What happens when you take cover-heavy third-person shooter Gears of War and switch up genres completely? Turns out you get a pretty solid game that gives you that same adrenaline rush, but not because your thumbs masterfully lined up that shot, but because you flanked and out-maneuvered your opponent.
XCOM, but Gears
It is difficult to look at any turn-based tactical squad management game and not compare it against the mammoth of the genre, XCOM. Thankfully Gears Tactics does enough differently to stand out. Gears Tactics takes the XCOM system and adds in those brutal Gears of War executions and makes it a tactical advantage for your team. You and enemies will sometimes go down instead of dying outright, at which point you can revive friendlies, or execute (or just shoot) a downed grub. When doing so, everyone else in the squad will get 1 action point for seeing that glorious kill, letting you eke a little more out of them this turn. Whether this is reloading, shooting another target or finding better cover is up to you, but more actions will almost always be beneficial to you.
Besides the executions, Gears Tactics has changed up Overwatch to allow for some heated cover to cover combat. When going into Overwatch, you pick the exact area you want that soldier to cover and the number of action points left is how many times they will shoot. Putting a Heavy into Overwatch with a full turn’s worth of action points can stop a charge, disrupting or interrupting enemy actions. Be careful though because the enemy can also use Overwatch, but you can interrupt it with a few abilities and or by switching to your snub pistol and using the Disrupt ability, which will break enemy Overwatch if it hits.
Similarly, grenades can knock enemies around, breaking overwatch. Unlike the explosives of XCOM, which penalised you by making sure the target dropped no loot, Gears Tactics encourages grenade usage. Toss frags or set them like mines and watch the giblets fly across the screen as you splatter enemies.
This lancer is for support
The story follows Gabe Diaz, a mechanic who gave up a command position due to some unexplained altercation with the higher-ups. He is happily fixing vehicles and getting ready to bunker down for Hammer of Dawn strikes meant to end the locust attacks on cities when orders to retrieve Top Secret documents come in. Gabe comes back to an empty bunker, but it isn’t the hammer strikes that wiped it out. Seems a new bad grub is on the prowl, and he means business.
You and Gabe have to assemble a ragtag group to go after this new threat, a locust that engineers new creatures to fight the humans. Your roster starts off small, requiring you to save Gears from imprisonment and even recruit a few civilians as you bulk up at every opportunity. Cut off from supply, you need to scavenge for weapon modifications and armour for everyone to use, training everyone into competent fighting machines. There are five classes, each sporting a different weapon and usefulness on the battlefield. From supports who can heal, give teammates action points and damage reduction, to the heavy that gets comfortable in one spot, gaining accuracy and damage as their mulcher heats up, it is up to you to prepare for fights at any range and against varied enemy strategies.
To add complexity and spice to this, each class has four different specialisations they can spend skill points towards unlocking. Will your vanguard be an unstoppable tank, soaking up hits and attracting enemy attention? Or will they be bloodthirsty, gaining health back from doing damage and gaining buffs from running things through with their bayonet charge?
The biggest problem I have with Gears Tactics is how it keeps ruining its pacing with rote side missions which happen to be compulsory. I am not sure how they can be called side missions when you have to complete them to finish the game, but it takes the momentum of the story and slams on the brakes in a horrible way.
At first the side missions are a nice break from the tense missions you are on and a chance to level up new recruits and go hunting for new gear. After almost every story mission, there is a side mission interval, which only ends when you finish the requisite number of them and once the game starts telling you to complete three of them to continue the story, they start feeling like they have overstayed their welcome. These side missions recycle maps from story missions, with the following flavours: collect crates before Nemacysts blow you and them to bits, save people from torture pods, protect two supply points until you have all the supply, or kill everything on the map. These missions recycle again and again and possibly in an attempt to make them more challenging or exciting, they have increasingly annoying modifiers on them. Boomers with better range? How about enemies with more health, or your Overwatch ability not working for a whole fight? While I am all for a bit of padding and getting more recruits and weapons and a few precious levels, these side missions are just too frequently a wall to your progress, making you do the same stuff you just did 20 minutes ago, rather than seeing more of the story.
If you don’t mind that the game will take a long time to get to the point, then this isn’t an issue, but I feel there might be a bit too much fat here, with modifiers penalising you for no story reason, which seems better left to a different mode or place. Or perhaps if there was a more controlled way to get better gear for your soldiers, so that they are ready for the new challenges. This is a possibly a stumbling block due to not having the base management aspect of XCOM games, and the disparity between your abilities and what the enemy can dish out becomes more apparent later on, especially when enemies penalise you for executing them, meaning one of the features that made things fun and active early on just falls away. This also shows itself in how the game just throws more and more enemies at you, with the whole map running towards you. Smaller, energetic sorties turn into long slogs as the enemy arrives in droves, locking you down with Overwatch or a half-dozen snipers pinning you in place.
As a first attempt at breaking genres, Gears Tactics is a solid, fun romp with our chainsaw toting heavy boys. But some refinement in the mid to late game would make this really shine.