The XCOM of It All
The gameplay is not simple, and that’s just the way I like it. There are a lot of systems at play that are understandable for sure, but even in the first few missions, I knew the “tactics” in Gears Tactics’ name wasn’t just for show; I was pleased with how much I felt like I needed to learn strategically when I first jumped in. Unsurprisingly, Gears Tactics shares a lot of mechanics with XCOM. If you’re familiar with turn-based tactics games, especially XCOM, you’ll know that means each unit gets a set number of actions per turn, every character is assigned a class with its own set of abilities with cooldowns, weapon and skill upgrades, and plenty of stressful situations where a single hit chance can make or break an entire strategy.
Gears Tactics shares other important mechanics and abilities with XCOM, too – some of which are a perfect fit for a Gears game. I was delighted to see a prominent shield icon showing whether or not a spot provided complete, partial, or no cover, and an icon that shows whether or not you’ll be visible to enemies from that position. These were helpful when it came to playing against an important ability that both you and the enemy have: Overwatch.
Units can use overwatch on their turn to monitor an area and shoot anything that comes in range during the other team’s turn, so long as there are still bullets in their gun. Corridors get tight in some situations, and enemies using overwatch can make getting around them without taking damage an interesting challenge. There are tools to stagger enemies out of overwatch, but since those tools also go on cooldown, I was usually forced to get creative – or counter their overwatch with one or two of my own.
And the Important Gears Parts
But for all the XCOM in Gears Tactics, it’s certainly not just a Gears-themed reskin. It’s clear Gears Tactics developers Splash Damage and The Coalition prioritized not only making things interesting for Gears fans, but also making its own brand of tactics maintain good ties with the third-person shooter. For one thing, Gears Tactics developers stated time and time again that they made sure speed was a priority, which they’ve done by giving each unit three action points per move instead of two. This was noticeable; rather than having to choose between reloading, moving, or taking an actual aggressive action with a character, I could do all three in one turn if I wanted.
Another big difference from the unrepentantly lethal XCOM games is that whenever an enemy takes enough damage they’ll fall to the ground and stay in a downed state, just like they do in mainline Gears games. This opens the opportunity for any one of your characters within range to perform a glorious execution kill. The animation for this changes depending on the character’s equipped weapon, so there’s a satisfying spectacle to the move. Even better, executing an enemy gives every ally an additional action point regardless of whether or not they had spent any during the turn, effectively turning bad guys into power-ups. This certainly got me out of some tough situations and allowed me to experiment more with new skills.
Gears Tactics Screenshots
Emergence Holes are another familiar gameplay mechanic in Gears that made it into Gears Tactics. Somewhere on the map, an Emergence Hole erupts with Locust reinforcements. Closing it with a grenade is business as usual, but taking out the numerous enemies that can spawn from it is a different matter entirely. For instance, if several of the small, pesky Wretches emerge, they can make a fight against the larger Drone enemies exponentially more difficult if you don’t have a character with a lot of ammo who can easily deal with the Wretches. They may be easy to kill, but they’re incredibly annoying if they manage to get next to one of your characters since Wretches automatically attack if the character attempts an action without moving away. And, if you fail to close the Emergence Hole, more Locust can spawn.
Speaking of movement, another key element of Gears Tactics is that it has no grid system. You can move your units just about anywhere. I appreciated the freedom offered – except the one time I accidentally put a friendly unit in another’s line of fire. My only serious qualm with the movement came when I was trying to move units down a map to reach new enemies that spawned behind my team on the south side of the map. Getting my units in cover while moving down the map was a little finicky.
A Brief Meeting with a Boss
After I got to a certain point in the campaign, I jumped ahead to a big boss fight that I wasn’t quite prepared for. Before the fight began I took a peek at higher level characters with mods and other customizations unlocked. The character builds seemed to scale well in complexity and certainly helped to define character roles. For instance, as a Vanguard, Sid’s Retro Lancer was decked out with mods that increased his critical damage and base damage.
Then, onto the boss. Much like mainline Gears games, special equipment drops from big enemies allowed me to deal heavy damage to the massive Corpser boss I was pit against. Its varying waves of attacks were fun to maneuver around as I dealt with smaller enemies that continuously spawned.
