Even some of my favorite games of the past generation can occasionally fall victim to the trap of adding unnecessary elements to pad out runtime, but Gears 5: Hivebusters does the opposite. This DLC expansion trims the fat and provides a laser-focused, linear experience, leaving me wanting more instead of overstaying its welcome. Although the characters (and their relationships to each other) can feel uneven, great new environments and a cool new avian creature add a new flavor to the Gears universe.
It’s billed as an origin story, but Hivebusters opens with its team of crack troops, who infiltrate Swarm hives and destroy them from the inside, already assembled. The three playable characters you and up to two co-op teammates inhabit are Scorpio Squad, made up of Keegan, Lahni, and Mac; it’s the same crew that was first introduced in Gears 5’s excellent Escape multiplayer mode. Actors Dave Fennoy, Sumalee Montano, Trevor Devall, and a good (and sometimes surprising) supporting cast turn in great voice performances.
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Even so, it’s inconsistent: sometimes Scorpio Squad feels like a cohesive unit that’s been on other missions together and understands each other, and sometimes it feels like they just met earlier that day and don’t particularly like one another. Keegan’s “by the book” military approach and Mac’s “devil-may-care” attitude feel well-realized on their own, and Lahni’s history and culture take center stage and provide an interesting backdrop for part of the story, but those individual parts aren’t always put together effectively. As a result, taking the team from “reluctant allies” to “we’re a family” happens too quickly because the team doesn’t grow closer organically over the course of the three-hour expansion.
Even with those occasional “team-building” hiccups, Keegan, Mac, and Lahni are welcome additions to the world of Gears. They all feel like characters who belong here, and a lot of their banter works well. I’d love to see them appear in another story expansion focused on more of their exploits, or even in the next main game alongside the likes of Kait, Marcus, and others.
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Hivebusters stays action-packed and tense across its six-chapter campaign and the story of a ragtag team coming together, trying to find a way to turn the tide against the Swarm, is engaging. Weapons and enemies from the base game as well as Gears 4 return, but the addition of an impressive new avian creature that plays a key role in Scorpio Squad’s tale is a highlight, both because of its story significance and the fact that it is so visually distinct from the hordes of fleshy Swarm we’ve fought for so long.
Combat is as tight and responsive as ever, with the same “gold standard” cover-based shooting I’ve come to expect from every Gears game, and battles range from chaotic firefights in wide-open spaces to almost claustrophobic, tense struggles for survival in narrow hallways, and the scenarios flow together naturally in a way that felt refreshing. Gears 5’s campaign had a mix of linear and open-world sections, but Hivebusters returns to the series’ roots with a more focused approach, and that applies to more than just linear exploration. Each roughly 30-minute chapter lasted just long enough, and featured varied combat encounters, so almost nothing got old.
More than in any other Gears game I can remember, I felt like this was a fight I wasn’t going to win. The Coalition did an excellent job of making me feel like I was consistently on my back foot, just about to fail, only to pull off a heroic victory against the odds. This sense of desperate struggle across jungles, beaches, volcanos, ruins, Swarm nests, and more is one of my favorite elements of Hivebusters. Playing on Xbox Series X, each of these vibrant settings are realized in fantastic detail. And beyond simply looking incredible, it also runs beautifully at 60 frames without a hitch.
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The biggest change in mechanics is that Jack, the robotic companion from Gears 5, doesn’t appear in Hivebusters, meaning his wide range of support abilities is gone. They’re replaced with simpler and more effective Ultimate Abilities, one for each member of Scorpio Squad: Keegan can regenerate ammo for himself and anyone nearby, Mac can summon a shield that hovers in front of him as he moves around, and Lahni can use a knife charged with electricity to absolutely tear through the Swarm – especially after you get the awesome chain lightning upgrade.
Each Ultimate Ability has a relatively short cooldown, and they’re so powerful and so consistently useful that I found myself using them every time they were available. I always got excited when I saw the small golden glow of an upgrade pickup because they’re often game-changers: for example, Keegan’s ammo regeneration ability is already incredibly useful, allowing you to effectively keep your favorite weapons for as long as you like, it can be upgraded to also reduce the damage taken while standing in the ammo regen area, so it can also be used as a second defensive cooldown (a life-saver during some of the difficult fights later on).
While Keegan is the default playable character if you’re playing solo, you can choose to play as any of the three, meaning you can lean into whichever Ultimate Ability you prefer and order your AI partners to use their abilities on command.
While Hivebusters’ campaign only took three hours to beat, it felt longer than that, in the best way, and the ending made me want to jump straight into more Escape multiplayer matches. I’m already looking forward to replaying it with a few friends in co-op, too.