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Gears Tactics' opening hours are a blast compared to XCOM 2's

I know a game is going to be good when I play a few hours for a preview, then go home and start playing the closest thing in my Steam library. That happened with Gears Tactics, which is a far smarter and deeper strategy game than I expected. I went home and immediately installed XCOM 2: War of the Chosen. No more putting off playing the definitive PC strategy game of the last five years. I was ready for it. But for the first two hours, I found myself actually wishing I was playing Gears instead.

On first impression, Gears Tactics is a more polished and better-paced strategy game. Both begin with linear missions meant to teach you the basics while setting up the campaign, but I was surprised that Gears had the more freeform tutorial. After only a few minutes of introducing systems like taking cover and using overwatch, it gave me an objective—get the hell out of a burning city alive—and let me do my thing. I was a bit overzealous and almost let my protagonist Gabe die, which added a fun bit of tension to the escape.

XCOM 2, by comparison, has a strangely scripted intro, forcing you to move troops to exact spaces on the map and use the exact attacks or abilities it tells you to. It's in service of setting up an exciting, narrative-heavy introduction in which "you" the commander are rescued from Advent servitude. But it doesn't really fit. When I think of XCOM's defining traits, I think of the freedom it gives you to play how you want (and to fail horribly), the brutality of your life hinging on a 40% probability shot, and the stories that I make myself as I bond with my squad. I barely remember the story of XCOM: Enemy Within, but I definitely remember my superstar sniper Lola Bunny and my best assault trooper, Yosemite Sam.

XCOM 2's on-rails tutorial doesn't make use of any of these strengths. Playing it after Gears Tactics, too, it was hard to get pulled in by the presentation. It's just a little too bland, and I was pulled out of the drama by being forced to put my troops in places that end up getting them killed, with the outcomes of each shot obviously predetermined. I think there's potential here for the next XCOM sequel to blend in-mission storytelling with its turn-based combat. More elaborate cutscenes and camera work can really up the drama. But as it was, the tutorial felt divorced from how XCOM really plays.

You can skip right past XCOM 2's tutorial and get right into the game, but for the next hour I still found myself wishing for Gears Tactics' direct get-to-the-fun design. With XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, every five minutes the game is throwing another system in your face. I watch cutscenes introducing me to the research and engineering on-board the Avenger, my flying fortress. Then it introduces the resistance factions I have to make contact with in a mission. That mission has zombies! Zombies with their own mechanics in combat. Oh, and later I'll need to use a facility on the Avenger to send soldiers out on resistance missions—getting them to like me is another whole thing.

Meanwhile, when I try to navigate the Avenger around the world map to pick up supplies or a new engineer, I'm interrupted every 10 seconds by something the game wants me to do. New research; something bad the Advent are doing; a mission I have to go on now. And if I say no to that mission because I just want some damn supplies, it pops up again three seconds later saying "SKIP THIS MISSION AT YOUR PERIL."

The pacing's so manic it feels like every element of XCOM has been stuck in a blender, slurried up and then poured down my throat with a funnel. It's a lot to take in.

Gears Tactics doesn't have any of XCOM's base-building or much meta strategy outside of combat. Between the missions and cutscenes you can upgrade your soldiers via their skill trees, augment their weapons with items you get on missions, and customize their looks. That's about it, so of course it's less overwhelming than XCOM—it simply has less going on. But that was a deliberate choice on the part of the developers, to just let you get to the fun.

Despite being a streamlined game, Gears Tactics still has some great skill trees.

Despite being a streamlined game, Gears Tactics still has some great skill trees. (Image credit: The Coalition)

After a cutscene and a few minutes in the menus, I was on to my next mission, which introduced two new recruits and let me learn how to use their classes. And the mission itself mixes portions where you have to press forward to seek out enemies, and defend against an onslaught of reinforcements. It's a nice mix of offense and defense.

I'm glad XCOM 2 has the depth it does. Earning new tiers of weapons is exciting, and the Chosen, introduced in the expansion, are awesome. I love how much personality they bring to what is otherwise a very high-level strategy game. It's so fun to have an imposing nemesis, and to figure out how to bring a whole squad to bear to take them down. As if The Assassin wasn't hard enough, she started spawning freaking alien priests into fights, too! Utterly vile.

But the Chosen, of course, also introduce another system into the mix, and for awhile I was lost on what missions I needed to be doing. It's simply trying to do too much, too fast, at least for a new player—if you roll straight from a base XCOM 2 campaign into the War of the Chosen expansion, it might not be so jarring.

Once I got over the initial deluge I started to enjoy XCOM 2 more, but I'm still annoyed by how spastic the world map experience is. You can't spend more than a few seconds on it before a menu pops up asking you to do something else. Gears gives you as much time as you want to customize your squad, and then sends you into the action to shoot baddies. Or to chainsaw them in half—at the very beginning of a new strategy game, that's the kind of choice I really appreciate.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.