Halo 5: Guardians is what Xbox One owners have been waiting for. It houses a massive campaign that can be enjoyed alone or with a group (except not the players sitting next to you). It has a huge degree of replay-ability thanks to situation-based story content, varying difficulty levels, and collectibles. It has the largest multiplayer array in franchise history. It has the Master Chief. It has Nathan Fillion. It has inter-species love letters.
Halo 5 is the powerhouse title that any console owner would love to have, thanks in part to a beloved franchise history playing with brand new technology and a development studio that is in love with the property. Despite some flagrant (and yet not game-breaking) issues with missing features and some interesting design choices, the game is not only a worthy follow-up to those that came before, but a fantastic foundation for the franchise’s future.
This review will be spoiler free. I promise.
The game is a galaxy-spanning epic, taking you from huge multi-faction battles to intimate dark corridors. Two teams of Spartans take the spotlight this time. Blue Team, led by the iconic Master Chief, and Osiris, run by newcomer Spartan Locke. As the story progresses, Blue Team strays away from their original orders, going AWOL. Osiris is then tasked with bringing them back home to answer for their actions.
The actual impact that premise has on the game changes rather quickly, but for the most part it is a cat and mouse series of levels. You’ll play as Blue Team, chasing down their next objective, and then swap to Osirs who plays catch up. The variety of locations is what makes this campaign very entertaining. Instead of revisiting the same stages Blue Team covers, Osiris instead uses plot clues to try to intercept them. There are plenty of amazing visual landscapes to see, from glassed planets to Forerunner engineered worlds. Caves, mountains, oceans, canyons… the list goes on. These environments give way to huge set pieces, and can at times be so full of action that I had to stop the game, turn down the difficulty, and rejoin so I can stand around looking without fear of getting killed.
You can tell that 343 had a challenging time making the story accessible to both newcomers to the series and veterans alike. Halo has a hugely complicated selection of lore, and to reward the players who invested in it while still keeping things understandable to the casual fan was a tough job. As someone who is a fan of the lore, I have to say I was impressed with the amount of content that made its way over from the extra material, and am genuinely curious as to how the newcomer would take it. The internet’s initial reaction seems to lean positive in this respect, but it’s clear that there is a lot of very specific jargon most fans simply won’t have a grasp on. That said, the story itself is very well thought out, but has a tendency to not follow through on some good ideas that are brought up in the games cut scenes or side chatter. An example of this would be something actually brought up in last year’s Master Chief collection, where Locke was technically introduced. In some supplementary story footage, Locke mentioned how he was tasked with evaluating the Arbiter during the events leading into the story of Halo 2, and he concluded the Arbiter needed to be assassinated. In Halo 5, the Arbiter and Locke meet, and this assassination motive was discussed with one throwaway line. I believe elements like this could have been a platform for developing both characters further, but it went largely unused.
Character development may also be something worth talking about. Most of the new characters all had great personalities and were genuinely likable…. except Spartan Locke. The game’s marketing and general story suggest he will be a major player in the franchise moving forward, and yet 343 really didn’t do a good job making me want to care about him very much. The rest of the characters have their backstories and personalities highlighted quite a bit during the game, primarily the rest of Osiris. While we already know a good bit about Sgt. Buck (Nathan Fillion), his personality seems the most visible. Tanaka and Vale, the two new characters in this group, seem to have interesting backstories that receive plenty of fleshing out through inter-group chatter. Locke’s back story and personality are pretty much nonexistent. He was mostly quiet, only barking out orders to push the narrative along. It was almost like 343 was trying to rehash the conventions used with the Master Chief, only somehow the “strong silent type” ended up being boring and forgettable.
Gameplay wise, this Halo felt fresh. The Spartan program is a character advancement all by itself. The legendary warriors have always just been set up to represent the near-invulnerable super soldier, but this game actually fleshed out the how and why. Spartans are much more powerful now and more capable in the field. In both single and multiplayer, Spartans call out targets, engage in chatter, and generally do things that are helpful to the player. This seemingly minor addition makes game play feel more cohesive, as if you actually were fighting alongside a near-unstoppable force of professional soldiers.
