde is always a fierce battle of determination, nearly every main mission feels like a suicide mission.
Of course, if the COG army is going to tackle the Locust horde in a more strategic setting, they’re going to have to implore the traditional Gears of War actions we’ve come to know and love. You’re damn right you can run to an enemy and chainsaw them in two; it would be insane if you couldn’t use your retro lancer to bayonet charge a lowly Locust grunt. Oorah and then some!
Everything culminates into an awesome tactical whole within the game’s awe-inspiring boss battles. While we can’t touch on any story spoilers in this review, Tactics’ boss battles are astonishing fights that encapsulate everything you love about Gears. They’re thrilling, cinematic and, of course, heart-poundingly deadly. You’ll probably lose troops forever – I miss you so much, Tyrone – but you’ll always remember how you ultimately got them killed.
Gears Tactics is a fantastic conversion of Xbox’s iconic franchise into a more thoughtful gameplay setting. It’s a spin-off that takes everything Gears is known for and masterfully retools it for an engrossing strategy game that we’ll likely be playing for years to come. With a Locust enemy that’s finally more imposing than General RAAM and a lovable cast of characters, it’s also a game that continues to tell an epic, cinematic story that strategy games have never had the budget to do before. This is everything you love about Gears, you just have to think a bit more.