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Sniper Mykala, Support Gabe, and Vanguard Sid — all main characters in Gears Tactics — take the battlefield during a cutscene. Smoke flows on the ground while yellow light blooms behind them. Image: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

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Gears Tactics gets the turn-based fundamentals right, but isn’t consistently fun

The presentation is stunning, but the gameplay is uneven

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Gears of War games are at their best when players are pushing forward, chewing through the Locust horde with chainsaw bayonets. The same is true for Gears Tactics, the franchise’s first ever turn-based strategy game.

But the moment that developer Splash Damage asks players to stand still — whether it’s for a drawn-out boss battle, a defensive mission, or simply to peruse the menu system — the illusion falls apart.

Gears Tactics lacks the pacing that makes the iconic third-person shooters so much fun to play, and it’s weighed down by a reliance on stunt missions that detract from its otherwise solid fundamentals.

A very different gameplay loop

A locust leader holds a COG soldier by the throat near the end of act one of Gears Tactics Image: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

Gears Tactics is played from an overhead perspective, with Coalition of Ordered Government, or COG, soldiers and the evil Locust forces each taking their turns before moving to the next round of play. Things bounce back and forth until one side is eliminated, or until that particular mission’s objectives are met.

Gears Tactics might look like a clever clone of Firaxis’ XCOM games, but it’s something else entirely. There’s no grid that provides strict rules for how units can move, so the game actually has more in common with miniatures-based wargames and skirmish systems like Bolt Action, Infinity, and Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team.

That subtle difference gives Gears Tactics the fluidity of movement — referred to as “horizontal platforming” by its developers — that drives the Gears franchise. Units snap into cover, use attacks of opportunity on passing enemies, and generally flit around the board in a very Gearsian way.

But Gears Tactics is bogged down by the same sort of rules-heavy minutiae that can drive casual players away from systems like Warhammer 40,000. Gears Tactics features few of the game-changing abilities common in modern XCOM titles, and instead offers far more incremental upgrades for each of its five character classes. There’s just not much to differentiate a Vanguard from a Support soldier in the first third of the game. Both of them get three actions and a gun.

An early mission in Gears Tactics asks players to defend a group of civilians on a broken down emulsion mining rig. Here a team of four COGs makes a desperate last stand, back to back outside the rig. Image: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

The same can be said of the game’s endless stream of equipment, offered in the form of weapon mods and bits of armor. I stopped getting excited with pickups a few hours in, mainly because another 5% here or there doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The opening hours were a bit dire, in fact, with gear that didn’t get me excited to try it out and soldiers that all pretty much felt the same.

But then I started to understand what the game needs from me to come to life. Gears Tactics relies on a nested series of buffs to generate additional actions during the player turn, and to give the action some momentum. If you do something cool during your turn, you will be rewarded for it, and that reward will keep your soldiers fighting.

Pinion a Locust on your old-school bayonet? Take another shot. Nail a sniper shot at long range? Reload your weapon and take a few more shots. Execute a downed enemy? Everyone on your side gets another action. You can run roughshod over the enemy by chaining your successful attacks together, even against impossible odds. Toss in some deft work with a hand grenade or two and it’s mission accomplished. Learning how to keep things rolling so the enemy barely has a chance to respond feels good, and brings the game the weighty feeling of power and capacity for violence that made the originals so satisfying.

Gears Tactics holds up the franchises standards for visual quality, as well. Cutscenes were indistinguishable to my eye from those in Gears 5, as were some of the animations. Every map includes a fully rotatable camera, and the lighting and the textures are all top notch. In fact, this is the only turn-based tactics game that I’ve ever played that comes with its own benchmarking system.

Behind the curtain

A player lines up a lancer run on an unsuspecting locust drone. A blue track, like a ruler, extends from the friendly unit towards the targeted enemy. Image: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

But the game falls apart when it tries to create a cohesive, unified experience. The wires holding everything together are too often visible, and it wrecks what little immersion Gears Tactics manages to build up.

