Gears Pop combines characters from the Gears of War games with the vinyl stylings of Funko Pop models. Really, though, its main influence lies elsewhere, with Supercell's magnificent Clash Royale.
Clash Royale is a game in which you build a deck of eight cards, each representing a unit or a building or a spell of some kind. Then you battle against another player with their own deck. Each player has three towers at their end of the symmetrical map. Bring the most towers down within a short playtime of real-time action in order to win.
It's truly wonderful stuff – pacy, intricate, beautifully balanced and extremely charismatic. Almost every game is a nail-biter. All of which means I've enjoyed Gears Pop quite a bit despite myself, because I know the underlying game so intimately already and because it sticks to the formula so closely.
Honestly, Gears Pop cleaves very close to its inspiration. The basic game design is the same, crucial systems work the same, the feel of the game in motion is pretty much the same. Even the levelling feels the same.
It's easier to actually talk about the points where things diverge. Okay. Gears Pop handles unlocking of the chests you win in battles a little differently: they all start to unlock immediately, so you don't have to queue them up one at a time. Also, its clans, called crews, are a little more bare-bones at present, which is understandable as the game has just launched.
There are a handful of small variations like this, but the biggest difference is probably right in the middle of the battlefield. In Clash the space you have to spawn a lot of your troops in changes over time as you destroy enemy towers. Knock a tower down, and you can deploy a little closer to the remaining towers. Gears Pop reworks things, calling back to Epic's original game and its love of cover. Across the battlefield there are two columns of cover set up, a bit like hurdles. Some of the troops you send out can capture this cover, winning it over to your side, and the more cover you earn, the more of the battlefield is yours to deploy in. Cover can go back and forth as the game progresses, and it's pretty upsetting when your enemy has taken down two of your towers and has also knocked your deployment space back to your own front door. The whole thing is tactically very smart and reminds me a bit of American Football. It fits well with Gears, which already had NFL stylings in the first place, and it calls to mind a similar system in Stormbound, an extremely elegant Clash Royale-alike that plays much more like a traditional CCG.
What else? There's also an ultimate that charges up over the course of a game and can be deployed to change the tide of a battle. I'm still pretty early in and I've only unlocked the first of these ultimates, which sees low-level grunts pouring out of a hole in the ground. It's pretty fun! Beyond that the major differences don't go in Gears' favour. Despite the all-action theme, Gears Pop's combat feels a little muted and weightless. Its units, bringing COGS and the Locust together on the same team, are much less characterful than the units in Clash Royale. In Clash Royale you can deploy an ice wizard or maybe a hot air balloon or a barrel of goblins. In Gears it's often just a super soldier with a different kind of gun.
The question I've struggled with is: is Gears Pop a clone or simply a rather unimaginative take on a newish genre? I'm tempted to say it's the latter – that Clash Royale is now a style of game in its own right – but I do wonder if Supercell might disagree. Either way, Gears Pop is in a strange position. It's a game made with obvious skill and, I think, quite a bit of enthusiasm and wit. But it's ultimately a copy of another game, and the original is much better.