Gears Tactics uses the Gears formula brilliantly to offer a fresh tactical experience

By Jimmy Thang |
July 8, 2020
Developed by The Coalition and Splash Damage Games, Gears Tactics takes the iconic Gears of War shooter formula and turns it on its head by delivering a highly polished top-down turn-based strategy game. This bold departure paid off with review sites like Daily Star writing, “Gears Tactics is a brave new take on the turn-based strategy genre, executed to perfection.”

To get a deeper understanding of how the development team behind that game was able to use Gears’ framework and transition from shooter to tactical strategy title while maintaining the feel of the beloved franchise, we interviewed Design Director Tyler Bielman and Technical Director Cam McRae. The two talk about what inspired the team to go down the strategy-game route, elaborate on how they incorporated a sophisticated AI system, speak to how they balanced fidelity with performance, and discuss how they developed a game that offers depth and accessibility. Elaborating on how the team was able to offer a unique take on the genre, they discuss how they implemented boss battles, incorporated RPG elements, and removed the traditional turn-based grid.
 

Can you delve into what inspired the team to make a turn-based strategy game with the Gears franchise? 

Design Director Tyler Bielman:
We love tabletop games, and we’ve always viewed the Gears of War franchise as having very strategic gameplay. Gears combat is very tactical. It’s about flowing through cover to create flanks, coordination among teammates, and exploiting opportunities to push your offense. So the strategy genre was a natural fit, and we viewed Gears Tactics as a way to grow our franchise in a way that felt true to its identity while also opening it up to a new audience that hasn’t interacted with it before. 

Gears Tactics introduces several fresh mechanics to the genre that include boss battles, customizable troops, and aggressive melee-focused enemies. Can you speak to these inclusions?

Bielman:
In regards to boss bottles, in Gears Tactics, your role is to hunt down [game antagonist] Ukkon and shut down his deadly monster production line. So, we saw a perfect entry point in the story to incorporate big boss battles into the game, which is a huge, unique entry for the genre. These boss battles have been intricately designed to be the ultimate combat puzzles and challenge players tactically. Each boss has unique mechanics that will push players out of their comfort zones and force them to fight on the monster’s terms. The Corpser, for example, raises its legs one turn before slamming them down, creating impact zones that will cause huge damage to anyone caught within it (friend or foe). The impact zones are marked by a red area that targets the location of your units. Staying safe sounds simple, but the Corpser’s legs are armored, meaning you’ll only be able to damage them when they’re raised. Now, it wouldn’t be a proper boss fight without multiple phases to work through, and each phase shakes up the combat puzzle enough to offset players’ strategic rhythm and challenge decision making. For example, for every third of health players take off, the boss will increase the number of special mechanics they can use in a turn. The additional enemies will also become tougher variants forcing you to continually adapt your strategy. Overall, we saw boss battles as a way to make Gears Tactics further stand out from the crowd while leaning on a Gears of War franchise mainstay. We feel they offer something wholly new that also challenges players in ways they haven’t been in a strategy game before.
 
In terms of customization, we have a deep metagame that allows players to craft the kind of units that fit their playstyle. There are five distinct classes with over 30 skills each. Each class also has a signature weapon, with five mod slots that players can use to upgrade their stats and add even more skills. Each soldier has three armor slots (head, torso, and legs), each of which can also be equipped with independent armor pieces that boost stats and add skills. Customization is a strategy genre mainstay, and we wanted to give the keys to the player to tailor their squad and characters to fit their particular playstyle.

In regards to enemies, like in other Gears of War games, every enemy has a role. Flushers, whether in a shooter or in a turn-based game, are all designed to flush you out of cover. This was another instance of taking a core element of Gears of War and applying it towards a turn-based-strategy game. So, the aggressive melee-focused enemies were adapted to do the same thing that the aggressive melee-focused enemies did in Gears of War 4 and Gears 5: get you out of your safe zone. Having interesting enemies to fight is key for a strategy game, and we found the franchise’s iconic monsters easily fit into Gears Tactics by offering new challenges for players to think around. 
Unlike many other tactics-style games, Gears Tactics does not feature a visible grid. Why was this design decision right for the game?