When my units inevitably dropped (they go down before actually dying just like Locust), I was able to pick them up, but at a cost. If your unit goes down, they lose a chunk of their health for the remainder of the battle. This felt like a fair way to let me keep playing with appropriate punishment for my mistakes. If one of the protagonists is killed in a mission, you’ll have to start over. But if one of the randomly generated recruited characters dies, they’re gone for good. I wasn’t able to defeat the Corpser in the end, but I’m confident I’ll have a solid strategy for the next time we meet.
Q&A with Gears Tactic’s Design Director
The Coalition and lead development studio on Gears Tactics, Splash Damage, haven’t given too many details about what we should expect out of Gears Tactics. Even after playing so much, I still had questions, so IGN sent over some of our more pressing inquiries to Gears Tactics’ Design Director Tyler Bielman for some additional clarity.
Q: What challenges do you see traditional Gears players having with adapting to a tactical Gears game?
Tyler Bielman (TB): Players of traditional Gears of War games have a lot to look forward to with Gears Tactics: the turn-based play style distills Gears-style combat down to its essence to emphasize cover-based movement, flanking, executions, all of which have a unique and powerful role in taking on enemies. And while the Locust enemies do behave differently due to the turn-based combat, their role is the same from a traditional Gears of War game. For example, the Boomer is a hulking threat with their signature grenade launcher, the tickers will rush you and explode and the Kantus reinforces the enemies. If you know and love Gears combat, you will see it in a new light in Gears Tactics.
Q: What sets Gears Tactics apart from other popular tactics games?
TB: It comes down to three things; Open Gameplay, Cinematic Storytelling and the depth of Customization.
In terms of Open Gameplay, the fact that our game does not operate on a grid makes the game feel much more fluid. Each unit has three Actions each turn that they can use in any combination to move, shoot and use skills. Gears Tactics is not constrained to one move and one shoot action per turn and the Execution system creates a huge sense of momentum in the game. If you extend a unit and Execute a downed enemy, every other unit in the squad gets a bonus action. Together, all of this creates an incredibly fast-paced and offensive-minded experience.
The Cinematic Storytelling is another area that will breathe life into the story of Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Diaz and his squad on the hunt for Ukkon. We set out to tell a personal and emotional story unlike any other you have seen in a tactics game. We do that through high-quality real-time cinematics, ensuring your customization choices show up in the scenes, reaching the high bar set by previous Gears of War games. We also have incredible voice actors that have really gave life to the characters of Gears Tactics.
Then there is the depth of our Customization. We have a deep metagame that allows players to craft the kind of units that fit their playstyle. There are five distinct classes with 30+ skills each. Each class also has a signature weapon, with five “mod” slots that you can use to upgrade your stats and add even more skills. Each soldier has three armor slots (head, torso and leg), each of which can also be equipped with independent armor pieces that boost stats and add skills. This equipment is earned by going on missions, accomplishing optional objectives and picking up equipment cases in the world. It is worth noting that there are NO microtransactions or additional cost to the player. Everything is earnable as you play the game. Lastly, the appearance options let you paint each weapon and armor piece with different colors, patterns and even metallic finishes.
Q: This isn’t a real-time strategy like Halo Wars, but as a tactical offshoot of a super popular Xbox franchise, did you take any lessons from Halo Wars while working on Gears Tactics?
TB: We were very fortunate to be able to talk with our partners at 343 Industries on a number of occasions about their experiences on Halo Wars and Halo Wars 2. I would say they were most positive about the fact that we focused on creating a premium PC experience first-and-foremost.
Q: How do you give weight to these new characters when Marcus’ story and now even Kait’s are such focal points in the Gears franchise?
TB: It was always important for us to reach the incredibly high bar set by the main Gears of War games in terms of characters and storytelling. However, we wanted the opportunity to tell a different story with a main character that is aligned with the kind of game we were making. We also wanted to set the game early in the Gears of War continuity and tell a kind of “throwback” story of a squad on the road in a bad situation.
Q: So…Gabe Diaz. How is he related to Kait’s family?
TB: It was important that Gears Tactics live within the Gears of War continuity in a meaningful way. Gabe Diaz is Kait’s father. She refers to him at points in Gears 5, though not by name. And in the same way, Ukkon is the “father” of the boss monsters that you have seen throughout all of the Gears of War games to date. He has a very real role in our universe.
Q: Public details on Gears Tactics are far and few between. What are the biggest small details that stand out about Gears Tactics that you want readers to know? Subtle things that haven’t been announced, but matters as a tactics game?
TB: Three actions per unit is a big one. We give the player a ton of strategic options and then we throw a ton of enemies at them. You can go full offense and create momentum using our execution mechanic or you can hunker down in cover and use defensive skills and Overwatch to eliminate enemies more conservatively.
