[Review code was provided by Microsoft]

I will admit that I love the Gears of War franchise, not only for how much fun it is with some interesting storytelling, but also because of how much of a staple its mechanics have become in the industry. Action games have borrowed inspiration from the series for decades (perfect reloading, cover shooting, hold button to focus on event). Sadly, whilst others have evolved due to that, GOW itself has been stuck on a template, and whilst Gears of War 5 did try to improve on the formula, it wasn’t as drastic as what Halo 4, or especially Halo 5 did for the Halo series. So, you can imagine my excitement when Gears: Tactics was announced, as it looked to be a much-needed variety for the series.

Gears: Tactics is a turn-based strategy experience akin to games like X-Com and Syndicate. It is a prequel, taking place before the events of the original GOW, following the story of Gabe Diaz, father of Gears of War 4 and protagonist Kate Diaz as he goes on the hunt for Ukkon, a formidable and ruthless locust scientist hell-bent on improving their monstrous ranks.

So, as you can imagine, the game plays quite differently to the traditional GOW games, this time putting you in control of a top down perspective with a squad of 4 to command across different maps. As I mentioned before, the game is similar to products like XCOM, where players take turns with the enemy, with a set number of actions that dictate what players can and can’t do each turn. However, with some innovative improvements to iconic strategy mechanics, mixed with the expansive arsenal of Gears’ varied enemies and fast paced action makes this a cut above the standard.

“innovative improvements to iconic strategy mechanics, mixed with the expansive arsenal of Gears’ varied enemies and fast paced action makes this a cut above the standard.”

My most used mechanic from the game is easily Overwatch, which like most other turn-based games, lets you put one of your members in an “alert” phase at the expense of your remaining action points, attacking anything that might come near during the enemy’s turn. The essence of that is present here as well, but the highlight is giving you more control compared to other strategy games. The welcome difference here is that you have to drag a cone from where the character is standing, giving you a focus for where they will be looking over. Comparatively, this gives you more strategic freedom as you can choose to watch over potential enemy flanks or cover teammates back who might be exposed.

The Overwatch cone works to the strength of different weapons, giving you a wider cone for something with less accuracy range (lancer) and vice versa for something like a sniper. This works well because with a Sniper you would want to focus on a very specific enemy, pinning them down to cover a certain flank, whilst with a lancer it is helpful to have a wider spray range to interrupt enemy actions. Even the movement here is free-form and not locked on a grid like most games, giving you control over each facet of the battlefield. The absence of these in other strategy games has always been frustrating for me, with units performing actions that I did not plan for. Due to this, the payoff from the freedom to navigate and defend is satisfying as you see enemies get mowed down when they try and get close to you or perform any sort of action. In fact, I would be happy to say that satisfying payoffs are one of the game’s recurring strongpoints, as there are multiple mechanics built with that in mind.

“the movement here is free-form and not locked on a grid like most games, giving you control over each facet of the battlefield.”

One such mechanic is the execution. If you have played the more recent GOW games, then you would have come across the brutal executions you can perform if you down an enemy by kicking them out of cover and interact with them. The same is present here but in a manner that complements the flow of this game. Unlike the standard games, where you must kick someone out of cover, Tactics allows for a chance that your attack will critically injure an enemy, bringing them to their knees.

These are not only fantastic opportunities to satisfyingly dispatch your enemies with iconic GOW finishers, but also lifelines to get you out of tough spots. On average you start each turn with 3 available actions points, allowing you to do 3 basic actions. Different abilities have their own action requirements, with something like overwatch having one, and more advanced abilities requiring more on top of cooldown’s. What execution does is it gives everyone except for the person executing another action point. It is a very simple addition, but executions can turn the tides to your favour if used strategically. It really highlights a pillar of the game, which is “Executions Create Actions“. These points come in even more handy when you start considering the strengths of the different classes you command as they each have unique abilities with different requirements, so you have to think about who will benefit the most/least when picking someone to perform the execution.

“Each character class has their own set of skills that you can unlock if they gain enough experience, and can be outfitted with different equipment and gear”

The game allows you to recruit and customise your characters and depending on whether they are the main cast can even be visually modified. Some missions will require you to select certain members for story or cut-scene reasons whilst others will limit them. Each character class has their own set of skills that you can unlock if they gain enough experience, and can be outfitted with different equipment and gear, each with their own sets of benefits that you can find in crates littered throughout missions.

The crates have been a huge selling point for the game, with the developers stating “all the loot, none of the microtransaction” as a marketing point, which rings true as the game does not feature any upgrades that need to be bought with real money cosmetic or otherwise. It is a refreshing change of pace, as the last 2 GOW games have drawn the ire of fans for the amount of microtransactions they contain. The crates are placed around missions, where you must sacrifice an ability point to pick them up and are rewarded for completing certain challenge objectives. These can contain both armour and weapon parts to modify your arsenal. These pieces, however, are shared amongst your roster so you can’t outfit multiple people with the same unlock.

Cover based fighting is the essence of GOW with a lot of mechanics that revolve around it, so I must mention its use here. I am glad to see that rather than just throw in a cover system reducing enemy’s percentage of targeting you like other strategy games, they do more with it, allowing you to actually move a bit further if you target a cover. It’s a simple modification but one that reinforces and encourages the use of series’ cover to cover gameplay.

“I am glad to see that rather than just throw in a cover system reducing enemy’s percentage of targeting you like other strategy games, they do more with it”

Another staple to return in this game are the gruesome melee kills that you can perform either with a lancer chainsaw or a retro lancer bayonet. This is an ability of its own with a 3 turn cooldown, that requires a clear line of sight to use, making it another welcome addition balanced towards this game, with the instant kill giving you just as much of an edge and drawback as you’d expect.

