Despite being a Gears fan and the all-time shotgun-roll king, I'm probably not the target audience for Gears POP. This is because I think Funko POPs and all who love them need to get in the sea. With that said one can admire both the chunky art style, capable of ranging across wildly different characters, and the innocent-if-mawkish sense of humour in the designs. In fact it's the main thing to like about this unlikely combination: the Funko style turns even a meat slab like Marcus Fenix into a cutesy figurine.
As with all aspects of Gears POP, it's something of a mixed success. The menu art and interstitial animations, which show large figurines executing various 'battle' moves, look absolutely great. The designs in general look great up-close (as you unlock new characters, they appear in a Funko POP box which then lifts off, a really nice touch). Problem is that Gears POP's actual game element is a battlefield where all of these figurines are displayed at small sizes.
The one thing that the art style can't get away from with Gears is the colour palette. The series has always been something of a graphical showcase for Unreal, but the apocalyptic war vibe and 'serious' tone leads to a world painted in greys, browns, blacks and blues.
The element that always offset this, buckets of blood and gory viscera, is absent from Gears POP. And so the outcome is that the top-down match view, the part where you're actually playing this thing, is just a little muted and dull. Gears POP doesn't 'pop' at all.
This is possibly because the game not only invites but demands comparison to Supercell's mobile hit Clash Royale. There are differentiations to be made: Gears POP has a 'cover' element to it, and there are obviously different modes and different troops.
The basic elements, however, are incredibly similar to a competitor that is now three-and-a-half years old: a 'king' character for each player, with two defensive towers, then two lanes on which to place troops, which are paid for via a constantly refilling ten-segment energy bar.
I don't have a problem with taking 'heavy inspiration' from other games. The problem with Gears POP is that it doesn't improve on what it's copying, and in aspects like the visual style is a step back.
Clash Royale is a charming game: it's bright, colourful, packed with humorous character designs, and still gets updated with new stuff regularly. Most importantly, it does a fantastic job of visually communicating the strengths and weaknesses of various units and differentiating their abilities.
Gears POP's art style has charm but it doesn't have this quality. I have some sympathy because the designers are essentially faced with the problem of lots of similar-looking locusts and soldiers, being displayed at small size, who mostly shoot guns or stab things.
Essentially it's sometimes hard to tell what a unit is actually good at, and in the heat of battle I find myself looking at two similar icons of some helmeted Gear thinking 'is this the one good against tanks?' In Gears POP's defence each unit has a card explaining its role, indicating which units it's good against, and showing its stats: I just think all this stuff should be more obvious in-match.
Perhaps an aspect of this sameiness is that the Gears characters, with the best will in the world, aren't an enormously likeable bunch. You basically have a cast of mute locust monsters and psycopathic humans who bark one voice line every time they're deployed, and it's always something like "Come on BRING IT!"
In that case you'd be deploying Marcus Fenix, who costs five energy and specialises in fast-capturing cover as well as dealing good damage. The cover mechanic is the main differentiator from Clash Royale in moment-to-moment play, though even here it takes a slight cue from the way destroying enemy towers in that game would let you deploy troops further upfield.
The playfield in Gears POP has two lanes with three pieces of cover on it, and certain characters (by no means all) will stop at each piece on their way and hunker down until it's captured or they're killed. It takes different characters different lengths of time to capture cover (hence Fenix's characteristic), but if you can capture the cover on both lanes you can deploy troops either that far upfield or as far as the closest enemy troop.
This is a good idea both because the implementation is visually clear (little rectangles either side of the cover fill in with colour to show which team 'owns' it currently) and it adds a distinctively 'Gearsy' element to the matches.
The game is at its best when two players are really focusing on the push-pull of the cover lines, and matches swing around on one half-dead Lancer Gear living long enough to cap the last cover point, whereupon you plonk down ten energy's worth of troops right on the opponent's doorstep.
One issue that's immediately obvious in the game's first week is that almost every player is using the same special attack, Emergence Hole, because that's the default one you get. Having opened a tonne of 'Gear packs', I still haven't found another, and I haven't played anyone else who has either.
Fair enough but it means that in nearly every match you'll see an Emergence Hole appearing right next to a player tower, followed by an ink bomb (AoE damage over time) that damages both tower and any defenders. There's nothing wrong with this, it's a fine tactic and I do it too, but the fact it's just so common in PvP doesn't do the experience any favours.
There's also a co-op Horde mode, which requires tickets to enter, which again you get from Gears packs. The latter are earned after PvP wins and take various lengths of time to open up, I've had a range from three hours to nine, which is a pain but slightly ameliorated by the fact that all four (the max you can have at once) tick down concurrently. They reward currency, units, and occasionally these Horde tickets.
The annoying thing about the relative rarity of Horde tickets is that it makes random co-op partners more likely to get annoyed with you for bad play and 'wasting' their ticket (each attempt only uses one, but it's put up by the player who starts the mode).
You have to be in a clan to even play it, meaning they can also give you some stick in the chat afterwards. Obviously if you're playing with mates this isn't going to be an issue, but even then the limit on tickets just feels straight-up mean.
Gears POP is far from a bad game; it's just a forgettable one. Perhaps I'd feel more kindly towards it if I hadn't binged on Clash Royale several years ago. This is the kind of mobile game you play for a few days then stop, before deleting it in six months when you need some memory. It's free so don't take my word for it (iOS, Android), but don't expect anything epic.
I began this by speculating that I might not be the target market for Gears POP, but it does make you wonder who is. Funko POPs are essentially nostalgia gimmicks: you may not collect Spider-Man comics any more, but you love Spider-Man, so here's a Spider-Man foofah you can glance at occasionally and smile. And I suppose I'm a Gears nostalgiast: my finest days, online at least, were on the 360 with the original and Gears of War 2.
So here's this weird digital hybrid, and it really is weird. Funko POPs are popular because they're physical manifestations of nostalgia. But here they are cute-ifying Gears of War like it ain't no thang, and one wonders what the reasoning beyond 'make many dollars' might be.
It's no secret that Xbox is not doing well, and something like Gears is emblematic of that: it used to be a marquee brand but these days, frankly, feels like a tired iterative series.
Maybe Gears POP was conceived to re-awaken my love for Gears, and all those like me who were 360 stans but have since dropped off. The problem is that neither Microsoft nor the Coalition really understand Gears of War, because it's something that always worked against itself.
When Gears tries to be serious, it's accidentally hilarious: look up the Gears 2 scene where Dom finds his dead wife, or Marcus shouting "they're sinking cities with a giant worm!" When Gears tries to be funny, it's a cringeworthy fratboy disaster.
Perhaps that's why the Funko POP crossover works so well, because it's cartoonish, and Gears has always been an essentially ridiculous game about shooting bugs that tries to add these little redemptive arcs to their characters. But there isn't a character in Gears of War that deserves the name. No wonder re-imagining them as toys looks good: what's inside was always a hollow anyway.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.