The depth of the equipment system and customization is another standout for Gears Tactics, there are so many mods and armor to collect and combine with the skills. Finding equipment in the world is usually an interesting decision, where you have to move off of a direct line to the objective in favor of picking up a case in the world. Doing so can get you powerful equipment after the mission, but it is usually a little dangerous.
Q: In other strategy games you usually run the risk of permanently losing units when they go down in battle. Does Gears Tactics have any sort of high risk like that?
TB: If a Hero character dies during a mission, you will fail the mission. If a non-Hero character dies, it is gone for good. In the normal game mode you can reload a checkpoint or retry a mission and give it another go, though we do have an “Ironman” mode that is unforgiving and won’t allow you to roll back a mission in any way. We have four difficulty levels so you can find the challenge you are looking for, and each of those can be set up as an Ironman campaign if you wish.
Q: What are the key activities players do or manage outside of battle?
TB: Players recruit new troops into their roster, allowing you to expand your capabilities and afford you more options in undertaking missions. Another activity outside of battle is to choose new skills for your units when they level up, along with equipping new mods and armor.
Q: I heard there’s another mode after you beat the game. Can you please explain that a bit?
TB: After the Campaign, you can play “Veteran Mode.” Veteran Mode will remix missions for the player, including mission modifiers (like bonus damage, or penalties to accuracy) and optional objectives that grant additional rewards. You can go on these additional missions to continue leveling up your units and earning the rarest equipment in the game. There is no fixed endpoint for Veteran Mode, so we’re excited to see how far players can go.
Q: There are cases occasionally placed around maps, but are there any secrets? How about recruitable characters we can miss?
TB: Equipment cases are placed in different spots on the map designed to give the player more rewards if they choose to take a risk and spend actions to retrieve them. Almost all of the rescued and recruited units (non-story units) are procedurally generated by the system and will come with their own names, equipment and skills.
Q: How easy is it to recruit someone? Is that done just by playing the game?
TB: Your total Roster size increases as you progress through the Campaign. After recruiting is unlocked early in Act 1, you can look at a variety of possible recruits and choose the ones that you want to add to your roster. In most cases, you will want to keep a full Roster to give you maximum flexibility for squad composition.
Q: Are Gears you recruit randomly generated or designed? Do they all have backstories?
TB: Each unit you recruit is randomly generated by the system and with just a few story exceptions, all of the units you rescue are also randomly generated. There are not backstories for these units, but they do have callsigns and facial customization that can certainly allude to some interesting stories.
Q: Are there a lot of side missions?
TB: Gears Tactics has a variety of side missions that players will encounter if they so choose throughout different portions of the campaign. Additionally, once the campaign is completed, the player can take on Veteran Mode.
Q: Aside from bosses, who are the most challenging enemies to face?
TB: Everyone has their favorites. Most players report interesting experiences with the Tickers, and I agree – they’re unique in that they will explode if they can get close enough to your units. However, they will advance on your units immediately after being fired upon, so if you miss the shot they get closer. An enemy repositioning on your units during the player turn is unique and you have to make the shots count. There are a few fun ways to manage the Tickers, but one of the most satisfying ways is to “kick” one toward a group of enemies and then make it explode.
Q: Can I unlock every skill for the main characters?
TB: Each main character belongs to one of the five classes, with a level cap of 10 for each class, meaning you can open about half of the skill tree on any single unit. You will have plenty of units in your roster to experiment on to create different builds and periodically you are granted a “Skill Token” that allows you to reset the skill tree and spend all of their skill points again.
Q: Do you have any tips for new players?
TB: You don’t have to be a Gears fan or a turn-based tactics expert to have fun with Gears Tactics. It is fast-paced and features a deep skill system – it really rewards bold and aggressive play.
Q: Can you share any details about Gears Tactics eventually coming to the Xbox One?
TB: We are bringing “Gears Tactics” to the PC first, as it was built from the ground up for that platform. We will have more to on “Gears Tactics” coming to Xbox at a later date, but remain focused on PC for “Gears Tactics” at launch.
Gears Tactics is out on PC on April 28. For more on Xbox games, be sure to check out our Wasteland 3 preview.
Miranda Sanchez is an executive editor at IGN. She adores Kait and is excited to learn more about Kait’s family and general Gears lore. You can chat with her about video games and anime on Twitter.