Don’t sleep on Gears 5: Hivebusters – this single player expansion deserves a standalone release

Did anyone really notice that there was a whole new Gears of War adventure to play at the end of 2020? It certainly feels that way, as the hustle and bustle of the Xbox Series X|S launch, the optimisations that came to Gears 5, and the launch of Gears Tactics on Xbox all seemed to drown out December’s release of Gears 5: Hivebusters.

I’m late to the party with this opinion, but here’s what I have to say about Hivebusters: don’t sleep on this fantastic slice of Gears of War action.

Hivebusters takes a completely different cast of characters to the cluster of families that seem to provide all the protagonists and backups to the main Gears of War storyline. There’s no sign of a Fenix or a Diaz here, instead taking the characters from the Escape co-op multiplayer mode and building out this new trio’s backstory.

Hivebusters stars Scorpio Squad, consisting of Keegan, a quartermaster of the Onyx Guard, Lahni, a former COG who was convicted of misconduct and descended from the South Islands people, and Mac, an Outsider who lost his family and community to the emerging Swarm. After being rescued from a plane crash, they’re enlisted for a secretive operation by a Colonel Hoffman who’s dressed like he’s about to head off to the beach to drink cocktails and work on his tan in retirement.

What follows are a string of excursions to the nearby islands to try and neutralise the Swarm threat using poisonous bombs, punctuated by disagreements between the trio until they learn each other’s motivations and how to work as a team, unravelling of a mysteries behind a local mythological bird, and some truly ridiculous plans to get to the heart of the Swarm hive. Sure, it leans on a lot of scripting shorthand to bring the team together in the final act, but it’s full of bombastic set pieces and ends at just the right moment to tie into Gears 5’s Escape mode.

A nice element is how the three characters have different roles that they can take on. Keegan is the support character, able to drop an ammo replenishing bubble, while Mac can create an energy shield to his front and march into the fray, and Lahni has an electrical melee attack. Their abilities are gradually amped up by finding collectable power-ups in the world, giving Mac a wider and longer-lasting shield, for example. The inclination is still to hunker down and cover shooter your way through like a traditional Gears game, but these sprinkle a little something on top and add options. If you’re playing solo or in a duo, any AI character abilities can be summoned by an active player – the number of times we could have AI Keegan top up our ammo was especially useful.

The one area that really lets it down is nuts and bolts of the online co-op experience. Progression is only saved for the host – one of the dumbest things in Dumbsville – and when we played through a couple of months ago, the connection was pretty ropey at times. Gears has always been a co-op shooter to my mind, so it’s surprising that co-op has some oddities and flaws like this.

Then there’s just how good all of this looks. Gears 5 was already designed with more than just the Xbox One in mind, but Hivebusters shows The Coalition’s mastery over several generations of hardware and the Unreal Engine. Hivebusters looks sublime on Xbox Series X, and a big part of that is the environments. This expansion’s setting on more tropical and volcanic islands cuts against the grain of the series’ muddy brown and grey roots on the Xbox 360. It’s a refreshing change of pace, as Gears steps into Uncharted and Tomb Raider territory.

Yet, for all the good Hivebusters does, it’s seemingly been overlooked by the player base at large. Four months on from its release, the game’s achievements list shows an almost vanishingly small engagement from the wider Gears 5 audience. 4.2% of Gears 5 players have snagged the Designation: Scorpio achievement for starting the second chapter, and that slides to 3.04% having defeated the boss at the end of the short three or four-hour campaign. To put that into perspective, while 52.82% of all Gears 5 players have earnt the first campaign achievement possible and 18.58% stuck with it through to the end,

These figures are likely a bit skewed by the main game’s availability in Xbox Game Pass and having been bundled into Xbox Live Gold a couple of months ago, but it still feels like Hivebusters has not reached the audience that it could or should have. We don’t have player counts outside of the 3 million that played Gears 5 at its 2019 launch, but even if the game had now reached five times that many by now, it would still be a drop from millions of players engaging with a single player campaign to just a few hundred thousand.

A big part of this relative obscurity is going to be how Hivebusters was released. In the run-up to the Xbox Series X|S launch, all the talk surrounding Gears 5 was how the main game was being enhanced with 60fps for the campaign, more refined lighting and textures, and so on. Hivebusters wasn’t a part of the Series X hype train until the very last moment, and even then it wasn’t released until December, pulling into the station a month after the console.

The expansion was also heavily marketed as part of Xbox Game Pass, except that as DLC it’s not part of Microsoft’s mantra of being free for all subscribers – it’s included for Game Pass Ultimate, but not the platform specific tiers of the service. For non-Ultimate subscribers, it’s £15. Now that the first marketing push has subsided, you’ll barely see anything about Hivebusters in the Xbox Game Pass app, as the Gears 5 Game of the Year edition integrates the Hivebusters key art.

It all adds up to what feels like a real missed opportunity. Making Hivebusters a standalone expansion would give it more stature in the Game Pass library, or able to act as a cheaper entry point for those idly thinking of playing a Gears title for less, and be a graphical showcase for what the Series X can do. Better yet, it could tie in with the wider Gears 5 game, bundling multiplayer in as part of a standalone release, whether that’s the full suite of multiplayer, Horde and Escape, or just the Escape mode that gave us this trio of characters in the first place.

It’s a shame, and as Hivebusters fades from the limelight it plays into the industry’s perception that, while often one of the most requested things by vocal gamers, single-player DLC is often too much work for too little reward. If you have the opportunity and the inclination, it’s worth bucking that trend; Hivebusters is a fun romp in a new Gears of War setting and it deserves to be more than just a footnote for the series.

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