When things are going well for your side, the game can sometimes fail to provide a tone that matches where you are in a level. Soldiers will crack wise with a tense bark, or command new recruits to act more like soldiers. Everyone needs to man up and stay frosty! Meanwhile, the board is completely empty, and you’re just killing time for a few rounds before another wave of enemies invariably drops from the sky. My team never seemed to be as connected to what was going on as I’m used to from other games.

Missions will sometimes stop on a dime, ripping you out of the game too suddenly. It may happen because you’ve failed to protect a main character and need to start over, but sometimes you’ve just accumulated enough of a resource to fulfill the objective and trigger the cutscene, which ends the round instantly. This can happen just when it feels like the mission is just getting good, and during those moments it almost feels like my reward for doing well is taken away. I won the mission, and to celebrate that win everything just kinda … ends?

Players battling a giant Brumak. The beast shows tens of thousands of points of armor. Previous enemies only had hundreds, maybe a thousand points. Red circles show where it’s powerful missiles will land. Image: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

This happened more than once — another Boomer had come up from an emergence hole, or an avenue of escape was suddenly blocked off by some explosive Tickers. I wish that Gears Tactics was able to sustain those fun gameplay moments in a way that let me play out whatever would have happened next, rather than kicking me out and making me start over with a new mission while I’m stuck feeling like I wasn’t able to properly bring the last section to a close.

Not all missions are created equal. As I mentioned above, Gears Tactics — just like every other Gears of War game — is best when you’re on the move. Defensive missions in this turn-based adaptation tend to drag on and on, once again killing any sense of momentum or fun.

An early boss battle, fought against a massive, troll-like monster called a Brumak, is especially dull. With no lesser enemies on the screen, it’s nearly impossible to trigger abilities that give your soldiers additional actions. Instead of leaping from cover to cover, I was stuck limping into the corners of the map to try and catch my breath.

Meanwhile, I was forced to sit through the same cinematic of the Brumak firing its shoulder-mounted missile launchers more than a dozen times, dragging out the dull experience of whittling down its health. I didn’t celebrate when it finally fell, I just happened to be done with an encounter that felt like an endless drag.

The menus that players use between missions are also poorly designed. That’s especially true of the equipment system, which buries all of your available kit four menus deep. Say that you want to rebuild your lancer, the classic Gears of War rifle with a chainsaw attachment. To find our what your options are for the ammunition magazine, for instance, you have to drill all the way down to the last menu in the chain to see what’s available. Repeat the process for the stock, the weapon sight, and the barrel and it becomes an incredibly tedious process.

Red arrows indicate if you’ve picked up anything new for that item category since the last mission.
Clicking on a weapon the arrows persist. Here there’s a new stock on offer. Which one though?

There are at least four other weapons in the game, meaning that you’ve got to do this dance dozens of times ahead of each mission to try and stack up the best incremental bonuses for your troops. I would have much rather had the ability to strip every soldier down to their skivvies and dress them up for every mission, instead of playing this dreary game of Tetris trying to figure out how to best spread all the available equipment around.

Maybe the new one is at the top of the list? Hard to say. I like the one at the bottom though.
Coleen is already using it, so I have to swap with her. Repeat process for every mod, every mission.

The fundamentals of Gears Tactics work, but Gears 5 did much more than just work. It pushed the formula forward.

Moving and shooting and cutting up Locusts is a good time, even in a turn-based system, but that’s not enough to sustain an entire game. Every other element of the game — from the class system to the perks, to the way that missions and UI elements are designed — needs more refinement and care.

This is a near miss, but as anyone who has ever played a turn-based game will tell you, a near miss can be all the enemy needs to take you out. This is an interesting, but hardly essential, addition to the Gears family.

Gears Tactics will be released April 28 for Windows PC via Steam, the Windows 10 app store, and via Xbox Game Pass for PC. The game was reviewed using final “retail” Windows PC download codes provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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