With Gears 5's campaign leaving interesting questions story-wise (don't worry, no spoilers here) and Gears Pop not being accessible at all, I was curious to see what the next effort from The Coalition and their various associates would bring to the table.
Enter Gears Tactics, announced at E3 2018, a strategy game akin to Xcom but with a fresh coat of blood and locust enemies. That is not to say it's a reskin of the Xcom series, it definitely has aspects that stand out from other titles in the genre.
But that drives home the question: How accessible is Gears Tactics as a gamer without sight?
All very well, I thought, I can update them once I close this dialogue and the game exits as it, according to the error message, won't run.
I was even more surprised, then, to discover that the game would run after hitting escape on this dialogue.
Fortunately, this process did not have to be repeated on subsequent launches of the game.
After saving and continuing with the narration enabled, I was presented with brightness adjustment as well as performance settings, which I left on default.
After selecting this, with the brightness adjustment giving no clear feedback, as was the case with the key bindings as well unfortunately, a dialogue box appeared. The interesting thing about this box was that it wasn't actually narrated, though the prompt to press A to continue was). The box in question, when I read it with OCR, was a notification that Thrashball Cole would join my squad in Act 1, Chapter 4.
Given this new information, I was curious to see whether I could get there on my own in the first place and if not, how much sighted assistance I'd need to see Cole in this new game.
The main menu was the next screen I was presented with, which fortunately read most of the information. Running the benchmark as a test of the game's sound and music revealed that I couldn't in fact read the test results, which was a little concerning and frustrating, though hopefully, like a large number of the issues I encountered, can be easily resolved via a patch.
Starting a new game was straightforward, with difficulty selection also reading the tooltips (the information stating that intermediate was the correct difficulty for your first campaign, for instance). Once I got through cutscenes that didn't have any audio description but still managed to be relatively coherent, I waited with bated breath.
When I saw what appeared to be in-engine sequences with cues for whether a drone had hit or missed me, I was looking forward to the first tutorial. Then I saw said first tutorial and was frustrated that the narration did not read everything, as well as the lack of audio cues to indicate where I needed to go to "move to the highlighted cover".
When I stated that the narration was incorrectly reading tutorials, I mean that, when using a controller, though the narration mentioned using DPad left and right, it did not say that the left stick should be used to move the camera. Instead, when "left stick" should've been spoken, there was silence. With OCR, I found the main objective to move to "the highlighted cover", as previously stated, which, as previously clarified there was no audio cue for. Given that Gears 5 had narrated elements in Horde like "secure the fabricator", this frustrated me, though I was aware this could be an issue with the pre-release build.
As a result, I was stuck here until I could get sighted assistance, which I did, the next day.
In part to emulate the time I spent waiting to see what else this game had to offer, but also to discuss the positives of this title, let's take a look at elements outside of accessibility.
Tactics is no exception to this. With the time period being prior to the events of Gears 5 and even before the events of the first game, the audio designers have managed to blend together all the high-quality assets of the later games and the style of the original trilogy to create a fantastic audio soundscape.
The music is similarly well-crafted, with elements of the first entry in the saga literally echoing through the main menu as part of the new theme for this title. You can actually purchase the soundtrack on iTunes already, given it released a week before the game's official launch. In battle, the music is dynamic enough to keep your attention, but does not add too many layers to distract you from the intense but focused decision-making that is the gameplay.
Speaking of which, back to my endeavours with the game itself, this time, with sighted assistance for the remainder of my time with the game as discussed here.
Unfortunately, navigation and inconsistent Ui narration) were where I hit my first road block. As mentioned above, when I first played the initial mission(s) of the game through, only some of the tutorials were narrated and even when they were, sometimes it was not always to the full extent. This meant that, without sighted assistance, I missed out on key pieces of information and could not proceed past the first prompt without a large amount of luck. This is because there is no audio cue for areas you can move to, how they relate to your own and enemy positions, as well as no narration as to how many skill points that might cost, though I have seen moments when the game does tell me how many action points it'll cost me to put a character in a new location.
Once I was able to move from cover-to-cover, with sighted assistance to find where the cover locations actually were, I then got the chance to use my actions for something other than locomotion. This is where the game started to show a more promising side in terms of accessibility, as the abilities and weapon bar areas of the game were very well narrated. This even extended to targeting enemies where, if I tried to take a shot and I was unable to, before I could even activate the option I was told "no valid target" by the TTS. Even switching between targets allowed me to read their current health, percentage hit chance and whether they were obstructed amongst other useful information. During my review process, when I'd select "shoot" as an action, the first target highlighted would not speak this information, meaning I had to switch forward then back by pressing RB then LB to read the important statistics that make up a large portion of how the game works. Hopefully this can be resolved in the near future.
