The question we immediately asked when Gears Tactics was revealed was: "Why hasn't it happened sooner?" Gears of War is all about cover mechanics, and that is also roughly what, let's say, Xcom is based on, too. And if we had been given that, we would have been rather pleased because an Xcom-inspired Gears game would have been phenomenally nice.
Fortunately, Splash Damage has aimed higher than our imagination. The studio really wanted to do something new with the concept and offer a strategy game with more opportunities than we are used to seeing in the genre. The whole two-step conceit of deciding to either walk, shoot, or sit around and waste your movement has been thrown out the window. Here, your characters instead have three actions at their disposal along with endless combo possibilities.
We've been known to play board games like Star Wars Armada and Warhammer before and we recognise some of the features from those games here (interestingly, it turns out that Gears Tactics started life on a tabletop). Why lock your characters on a grid when they could just as easily move around freely? And why should you only shoot once when you may need to fire several times? And maybe it's worth running headfirst into a group of enemies to brutally kill one of them with your Retro Lancer as it's a guaranteed way to permanently defeat at least one enemy that also gives your teammates an extra action each?
The Xcom games are phenomenal, but every little decision in Gears Tactics provides an almost overwhelming number of choices. Overwatch, one of the key features from the Firaxis classic, carries over here and allows you to save your actions and spend them in the enemy round. Depending on the weapon you have, you simply aim at a cone-shaped area that your character then monitors, and every enemy that steps into that area is shot as long as there are actions left.
But the enemy is never keen to step into your line of fire, and in addition, there is the option for them to respond with a dose of the same medicine and block areas off for you. Entering through a gate where two to three enemies are lining up a barrage of shots is suicidal madness. So what to do? Well, you can instead use 'Disabling Shot' (or later 'Intimidate') to make the enemy drop their surveillance. Or you could just blow them up with a well-placed grenade. Or...
You see where we're going with this, right? There's simply a much greater focus on making choices here than in many similar games from the same genre, and we quickly learned that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower knew what he was talking about when he said: "No plan ever survives contact with the enemy".
Not even the most diabolically conceived plot lasts long if we suddenly encounter enemies in a position where we absolutely had not expected they would be hidden. One can only see a small section of the often surprisingly large stages and it's hard to really determine what's waiting outside of the circular area surrounding our characters. In fact, while this can be a big part of the game's charm, it can also be one of its relatively few shortcomings and sometimes we can't help thinking that it's a bit cheap to drop a bunch of enemies in via air support without warning on a location that is extremely sub-optimal for our units. One can definitely argue that it is part of the challenge, but sometimes it felt more like bad luck than a bad strategy that got us killed. Fortunately, it's not a very hard game on the regular difficulty setting, so you should be fine.
Most of the time, however, the feeling of unpredictability benefits the combat, and we have had several really exciting encounters where a half-dead team has, against all odds, still managed to fight their way through hordes of Wretchers to reach their final goal. And for those who really want to shine, you can challenge yourself by gathering the loot that is scattered across the stages. We're talking about items such as new weapons, armour parts, and other accessories that help increase your chances during combat. However, taking a detour to get to the loot gives enemies more chances to shoot at you, and it also takes time. All missions have secondary-goals, including things such as accomplishing a task in a certain number of turns, and working out how to pick up the goodies and still make it in time can be a challenge in itself.
Between the stages, you get the opportunity to tend to your warriors, who each belongs to one of five distinct classes. You find and collect your warriors during the course of the game, while some are key characters you must take along for the ride. This includes Gabe Diaz, father to Kait from, among other things, Gears 5. You get generous opportunities to adjust everything from looks to load-outs and there are also classic level trees to really tailor the experience. However, sometimes this part of the game felt a bit busier than it needed to be.
We often find that the loot we salvage impacts the experience too little. Obviously, a gun-sight that gives a 5% higher chance of a critical hit is nice, but we can't honestly say that it significantly alters the gaming experience and there is a little too much time-wasting in the menus as we upgrade our gear. This side of things is a little unimaginative and we would have preferred a little less of everything especially on the equipment front but with bigger differences between items. That said, the level tree system works great.
So far, we've only talked about Gears Tactics from a gameplay perspective, which feels pretty natural. The mechanics are so central in this genre and it's not necessarily the well-written stories that made us love games like Xcom. But even in this area, Gears surprises, with a story that takes place twelve years before the first game (much like how they moved Halo Wars into prequel territory) - and 12 years a big difference.
Gears of War offered an extremely powerful post-apocalyptic world, but here we find ourselves in the midst of the apocalypse itself. A war is raging, and the almost unbearably good guy Gabe Diaz (along with the much harder to swallow and therefore way more interesting Sid Redburn) is sent off on a mission to destroy Ukkon. This evil dude is the leader and brains behind all those Locust creatures that are so often armed to the teeth, not least the Brumak and the Corpsers. It's not difficult to work out why this guy needs to eat some Lancer chainsaw.
We do not intend to sabotage your enjoyment of the story with spoilers, but we can at least reveal that the narrative is not just filler; there are several experiences along the way that Gears of War fans will love, and twists and turns that create an interesting story, all of which is accompanied by neat some cutscenes. In addition, the stages are often long and coherent, which also contributes to the flow of the narrative.
The graphics are generally good, especially during those moments where you get to actually enjoy them. Often you'll find yourself sitting on a battlefield with the camera zoomed out so that you can't see everything clearly. However, when you do something spectacular, the camera gets close and delivers some chainsaw action with beheadings and gore shown from a more audience-friendly angle. The sound should have had more punch, though - the Gears of War series has always delivered pleasant soundtracks fitting the brutal theme, here it often feels a little less impactful.
If you know you like Gears of War, you have a lot to gain from Gears Tactics. Things that are a staple in the regular series are included here as well, which simply put means that you will get to throw grenades into 'emergence holes', there's adrenaline-fueled dialogue, and you get to meet bosses who seem drawn from the world of horror. In addition, it offers familiar enemies, weapons, equipment and much more. However, it never feels like fan service; this is Gears of War for real, and much of the adventure feels more like the original trilogy than parts four and five have (for us, at least), which is interesting when you consider that this is a strategy game and not a third-person actioner.
So, hats off to Splash Damage, which has shown real ambition when bringing Gears Tactics to life, rather than just leaning into the brand's popularity. It has resulted in a game where every move is exciting and where there are always multiple options. In fact, it's a game that we suspect will have an impact on how the genre develops in the future. Sure, there are some less successful elements, such as the overly busy customisation of your troops between missions and the fact that the enemy sometimes gets a little too unpredictable, however, overall this is one that we heartily recommend for both strategy and Gears fans alike.