Gears Tactics successfully manages to transfer the visceral third-person action of the long-running Gears of War franchise to a top down, turn-based strategy setting whilst keeping a surprising amount of the series' trademark cover-slamming, brutal chainsawing and constant wise-cracking intact. Engagements between your rag-tag Gears squad and the Horde enemy here are impressively tense, dynamic affairs that require you to consider each and every one of your movements carefully and you'll need to study your foe, take stock of emerging situations and utilise all of the many skills at your team's disposal if you're to blast your way to victory.
Set some twelve years before the events of the original Gears of War, here you take control of Pendulum War hero Gabe Diaz - father of Kait from Gears 4 and 5 - as he leads a perilous mission to assassinate a shadowy Locust scientist named Ukkon, who's been genetically engineering enhanced soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the Hammer of Dawn strikes on the planet Sera. You and your squad, consisting of central characters Gabe, Sid Redburn and Mikayla Dorn - alongside a bunch of fully customisable and perma-death vulnerable Gears who you'll rescue and recruit along the way - must cut a bloody path through the remains of Sera in an effort to put a stop to Ukkon's plans, encountering stiff resistance from crack teams of Locust and some absolutely enormous boss beasts as you go. It may be a pretty bog-standard Gears of War narrative all told but it's handsomely presented through some spectacular cutscenes - this one's a real looker across the board - that provide a satisfying backdrop to the game's gung-ho brand of turn-based tactical action.
Where Gears Tactics differs to many entries in this particular genre is in its stripping away of a lot of the micro-management and downtime between battles that players may have come to expect, instead choosing to focus on imbuing its gameplay with the same sense of flat-out, non-stop action for which the main Gears series is chiefly known. In practice this means you won't be spending an age staring at world maps with escalating states of emergency, researching new weapons and technology or ensuring that various war departments have the essential resources needed to keep your operation against Ukkon running smoothly - indeed management of your burgeoning roster of Gears is kept impressively straightforward here. You'll grab loot boxes filled with random weapon attachments and armour upgrades - rated from common to legendary - from in and around levels as you take on the enemy, with extra boxes available for achieving optional side tasks and challenges, and unlock new active and passive skills for each of your team members using XP gained from simply taking part in battle.
It's a refreshingly simple set-up with easy to navigate and impressively expansive skill trees for each of your five unit classes - sniper, support, heavy, scout and vanguard - combined with a gear system that auto-recommends who best to outfit with each weapon part or armour piece you come across as you complete missions. It may strip out a lot of the depth of the likes of XCOM but it also gives the game its own unique, high-tempo flavour, with another huge battle always just moments away. And it's in these battles that Gears Tactics really shines brightest.
Engagements with the enemy here are ferocious affairs that pivot around your ability to extend your squad's offensive turns far beyond what's usually encountered in a turn-based tactics title. You start battles with a generous number of action points per squad member and these can then be added to greatly by utilising trademark Gears of War abilities, with bayonet charges, lancer chainsaw attacks and bloody bayonet executions all adding extra AP to each of your team members as they're performed, meaning that playing your cards right, unlocking the right skills for each unit and pulling off brutal manoeuvres where possible can see you decimate large numbers of enemy units every time you take command of your team. This game throws an impressive amounts of grubs your way at any given moment - everything from bog-standard Locust grunts to tickers, snipers, boomers, Theron guards and wretches - and you'll almost constantly feel on the verge of being overwhelmed, but racking up those AP points by getting down and dirty enables you to blast a bloody path through even the sternest of opposition if you play your hand smartly.
