Gears Tactics is lean. Developer Splash Damage has taken many of the core concepts popularized by the tactical stalwart XCOM and streamlined them for one purpose: making a faster, more action-packed tactics game. And in that regard, they have succeeded. While much of the supporting structure crumbles under sustained scrutiny, in the middle of a battle when you’re rushing forward to pull off a do-or-die bayonet charge, Gears Tactics is refreshing.
XCOM’s influence, particularly its reboot and sequel, understandably permeates the design of Gears Tactics at nearly every level. So much so that this is a game defined by what it does differently than XCOM in most respects. The tenets of the genre are still present — you take a squad of soldiers into a mission, fight a variety of enemies while completing an objective, and deal with permadeath — but it’s in the specific details where Gears Tactics breaks away from its spiritual predecessors.
Splash Damage’s best conceit is to loosen the constraints on how units act. In other tactics games, characters are commonly restricted to one movement action and one primary action, i.e. move five squares and shoot. In Gears Tactics, every unit gets three actions, which can be split between any number of abilities. I can choose to move a unit three times in one turn to flank an enemy, fire my weapon three times, or I can apply a buff that increases damage before charging an enemy to cut them in half with a chainsaw and ducking into nearby cover afterwards. Furthermore, there is no grid for movement, and the actions units can take in a round can be increased by executing downed enemies.
All of this combined allows for Gears Tactics to encourage aggressiveness and risk taking in a way that wasn’t previously emphasized to this extent in the genre. There were turns where I was able to pull off over 20 actions by making use of certain abilities and executions. That system is thankfully easy to grasp due to an impeccably designed tutorial that introduces all of the key systems in a brisk and timely fashion. At times, it can feel unbalanced due to just how simple it is to abuse the aforementioned gameplay mechanics, but the game does offer plenty of corrections.
The increased freedom isn’t solely for the benefit of the player. Due to the number of options at your disposal, Gears Tactics uses that as a chance to overwhelm you in most engagements. Your squad of four will frequently find themselves in battles with over a dozen enemies, each with their own set of tactics that, when combined, are extremely threatening. Miss a shot at a crucial moment, or lack the grenades needed to close an emergence hole, and the tide turns quickly. In this way, missions remain consistently challenging and deadly, and the large size of maps gives off the appearance of an epic scale, one where every battle is thrilling.
But sometimes, those battles are predictable. Importantly, Gears Tactics features a scripted campaign. Serving as a prequel to the Gears franchise as a whole, the story follows Gabriel Diaz (father of Gears 5 protagonist Kate) as he’s assigned one last mission to hunt down the Locust scientist Ukkon. Because there are story missions that must be witnessed by both Gabe as well as others, that means that these characters are designated as hero units who must survive each mission they participate in. Other, customizable characters, can still permanently die in battle. But the nature of having characters that must stay alive at all costs fundamentally changes how one plays.
Many hero units are mandatory for certain missions, which limits the number of custom units that can be used in important battles. The way Gears Tactics solves this problem is through mandatory side missions inserted between story missions. The four units you take on one of these missions cannot be used until the story advances, which encourages having a large roster of units that can take on these missions. But because important missions require certain characters, it causes the custom roster to be underused and neglected because they can only participate in roughly one or two battles out of every four or five. What’s more, those mandatory side missions don’t do the campaign justice because it causes the pacing of the story to feel alternatively too slow or too fast depending on what act you are playing. The end result is a core cast that feels underdeveloped, and a supporting group of custom units that don’t feel important. Once the campaign is completed, you can still play with your units by taking part in procedurally generated missions for new equipment.
At the very least, each unit can be heavily customized to be useful in battle. Units fall into one of five classes, with each class having four skill trees with abilities that can be unlocked through leveling up. There are not enough skill points to unlock every skill, meaning characters will be specialized in one, possibly two roles. For example, Gabe, who is a Support class, specialized in combat medicine and leadership, making him adept at healing individual units and giving increased actions to others, while my other primary Support focused on healing the squad instead. The variety of potential builds would be serviceable with just this, but Gears Tactics takes it a step further through gear customization.
Each character can equip new armor or enhance their weapons with modifications to further specialize themselves. A new barrel on a sniper rifle might increase its damage output, or it can create a 20% chance for the gun to fire again immediately after it is fired, without costing another action. The differences between different mods may seem small at first glance, but it’s a surprisingly customizable system that further differentiates characters. New gear is acquired via cases that are awarded for completing missions, optional objectives, or finding them in the field. There are no microtransactions, but each case does feature randomized gear. It’s a system that functions properly, but I don’t think it does the job well because you cannot control what type of gear you receive. If you could know if a case contained a part for a set class or even a specific type of gear, it would be more useful.
As it stands, the new gear you equip looks gorgeous in-game. Splash Damage has done a fantastic job rendering the world and its characters, both in cutscenes and in combat, that makes Gears Tactics look just as good as the likes of Gears 5 thanks to a bevy of options. But the graphical quality is not the most impressive part of the audio and visuals; instead, it’s the animation and sound design. Watching a Gear slide into cover with an accompanying soft thump, the revving of a Lancer as a unit chainsaws an enemy in half, the clawed rushing of a Wretch — these small touches here and there heighten every battle and do much to make it memorable in the moment.
It’s those little details, coupled with the overarching battle design, that make Gears Tactics’ stumbles more forgivable. The pacing of a fight, and the myriad ways with which you can approach those encounters through skills and abilities, is invigorating. Gears Tactics successfully translates the ferocity of its third-person shooter brethren into a turn-based tactics game while retaining much of the strategy that makes the genre what it is. And for that, I’ll dive into battle with the Locust again and again.