The subject of this particular edition of Critical Consensus was the subject of some debate. Two significant RPGs landing in the same month is not unheard of, while a pair of AAA first-person shooters launching in the space of a week would scarcely raise an eyebrow, but the tactical, turn-based strategy game is a rarer beast -- a sparsely populated market, with precious few entries that could reasonably be described as blockbusters.
And yet here we are, with a new game from the sub-genre's leading IP and a spinoff from one of the biggest gaming brands of the last two decades launching within four days of each other. Announced just two weeks ago and launching with a 50% discount on its already reasonable $20 price, Firaxis' XCOM: Chimera Squad would have been an obvious subject for scrutiny on any other week. But it also happens to be the week that Gears of War makes the first significant departure from the third-person action format that helped sell the Xbox 360 and supported the IP through six AAA titles.
Both are significant releases in their own right, but a Gears strategy game is bigger news for both its brand and turn-based tactics as a whole. In a closely contested two-horse race, it was ahead by a nose.
"It's easily the best-looking tactics game I've played"
Surprisingly, that was also reflected in the response from the press, which has leaned ever so slightly in favour of Gears Tactics if Metacritic averages are a reasonable barometer -- at the time of writing, XCOM: Chimera Squad had an average of 79 after 44 reviews, while Gears has 81 based on 67 articles.
While every single review mentions the debt owed to XCOM, the single biggest concern among critics is how The Coalition and Splash Damage have translated the viscera and chainsaws of Gears of War into a more patient and measured strategic framework. One aspect of that mix is production values, which PC Gamer's Wes Fenlon singled out as one of Gears Tactics' greatest strengths.
"It's easily the best-looking tactics game I've played, thanks to those cutscenes and fastidiously detailed environments," Fenlon said in his review, which gave an 83% rating. "The series is mostly known for its macho, impossibly barrel-chested soldiers, but it has had some great art direction here and there -- grand classical architecture ravaged by years of war."
The story plays a more central role in Gears Tactics than in most strategy games, tying it into the larger narrative and lore established in the six-game main series. USGamer's Mike Williams noted that XCOM has "largely avoided" authored narrative, but it's an essential aspect of any Gears of War experience, and it is present and correct here.
"The plot isn't the deepest, but it never is with Gears, so that's not a problem," he wrote. "It's big damn heroes all the way down the line, with impossibly ripped men and women growling out sad backstories and catchy one-liners. Gears Tactics' main contribution to the lore is in providing a bit more color to the Outsiders, a group that appeared in Gears of War 4 and Gears 5, firmly planting it within the modern era of Gears storytelling under The Coalition. If you enjoy Gears lore, you'll be right as rain. For everyone else, it's mostly just fun seeing your cosmetic choices in slick cutscenes."
"Gears of War was never a series designed to have you sat in menu screens"
However, as always with the story in Gears of War, your mileage may vary. While USGamer framed it as "fun" at worst, VG247's Jeremy Peel struck a slightly more dismissive tone. While Gears 5 was commended for its more sophisticated handling of characters and plot, any "newfound subtlety" is not evident in Gears Tactics.
"Gears Tactics' storytelling is as broad as the shoulders on its heroes, and finds the series apeing Private Ryan once more. If your idea of a ripping yarn involves a) doomed squaddies contemplating Polaroids of loved ones, b) heroes punching a monitor and then staring into their cracked reflections, or c) big men's eyes glistening with the tears they won't allow themselves to cry, then this game will knock you sideways. Otherwise, you might find yourself unmoved."
For GamesRadar's Josh West, Gears Tactics does an admirable job of capturing the essence of the IP in many respects, but it does suffer in comparison to XCOM in terms of its breadth. Outside of the missions and cut-scenes, he said, there is precious little "to hold your attention once the bullets stop flying."
"While there's some pretty clean XCOM comparisons to be drawn, the way Gears Tactics handles downtime is a little lacklustre by comparison," West wrote in his review. "While your squad spends much of the game in motion, travelling as part of a convoy with a group of Gears in-training, there's no base to grow and evolve, and no similar lines of broader progression to speak of. Instead, you'll spend time levelling up units, customising the look of your favourites, and pouring through lists of weapon and armour attachments to work out the best combinations.
"This is 100% a Gears Of War game, that also happens to be a top flight strategy effort"
Rock Paper Shotgun
"You'll find plenty of equipment as you play, rewarded for hunting down storage crates in-amongst the chaos of combat and for completing mission modifiers, although you'll soon have so much of it that it soon becomes a little perfunctory. Gears of War was never a series designed to have you sat in menu screens, and that a legacy Tactics can't escape."
There is an interesting tension between Gears Tactics' best and worst reviews. The more negative critiques tend to lament the absence of elements found in similar games, while the truly rapturous reviews praise a refreshingly streamlined experience, shorn of the changes in pace that those systems impose on the player. They observe the same feature, and leave with opposite conclusions.
Perhaps the most notable proponent of Tactics' slick, fat-free execution is Rock Paper Shotgun's Nate Crowley, who opened his review by professing a lifelong love of XCOM, and then arguing that a "new gold standard" for turn-based strategy has been set by Gears Tactics.
While opinions may diverge on its story or its depth outside of the missions, according to Crowley The Coalition and Splash Damage have nailed it where it really counts: the moment-to-moment thrill of combat, creating a perfect fusion of turn-based tactics and Gears of War's muscular action
"Mission leads into mission as you chainsmoke fights, and you can lose whole nights of sleep to the urge to push just one mission further. Again, I stress: management layers are not in any way bad. But this game does not suffer for lack of one. Action frenzy after action frenzy, broken only by OTT cutscenes, is the flavour of big budget shooters after all, and particularly of the Gears series. In that way, The Coalition did have an expectation to meet. They knew that, to stay true to their source material, they had to let as little as possible get in the way of constant, chainsaw-facilitated life cancellation."
Crowley concluded: "This is 100% a Gears Of War game, that also happens to be a top flight strategy effort. Arguably the best of its kind on the market, in fact, despite a bit of trouser trouble. It's a spectacular thing to play through, and it'd be more than enough to merit the fifty quid price tag if it deleted itself on completion."