With people the world over dealing with COVID-19 and the new normal of remaining indoors, self-isolation and social distancing, writing about videogames has remained largely unchanged. However, no longer are we able to travel to events and spend hands-on time with games. Instead, devs and publishers are turning to live streams and online previews in a bid to show off their games.
Recently, I was invited to one such livestream to get a look at upcoming turn-based strategy title Gears Tactics. Set in the Gears of War universe, 12 years before the first game, Gears Tactics is a single-player, campaign-based game.
Announced at E3 2018 and shown off at The Game Awards 2019, Gears Tactics will come to PC on April 28 and will be available from the Windows Store and Steam. It will be available at launch with Xbox Game Pass for PC.
During the Gears Tactics livestream, we were guided by Tyler Bielman, Design Director, who walked us through some gameplay and provided context for the game. Early on, Bielman said that in creating Gears Tactics, the team felt it was important to absolutely nail a few elements.
The first was that we wanted to pace up the turn-based tactics experience. We’re a small, passionate team of strategy gamers. We all believe that there is far too much downtime in traditional tactics games. So, we’ve done a lot to make sure that while you can take as much time to strategise your turn you are not waiting around, waiting for things to happen.
That’s very rare.
We also wanted to create a more action-oriented experience, something that felt more urgent.
One way to achieve this is by removing the traditional grid from Gears Tactics. Players familiar with turn-based tactics games will understand in most titles in this genre, characters move around the map on a grid, which restricts movement and constrains characters to move square by square.
There is no grid in Gears Tactics. As Bielman said, “Our game is wide open.” Players can move characters anywhere on the map creating “interesting flanking lanes and shooting angles that feel open and free” according to Bielman.
Another way Gears Tactics bucks the norm is by giving characters three actions per turn. Instead of being able to move once and/or shoot once, every character has three action points to spend which can be spent on movement and/or shooting.
“You can run for three clicks of movement. You can take three shots. You can use your special class skills,” Bielman explained. “This allows you a lot of creativity in how you approach each battle.”
Furthering this idea of an action-oriented, urgent experience, Gears Tactics includes a large number of different enemies, who, will appear in greater numbers per encounter than is traditional in tactics games. “We have a variety of different styles of enemies that combine together to create really formidable challenges,” says Bielman.
When players aren’t actively engaged in a mission, Gears Tactics includes a deep metagame that Bielman says came from the team’s desire to create something close to an RPG in terms of depth. There are five classes available and each class has more than 30 skills available. In addition, the classes each have a signature weapon with four weapon mod slots and can equip helmet, torso and leg armour.
Weapon mods and armour will each grant stat bumps, skills, abilities and more. By mixing and matching, players are able to customise their characters and “create really powerful, really interesting units that suit their play style,” Bielman says.
Players will also be able to customise their characters visually, thanks to the appearance system. “Each piece of armour, as well as the weapon, can be individually configured with colours and patterns,” explains Bielman. Players can choose from a range of finishes, colours and patterns to make their Gears look how they want.
All that time spent customising your characters’ appearance won’t be wasted either. Cutscenes in-game are rendered in realtime, meaning however you make your Gears look, that’s how they’ll appear during cinematics.
Bielman touched on cinematics as well, saying it was important to “maintain the really high bar for cinematic storytelling that the franchise has established.”
As far as narrative is concerned, Gears Tactics tells the story of Gabe Diaz, father of Gears 5 protagonist Kait, during the early stages of the Locust War. Bielman describes Gabe as a “military tactician and veteran commander.” However, he had a mission go sideways and withdrew from command and “busted himself down to the motor pool.” At the beginning of the game, Gabe is called back into active combat duty to hunt down Ukkon; a locust geneticist and engineer.
Ukkon is the creator of the Locust’s most deadly creatures like the Brumak and Corpser and Bielman elaborated saying, “If anyone’s ever wondered why someone would take a dinosaur, like a Brumak, and strap a rocket launcher on its back, that’s Ukkon.
Brumaks and Corpsers aren’t simply mentioned in passing either. Gears Tactics includes massive boss battles, just like other Gears games, which had lots of time, effort and resources poured into them.