Bielman:
With Gears Tactics, we wanted to offer a sense of freedom and flexibility for players to engage so that players could move around the screen however they wanted. By opting to not include a grid, and also not limiting players to one move and one shot per turn, we were able to make the gameplay much more fluid and open while maintaining the classic Gears feel of fast-paced combat.  

Gears Tactics features five unique classes, including vanguard, sniper, support, scout, and heavy that synergize well to facilitate varying creative playstyles. Can you speak to how you accomplished this?

Bielman:
We started with some classes that players would be familiar with and have clear expectations around; the sniper and the heavy. Once we had these archetypes in place, we then turned our attention to how to bring Gears of War combat to life. We knew that the Gnasher shotgun is a staple of Gears, and it had to be spectacular. So, pairing that with a scout that has a cloaking ability really allowed that weapon to shine. The most unique was the vanguard. This class was developed to interface with our unique mechanics. It was a mix of satisfying player expectations in some ways, embodying Gears of War combat in others, and lastly, making sure that elements that are unique to Gears Tactics also shine through.
Infusing RPG elements, Gears Tactics features an in-depth skill tree that allows players to level up their squad with both passive and active skills as the game progresses. Why was this a good fit for the game?

Bielman:
For Gears Tactics, we wanted to give players the agency to adopt different playstyles, opening the door for creative, strategic thinking without locking them into a single successful strategy. This is reflected in the freeform movement options as players aren’t tied to a grid, but also in the customization options available for outfitting your squad however you see fit. Gears has always been accessible to different playstyles through weapon load-outs, and in the shift to the strategy genre, we fully leaned into this player agency. 

Leveraging Gears' iconic chainsaw, melee finishes grant all squad members an additional action point to maneuver around the battlefield. How did the team come up with this mechanic? 

Bielman:
These moves are an iconic part of the Gears of War franchise, so we knew they had to play a prominent role in Gears Tactics. We knew we wanted the game to provide a fast-paced and offensive-minded experience in line with what players would find in the shooters, only within the strategy genre. With these melee moves, we saw an opportunity to create a huge sense of momentum during gameplay while maintaining the classic Gears combat feel that fans have come to know and love, rewarding players for offense in a genre that typically asks its players to be patient.
The enemies in the game exist in previous Gears titles yet feel like they were tailor-made for the tactics genre given their distinct and interesting abilities to overcome. Was it challenging to retrofit them to the new genre?

Bielman:
While the Locust enemies do behave differently due to the turn-based combat, their role is the same from a traditional Gears of War game. The Boomer is a hulking threat with its signature grenade launcher, the Tickers will rush you and explode, and the Kantus reinforces enemies. If you know and love Gears combat, you will see it in a new light in Gears Tactics.

Gears Tactics features intelligent AI that's able to adapt to the way you play. Can you speak to the team's approach here?

Technical Director Cam McRae:
One of our primary goals with the AI was to have fast-paced enemy turns with high tactical clarity. To do this, we built a system that allows AI units to individually plan their actions for a turn, based on high-level goals. Each AI unit plans in sequence, and the results of the previous AI units plan are exposed to the next AI unit so they can factor it in when making their plan. These are then fed into a combo system that groups units together that have similar targets and camera framing. 

The entire AI turn is planned into the future and then executed, but the AI doesn’t take into account certain actions that would interrupt their plans, such as player overwatch or proximity mines. When these types of events happen, we interrupt the AI and re-plan their actions starting from the interruption. This leads to an interesting AI turn as the player has the opportunity to feel smart for trapping the AI, and the AI can respond to dramatic changes to the game state mid-turn.
Despite the change in camera perspective and the strategy-focused gameplay, Gears Tactics maintains the feel of the franchise. How was the team able to achieve this? 

Bielman:
We’re incredibly proud of our take on the turn-based strategy genre as one that brings a unique Gears flavor to every design decision, with squad-based gameplay, signature Gears action (chainsaw guns!), and intense boss battles. Gears Tactics is a natural extension of the Gears of War world that we’re excited to have players experience in a whole new way. Again, we’ve always viewed Gears combat as tactical, so even with the shift to turn-based combat, players are still doing many of the same things they’d be doing in a core Gears shooter. You’re still snapping to cover, wielding the series iconic weapons while taking tactical advantage of visceral executions. In keeping with these Gears sensibilities, the game does not operate on a grid, making it feel much more fluid. Together, all of this creates an incredibly fast-paced and offensive-minded experience, which is tactically satisfying to master and distinctly Gears while also being different from other games in the genre. 

