When Microsoft announced a tactical Gears of War game in the vein of XCOM, I believe many were like me in thinking: this is a match made in heaven. Gears of War has the enemy variety, the weapon variety, and inherent cover focused gameplay to make the transition from third person shooter to a tactical strategy game. I had blind faith that The Coalition and Splash Damage were going to execute on the tactical layer. Instead, my focus on how the strategic layer was going to function in the context of Gears of War.
I knew Gears Tactics was going to take place shortly after the COG disseminated their own cities in a failed effort to snuff out the Locusts. The idea of building up a small army to fight back against the Locusts made was a suitable premise that wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the aliens invading Earth in XCOM. I thought there would even be a research and development element considering the fact that Gears 5 had upgrades to tech. The Baird of this prequel era could have been the head of R&D, for example.
To my surprise, a meaningful strategic layer was absent. I initially thought Gears Tactics would have been fine without one because other games like Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle fared very well with just a simple character management layer.
Gears Tactics focused on their cast of named characters for story missions while customizable nobodies filled out the roster for side missions. I originally set out to play the game at the intermediate difficulty with Ironman mode on, but that turned out to be a mistake. If a named character like Gabriel Diaz or Sid Redburn died in battle, the game was over — save file deleted. Turns out character story driven games are a lot tougher to play through when you have VIPs to progress with.
I initially found the level of challenge fair on the intermediate difficulty. The different mixes of classes, objectives, and maps kept me on my toes for about a third of the game. It didn’t take long before I started to see familiar scenarios crop up. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was no stranger to these mission reruns, but they had a bigger pool of scenarios and locales to draw from.
Weapons, equipment, and armor were necessary to keep pace with the growing challenge that was the Locust horde. However, focusing on maximizing grenades proved to be far too effective for me to give it up. Chaining executions for increased action points via classic chainsaws, curb stomping or bayonet charges gave Gears Tactics a puzzle element that was very reminiscent of Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. If played correctly, an entire squad of Locusts could be cleared before they took a shot. It may sound broken, but it’s also incredibly satisfying.
Those moments of self-gratification were dampened by the fact that many of the Locusts enemy units charged blindly towards the Gears. All I had to do was setup in a choke position and watch them all succumb to overwatch gun fire. This strategy worked far too often in regular mission encounters. Boss battles were a different beast altogether and were the game’s highlight moments. They took the Brumak and Corpser and made them even more satisfying to fight than in Gears of War proper. Mixing fodder units with the giant boss’ far reaching attacks and shifting strategies kept these encounters engaging throughout. After facing off with the Brumak in Act 1, I played through the rest of game hoping for more that. Unfortunately, there were only two other bosses that capped off each of the remaining acts.
I initially theorized Gears Tactics was so focused on its core action because they wanted to focus the Gears of War fan’s attention to it. I believed they didn’t want to muddy the experience with geeky R&D distractions and the like, but by the end of it all, I simply believe the developers needed more resources to make this brilliant union truly sing. There relatively minor issues with unit pathfinding causing said units to get stuck on things, but the most glaring issue is the lack of variety to sustain such a long game. It felt like they had an act’s worth of gameplay and story ideas and stretched out into three overly long acts.
It was okay