Back in the halcyon days of the Xbox 360, the Gears trilogy was king. Since then, however, the franchise has troublingly hobbled along, trying desperately to remain relevant, while its soft series reboot has struggled to really capture the imagination of the gaming world at all.
The latest installment to the series, however, mixes things up and comes as a welcome reprieve to a gameplay formula that has unsurprisingly turned a bit stale after undergoing very little evolution since 2006. British developer Splash Damage brings a fresh new take to the franchise with Gears Tactics, a game that takes the classic cover system of the series to a place that makes all too much sense—a turn-based, tactical Shooter, much in the vein of the popular XCOM games.
XCOM is very clearly the blueprint for Gears Tactics, which is fine if you are already a fan of that style of game. With Tactics, you take control of a Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) team and embark on various types of missions where you’ll need to guide your squad through waves of Locust forces. Much like XCOM,you will recruit to that squad, level and upgrade your favourite soldiers, and likely be crestfallen when your favourite sniper dies a permadeath.
I can only keep referring to XCOM because so much of Tactics is exactly XCOM, only with a fairly ugly Gears skin placed over the top. Fans of turn-based Shooters will find little new here. The soldiers have a number of action points per turn, which dictate how far they can move and what abilities they may use per turn. The abilities themselves are fairly standard to any XCOM-type game, although some things, like the lancer play and how the execution system works, are nicely done and fit well within the Gears framework.
Additionally, fans of Gears will find all their favourite weapons, like the Boomshot and Torque Bow, and Tactics does do well in transposing the satisfying little details that made the gunplay fun in Gears in the first place. For example, one of the best units for any mission is the sniper class, whose headshots come with that patented, satisfying Gears head pop.
The class types are your standards: healer, heavy, sniper, the close-combat type, etc.—although, quite honestly, the only two you probably ever need for any mission are the heavy and the sniper. They are far and away the most fun to play and the best for basically any situation. Although, to its credit, the game does have a system for ensuring that you do rotate your roster and try everything—no matter how much you might pine for a dream team of deadly snipers!
Aside from that, though, the very things that make it a Gears game actually dull it down a bit. There are a few main characters who must survive for the story, and each of them is the same kind of boring, archetypal, big-meat-man/hard-ass-woman guilty of all Gears games. You have your old veteran soldier, whose personality is just to remain grumpy and always a second away from channelling Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon throughout; then the main hero, Sgt. Gabriel Diaz, is just a blander Marcus Fenix with very little charisma beyond “doing what is right.”
As typical, too, of the Gears franchise, every character interaction must fit into one of two opposite poles. The characters must be forever mired in a conversation of grim misery and vowing angered revenge, or they must exude an overt machismo and play a steroid-bound clown, whooping and hollering their way through a genocidal war. There is no in-between, and, by this point, it plays as very trite.
Since these characters are difficult to buy into, their stories become even less interesting and really only boil down to the same thing we’ve seen over again from Gears. There is a “big bad” to kill, and the COG themselves are (surprise, surprise) not quite to be trusted.
Now, to the game itself. Tactics is fun enough to warrant Splash Damage’s new direction. However, its main issue lies in its capacity to stretch itself out needlessly beyond its bounds, serving only to actually magnify its limitations and bring the game into the territory of eventually feeling like a slog to finish.
The campaign is split into three Acts, and each Act is broken down into six to eight chapters. Each chapter is a story mission; however, intercut between every few chapters are sets of compulsory side missions to do, which is where the game starts to drag itself down.
For the side missions, there are a set number of different level types you can run: defend a control point, rescue prisoners, blow up an objective, etc. The problem is that you will keep coming back to these side missions over and over again, and each objective type only has a very limited set of map variants that may come with only very slight differences and difficulties. So be prepared to run through the same level another dozen or so times because these side missions crop up far too much and slow the whole game down massively.
With this, it often feels like you are actually watching the budget constraints of the development play out in real time. By attempting to flesh out the game and make it seem more extensive beyond its capacity, Splash Damage has inadvertently exposed its uglier, bare bones, which is a shame because a much tighter campaign would have been enjoyable enough to consider coming back in for a replay. As it is, however, I was just relieved to finally be done with it.
Unfortunately, this feels like an opportunity missed for Tactics and Splash Damage only because of a few specific choices made. I imagine many may have fun with the game in short but will be unlikely to see it through to its end.
Overall, Gears Tactics does get enough right to make it worth giving it a shot if you are a fan of the genre, or, if you’re not, it may be a nice entry point anyway. And since it is currently free on Game Pass for Windows and Xbox, you fortunately don’t have to throw too much investment into it anyway, which is maybe how this game is better approached.