After their glorious first outing as a company with 2012’s Halo 4, 343 Industries proved in the eyes of many that they deserved the mantle of responsibility for all things Halo. Then last year, despite eventually righting the ship, the disastrous launch of the online functions for Halo: The Master Chief Collection left many wondering where to set their expectations for the highly anticipated sequel, Halo 5: Guardians.
There is so much to love about Halo 5: Guardians that in many ways it is one of the best overall titles in the franchise's history. 343 have made improvements to all aspects of the gameplay, from new traversal options, stunning visuals, and beautiful audio, to their tweaking of weapons, and the new game modes in the multiplayer arsenal.
Yet, in a stunning attempt to sabotage their own efforts, Halo 5 has been equipped with a campaign that is both a little reminiscent of Halo 2’s worst qualities, and relies too heavily on Expanded Universe (EU) content to fill-in the many holes throughout the narrative. So much so that it almost ruins an otherwise amazing experience.
While playing, I felt the missions and enemy encounters were well designed for the most part, and the game was pacing quite nicely - until I realized how close I was to the end. In an unfortunate callback to the aforementioned Halo 2 campaign, it feels like only half the tale was told.
To those hoping for a good balance between playing as the Master Chief, and Spartan Locke, I have some bad news - of the 15 total missions, only three see you commanding Blue Team as the Chief. Oh, and the promised epic showdown between Locke and 117 amounts to nothing more than a half-hearted chase, followed by a cutscene.
On top of that, anyone hoping for a new hero to spearhead the franchise beyond a mostly silent yes-man will be sorely disappointed. Locke may be able to show his face in-game, but he’s profoundly uncharismatic. His dialogue tends to result in mostly silent stares, and reminders to stay on mission. Interestingly, I found Chief’s single act of rebellion against the UNSC displayed more humanity than any dialogue or decisions provided by Locke, which is both awesome, and a little sad.
Yet despite myself, I really do like where they were going with the new arc. It might be EU lore heavy; missing what feels like half the middle and a satisfying end; AND it could have done with more in-game backstory for all the new Spartans, but it does have a few things going for it.
First of all, the gameplay is top notch. Player movement, including the new traversal methods, feels fast and ridiculously smooth, especially with the new 60 frames per second the game runs at. Weapons and vehicles all feel well balanced, and each sounds suitably powerful, with handy indicators that show whether you struck or killed an enemy. It’s an incredibly well polished gaming experience, and one that shines in both the single and multiplayer modes.
From Halo’s inception, each title has had moments that made me take a step back and say “Wow”. Halo 5 does this in almost every level. The skyboxes are constantly filled with amazing scenarios or vistas that take your breath away. It’s a pity that the sense of scale is only on the verge of being astounding, as the level designs throw massive walls up every chance they get - which really killed my enjoyment of the Kraken (a new enemy ultra vehicle), and at times gave me something of a claustrophobic feeling.
Luckily, once you’re in the heat of battle, most of that doesn’t matter too much. The encounters tend to be great, and the boss battles are simultaneously challenging, and incredibly simple when you know what you’re doing (particularly in co-op).
The size of some of the battles can get pretty crazy. You’ll often have from five, up to around fifteen (maybe more) enemies in a single area, all scattered about, and you have to find a way to take them all down. To make things more hectic, they’ve all spawned in at once and even once you take them out, more will appear via drop pods or teleportation. It makes for some great fights.
Enemy AI also appears to be smarter than ever. Constantly ducking, weaving, and teleporting into cover and out of sight. Falling back to regroup when their armour becomes exposed or shields get low, and seeming to (annoyingly) know exactly where you are on the harder difficulties - this all makes for quite an enjoyable and challenging time.
The music is what ties everything together though, and Halo 5: Guardians heralds the return of the classic Halo soundtrack style, suitably re-mixed to suit the overall theme of this entry - that of betrayal and sorrow. Those epic battle scenes make great use of the scores, and as the game progresses, you can feel the weight of the scenarios just by listening to the music. There are a few good scores, but when push-comes-to-shove, it’s the new version of the singing monks that I loved the most.
On the subject of audio, something I absolutely love is the dialogue given to the Grunts, it’s outstanding - I literally lost track of how many times I stopped to eavesdrop on their constantly amusing conversations. Then you have Edward Buck. Making his return from Halo 3: ODST, and Halo: Reach, Buck is a fantastic addition to the Spartan ranks, and makes playing as Fireteam Osiris far more enjoyable.
Taking on Promethean Knights made me feel like the badass Spartan the campaign told me I was
It was also nice to hear at least some history of new-comers Holly Tanaka, and Olympia Val. The rare glimpses we get into each Osiris members pre-Spartan lives helped make them feel more like real people, it’s a pity the same can’t be said for Blue Team.
Without the assistance of the EU novels, comics, or the Fall of Reach animation that released alongside Halo 5, backgrounds for each Blue Team member pales in comparison. I did enjoy what little was provided, but as they were used so sparingly, it only left me craving more.
Playing as either Locke or Chief you’re able to direct your team’s three additional Spartans with a single contextual button - telling them to either move to a position, attack a particular enemy, or pick up a weapon. A true downside to this feature is the teammate AI, especially at higher difficulty settings.
Poor aiming, an inability to consistently distract foes, and almost never being close enough to revive you severely hindered your squadmate’s effectiveness. The only real bonus to having them was their banter being a nice fill-in for a role traditionally held by Cortana - until I started a 4-player co-op campaign that is.
