While not the smoothest ride, it’s hard to name another strategy game that can match Gears Tactics for sheer spectacle.

We’ve got a lot of tactics games to choose from nowadays. At time of writing there’s a new X-Com if you like aliens talking, the Shadowrun spinoffs if you want some RPG in the mix, Alder’s Blood if you ever wanted to play indie isometric Bloodborne, the Mario Rabbids thing that was way better than it had any right to be, you get the idea. Now we’ve got a Gears of War spinoff that’s looking to jump into the increasingly crowded market. Compared to all of the above it sounds like the least inspired of the lot. Good news: that’s not the case.

That said, I’m going to open with the bad news. Gears Tactics may as well have not been a Gears game. The characters in this don’t develop or do anything of interest beyond kill grubs, but the game’s constant chatter and cutscenes will try to convince you otherwise. There’s a character introduction that ties this game in with Gears 4 and 5 but it doesn’t come until midway through the third act, almost as if it was done just to remind players of the main series’ existence. Non-Gearheads are left in the lurch as the game attempts no explanation as to why this character matters, making it feel even more awkward and rushed. The Gears-iness begins and ends with the visuals and chainsaws. Most games in this genre aren’t played for their story, I know, but this one throws it at you so often that it warrants mention.

OK, due diligence regarding the game’s framing is done. Now I get to talk about why you should play this anyway. GT may not have much going on in the plot or setting department, but it more than makes up for that with mechanical improvements on its contemporaries and sheer spectacle.

The Brumak is an early boss. This is roughly a 6.5 on Gears Tactics’ spectacle scale.

GT uses an action point system like many other tactics games but it doesn’t restrict players to a rigid “move then attack” structure. Instead you get 3 points to spend as you please. Want to shoot first, run to some cover, then overwatch a hallway? No problem. Stealth in to throw a grenade, then book it for two actions into safety? Can do. This flexibility is a refreshing change from the genre’s tendency to end character turns after an attack, and it’s made fair by the enemies getting the same treatment. You’re never safe and neither are they.

Add in that your characters can execute downed enemies to give the rest of the team extra actions and you can start to see how GT differs from its genre contemporaries. This isn’t a game about making tactical gambles on a knife’s edge, it’s about executing the most efficient squad-based combos possible. You’ll find yourself switching between characters mid-turn to carve a bloody swath through what was once a crowd of locusts, operating with the kind of efficiency that a trained squad should. The amount of carnage a well played turn generates is incredibly gratifying. Once your units are teched up and have a range of skills to fire off the sheer number of ways you can engineer a win goes through the roof. It’s not just carnage, it’s creative carnage; each mission a canvas splattered with alien gore.

In order to facilitate this approach the game is fairly generous with resets and checkpoints. You can restart any mission if it goes sideways, jump to a checkpoint after completing an objective, or even go so far as to abort it with no consequence in order to change your lineup and equipment before going back in. If this sounds too easy for tactics vets don’t worry; ironman mode is available to take all of these friendly changes away. I would advise against it though, as GT is not afraid to throw combat puzzles at you that have wrong answers. Some of its maps and enemies just don’t gel with specific approaches and there’s no way to know that before you’ve jumped in. Fortunately you’ll have access to so many units and so many builds that it’s not difficult to course correct after a first attempt.

You can also tweak colors and patterns on everything your soldiers wear. I took full advantage.

This isn’t to say that levels are easy or low-stakes. Damage is high in this game. Enemies can often be oneshot but have the numbers advantage by far, and your units can usually only withstand 2-3 hits before going down. Downed units are able to be hoisted back up but will carry an injury penalty that reduces their max health until they get back home, making them even more likely to drop again. Unlike X-Com, GT isn’t about constantly killing off your units. The game wants you to solve its challenges in cool ways and it facilitates that to the fullest.

That said, not all solutions are created equal. I should address grenades in particular. They’re powerful to the point where they verge on broken, invalidating regular firearms in most scenarios. They’re aimed manually to allow for perfect positioning, cannot miss, and do enough damage that they can clear minor enemies in groups while simultaneously severely wounding larger targets. To the game’s credit it seems to be aware of this; not using grenades is a common optional goal, and their cooldown is long by default to dissuade players from using them frivolously. However, Scout and to a lesser extent Vanguard have builds that allow them to become living mortar launchers. With a bit of luck in your gear drops you can spec a Scout into Commando, have them run grenade-enhancing gear, and watch them single-handedly clear missions as they chuck massive-radius grenades every single turn supplemented with proximity mines and other goodies. It’s a ton of fun to turn the battlefield into a fireworks show, don’t get me wrong, but it almost feels like a difficulty release valve for when things get a bit too tricky.

If you’ll permit me to hop on my segue for a bit, let’s talk about this game’s gear system because it’s weird as hell. You occasionally get preset pieces but the vast majority of the gear is found in equipment cases. You get cases by completing missions, doing optional objectives, and going out of your way to grab them mid-mission as they’re littered around each map. The cases work like lootboxes – rarity structure, shiny opening animation, the works – but there are no microtransactions here. This works fine as a means of drip feeding a variety of gear pieces but the presentation has me confused. My theory (and it is just a theory) is that the game was at one point meant to contain microtransactions but that got scrapped in development, because otherwise this system feels really out of place. I would have liked to see a way to convert unneeded gear into better pieces or at least trade them in for new cases to open as the inventory can get pretty cluttered, but that’s a quibble at best. The system works, and even delivers moments of excitement when you pull a particularly nice upgrade, but more often than not opening crates is just another step between you and your new loot.

The one in the teal is Marcella “Specter” Trinh. She likes to throw grenades every turn and be invisible. She’s a terrifying monster and I love her.

Replayability here is a mixed bag. The only real changes you’ll see if you run the campaign again will be in how you build the units. Each of the 5 classes get a tech web of sorts that splits into 4 sections which you can mix and match to create some pretty interesting stuff. However, it’s likely that you’ll have gotten all the experimentation out of your system by the time you finish your first fairly lengthy playthrough. It’s the post-game that will keep you going, as it’ll let you run missions for as long as you want for big levels and the best gear the game has to offer. Since you’ll likely have some favorite units emerge over the course of your playthrough this is a nice way to continue their legacy and have them ascend to chainsaw-marine godhood.

When GT is at its best it’s a cacophony of carnage, every click setting up the Rube Goldberg death machine that goes off with a hail of bullets and a rush of satisfaction. At its worst you’re playing a different riff on X-Com that’s a bit more concerned with showmanship than strategy and likes to talk too much. Either way it offers enough variety and challenge to keep you coming back even after the main missions are done. There’s a strong mechanical base here that I’d love to see iterated on, either in a sequel or at least by having its ideas riffed on by other developers. This genre needs more variety and Gears Tactics, against all odds, brings it.

Reviewed on PC via XBOX Game Pass.