The game features all the popular Locust enemies as well, with most sharing abilities with the players, like Overwatch for example, which works just as the players would but against them. Fortunately, like all good strategy titles, the game provides you with a counter for most abilities. To give an example with Overwatch, when an enemy activates this ability, you see a similar cone emanate from them as yours does, but in red. In the following player’s turn, if any of your soldiers were to get anywhere inside the cone, they will get shot. It can be a dangerous thing when multiple enemies have the same soldier or vantage point targeted.

This would mean that you will have to use someone outside their range and select their pistol to use the “Disabling Shot” ability, which interrupts your targeted enemy, cancelling their Overwatch. Just this simple action alone manages to solve two challenges: A, it gives you a fighting chance against the enemy’s abilities and B, it makes sure you switch to your sidearm so that it doesn’t go unused. Reloading is also present here but interestingly as an ability, meaning that you can run out of ammo, and must spend a point do so. This is another action that encourages you to switch weapons.

“everything here is much more deadly if you try and play around it like its shooter variant.”

The enemies are each played to their strengths here, with different series variants such as Drones, Grenadiers and Wretches making their return. They behave like you’d expect, with enemies entering the battlefield not only from out of sight, but also through E-Holes. I will admit, whilst these have always been strong parts of the original games, halfway through the campaign I stop throwing grenades in to close them, and just focus on my sheer firepower with the more powerful guns I find. It doesn’t disrupt my play-style.

However, everything here is much more deadly if you try and play around it like its shooter variant. Not only do you have to spend an ability point and risk cooldown for your grenades by throwing them, but you must do so quickly, as the number of enemies can easily overwhelm you. The game does give you a warning by showing you cracks forming on the ground, alerting you to what will happen in the next turn. These situations kept me on my toes, and made me assess my play-style throughout.

The same amount of care must be given with different variants of enemies as well, as you can’t easily run circles around them, and it becomes crucial to target the right enemies with the right abilities or risk quick death. The sniper makes its way towards the end of act 1 but does so in a menacing capacity. If it pins a character, you can throw your planned strategies away and divert your attention to preventing its shot instead, which can take a massive chunk of health away from your soldiers if left unchecked. The game throws these curveballs to maintain the game’s difficulty, and as soon as I started taking it easy a new enemy variant was introduced.

“The first boss fight was the first big difficulty spike in the game, that really made me use all my abilities. Because of this, it was immensely fun and rewarding when I finally did take it out after a long fight.”

The enemy type I was most looking forward to see here were the bosses. Bosses aren’t common in games like these, and even if they are, they end up behaving just like every other enemy but with more health. This is why I am glad the bosses here are much more unique and game changing. The first boss you will encounter is the Brumak, a boss that has been present in other GOW entries. You know how I mentioned the term “game changing”? I really want to emphasise that as the Brumak isn’t limited to turns like you’d expect. Like in the traditional games, you must target its back to do damage. The same has to be done here, but the difference here is that each hit makes him turn towards its recent assailant DURING a player’s turn. Not to mention, the Brumak is able shoot rockets in the air at the end of each turn, highlighting with circles where they will fall during the enemy’s next turn, and these points as you might have guessed are close to your soldiers.

This introduced an interesting dynamic, where I had to really count my actions available and keep moving each turn unless I wanted to get blown away. I also had to ensure that I had characters on both sides so that whenever the monster would turn, I would always get a shot. However, this also meant I had to be careful where the Brumak was facing at the end of my turn, as it would then target the closest enemies it was facing. So, I had to ensure that no one on low health was taking the last shot during my turn. The first boss fight was the first big difficulty spike in the game, which really made me use all my abilities. Because of this, it was immensely fun and rewarding when I finally did take it out after a long fight.

I will admit however, that I wasn’t a fan of the overwatch ability being useless against the boss, and felt that the E-Holes appearing during the fight with wretches was overkill and went against what the developers wanted me to do by posting soldiers on each side, as they would usually make me funnel my characters instead. The Rockets, attacks and pivoting barely left any points on their own. Not to mention, Wretches whilst easy to kill don’t give you a chance for a finisher, which took away my point accumulation opportunities when I needed them the most. I believe the level could have been better designed as well, with certain shortcuts providing easier passage around the boss’s attack.

“I wasn’t a fan of the overwatch ability being useless against the boss, and felt that the E-Holes appearing during the fight with wretches was overkill and went against what the developers wanted me to do”

There are a few more issues I faced with the game, such as the UI overlay at the bottom obscuring parts of my screen after selecting an ability to use, and certain ability cooldown’s being a little too long without indication when they were available again. This made me overlook them or not want to use them. The major gripe I had with this game perhaps was that I couldn’t cancel a player’s overwatch action. As soon as you click on it, you commit to it at the cost of your remaining action points. I found myself accidentally activating it with a sensitive keyboard or targeting the cone wrongly due to the cone glitching when using it from an elevated position. For that reason, it would have been nice to have an undo button, as the checkpoint feature whilst helpful does reset too much progress at times.

Other than this, I had no other issues with the control scheme, as most of what you’d expect from a strategy control scheme is present here. Xbox controllers are fully supported as well, with support for button re-mapping that lets you make a comfortable scheme suited to your needs. The Xbox One version has yet to release, so I won’t be surprised if more work is being done for how the game will be controller via a controller.

Gears: Tactics has been so much fun to play. With its robust systems and balanced mechanics that come to form a thinking man’s ballad of violence, it shattered my expectations in a positive manner and was addictive to play throughout. Since this is going to be on Xbox Game Pass, I can wholeheartedly recommend this even to those who have yet to play a turn-based strategy game, since there couldn’t be a more refined starting point. Gears: Tactics is worthy of both the iconic legacy of its name and the adopted genre it’s now playing in.