Given you control multiple characters that all have different abilities as part of your squad, switching between them is particularly important throughout your missions. A positive is that when switching characters, the majority of the time you'll even get an audible indicator of who you're switching to in the form of a voice line from them and, though it would be nice to have a TTS announcement as an option to make keeping track a little more straightforward, I'm glad the game is so full of audio in the first place. You even get audio cues for when characters are Down But Not Out (DBNO),
When moving, highlighting enemies (outside of shooting which, as mentioned allows you to switch targets with RB and LB), as well as when using elements like Overwatch (which allows you to essentially automatically fire at targets that come into sight), there is no clear indication of when you've highlighted a usable location or area as these parts of the game revolve around using a cursor to navigate at this point in time. With this still in place, unfortunately you will be unable to progress without sight. Allowing for the use of left/right bumper, as is possible when selecting to shoot an enemy, after the game snaps to a usable location to start you off, would be a good way around this as a toggle for those who need it. If this were to be introduced, a ping could indicate where that location is in relation to you, in the same way as Fabricator Ping indicates a position on a map, specifically that of the Fabricator, in relation to the player in the last two main-line Gears games.
Given cover and half-cover are both present, it would also be handy to have the TTS narrate what type of cover you're in, and what sides you're covered on, with this feature being available as an option in accessibility settings. This would allow you to get a sense of how protected your characters will be when moving to new areas of the map, both during and before a combat encounter.
When I tried to start a game myself to see how far I could get on my own after playing for my initial session with sighted assistance, I still couldn't progress past the tutorial to move to the highlighted cover. Possibly this could be a bug, though it could also not be helped by the fact that the cover might be a really small area and the aforementioned cursor-based navigation can be rather difficult even with a keyboard as opposed to an Xbox One controller.
This allowed me to spend skill points, equip new weapon modifications and even change the clothes the Gears were wearing, though the patterns and styles are not currently described anywhere (something which, whilst it's not necessarily considered a priority, would make for an even more fulfilling experience).
This turned out to be a mistake as, during the second chapter of Act 1, I had 3 members of my squad DBNO during a single turn, not only due to the high frequency of the enemy shots connecting, but also due to the cooldowns, in my opinion at least, taking far too long and not resetting after checkpoints are reached (in this instance between two separate battles).
I realise I was at fault for choosing this difficulty in the first place, given beginner is described as the difficulty for those who are new to turn-based tactical games or are mainly interested in the story. On starting a campaign from an empty slot and selecting beginner, I managed to get to the same area of the story in probably half the time due to the difference in the tweaks that happen with switching difficulties. That could also be because myself and my sighted CoPilot fully read the tutorials and knew, to an extent, what we were doing from our previous battles as well.
However, there is one problem that is rather easy to spot, in the sense that it's even apparent from the settings menus mentioned right at the beginning of this review. Keyboard prompts, which are included as part of tooltips in-game, are not read. This goes for all tooltips, including what enemy type you are targeting and skills like opportunity attack, which harkens back to my point on knowing if your target is a friend or foe.
It would be great if a list of key commands was available in-game as well as an accessible re-binding system and I hope these could both be worked in.
A rather useful addition to this formula is that the WASD keys can be used to move the camera/cursor. However, the main limitation comes even when trying to start a move, as in order to do so, you still have to use the left mouse button. Were this not the case and you could start it with another key on your keyboard (likely possible with rebinding), you could (theoretically) play the game entirely using a keyboard.
Of course, this also removes the haptic feedback from the game, but given the clear audio (which would be enhanced with additional narration to clarify who was hit for how much damage for instance) the game is relatively easy to follow after a while.
As far as accessibility goes, the game needs some adjustments, but only to specific aspects like selecting areas for movement, overwatch cones and grenade throws for instance, as well as improving the consistency of UI narration. Having clear indications of when enemy overwatches and other skills are active would also be extremely useful. Given the cursor/camera is restricted in where it can move to, accessibility is arguably less of a problem than you might expect. On the other hand, the game's reliance on a cursor (instead of a grid which was, according to this article on Polygon, where the game started off) means that getting sighted assistance is, at this point, a necessity.
Is Gears Tactics playable without sight? Not currently, at least not to the same level as a sighted player. However, I have very high hopes that it can be made as such given what I've already seen. It would certainly be another welcome first for the Gears Of War franchise, in the same sense that Gears 5 was the first shooter to allow me to play a PVE mode without needing any sighted assistance to set up and target enemies with ranged weapons.
I'd suggest, if you are interested in picking up the game as a gamer without sight, that you wait until the Xbox version releases later this year. By that point, not only will the game likely have had updates to resolve any outstanding bugs, but you will also be able to take full advantage of CoPilot and Share Controller. However, if you're a big fan of the Gears franchise and have someone sighted who is willing to play along with you locally, it might be worth investing in the PC version. After all, I played alongside someone who was, at first, rather sceptical and has ended up enjoying the game much more than they'd thought they would.
It's been great to see developers making, or at least trying to make genres accessible that may have been thought impossible, but there is still certainly more to be done. However, Gears Tactics has the potential to be the first mainstream accessible turn-based, tactical squad-based game for gamers without sight. That potential must not be understated.
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