The last game I played in the Gears franchise was Gears of War 2. I enjoyed the first two games, but definitely fell off and focused on other games and franchises over the past 12 years. Gears Tactics, however, has pulled me right back in.
Gears Tactics splits the difference between its franchise namesake and the fan-favorite strategy series it pointedly takes inspiration from, XCOM. Gears of War has always been about burly soldiers that physically dwarf Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The big-builded dominantly-men hide in waist-high cover, and then charge out to rip and tear alien foes apart with chainsaw bayonets. In Gears Tactics, those root concepts translate over to an isometric strategy game rather easily, especially the idea of fighting primarily from cover.
Gears Tactics lends its own flavor to the tactics genre in two distinct ways. The first is that it has a decidedly narrative bent, something that XCOM has largely avoided. (XCOM's latest release, the spin-off XCOM: Chimera Squad, tries on a narrative for size, however.) It follows the exploits of Gabe Diaz, the father of Gears 5 heroine Kait Diaz. The elder Diaz is a former soldier working in the COG motorpool, following the events of the Gears of War: Bloodlines novel. (Transmedia!) Ignoring his wishes, Chairman Prescott sends Gabe and hardened veteran Sid Redburn on a mission to kill Ukkon, a Locust scientist who's mutating his kind into new forms.
The plot isn't the deepest, but it never is with Gears, so that's not a problem. It's big damn heroes all the way down the line, with impossibly ripped men and women growling out sad backstories and catchy one-liners. Gears Tactics' main contribution to the lore is in providing a bit more color to the Outsiders, a group that appeared in Gears of War 4 and Gears 5, firmly planting it within the modern era of Gears storytelling under The Coalition. If you enjoy Gears lore, you'll be right as rain. For everyone else, it's mostly just fun seeing your cosmetic choices in slick cutscenes.
The Gauntlet of Gore
The second addition is the hyper-aggressive nature of the entire Gears franchise. Yes, you'll be hiding around cover a lot of the time, but Gears Tactics wants you to fight a whole lot more than you would in other tactics games. Gears Tactics throws a ton of enemies in your direction with initial groups of five to 10 enemies, frequently bringing with them equally sized groups of reinforcements. It honestly feels like the developers are trying to infuse Gears Tactics with the spirit of Horde Mode. The number of enemies even makes the normally-strong and defensive Overwatch mechanic, where your units shoot at enemies within a vision cone you set, less powerful over the course of the campaign. No time for defending here, as Gears Tactics wants you moving forward, aggressively attacking and executing your foes.
It can get tiring at times though, which is related to the tuning of some missions. Sometimes I thought I was done clearing the battlefield, only for another group of reinforcements to drop in from a flying Reaver, or pop out from an Emergence Hole. Take the side missions, which are seemingly inspired by past Gears multiplayer modes like Domination—these sometimes have endless reinforcements until the mission objective is complete.
There are also the boss fights, which likewise feel much longer than they should. The first boss fight was a good 40 minutes of fighting tacked onto an already lengthy mission; the boss mechanics were interesting, but the fight itself was too long and the groups of reinforcements that dropped every two to three turns merely increased the tedium. They'd pop up, I'd rush over and destroy them immediately, throwing a grenade into the emergence hole if need be, and then get back to the actual boss fight. I understand the need for them, as the boss fight would've gotten boring otherwise, but I question the frequency, which made them little more than an annoyance.
Gears Tactics does try to even the playing field by offering your soldiers more aggressive momentum. Your squad members all start a turn with three action points, which can be used for any mix of attacks, skills, and moves, making it a far more mobile game overall. But not only are there a number of skills that offer more actions per turn across each class—Support, Vanguard, Scout, Sniper, and Heavy—there are also Executions that can be used against enemies with low enough health. These attacks are available to every soldier, allowing you to chainsaw an enemy apart, or crush them with your machine gun.
Performing an execution offers everybody else in the squad an additional action point. This is the key for keeping that momentum up, creating a chain of executions between all the squad members in order to keep your whirling machine of bloody murder going. When the execution chain comes together, it feels amazing, and entirely in sync with Gears' shooter origins.
It's here where Gears Tactics absolutely sells you on its vision of strategic combat. When the Locust pop up from an emergence hole into my Overwatch net, it shreds the weakest soldiers and causes the heartier contenders to stumble. Then I follow that with a Bayonet Charge from my Vanguard and a few executions, if any enemy has taken a knee. This fuels the rest of the squad, full up on action points, who execute the stragglers or take them down with a well-placed shot. An entire enemy squad, reduced to a bloody mess of body parts over a single turn. It's like having an entire squad of Reapers in XCOM 2, but it's the entire game, and it's goddamn great.
Outfitting the Squad
One thing I love about strategy games is the option to dive in and make characters that resemble your friends, family, and colleagues. Gears provides this with a number of color options, metal and pattern types for your armor and weapons, and the ability to rename your soldiers. There's also a number of facial customization options.
But for some reason, you lack full control over the non-story characters. The overall face type and gender of a soldier is locked in from recruitment; you can change everything else, but those are also oddly fixed. If you get a big dude as a Scout, and you want a different face, or maybe a lady instead, you'll have to wait until that option pops up in recruitment. Likewise, the soldier call signs in Gears Tactics are from a static list, with no ability to input a call sign of your own.
The weapon and armor system, on the other hand, is a big positive. It's based around loot box-style cases that you get for finishing missions, or that you find strewn around the battlefield. There is no real-money system in Gears Tactics, so while the rewards are random and the cases have different rarities, they're not exactly the same. The weapon mods and armor you find in the cases offer a host of bonuses and unique passive skills for one class; combined with the class skill trees, there's a lot of room to push your squad members in different directions. The gear also feels a bit more meaningful than researched equipment in XCOM 2, because you never know when you're going to find another mod with the same properties. There's an excitement to opening a case and seeing who on your squad is going to get a prize.
I've played a number of games that have come for XCOM's throne over the years, from Phoenix Point to The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics. To me, Gears Tactics is the best of the bunch so far. It's a fantastic-looking title that not only gives the tactics genre a slightly different focus, but stays true to its origins in a way that Halo Wars, for all its strengths, does not. I'm equally impressed to find this coming from Splash Damage, a studio that has largely worked on first-person shooters for its entire history.
All told, Gears Tactics is a damned good strategy game. Leaning into alpha strikes and a Gears-inspired, aggressive style of play pays off, seemingly establishing the foundation for another great tactics strategy franchise. No matter where your allegiances lie, Gears Tactics is a bloody good time.
The gap between Gears and the isometric strategy genre popularized by XCOM isn't that wide, based around cover and squad action. Gears Tactics finds its niche by leaning further into the hyper-aggressive action and gore of the franchise. It throws tons of enemies at you, which forces you to move and keeps you on your toes, but can also become annoying and tedious in some missions. For a first-time outing though, Gears Tactics is a fantastic start.