The game has been praised for being accessible to newcomers to the genre but is strategic enough to reward veteran players for thinking several steps ahead. Can you speak to how you struck that balance?

Bielman:
The signature tone and feel of Gears of War are fluent in Gears Tactics with its aggressive and fast-paced approach to turn-based gameplay, challenging players with intense and visceral combat encounters to strategize against. Because the Gears’ sensibilities are familiar to longtime fans, Gears Tactics serves as a great entry point to a brand-new genre they might not have experienced otherwise. And for strategy players used to particular lines of thinking to achieve success, Gears Tactics is familiar yet new. So, by expanding on genre mainstays such as turn-based combat, player actions, and overwatch with our own Gears twist, longtime strategy fans will find something they recognize but challenges them to think and act in ways they haven’t been asked to before. By finding this sweet spot, we hope to introduce new fans to the Gears franchise while also introducing our longtime fans to a genre we are passionate about. 
Despite the new perspective, was the team able to leverage any existing Gears assets for the game?

McRae:
Gears has an extensive content library that we can utilize to share assets between games. We need to make sure content thematically fits the world, so the content library serves as a starting point for assets that can then be customized as needed, whether it’s environmental pieces, weapons, enemies or animations, and visual effects. Early in development, we were able to quickly develop a prototype of the game simply by shifting the camera perspective and using existing character and world content.

Gears Tactics not only looks great but runs well. Can you share how the team was able to achieve this?

McRae:
We made an early goal to broaden the game’s reach by reducing the hardware barrier to entry. We tackled this in two ways, starting in pre-production.
The first way was building content that could scale across many types of hardware. To do this, the art team was equipped with more controls to manage their content while they were building it. For example, we added more control into the material system to manage detail levels. This way, we could scale the number of materials contributing to geometry, on top of also being able to scale the quality of the textures used by those materials.

Second, the core tech team focused on optimizing existing systems to run on lower-end or integrated hardware as well as coming up with different techniques to solve art requirements. For example, with the change to a top-down camera, we lost detail in our ground reflections, and the ground is a huge visual piece in our game. This was because the standard method to generate reflections uses data from objects that are on-screen, and our buildings were off-screen. Unreal Engine has a system to solve this, which renders the world again from a different perspective, which was expensive for our needs. We optimized this by using our shadow data for buildings, which is highly optimized geometry, to generate ground reflections with color information added by our global illumination system.

We combined our content and engineering efforts into a large set of scalable systems that are custom set based on the user’s hardware configuration. It’s a PC game, so these systems are all exposed to the player in the form of video settings, which they can tune to adjust performance versus quality to their liking.
Gears Tactics features industry-leading cutscenes interjected seamlessly between the top-down isometric gameplay. How did the team accomplish this?

McRae:
Our cinematics are all real-time using in-game assets. With the level of customization available, it was important to us that the cinematics reflect the look chosen by the player for their characters. Our cinematics are storyboarded first in Premier, and then layout is done with a mix of Maya and MotionBuilder. The animation data is brought into Unreal Engine, where we complete camera framing and build out the visuals.

To reduce memory footprint, the cinematics take place in the game level. We use different sub-levels to manage any assets that need to be in the cinematics and then removed from the in-game mission. 

The cinematics have an extra layer of quality by adjusting the amount of lights or shadows, as well as increased quality in the character heads, which use the highest quality for cinematics and then switch to a more performant version when the camera changes. Our textures are authored up to 4K, the UE content streamer helps manage quality by streaming higher quality textures in cinematics, and then dropping down where needed in-game as the camera moves back and objects take less screen space.

This lets us run cinematics seamlessly between gameplay and do smooth camera transitions between the top-down camera and intros or outros with higher quality.

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Gears Tactics?

Bielman:
Players can check out Gearstactics.com and Xbox Wire for the latest Gears Tactics news and information, or head to the Microsoft Store or Steam for more on purchasing the game. Gears Tactics is also available with Xbox Game Pass for PC (Beta), and players can learn more about the service here
 
For more information on Gears Tactics, stay tuned to our Inside Unreal livestream with The Coalition on Thursday, July 16. 

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