Co-op has been a part of Halo since day one, but thanks to the story, you no longer have an extra 1-3 random characters joining you, they were always there. And when they aren’t being controlled by your friends, they revert back to the directable AI.
343 and Microsoft have outdone themselves with the network as well - I don’t think I’ve had a smoother online co-op or multiplayer experience. Animations were seamless, the graphics pristine, and taking on the higher difficulties became a breeze - in the most enjoyable way.
Being able to actually talk to your team meant that going down wasn’t an automatic failure, and working together to take on Hunters, Promethean Knights, and Bosses made me feel like the badass Spartan the campaign told me I was - oh, and collecting Intel is shared between everyone in the match, a very handy feature.
Speaking of collectables, almost every mission has at least one collectable, optional-game-altering Skull to find, and across the whole game, a total of 117 story enriching Intel files to discover. This means each of the detailed and beautiful maps have lots of little nooks and crannies to explore.
Best of all it means there’s often more than one way to approach the larger encounters, all thanks to not just the alternate paths and elevation, but the use of a few new Spartan abilities - Spartan Link, the Thruster Pack, Ground Pound, Spartan Charge, oh, and Spartans can now grab onto ledges to pull themselves up.
With so many areas having multiple vertical positions, using the Ground Pound maneuver can be a lot of fun when playing on the lower difficulties, yet quite deadly if you're playing on Legendary and don’t kill all of your intended targets. Spartan Charge allows you to break down pre-determined walls to access hidden rooms, or alternate pathways - it also works quite nicely against foes. Ground Pound can also do this, but the floors that are breakable are few and far between.
The Thruster Pack gives you a quick boost in your desired direction. Use it during a jump will help you go further, and only just falling short no longer means falling as your Spartan will pull themselves up if you hit the ledge just right. This makes map traversal faster and easier.
Merely having this pack allows for some awesome moves. Now when you jump, you can hold down Spartan Link (effectively looking down your scope, but with every gun) and you’ll hover in mid-air for a few moments before slowly descending, then falling. This gives you a few extra seconds to snap off a couple shots at your target, and just adds to the many levels of verticality in both the single and multiplayer modes.
Then there are the major antagonists which 343 have given some interesting points of view that didn’t make them completely evil in the traditional sense, and certainly set the stage for a potentially interesting follow-up. On the flip side, I despise their opting to play cinematics instead of letting you fight the bosses in at least two of the missions.
That last part is something that irks me quite a bit. More than once during the campaign I felt like the joy of taking down a boss was taken out of my hands. It might have resulted in an enjoyable cutscene, but completely removing the gaming part of an important encounter is the antithesis to satisfying gameplay. They then have the audacity to refer to one of the cinematically-defeated foes on a constant basis during encounters, overheard conversations, and Intel files throughout over half the game.
Moving onto Multiplayer, it’s been split into two simple modes. Arena and Warzone, and it’s the latter that I honestly can’t get enough of. A few new features have also been added. First we have Requisition Points, which are an interesting way to unlock the multitudes of armour, helmet, assassination, and emblem types available. They can also be used to make certain weapon and vehicle types available for use in Warzone - both as one-off instant uses, and to permanently unlock them as an option.
And then you have Requisition point gathering and Experience Point modifying Boost cards that can be used, one at a time, in your multiplayer matches. Requisition (or Req) Packs are also purchasable from the Xbox Marketplace - it should also be stated that these aren’t really pay-to-win, but more pay-to-get-faster, because they can also be purchased in-game for Req Points that are gained by competing in multiplayer matches, both in the Arena, and (quicker) in Warzone.
So what are the two modes all about? Well, Arena houses your typical multiplayer affair - Free-for-all, and a host of 4-vs-4 matches ranging from the classic Team Slayer, Capture the Flag, and SWAT game types, to the fast paced, one-life-per-round, single flag capture mode called Dominion. I found that last one to be an enjoyable departure from the standard Halo multiplayer gametypes.
Finally, you have Warzone. This mode has two game types, standard Warzone, and Warzone Assault. Take one part classic Big Team Battle (lots of players and vehicles), another part resource management (the Req points), and throw in enemy AI controlled bases. Then give one or both teams a reactor core to protect, and make it so you can’t get to the other team’s core for an instant win until your team has captured all of the bases on a given map. Oh, and the maps are really, really big. So. Much. Fun. If there was ever a game type on a console that should cause massive lag, this is it, but it all runs beautifully.
Best of all, it’s perfect for people who aren’t the greatest at competing online, still want to play with friends, and also feel like they’re contributing. You see, Warzone matches can be won simply by hitting the score limit - and the constantly spawning AI Bosses are worth far more than an enemy player.
All that, plus throw in the ability to use your Requisition Points to get better weapons and vehicles from the Req Stations littering the map and you have the makings of a mode that will keep me wanting to jump into Halo 5: Guardians’ multiplayer for quite some time. It’s 12-vs-12-vs-Enemy AI, and it kicks all kinds of ass!
So, bringing this look at Halo 5: Guardians to a close, is it the best Halo in the game’s storied history? Certainly not for the campaign, as it felt like the first half of the story to me, but it does set up some interesting paths for the franchise to follow up on - and at the end of the day, despite the misgivings I have, Halo 5: Guardians still looked amazingly, and played great, not to mention the multiplayer was a ton of fun.
For fans of the franchise, I’d say it’s worth your time, but it could be a tough entry point for newcomers. As for fans of Halo’s multiplayer, I think there’s more than enough to sink your teeth into, and at this point all I can say is that Halo 6’s campaign can’t come soon enough - but I’m sure Warzone will tide me over until then.