Halo Wars was a surprisingly great game, converting one of the most popular online shooters of all time into an engaging, well oiled RTS.
So it seems Microsoft are taking that gamble again with another of their poster franchises, bringing us Gears Tactics, an XCOM inspired, cinematic prequel to Marcus and Dom’s bloodthirsty romps. And guess what, it, too, also makes that jump across genres seamlessly.
I think the use of cover-based shooting makes the genres a natural match. XCOM has always been about hunkering down, finding the best angles to pepper aliens with bullets, and managing your squad at base camp. It all fits the Gears of War franchise like a glove.
Smartly, it’s all been brought across so that it feels distinctly Gears of War – taking care of Emergence Holes by dumping grenades in them, chainsawing Drones in half. There’s even epic boss battles that make full use of the battlefield rather than confining you to small spaces.
I’m not entirely sure why Microsoft like to turn their hottest properties into top-down games, but Gears Tactics has the feeling, tone, style, and finesse down so appropriately, you almost wonder whether this is actually the genre the franchise resonates with most of all.
Halo Wars has more of an OG Warcraft / Command & Conquer style to it – focused on base building and zerg rushing Covenant, whereas Gears Tactics is turn-based, almost wave shooter esque, tasking you with rescue and capture the flag style hold missions.
XCOM fans will adore this as you can rename your squad mates, adding that personal touch to them before – well, you know what – stylise them with cornbeads and facial hair. There’s the Overwatch tactic that means your Gear can cover an area with gunfire during enemy turns so they can’t sneak up on you, and there’s skill trees for each character, letting you grow and develop your own team of Gears.
Each member of the team gets action points per turn, so you’ll only be able to move so far. Action points can also be consumed by reloading, firing, performing executions, and special traits you earn as you develop each character. Obviously, as well, if you end a turn in cover, you’ll not only be harder to hit, but you’ll also get a reduction against damage. The same applies, of course, to the Locust you’re fighting against.
But the difference between this and XCOM is the real cinematic focus and narrative development at the core of the game. The cut-scenes are mainline quality and Gears Tactics is a single player experience, through and through. Splash Damage and The Coalition have worked tirelessly to not only make an entertaining excursion in Gears Tactics, but also one that has a significant impact on the Gears of War franchise as a whole.
There’s some major revelations in here that don’t just relate to the cast we’ve known and loved all these years, but also explain a lot about the Locust and their unearthly qualities. There’s even a key relationship in Gears Tactics that we believe could play a major role in Gears of War 6 if Xbox Games Studios wanted it to.
Gears Tactics is brutally hard, though. Mercilessly so. I had the game on Normal for a good while and started out ok. But sooner rather than later, I found my whole team getting chewed up and spat out within a full turn. Wretches were tearing me to shreds, overwhelming me with numbers, Hammerburst drones kept interrupting my turns, and Snipers pinned me down. Eventually, I had to concede and drop it to the easiest difficulty – the second time I’ve had to do that this year with DOOM Eternal’s unrelenting hordes of anguish.
Honestly, once I found myself not so frustrated by the difficulty, I was able to actually enjoy the game for what it is and what’s here is really well polished, unique, and enjoyable. I’m a veteran XCOM player but definitely found myself struggling – which is pretty scary because there are another two difficulty levels beyond that, as well as tougher extra modes to come.
The boss battles are also great fun! At the end of the first chapter, for example, you’ll butt heads with the infamous Brumak, and have to keep running around the battle field, avoiding its devastating rocket attacks. But the Brumak can also force you out of cover by stamping on the ground, leaving you dazed and vulnerable. You could just focus on shooting its weakened and exposed back, directing all fire on that, but you can also take out both of its machine gun arms to defang the creature and make it easier prey. I like how the game lets you decide your own strategy.
The way boss battles have been brought into the genre is smart and works very well. As mentioned, you will make full use of the entire battleground, forced to run around, find cover at different locations, and sometimes ‘taunt’ a boss to turn around and face you, so you can exploit any weaknesses. But the size of the unit makes the action seem suitably epic, and then you also have to worry about emerging hordes sneaking up on you to keep the pressure up.
Gears Tactics really surprised me. I plunged into it headfirst and came out the other side still yearning for more. The teams have nailed the replayability that XCOM is renowned for, but also created something that is very much its own animal and very entertaining to boot.
Everything has an amazingly faithful, truly distinct Gears of War feel to it. For instance, performing an execution can earn you an extra action point, and the game sure doesn’t shy away from the gore. Each weapon works exactly the same way as it does in the mainline series, and you’ll get everything from Lancers to Snub Pistols and Longshots. You can even lob a grenade at a group of Wretches and take out five in one blast which is ridiculously satisfying.
Even the quippy, silly one-liners and exclamations of war when firing at enemies or diving into cover just remind you of those trips into the belly of the beast. It’s just like being back out with the COG, but it feels different in a good way.
That said, there’s no multiplayer here at all. It can be found in other titles within the genre, but it’s lacking here, though not necessarily needed. When you finish the game, you unlock additional modes to keep you coming back for more. Microsoft are also apparently planning to add more to the game, and who knows, maybe modders will have something to contribute to that conversation down the road.
I also really felt like that the format leant itself well to The Locust, so was hoping they may get a campaign for themselves. We had the briefest of tastes of that with the General Raam DLC a while back, and obviously the mainline Horde modes let you step in their shoes, but I feel like there’s still a lot we don’t know about The Locust and this format definitely feels like it’s best designed to tell their story.
Either way, I definitely want to see more from Gears Tactics. Whether that’s additional content updates, DLC, or a more fleshed out sequel for next-gen, whatever, this was such a pleasant, enjoyable surprise that I’m ravenous for more. Gears Tactics isn’t just trying to be XCOM, it’s not just a quick-fix gimmick to help a franchise stay relevant, this is much more than that.
I really loved Gears Tactics. Everything just comes together so well and without doubt, it’s one of the surprise packages of 2020. Cast it aside and discredit at your own risk Gears Tactics is a brilliant game that works as well as any other in the genre on almost every level.
Gears Tactics is now available on Steam and PC via Xbox Game Pass, coming soon to Xbox.
Reviewed on PC
Review Code Supplied by Microsoft