I never thought I'd live to see the day where a turn-based strategy game would be positioned as a launch title for a home console – just as Gears Tactics is for Xbox Series X. As a niche within a niche, it isn't what most would consider to be an easy sell at the best of times; let alone in a period where myriad high-profile releases, each boasting implausible improvements to graphical fidelity and performance stability, are in a war of attrition for your attention. Nor is it a genre that all Xbox players will be all that familiar with, given the distinct lack of options available within the ecosystem throughout the last three generations.
But it's because of how that ecosystem is evolving, in service of Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, that players more adept with a controller than a mouse and keyboard will be able enjoy Gears Tactics this November as a showcase for a new generation of consoles. "We wanted to deliver a turn-based, thinky-style strategy game that feels fast and actiony," says design director Tyler Bielman, speaking to the challenge facing co-developers The Coalition and Splash Damage. "With Game Pass, we knew we had this huge opportunity to reach a ton of people who might not otherwise pick up a PC strategy game. We had this huge opportunity, our goals were very clear, and it came down to, you know, how do we execute on that?"
Forget about PC specs for a second
Gears Tactics is a shining example of how a publisher can take a piece of potentially risky business and turn it into a shimmering signal to the masses that the traditional barriers between PC and console are crumbling. While Gears Tactics launched for Microsoft Windows earlier this year, its transition to console hasn't been as simple as, say, taking an ultra-spec PC build of the game and dropping it into the Xbox Series X development environment. Cam McRae, technical director at The Coalition, only wishes it were that easy.
"Is the Xbox Series X like an ultra-spec PC and the Xbox Series S like a high-spec PC? Sadly, it's not that simple," McRae laughs, going on to explain that The Coalition likes to make life difficult for itself to make games better for you. "We don't like to just blanket apply the settings in that way. When we made Gears Tactics for PC, we put a lot of effort into how we could scale it – from the highest-end desktop down to a laptop, or something very low-spec like 10-year-old hardware. That really, really helped us because we have this nice and wide range of consoles to scale between now."
Gears Tactics is of course developed on Unreal Engine 4, the same engine that powered Gears of War 4 and Gears 5. As McRae tells it, it's the same core group of engine specialists and technical designers at The Coalition who have been hard at work optimising the Gears 5 campaign to run at 4K resolution and 60 frames-per-second – its multiplayer at a staggering 4K/120fps on Xbox Series X – that are getting Gears Tactics ready for its console debut. That said, the team has faced a difference in priorities between getting the game to shine on PC and on each next generation console.
PC players returning for more will find that there's a new playable character in Gears Tactics in the form of Jack. The companion bot takes a support role in the squad, coming equipped with over 20 new skills and the ability to hijack and control the new Deviant enemy units.
"Framerate is always at the top of my mind," McRae begins, spoken like a true technical director, "but… hitting 120fps wasn't as important as having the highest resolution possible. For a game like Tactics, we found that resolution becomes really important because you need to be able to read the play space."
Gears Tactics is 1440p on Xbox Series S and Native 4K resolution on Xbox Series X, locked to 60fps on both consoles. Were life easy, I'd take this opportunity to contextualise this by telling you that our friends at PC Gamer struggled to get the game running at 4K60 at Ultra-spec in its Gears Tactics benchmark tests, so this type of performance out of Xbox Series X is incredibly impressive. Of course, life isn't that easy. There are differences in fidelity and detail density, for example, between Gears Tactics on PC and Xbox Series X, and it always comes back to this question of scalability and of making the play space readable from your couch.
"We looked at each console individually and found the settings that made the most sense for that console. We did that in order to make the visuals, resolution, and framerate be the best that it can be," McRae continues, "but we also scale some of the visuals in different ways. So on Xbox Series X some of the shadow quality might be a bit higher, just because we can afford it and we want that console to shine. But I wouldn't say it's equivalent to an Ultra-spec PC – I mean, it is fairly equivalent – but they have their own differences. I can't specifically say it's going to be this PC spec because our scaling system under the hood is so fast that we don't have to do that kind of thing."
How the controller inspired change
The Coalition had the option of shipping Gears Tactics on PC and console at the same time, but it opted to take the extra months to get the game in a place that it felt right in your hands. I explained to McRae that I had to play Gears Tactics, primarily, with an Xbox One controller for review – my mouse was broken, please don't DM me – and it felt fine, so surely there wasn't all that much work to do? I was wrong. "We started with where we had it on PC, which was just the controller emulating a mouse. We threw that out," McRae says, laughing. "We put a lot of prototyping time in. We treated it just like we would if we were starting fresh. We weren't trying to port controls, we were just trying to make good controls."
"Those extra few months were critical in rethinking how the game presents, and in a way that works excellent on your couch with a big screen and a controller between your hands. We spent a lot of time thinking about the controls," Bielman continues, jumping back into the conversation. "We spent a lot of time thinking about how the gamepad works and prototyping new ideas. Now we have a Precision Mode on the left trigger that lets you move the reticle more slowly to help with targeting. On the right trigger, we have a Zoom, that allows you to get a closer look at the action to accommodate players sitting further away from the screen."
I've been playing a pre-release build of Gears Tactics on Xbox Series X for a couple of weeks now and I have to say, I'm impressed with how good it feels between my thumbs. It certainly feels better than it did using a controller on the PC build back in March – more intuitive and tactile. And all without diminishing the degree of strategy that is so famously afforded by a mouse and keyboard. The Coalition has also made some smart revisions to the UI and UX design, refactored the convoy screens used to get your Gears ready for combat, and overhauled the HUD to make it clear at a distance.
Of course, if you really, really want to, you can put the controller down. "Yeah, you can plug a mouse and keyboard in Series X or Series S and it will change the UI. You can even swap back and forth between the two while you're playing, if you wanted to," laughs McRae, with Bielman adding: "I don't know why you would but, yes, you could if you want to."
Game Pass as a game changer
Just as Halo Wars was able to make real-time strategy make sense for console, The Coalition appears to have done the same for turn-based strategy with Gears Tactics. Of course, none of that really matters if nobody is going to play the damned thing. The Coalition isn't concerned by the niche-status of its latest, however, as it is banking on Microsoft's subscription service to deliver a massive day one audience and the quality of Gears Tactics to sustain it.
The allure of attracting Xbox Game Pass subscribers was so alluring, in fact, that it pushed The Coalition to rethink the opening of the game in order to keep those planning on making ample use of Quick Resume occupied. "We spent a ton of time making sure that the first hour of the game is as solid as we could make it to teach you how to play. So if you've never played a turn-based tactics game, you've never played Gears before, the core mechanics of shooting, flanking, and executions emerge very quickly. We really doubled down on that, because of Game Pass," says Bielman. "We increased our effort around that initial onboarding and the first couple missions [...] We really doubled down on making sure that first hour was as perfect as possible for that audience."
"For us, it's really exciting that there's a potential audience there who will just try stuff. It's allowed a lot of really interesting Game Pass games to thrive, because they find an audience," says Bielman. "We are really hopeful that core Gears fans who might not have tried us on PC will come in, and then you have all of these Game Pass customers who, you know, it just shows up on the dash, they think it looks interesting, and they'll give us a shot."
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