On a personal level, you feel more like a super soldier than ever. In past games, your health is what reflected the strength of a Spartan, allowing the player to live longer and kill more aliens than the regular humans walking around. This time around, the set of skills you have as a player make Spartans not only more super, but more intelligent and much more violent. Every punch has the impact force of a speeding train. Your movement is fast, and you can jump, climb, and boost your way out of danger. Even gun handling has improved thanks to a more traditional left-trigger scope mode. These elements make you feel invincible, and speed up the game to a frantic pace that is fun from start to finish. If you didn’t feel like a super hero before, Halo 5 will correct that. Additionally, the improved movement options have allowed levels in both campaign and multiplayer have a verticality than past games in the series. By extension, this allows the story levels to have many different paths to follow, adding to the impressive sandbox style play Halo is known for. Multiplayer levels feel very balanced, and at any point you may be vulnerable to someone else scoping in on your position, or climbing up to get you.
Visually, Halo 5 prioritizes a 60 FPS philosophy that mostly pays off. The game never budged from that frame rate, even during the most frantic points in the campaign. This is accomplished with a rendering system that can de-res locations in the distance and scales up the graphical look near your view. There are some areas where this is easy to spot, be it some low-res surfaces or some pop-in as the game makes the local area look a little nicer, but it’s not offensive. The game play is perfectly smooth thanks to the frame rate. Sometimes it is hard not to get distracted by the particles flying around you and the number of enemies on-screen actually doing things other than stand around. The final result of the frame rate focus is sub-1080p graphics, and the inability to include split-screen. The latter of those seems to be contentious among the player base, and I tend to lean toward the “include it if you can” argument, but I understand why they didn’t. Rendering the game more than once on-screen would force them to abandon the 60 FPS mark they targeted. I’ll take 60FPS over full 1080p every time, and Halo 5 helped solidify that opinion, but if you have to scale it back when doing split-screen, I think I’d be ok with that. Maybe next time, 343?
As for multiplayer, it is hard to match the variety Halo 5 offers. Arena, the more traditional Halo multiplayer, has everything you’d expect but now leverages all the new abilities and breakneck speed. The game is finely tuned for competition, thanks primarily to the professional gamers 343 hired to ensure they would have balanced weapons, maps, and abilities. 4v4 combat is fun and fast, and I never felt like I was outmatched while playing thanks to the abundance of options I had to try to hold my ground. While some game modes like Big Team Battle are coming a little later, the traditional slayer and capture the flag are there. Some new modes like Breakout, the 1-life per round game type, are there to give you some new experiences, and they are all winners. Players on all edges of the competitive spectrum, as well as casual fans, will find something to love in the Arena.
The newest addition to Halo is Warzone, a mode that blends traditional big team battle with something akin to Battlefield’s conquest mode and mixed with a little firefight from ODST and Reach. Two teams of 12 face off in the largest maps ever featured in a Halo game, each with two bases and three control points. Both teams are tasked with accumulating one thousands points to win. One point is earned per kill, but a quicker method of scoring involves the take-down of A.I. controlled boss characters that periodically spawn on the map. Sometimes Covenant, sometimes Forerunner, these enemies act as a third faction and are very difficult to bring down. Killing these boss characters and their entourage of lower level bodyguards will net your team anywhere from 25 to 150 points, which can quickly turn the tide of the battle. These encounters are what really had me sold on Warzone, as there are times when both teams end up fighting the A.I. and each other, all while trying to get the final kill-shot on the boss. These interactions are fast, chaotic, and by far the most fun I’ve had in any multiplayer match in quite some time.
As for those command points – both teams fight to control them (think territories) and can use them as spawn points when controlled by your team. They don’t give you any sort of point bonus when controlled, though. Instead, a team can make the effort to control all three and open up the enemy base to a game-ending take down of the base’s core. These bases also act as spawn locations for friendly vehicles when called in by the game’s req system. I won’t go into too much detail on the req system as that could be a post all by itself. Instead, I’ll let Mister Chief explain it:
While there are some less than cutting edge graphical things happening in Halo and a story that can be disjointed at times, it is difficult to find much else that the game actually fails to accomplish. The refreshed controls and abilities inject a huge amount of life into a franchise that has hesitated to change much in 14 years. Couple that with addictive Arena multiplayer and an over-the-top Warzone mode, and you have a game crafted with great care specifically for the players. The game has faults, but not enough to detract from the great Halo experience we remember, and now get to live again. On top of all of this, 343 has promised to give away a new map DLC free of charge (at least the first few waves of it) in order to provide more to enjoy without splitting the player base. They are also continuing to tweak balancing thanks to the help of their in-house pro team and community feedback. All these efforts combined provide one of the most carefully crafted game experiences to date, and really pave the way for the Halo franchise to continue to excite and engage players for years to come. I can’t wait to see what comes in Halo 6.