Let's Get Tactical
Going from playing XCOM: Chimera Squad to Gears Tactics was an enlightened experience. There's a clear contrast in quality between the two, for sure. XCOM: Chimera Squad was unpolished and buggy, which is atypical of the series. Gears Tactics, on the other hand, was a seamless and smooth experience. Furthermore, the difference in gameplay was striking, despite being of the same genre. XCOM: Chimera Squad had a few twists that are new for the series, but nothing groundbreaking; rather, it's meant as a one-off instead of a true successor to XCOM 2. Gears Tactics felt so refreshing in comparison.
While finishing up my playthrough of Gears Tactics, there were several elements I wish XCOM could handle much better. Gears Tactics' customization was robust and had actual gameplay elements included to make your cosmetic choices count. Speaking of robust, COG soldiers are able to be customized through an extensive class tree that offers up many different gameplay opportunities. Lastly, the story was handled in a likable way. So, why don't we dive into it, then? Here's what the next XCOM can learn from Gears Tactics.
Cosmetic Choices in Gears Tactics
The modding community for the XCOM series is very active. Do you want your soldiers to be stormtroopers? Sure, why not. Do you want to roll with a squad of Terminators, which are ironically saving humanity from destruction rather than causing it? Yeah, that can happen in XCOM, too. These alternatives to XCOM's normal cosmetic choices are great. But, upon playing Gears Tactics, I found the non-modded customization of XCOM to be lacking.
In Gears Tactics, you can't change the race or gender of characters, nor can you select their voice and nationality. But, there are still a wide array of hair styles which are, frankly, much better than the over-the-top and borderline ugly choices in XCOM. There's facial hair options, an unsettling amount of scars, many more tattoos, headgear, face masks, and hair color choices. They all sound pretty standard, but overall, you end up having many more options and possibilities to create your very own COG soldier.
While there are certainly a lot more options for cosmetics in Gears Tactics, one aspect I really appreciated was developer Splash Damage's approach to armor. Sure, you can choose armor that looks different. You can even slap on dozens of different camos, paint types (like chrome, if you really want to look swell), and color combinations. The same can be applied to a unit's weapons. What's special here, though, is that armor have stats that alter the gameplay.
Gears Tactics features armor pieces with a rarity, so they vary in strength. They offer intriguing gameplay choices, too. For example, the Scout class is equipped with a Gnasher shotgun that is only effective at closer ranges. Because they have to get into the thick of it, you can equip your soldier with helmet, chest, and leg armor that increases evasion. To further enhance this effect, you might have a piece of armor with the "Untraceable" passive skill, which decreases the damage of enemy overwatch shots. XCOM's armors are extremely underwhelming by comparison. These armors will either add some extra health or armor points, or maybe allow you to regenerate a few health points per turn. This is useful, but they aren't that exciting, nor do they look individualized like all of Gears Tactics' armor pieces.
Gun customization operates on a similar principle. You have the option to equip different barrels, stocks, scopes, and more for your weapons. XCOM only lets you choose one attachment per weapon. While the customization doesn't encompass every aspect of the gun, there's so many more options in Gears Tactics that you feel a bit spoiled.
Classes and Skills in Gears Tactics
XCOM: Chimera Squad does one thing very well, and that is making every soldier feel different from one another. They all have unique skills and abilities; for example, one unit has mind control while another can place shields on himself or squad mates, soaking up some damage. Then you realize that XCOM: Chimera Squad is more of a one-off and not a direct sequel, so these elements aren't likely to make it over to the third entry of the series. Gears Tactics might not have as many characters as the XCOM: Chimera Squad, but it certainly feels like there's more to each unit you receive.
There are five classes in Gears Tactics: Support, Vanguard, Sniper, Scout, and Heavy. Each class has their own weapon type and a skill tree that puts XCOM to shame. For example, the Support class sounds like your typical healer. You can go down that route and make them a healer, but you might also want them to be competent in combat; in this case, going down the strategist route on the skill tree is ideal.
You see, each class' skill tree features four different routes, each emphasizing different styles of play. In XCOM, you'd typically be restricted to choosing one ability over the other as you level up. Gears Tactics' four different paths allow you to focus on one side in particular, or make your soldiers a generalist. I particularly enjoyed creating a Heavy—a class that uses the Mulcher minigun—who does more damage the longer he stays in cover and also excelled when using overwatch. But if that's not your thing, the demolitionist tree is perfect for those who want to cause tons of explosions. You end up with more than five classes since there are so many different routes to take, so class diversity feels more robust than XCOM.
Story Approach in Gears Tactics
Both XCOM and Gears are two very established franchises, although the former is much older than the latter. Still, the average individual is likely much more familiar with Gears, due to its immense popularity and success in the 2000s and beyond. For this reason, Gears Tactics has an advantage over XCOM. The universe of Gears is much more fleshed out and features plenty of comics and tie-in novels. It might be a little unfair, then, to say that Gears Tactics' approach to storytelling is a lesson that can be learned, but that's just the way it is.
Gears Tactics features a narrative that branches across the entire campaign in three different acts. Each act comprises up to eight chapters, with side-missions serving as filler in between. This narrative allows for a natural progression without any real halt in its progress. In XCOM 2, you can essentially take as long as you need to play it all out to the end, even though the ominous Avatar Project serves as a timer, of sorts. I really enjoy the structure of Gears Tactics, though, because you feel like you're making progress with every mission. There's also story elements infused in every chapter, whereas in XCOM, not every battle serves a purpose to propel the narrative.
I also found that I care more for the characters in Gears Tactics than any of the ones in XCOM. I couldn't care less what happened to Shen or Bradford, but I actually felt some connection to Gabe, Sid, and Mikayla in Gears Tactics. This means nothing for people who haven't played either game, but what it boils down to is performance. The voice acting for Gabe is top notch, as is his companions. There's a few emotional cutscenes thrown into the mix that XCOM titles never really accomplish.
This is absolutely not saying that XCOM is a bad series, or even not fun. In fact, Gears Tactics is largely based on the foundations that the groundbreaking alien-killing sim set forth. Further, Gears Tactics doesn't have an overworld element, base management, or the like. The fast-paced gameplay and overpowered soldiers of Gears Tactics wouldn't fit in the XCOM universe. Likewise, the methodical gameplay of XCOM wouldn't be compelling for Gears Tactics. They are different games, sure, but they can certainly learn from one another. With the ending of Chimera Squad heavily hinting at an impending third entry into the tactics franchise, I hope that Firaxis can up the ante like Gears Tactics with its excellent customization, skill diversity, and storytelling.