Gears POP! is an entertaining strategy game based in the Gears of War universe that's fun until its free-to-play trappings show their true colors.
Gears POP! is a rather strange new entry in the Gears of War series. Developed by The Coalition and Mediatonic and published by Xbox Game Studios on iOS, Android, and Windows 10, it's a mobile tower defense and strategy game based on Funko's POP! Vinyl figures. For anyone who's followed the Gears of War franchise since its inception, the idea of a simple mobile strategy game may seem odd, especially when coupled with the aesthetic of POP! Vinyl figures in general. But the end result is an adorable romp that's certainly fun to play – just bogged down by some particularly egregious free-to-play mechanics.
At a glance, Gears POP! resembles the massively popular mobile title Clash Royale in nearly every way. It's a PvP tower defense adventure where players must face off against each other in two separate lanes. You start on one end of the play field, while your opponent is housed at the other. As you drop troops into battle (represented in-game by "pins") they advance to secure barriers near the enemy's location. Each pin may be summoned into battle by paying their "cost," or the amount of points it takes to use them. You'll get a set amount of points each turn, and they'll regenerate over time.
Units are characters pulled from all facets of the Gears of War universe and include familiar heroes like Marcus Fenix, Augustus Cole (the Cole Train, baby!) as well as Kait Diaz. You can also recruit Locust Drones, Wretches, and a wide variety of other characters to fight your battles for you. All of your pins will appear at random in sets of four, so you have no control over which will show up next, but a preview at the bottom left corner of the screen gives you an idea of which pins should pop up next so you can somewhat prepare to save points or spend them accordingly.
Each pin serves a different purpose, from the Butcher behaving as a tank that can draw damage like a sponge to the Snub Soldiers being reliable for gaining territory on your opponent. Since you can only place pins in parts of the map you control, you'll want to establish dominance over as much of the play field as possible. That way, your units can get closer and closer to the end goal and won't have as many enemies to potentially stop them from destroying their targets.
When a gauge on the bottom left of the screen fills completely, you'll be able to use an Ultimate attack, which you can place anywhere you'd like on the map. Multiple matches proved that one of the early Ultimate attacks was often placed near enemies' bases in a bid to do as much damage as possible without your party reaching them physically. It's a strategy that's tried-and-true, even this early in the game's release cycle.
Matches last two and a half minutes, and during the final few moments of each battle, power will generate at two times the speed as things get interesting. Suddenly, you'll be able to spawn your more powerful characters quicker than before in a last-ditch effort to protect your base and to make a move to attack your enemies' turrets and barriers. It gets hectic in this last volley, but the added speed makes it more challenging and fun. The player with the most points at the end of the match wins. If neither player has earned any points throughout the course of the match, a Sudden Death mode will automatically begin. If by the end of Sudden Death no one earns any points, the match will end in a draw.
It's an intriguing setup that will no doubt be familiar to mobile tower defense game players, and it's admittedly quite fun. It's simple to pick up your phone and jump into a game, and requires extremely little knowledge to get going, as gameplay requires you to mainly drag and drop units on the screen. But its core mechanics aren't the issue here – it's the game's push to ensure you spend money to progress, by any means necessary.
The main mode of play in Gears POP! is PVP in the form of Versus mode, meaning you'll have to play with others if you want to progress. This means you have to play against real people – and a variety of bots, from my experience – if you want to get anywhere. Unfortunately, this means that you're facing others who may have chosen to spend money to speed up the progression system. The game is sneaky in that, early on, it appears you'll see obviously named bots shuffled into play that are quite easy to defeat. You win, you get a chest of random goodies for winning (a typical loot box), and you start a winning streak that results in extra crates to open. This keeps you coming back for more, and it's works very well at first.
But after a few hours of play, you seem to be cycled into mostly-human queues, with players who obviously have been playing longer, or spending more money to progress. You see, to upgrade your pins, you need to have multiples of the pins. You also need to spend some of the in-game currency, Coins, to level them up. Leveling up pins will also ensure your player accumulates experience. This results in your turrets and outposts' health and attack power going up.
The problem lies within the fact that, in order to get additional pins, you need to have chests to open. If you can't win battles to get chests, you're stuck being unable to power up your pins or your character. This becomes a vicious cycle that you keep going back in to battle new opponents and continue to lose until you realize you should probably be spending a few bucks on premium currency.
You can easily buy more of the in-game Coins with real cash, as well as Chests and Crystals, which can be used to speed up how fast you can open the Chests you do get. And when you are doing well and have a series of Chests to open, you can only hold four at a time. This means you're encouraged to open Chests quicker by spending Crystals so you don't lose battle progress. It's all a system engineered to get you to spend the most money as humanly possible, and if you're unwilling to, you're not going to get far.
Meanwhile, Horde mode requires players to join "Crews" of players to game with other real people. There are several to join (many private ones as well), and this can help you gear up to join others for a co-op game, but often you'll simply miss invitations over and over, or others simply won't respond to them, making it a bit of a broken process. Creating your own Crew requires you to spend 1,000 Coins, so you could do so to invite friends you know in real life to make the odds of actually getting to play with others more likely, but it's not really worth the cost of doing so. Given that Horde mode is a quick way to earn crates, it seems purposefully engineered to make you play with friends who you know are around to fight for scraps.
It's such a shame things ended up this way. Gears POP! is actually a lot of fun, and it's a great casual entry in the Gears universe that makes good use of the license as well as the Funko POP! tie-in. But the egregious usage of free-to-play mechanics take what could have been a simple pick-up-and-play game and transform it into a cash grab that almost demands you spend cash to proceed. While it's possible to avoid spending a dime to do so, if you're really hoping to rise through the ranks and become a serious contender, you'd better be prepared to put in plenty of potentially non-fruitful hours or pony up. That's not a Cole Train anyone wants to hop aboard.
Gears POP! released on August 23, 2019 and is available on iOS, Android, and Windows 10.