The Coalition don’t get enough credit for how well they’ve managed the Gears of War franchise since they took over as its caretakers. Gears of War 4 was a solid introduction to a new era for the series, Gears 5 followed it up with what is probably one of the best single player campaigns in a Gears game, Gears Tactics branched out and successfully tried its hand at crafting a great turn-based tactics experience, and now, Gears 5: Hivebusters continues in that same vein.
A single player expansion isn’t something that Gears fans would necessarily be very used to, especially for a game that came out over a year ago, but Hivebusters feels surprisingly essentially, even with the absence of all the main characters who’ve become the centre of the franchise’s larger story. Though quite short at roughly three hours long, Hivebusters packs a punch, and thanks to excellent pacing, varied environments, tense action, and other strengths besides, it leaves a lasting impression.
As its name suggests, in Gears 5: Hivebusters, you play as Scorpio Squad, a trio comprised of Keegan, Mac, and Lahni, who were introduced as the Locust hive busting stars of the co-op multiplayer mode, Escape, in Gears 5 last year. The likes of Kait Diaz and Marcus Fenix are nowhere to be seen, but Scorpio Squad and the cast of supporting characters around them proves to be more than up to the task of stepping into their shoes. Solid voice acting, well-written conflicts between characters, well-timed moments of levity, and even better timed moments of quietude ensure that Scorpio Squad firmly establishes itself as some of the better characters in Gears history, in spite of only occupying the screen for around three hours.
"Though quite short at roughly three hours long, Hivebusters packs a punch, and thanks to excellent pacing, varied environments, tense action, and other strengths besides, it leaves a lasting impression."
The one character who perhaps doesn’t shine as brightly is Keegan, who is also the default playable character if you’re playing solo. Thanks to Mac’s hotheaded persona and inner demons, and Lahni’s backstory and her ties to the more mystical aspects of the story, the two of them certainly come across as unique and memorable characters, but Keegan is a bit too generic in his “I must always follow orders and play things by the book” attitude. Additionally, while I enjoyed the interactions and bonds between these characters, I feel they got to the phase where they’re willing to die for each other a bit too quickly, especially in light of the heated arguments they often got into earlier on. Their eventual friendship ended up feeling a bit unearned as a result.
Where Gears 5: Hivebusters’ biggest strengths lie, however, is in its thrilling firefights and its high-octane action- which really isn’t surprising for a Gears game. Even though it’s relatively short, it doesn’t feel short at all. The campaign is absolutely packed, and constantly keeps taking you from one beautiful location to the next, constantly keeps throwing new elements in, constantly keeps dropping you right in the midst of desperate and enthralling firefights. From crash-landing on a mysterious island to breaking into a Locust hive to floating on top of a steel platform through a river of platform and so, so much more, Gears 5: Hivebusters keeps switching things up, with each scenario lasting just the perfect amount of time, before moving on to the next exciting thing.
Of course, The Coalition have a knack for putting together excellent designed and tightly crafted linear shootout arenas and set-pieces, as they’ve firmly established with both Gears of War 4 and Gears 5, so it’s not surprising that they continue to exhibit those strengths here as well. What is surprising is that the shootouts and set-pieces they’ve sown together here are perhaps some of the best I’ve ever seen in a Gears game. The busiest and most chaotic moments of Hivebusters make full use of the game’s excellent enemy variety, and navigating its tightly designed linear environments while ensuring that you’re able to cope with the overwhelming forces the game keeps throwing at you is always exciting. I was constantly on the edge of my seat.
"The Coalition have a knack for putting together excellent designed and tightly crafted linear shootout arenas and set-pieces, as they’ve firmly established with both Gears of War 4 and Gears 5, so it’s not surprising that they continue to exhibit those strengths here as well. What is surprising is that the shootouts and set-pieces they’ve sown together here are perhaps some of the best I’ve ever seen in a Gears game."
Gears 5: Hivebusters also makes some changes to the light RPG mechanics that The Coalition implemented in the base Gears 5. Jack the bot is obviously not a part of Scorpio Squad. Replacing him and his upgradable passive and active abilities are unique ultimates, one each for the members of the Scorpio Squad. Keegan can replenish ammo, Lahni has an electrified knife that can pulverize foes, and Mac can deploy a shield that stays in front of him while he moves around.
Each of these moves is incredibly useful, and I found myself relying on them often. In fact, clearly, the reason Hivebusters is full of those desperate and hectic firefights mentioned above is to encourage players to make use of those ultimate abilities. These abilities also come with surprisingly short cooldowns, which means using them often is the way to go- and given how effective and fun they can be to use, you won’t really need much nudging to let them loose anyway.
These ultimate abilities can also be upgraded, which is done by picking up mysterious stone tablets in the game’s environments. I’m not sure how I feel about these upgrades. One the one hand, they can provide extremely useful buffs, such as making Mac’s shield deal damage to any enemy that touches it, or giving Lahni’s electrified knife chain lightning (which is wonderfully overpowered). On the other hand, tying each upgrade to essentially finding a single collectible feels too simplified. I’m all for tying progression mechanics into exploration, but in a game that is as linear and focused as Hivebusters is, it just feels incongruous.
"Running in 4K, each of its lush, gorgeous, and varied environments pop with instant and gobsmacking beauty, while thanks to its rock-solid and unwavering 60 FPS performance, the animations, movement, and combat feel incredibly smooth."
Something else that I need to mention is how beautiful Hivebusters looks. When I played Gears 5 on an Xbox One X last year, it was the best-looking game to have been released for the console at the time. Fittingly enough, Hivebusters is the best-looking game on the Xbox Series X. Running in 4K, each of its lush, gorgeous, and varied environments pop with instant and gobsmacking beauty, while thanks to its rock-solid and unwavering 60 FPS performance, the animations, movement, and combat feel incredibly smooth. As you’d expect from The Coalition, this is yet another technical showcase.
Gears 5: Hivebusters is an unexpected surprise. It follows a year after the base game, and though The Coalition have, of course, been constantly updating Gears 5’s multiplayer, a single player expansion wasn’t really something anyone expected. Having played Hivebusters, I hope it won’t be the last of its kind. Packed full of excellent action, blistering combat, a solid cast of characters, and astoundingly beautiful visuals, Gears 5: Hivebusters is unmissable for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the series.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
An excellently paced and varied campaign; Typically exciting combat; Some of the best firefights and set-pieces in Gears history; Strong cast of characters; Looks absolutely gorgeous.
Keegan isn't as interesting a character as the others; Ultimate upgrades could have been handled better.