What would Gears of War look like, were it to disassociate itself from the Fenix family lineage and the misadventures of Delta Squad? That's been a question that The Coalition has been trying to answer since it was handed the reins to the franchise back in 2014, and it came close to doing so with Gears 5 – a mission that pulled Kait and Del to the forefront of a much wider world, with only intermittent interruption from Fenix and friends throughout. With Gears 5: Hivebusters, the first single-player expansion for the game, available December 15, 2020, we're given an ever clearer vision of this future.
Gears 5: Hivebusters drags the spotlight onto three characters that you've probably never heard of before. Scorpio Squad were introduced in Gears 5's Escape Mode, their adventures detailed in the Gears of War: Hivebusters comic book series, but if you skipped over these sections of the expanded universe you needn't worry. Corporal Keegan, Lieutenant Lahni, and Mac the Outsider are easy characters to fall in line behind, their incessant battle chatter peeling back the layers to their past, personalities, and priorities.
Gears 5: Hivebusters expansion hands-on
Given that Gears 5: Hivebusters is just three hours long, it's certainly impressive with just how quickly the three members of Scorpio Squad – and a handful of supporting characters – are able to earn your trust and attention. This is a six chapter campaign that is able to weave a relatively tight story and deliver a couple of thrills along the way, in a back to basics Gears of War adventure that eschews the open spaces of Gears 5 for familiar action cast out across bullet-ridden corridors and claustrophobic combat arenas.
In many ways, Hivebusters feels like the greatest hits of Gears' encounter design. Waves of increasingly equipped swarms of Locust appear at a steady rhythm, pushing you and your companions to crash between waist-high debris and roadie run through flanking routes, all while managing a dwindling supply of ammunition and Active Reload opportunities. It's the fun of Gears distilled down into an easily digestible package; challenging enough to make you stick by your squad and feel like the last line of defense against humanity's demise, and predictable enough that you always feel in control of your destiny.
Of course, the action suffers from many of the same problems as the Gears 5 campaign itself. The Swarm Flock is still inherently unenjoyable to engage, the Juvies bearing primed grenades are a pain in the ass, and fighting DeeBees still feels as if it is fundamentally at odds with the core Gears of War power fantasy – robots don't bleed and, as a result, that only serves to diminish the awesome thrill of chewing up a torso with the teeth of a Lancer's chainsaw. These aren't problems that are unique to Hivebusters, but if these frustrations found you in Gears 5 then they'll find you once again here in its first expansion.
The Coalition has once again showcased a more ecologically diverse side to Sera than we ever saw in the Epic years. Where Gears 5 took us to a frozen wasteland and an ocean of sand, surely the most evocative of the series' locales, Hivebusters introduces environments of fire and fauna – as gorgeous to behold as they are begging to be blown to pieces. The volcanic Galangi islands introduced in Hivebusters are a real delight to explore, even in this limited capacity, and while I believe they lack the miniature and attention to detail seen in some of Gears 5's locations, they are certainly among the most impressive spaces you can expect to find on the Series X right now.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that Gears 5: Hivebusters still feels like Gears of War, even as so many of its most recognisable faces and story threads are pushed far from view – and the same could hardly be said for Gears of War: Judgment, now could it? This suggests that The Coalition is honing in on a formula for success that can see Gears into a future far from the ongoing trajectory of the mainline series, and I doubt that many would argue that Gears 5's best moments were when Kait and Del's only connection to the Fenix family came as a whisper on the icy winds (well, a comm channel, but you get the picture). Hivebusters is proof that Gears can work in isolation, far from the towering threats, family squabbles, and political machinations that fuel that core story.
A leap of faith
That's important, because Microsoft is changing and Gears of War will have to adapt with it. Gears 5: Hivebusters is the first Xbox Game Studios campaign expansion to join Xbox Game Pass Ultimate day-and-date with the general release. The expansion itself costs $20, so at this stage you're factoring in a decision between unlocking Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (getting access to 200+ games, alongside this expansion) or purchasing Hivebusters outright instead. I'd say the choice seems clear, but only you can decide where best to allocate your funds.
If you were to look at the Xbox Game Studios umbrella, it would appear that almost every studio beneath it is preparing to leverage the live-service nature of Xbox Game Pass in one way or another – aside from The Coalition. The question is whether the studio can afford to wait three years between releases, or whether it's better served to utilise Game Pass as a platform for a more diverse set of stories on Sera while the hard work is done behind the scenes on the next iteration of the mainline series.
To me, Hivebusters points to a bright future for Gears of War, where one-off adventures and even anthology tales could be told, Monster of the Week-style, to satiate our appetite for more blood, guts, and viscera. So long as Microsoft can continue bridging great and inventive writers like Kurtis Wiebe onboard, I have a feeling The Coalition will be able to find plenty of weird and wonderful stories, encounters, and characters to explore in this more nuanced, truncated campaign format.
Gears 5: Hivebusters is available December 15 on Xbox Game Pass Ultimate or available for $19.99 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC. Given its proximity to the holidays, it might even be one of the best gifts for gamers right now.