Overwatch too plays a large part in battles here and is indicated by big bright cones of vision - blue for your squad and red for the enemy - that very often cover vast swathes of terrain as encounters play out. The Locust will constantly try to lock your individual Gears units down with overwatch and it's here that your ability to freely switch between team members on your turn really comes into its own. When one of your squad is locked down in an enemy overwatch zone - or pinned in place by the laser of a Locust sniper - you can switch to another unit and manoeuvre your way into firing range, pulling out your snub pistol and targeting the offending enemy in order to knock off their overwatch ability and free up your pinned ally. It's a constant game of chess, ensuring you have the AP necessary to make the required number of moves to get in range and make a saving shot, slide your Gears into cover - in that trademark Gears cover style - and position yourself to make executions and bayonet charges in order to accrue more AP and keep your attack rolling. You'll want to strike a balance here between keeping out of harm's way and remaining close enough to move in and boot some fool's head off for those sweet AP gains.
As mentioned, there's an impressive array of enemies to take on as you shoot your way through the three chapters that make up the main campaign here and although they may lack some of the tactical nous of the aliens of XCOM - preferring instead to hit you hard, fast and in large numbers, driving forward wherever possible and keeping you on your toes - they're never less than a supremely entertaining foe with which to engage. Firefights are relentless, gory affairs here that tend to play out relatively quickly in turn-based terms and do an excellent job of recreating the exact same ebb and flow of action Gears fans have come to expect from the series. Skirmishes are punctuated with graphic violence and constant smart-assed wisecracks, new enemy types are revealed via impressive cutscenes and the soundtrack manages to perfectly capture the constant state of dread you'll experience as more and more Locust emerge from the fog of war that surrounds you as you make your way through missions.
There are huge boss battles too, lengthy face-offs against monstrously large foes who take an absolute battering and require tight teamwork, clever deployment of skills and savvy use of your AP stocks if you're to emerge victorious. The first boss encounter, against a rather angry Brumak, tasks you with taking out immulsion tanks on the beast's back in order to bring it down, but you'll first need to manoeuvre around and destroy its huge machine guns, avoid its devastating stomp attacks and deal with the constant annoyance of run-of-mill locust by flinging grenades into emergence holes as you go. It's bombastic stuff for a top-down tactical title - exciting, challenging and very moreish.
Where Gears Tactics does slip up slightly is in how it chooses to have you work through its side missions. Instead of making these missions optional diversions that allow you to strengthen your squad where necessary or take a breather from the main campaign, here they are mandatory and you'll often have to complete more than one of them in order to progress on to the next story beat. It's not a huge problem - the action here is fun enough that you'll likely be happy enough to blast through them for the most part - but it does feel like an attempt to artificially lengthen the game and only really serves to break up the narrative, ruining the flow of the central story somewhat whilst exposing the repetitive nature of some elements of how missions play out.
Scaling back the resource management side of proceedings too, whilst it does make the game surprisingly zippy in-between skirmishes, does have the effect of removing a lot of the inherent depth - and in turn some of the replayability factor - that many other entries in this genre offer. It's absolutely a conscious choice on the part of Gears Tactics - this is a game that wants to keep you on the ground and in the fight as much as possible, but it does give the whole thing a sort of tactics-lite feel. It may put off some seasoned tactics fans, but it does have the benefit of making the game perfect for quickly dipping in and out of for a blast without bogging you down in juggling resources and maintaining your war machine ad-nauseum.
In terms of performance, this is a strikingly good-looking game running on PC at ultra settings - it also scales well in the looks department as you turn those graphical dials down to medium - and we encountered zero bugs, framerate problems, crashes or otherwise during our time pounding through the ruins of Sera on the tail of Ukkon and his super-powered mutant army.
Gears Tactics takes the series' trademark high-intensity action and successfully transplants it to a turn-based tactical format. By stripping out a lot of the expected resource management and downtime inherent in the tactics genre - focusing instead on keeping you on the ground and in the face of the Locust as much as possible - it gives itself a uniquely high-tempo flavour whilst managing to imbue encounters with much of the non-stop brutal and bloody action fans of the franchise know and love. It may bog itself down here and there with mandatory side missions and the Locust are a generally straightforward enemy with which to mix things up but, overall, this is a supremely confident, highly polished effort that successfully remoulds Gears of War into a thrilling and engaging new format.