Gears Tactics review – brains meet brawn in strategic spin-off

Bloody sci-fi shooter series Gears of War and the term “tactics” may not seem like natural bedfellows, given that these games are best known for their macho space soldiers and chainsaw machine guns. Yet strategy has always played a far bigger role in the games than may be initially apparent. After all, the key innovation of the titles was to add cover-and-fire manoeuvres into a fast-paced action game. Gears Tactics simply inverts the emphasis. Whereas previously the tactical layer existed to complement the action, here all that gore greases the cogs of a smart and fiercely entertaining strategy machine.

Set before the original Gears of War, Gears Tactics sees players control squads of soldiers led by two veterans of its seemingly eternal conflict: walking chin Gabe Diaz and weaponised moustache Sid Redburn. Together, they seek to eliminate a troublesome general of the Locust Horde, a race of brawny subterranean monsters who have taken over Earth.

Gears of War’s storytelling has always held ambitions somewhat beyond its ham-fisted reach, but if you’ve previously enjoyed watching its slabs of virtual muscle do emotions, know that Tactics tells its story with pizzazz if not subtlety, featuring lovingly crafted cinematics, top-tier voice acting and some fairly major reveals for what is essentially a spin-off.

Gears Tactics

Strategy that feels like action … Gears Tactics. Photograph: Microsoft

Indeed, Gears Tactics has lost little of the series’s perennially high production values in the switch from shooter to strategy, boasting stunning visuals and slick animations alongside an incredibly intuitive interface. Also like earlier games, it is ferociously violent, with your soldiers frequently bursting and dismembering the Locust with bombs, bayonets and chainsaws.

Gears Tactics is a strategy game designed to feel like an action game, and this philosophy goes beyond the sharp visuals and the viscera dispersion rate. Any given mission sees your squad pitted against a much larger number of Locust, with each side taking turns to move their units between cover and eliminate as many of the opposing force as possible. Your soldiers have a limited number of “action points” per turn. These can be used to move, shoot at an enemy or deploy special abilities such as “overwatch”, which lets you set up ambushes, firing at any enemy who wanders into its cone-shaped kill-zone.

This foundation is familiar among tactics games, but Gears adds to it abilities such as “executions”, where theatrically killing an incapacitated enemy gives teammates an additional action point. Moreover, certain soldier-types sport powers such as “bayonet charge”, letting them rush across the battlefield to quickly take an enemy out of commission. Many abilities can be upgraded to provide free actions or even add actions to your pool. Some of the combinations you can pull off are truly exhilarating. In the late game, one of my snipers could pop the heads of a half-dozen Locust in a single turn.

Gears Tactics constantly encourages players to push forward into battle, to be aggressive and daring and think on their feet. Yet, while boldness is often rewarded, recklessness will be punished severely. Even the lowliest Locust grunt can blast half a health bar off one of your soldiers, while together they create overlapping overwatch traps that need to be surgically dismantled to prevent your squad from being wiped out.

The way the game injects pace and momentum into a traditionally slow-burn genre is its greatest success, so it isn’t surprising that it is weakest when the pace falters. Gears Tactics lacks the broader strategic layer of games such as XCOM, featuring instead a linear story campaign. This is the right call, but problems arise with the side missions embedded into this structure. Initially, they’re a welcome opportunity to flex your tactical muscles, whether you need to hold two separate control points against assault, or retreat from an encroaching artillery barrage as the Locust try to slow you down. In the latter acts, however, Gears Tactics forces you to complete two or even three side missions before moving on to the next story beat.

There is a logic to the idea – soldiers sent on one side-mission cannot be deployed in another, so you need to manage your squads carefully to ensure success. But it has the effect of slowing progress to a crawl when the story should be ramping up to the conclusion. There also aren’t enough mission types to prevent a sense of repetition creeping into those final hours. The latter half of the third act is a slog when it should be a sprint.

Nonetheless, Gears Tactics is a triumphant twist on an old favourite, capturing the fury and spectacle of its shooter-based brethren while also offering a more cerebral experience. Gears has always exhibited shades of American football, from the hypermasculine tone to its disconcertingly swole characters. Now it has the conspicuous brains to match its conspicuous braun.


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