We spent a lot of work early in development, making sure that we could create really compelling boss fights in the tactic space. And that includes making sure the scale works with the camera, making sure that in a turn-based world the bosses could feel menacing and threatening, making sure that the arenas could be set up in a manner that really let the player discover the strengths of the bosses and the weaknesses of the bosses. And they’re incredibly challenging.
At the end of each of the three Acts in Gears Tactics, players will face off against a boss. As you can see above, players will need to contend with a Corpser during the campaign.
We were shown a handful of missions during the livestream, including the opening tutorial mission and a much later one involving the Corpser. Right away, it’s clear that Gears Tactics is a “Gears game.” Last year we talked to The Coalition’s Colin Penty on making Gears 5 look “Gearsified” and it’s clear that for Gears Tactics the same ideas have been put into play.
Gears Tactics looks undeniably like Gears, despite being viewed from a brand-new perspective and in a way not ever seen in the franchise before. There’s a lot of detail in the environments; trees swaying in the breeze, rubble and broken buildings, bullet holes and even clouds casting shadows on the ground as they move overhead. What’s really impressive is the level of detail, even as you zoom in.
Gears Tactics looks every bit as good as Gears 5 and seamlessly transitions between strategic and action views as you make your moves and push forwards. Especially satisfying are the iconic Gears executions, like using the Lancer to chainsaw a Locust in two or carving them up while they’re downed.
Another great addition that makes Gears Tactics feel a part of the franchise is the audio stinger after you finish a battle.
When it happened during the livestream, I was taken right back to all my best Gears moments and knew that Gears Tactics was going to be every bit the Gears experience the numbered entries were.
The gameplay in Gears Tactics is very much what you’d expect. Using your three action points, you move your characters, flank enemies, use abilities and take shots. Depending on your angle, their cover and your cover, you’ll have different hit and crit percentages. Players are able to toggle the TAC-COM on and off to get more information about enemies and units in the area.
Bielman says that toggling it off frees up the HUD for players who aren’t interested in the nitty-gritty, but for those who love the stats and calculations, the option is there. It goes to the idea of making the game open and giving players freedom.
As do the combat options. The tutorial does a great job of slowly introducing different mechanics and abilities which players have at their disposal. Aside from moving and shooting, players can hurl grenades (useful for closing emergence holes), use special abilities and activate Overwatch. Overwatch in Gears Tactics functions differently than I’ve seen before.
Instead of simply activating it, players set a vision cone that marks the area covered by Overwatch. If an enemy moves into or out of the cone, they get shot. Simple. However, the number of times a character will fire during Overwatch also depends on the number of action points spent. For example, if you move and use one action point, then activate Overwatch, you’ll fire twice.
Overwatch uses up all remaining action points and converts those into the number of shots taken. If you don’t move, you can take three Overwatch shots at encroaching enemies.
Another interesting mechanic is based on the executions of downed enemies from the Gears franchise. In Gears Tactics, if you ‘down’ an enemy, you can move to its location and execute it. Doing so grants an additional action point to every other unit on your squad. Bielman said that players can chain executions together to really push their squad forward through the map without spending too much on movement.
Removing the grid system from the map has also created opportunities for Gears Tactics to feel more action-orientated and fast-paced. Bielman demonstrated how the game gives you a little extra movement distance when moving characters into cover. So, for example, moving into the open might cost two action points and be at the very limit of that, but if there is cover just up ahead, you’ll be able to slide into it and move slightly further than normal.
It wouldn’t be Gears without cover right?
Without getting a chance to actually play Gears Tactics, it’s hard to confidently say how it plays, however, from what I’ve seen and learned it’s looking like an excellent addition to the Gears franchise and tactics genre. There are lots of little Gears touches to make it look and feel different from other tactics games and the removal of the grid and three action point system certainly succeeds in opening the game up and making it feel freer.
If the metagame is as deep and engaging as Bielman says and the Veteran Mode keeps players hooked after the campaign is finished, then Gears Tactics might just be THE tactics game to play in 2020.
It will launch on PC via the Windows Store and Steam on April 28 and will be included in Xbox Game Pass for PC and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.