You can do the Gears of War slide into cover slam in Gears Tactics, and honestly that would probably have been enough for me to say 'yes please' to this spin-off. But the developers at Splash Damage haven't just plopped slide-to-cover in this top-down, turn-based tactical twist on gaming's most famous cover shooter. They've made it useful.
You see, if you slide into cover in Gears Tactics, your unit gets a little bonus distance. It's the game's equivalent of that cover-hugging crouch walk we're so used to seeing Marcus Fenix, the Cole Train and, more recently, Kait Diaz perform with the camera placed in third-person. And it tells you all you need to know about how Gears Tactics feels to play: yes, it's Gears of War meets XCOM, but Tactics wants you to keep pushing forward. It wants you to move your units up and get in the face of the Locust. As far as these sorts of XCOM-style turn-based games go, Gears Tactics is relatively fast-paced. Hunkering down and waiting for the Locust to swarm you will do you and your units no good. Best to take the fight to them.
Across the board the mechanics nudge you to go aggressive. Gears Tactics does not play out on a grid. The maps are open, and you can move your units anywhere, which lends movement a fluidity you don't often get from the genre.
Most turn-based tactical games let each unit move and shoot each turn and that's about it. Gears Tactics gives each unit three actions per turn by default, and you can use them in any combination: moving, shooting, class skills, whatever. Three actions isn't the sexiest of features, but it gives you plenty of scope to do some interesting stuff with your units each turn. Strategists should find it liberating.
Interestingly - and in keeping with the game's more aggressive playstyle - you can use a unit's secondary weapon (a Snub pistol, for example) to interrupt an enemy's overwatch, opening up a flanking route that was previously impossible. This Disabling Shot ability is available to every unit, and while it has an eight turn cooldown, it can swing momentum your way.
Gears' trademark gory executions are in Tactics and yet another example of the game pushing players forward (yes, you can carve a Locust in half with a Lancer). Nail an execution and you'll buff your entire squad, adding up to three actions across the team. Rolling forward and creating momentum helps you push your turn farther and take down more enemies - and this really is the name of the game.
All this should make Gears Tactics feel a bit faster than your average turn-based tactical game, which makes a lot of sense for a Gears game, I think. The main Gears series is no slouch, of course. It's an action shooter series known for chucking tonnes of horrible beasts at a small squad of beefy soldiers who must keep on the move - and behind cover - to survive. Gears Tactics does its best to replicate that feel in the turn-based genre, but this is not simply reserved to the combat. You can tell Splash Damage has tried its best to work out how to put as much of what we know and love of the main Gears series into Tactics. A surprising amount has made the cut.
Gears cutscenes, for example, are in - and they look fantastic. Good enough to be in a mainline Gears game, in fact. You get a cutscene before a mission starts and when it ends, and occasionally in the middle. Cutscenes mean story, of course. Gears Tactics is a canonical prequel to the first Gears of War game. It stars a group of soldiers who find themselves in a bad situation against impossible odds - pretty much par for the course in the world of Gears. The protagonist is a rather vanilla-looking COG called Gabe Diaz - Kait Diaz's father, in fact. He has to track down the Locust mad scientist, a chap called Ukkon, all the while the government kicks off the Hammer of Dawn programme in a desperate last ditch attempt to wipe the Locust out. It doesn't sound like the greatest story ever told, but Gears fans who fuss over the Carmine family tree will probably get a kick out of it.
The idea is you gather a group of soldiers as you make your way through the story. You'll recruit the main characters, of course, but there are plenty of procedurally-generated soldiers to snap up, too - and you can name them. The hope is you'll grow attached to certain soldiers, and care about their fate in battle. You'll build a history with your favourites, cheering on their attempts to hit the enemy even when the odds are against them, and crying when they bite the dust. All this will be familiar to anyone who's played XCOM, but I'm glad it's in Gears Tactics all the same.
Gears Tactics is a single-player only game (there is no multiplayer of any kind, either co-op or competitive), which I think makes sense for the genre. Firaxis' XCOM has multiplayer but it's almost besides the point. Much better to focus on a deep campaign and single-player modes, than to offer a multiplayer no-one cares about.
To that end, complete the Tactics campaign and you unlock extra modes, such as a veteran mode and an Ironman mode, the latter of which makes your choices permanent. Also, Microsoft plans to add challenges and optional objectives to remixed versions of the campaign levels to keep players coming back. There's no fixed endpoint to the game, I'm told.
It's expected there will be plenty of progression and collectibles left for players to fuss over once the story is finished, anyway. Each unit has three different armour slots: helmet, torso and legs, and there are loads of armour sets to chase. There are five classes, each with more than 30 unique skills and a signature weapon (Gabe is a support class and so carries a Lancer). That weapon has four slots of its own for mods that change the stats of the weapon and, in some instances, add new skills to the unit. Tactics lets you change the configuration of a weapon - a first for the Gears series. So, for example, you can extend the mag on a Lancer, or change your scope. There's plenty to work towards when it comes to the units, powerful builds made up of all sorts of armour, skill tree combinations and weapon mods, and plenty of that will be chased post-game.
There are loads of cosmetics to unlock, too. I'm shown COGs in all sorts of outlandish colour schemes, with various armour patterns and metals, from beat up to chrome. There's a whiff of Warhammer 40,000 to the cosmetic customisation on offer. If you want your squad to coordinate when it comes to their armour, you can make that happen.
I am surprised to learn there are no microtransactions in Gears Tactics, given the scope for cosmetics. So, if you want new and extra equipment, you have to go out of your way to open cases dotted about the levels. Some of these will be on your way and relatively easy to find. Others will not, and you'll need to think about the risk that comes with chasing rewards.
I am also surprised to learn that Gears Tactics launches on PC but not on Xbox One at launch. Gears Tactics is also built from the ground up as a PC game, I'm told, with all the PC graphics options you'd expect. There's a Tac-Com, off by default, that displays all the numbers and stats you could possibly want on the battlefield. And while an Xbox One version is promised, it's clear Microsoft is gunning for a PC audience here.
My gameplay demo ends with a fight against a Corpser, Gears' huge, spider-like monstrosities fans of the series will be familiar with. (In Tactics there's a boss fight at the end of each act, just as there is in the main Gears series.) This fight works as it should - the Corpser's legs are rock hard, so you need to wait until it exposes its innards before dealing damage. All the while, Locust units assault you, and Emergence Holes erupt from the ground. How do you deal with an E-Hole in Gears Tactics? Just like you do in the main Gears games: lob a frag grenade in it.
Gears Tactics throws a lot at you, then. But so it should. I don't want XCOM in a Gears of War skin. I want interesting mechanics and a unique twist. A Gears of War twist. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't look like Gears Tactics is rewriting the turn-based rule book. But it's doing enough to make me want to give it a shot.
Gears Tactics launches 28th April 2020 on Steam, the Microsoft Store, and Xbox Game Pass for PC.