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Considering it popularised the cover shooter on console, the Gears of War series slowing down even further into a turn-based tactical game isn't such a surprising move. What is surprising is just how well that adaptation works.
Set before the original Gears of War, but after Emergence Day, when the Locust armies began seizing control from the humans on the planet of Sera, Gears Tactics puts you in command of a squad of COG soldiers hunting down a Locust scientist called Ukkon. You've limited resources and troops, so the campaign first has you trying to find recruits and train them up for the battle against a much larger force.
The fundamentals of Gears Tactics are very simple. You command a squad of up to four soldiers in battlefields full of cover and heavily armed enemies. Your troops start each turn with three action points that can be spent however you'd like on movement, attacks, or abilities. So, you could have a character use all their points to sprint across the battlefield into a good position for the start of next turn, or stay where they are and use all the points on attacks, or most likely a blend of the two.
Soldiers in Gears Tactics are broken up into multiple classes - supports, vanguards, scouts, heavys, and snipers - which each have access to a different main weapon and skill tree. All the weapons are pulled from the main games, so your damage-healing supports will be toting a chainsaw-equipped Lancer, while your stealthy scouts can get up close and personal to use their Gnasher Shotgun.
As you'd expect, each class has specific strengths and weaknesses. The heavy, for instance, is armed with a very powerful but inaccurate Mulcher Machine Gun - but thanks to a passive skill called 'anchored', it becomes more accurate with every shot it fires from the same position, making it fantastic for holding the line against a wave of oncoming enemies. However, as soon as the heavy moves, it loses that accuracy bonus and must start again from scratch.
While the XCOM series might be the first comparison that comes to mind, Gears Tactics is much more similar to Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. All the three games have turn-based tactical battles, but XCOM is restrictive in how far your troops can move and how many actions they can perform. However, in the later missions of Gears Tactics, like in Mario + Rabbids, your troops are able to perform many actions and move great distances in a single turn if you play thoughtfully. This is all down to the skills your characters can unlock and how they combine with other members of the squad.
For instance, I had one turn where I used two of my sniper's action points to move it onto high ground over a group of Locusts and spent the final action point shooting one of the drones. The drone was downed, not killed, opening them up to be executed. I had a vanguard nearby - a class that's basically a bulldozer with a bayonet - charge into one of the drones near the downed enemy, picking up an extra action for using their charge attack.
With that extra action I executed the downed drone, a move that awards an extra action point to everyone on the squad. That then allowed the sniper to use its 'chain shot' ability - a skill that, if it hits its target, awards them two extra action points to be used immediately - and with those extra points I was able to wipe out all the Locust below.
With up to four soldiers in your squad, late-game missions can be a wonderful puzzle of working out the best way to maximise how many action points you can amass by combining your squad's different abilities and then pouring them out in a wave of considered violence. This is encouraged in many missions' optional objectives, pushing you to try to kill eight or more enemies in a single turn. I found that how many enemies I could kill in a single turn was really only limited by how many enemies I faced. There was often not enough meat for my squad's grinder.
Another reason to avoid the XCOM comparison is that Gears Tactics has a much more straightforward campaign. You're on a mission to take down Ukkon, a Locust scientist who's causing havoc in a region where COG forces are limited, and in a linear story made up of main missions and a selection of side missions you build an army of rescued soldiers and surly civilians to assassinate him. There's no grand strategy map or base management, this is a more traditional campaign and it makes Gears Tactics quite pacy as a result.
If you've ever been put off by the scale of games like XCOM and Phoenix Point, games that demand many hours of your time - time that can be lost deep into a campaign, forcing a complete restart - then Tactics is much more forgiving. You can still lose missions, your soldiers can die and be gone forever, but you won't find yourself in a position where you need to restart the whole campaign.
While Gears Tactics could serve as a great introduction to the more traditional and brutal turn-based tactical games that inspired it, it shouldn't be seen as just a stepping stone. It's a brilliant adaptation of the Gears universe into a new genre, and the freedom of movement and action that comes in its late-game is hard to find elsewhere. Developer Splash Damage has found a wonderful sweet spot of thoughtfulness and violent reward, where the battlefield becomes a challenging puzzle which once cracked unravels with bayonet charges, chainsaw dismemberments, and exploding heads.
Gears Tactics is out April 28th for PC. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
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