So Halo 5: Guardians is here, arriving on the crest of a tsunami of supplemental material and anticipation. As the sales and prominence of the franchise – and it’s relative importance to Microsoft – have grown, it has correspondingly become more truly (space) operatic in scope, and the latest chapter of its story is one of an ever increasing roster of dramatis personae, shifting allegiances, numerous factions, internal conflicts, philosophical themes and galaxy-spanning sweep.
Indeed, it seems like a long time now since the first entry in the series arrived as a relatively basic tale of future humanity dealing with some new complications as it struggled in a war against a superior alien force. Pine all you like for those simple days of “see Covenant, shoot Covenant” two console generations back though; those complications are what Halo is all about now, and those not well versed in the series’ increasingly complex history will likely be hopelessly lost at the start of Halo 5, which bowls into action soon after the events of Halo 4.
Even if you’ve completed that game, it might be a good idea to brush up on its plot summary before getting into the action, as there’s a flurry of name checking and callbacks before the new Fireteam Osiris, headed by Spartan Jameson Locke, are dropped into action on a mission to retrieve Dr Elizabeth Halsey from the clutches of the Covenant Remnant, and back to gunning down alien scum we go.
The biggest change to Halo’s singleplayer gameplay is to take the single player out of the equation somewhat. Throughout the campaign you’ll fight with three other members of either Fireteam Osiris or Master Chief’s Fireteam Blue as the story swings the action between them. Your AI teammates are handy in a scrap, but their most useful function is to get you up on your feet again should you fall in battle.
Downed players can expect to be successfully revived most of the time, although they can also expect to look up occasionally from bleeding out on the ground to find their squadmates hovering uncertainly around for no particular reason, and on harder difficulties, to watch as their entire squad charges lemming-like into a heavy fire zone one at a time to attempt a revive, only to be wiped out to the last Spartan. This dice-roll nature of the recovery process (and the possibility of instant deaths via vehicle explosions, fatal falls or incineration) means that player “death” is still best avoided whenever possible.
A simple tap on the d-pad can also tell your squaddies to head for a specified location or target a selected enemy or head for a specific spot, which can be handy to divert enemy fire, although their tactical nous is limited, and they can’t be split up via orders. Elsewhere in gameplay changes, a small jet boost ability makes for a handy evasive tool, a charging bull manoeuvre – initiated by making use of the now-any-time sprint, hurray – is a good way to close in on a group of enemies, and every weapon in the your arsenal finally has a sighted mode, although taking any fire while looking down your sights will immediately snap you out of the aim view.
With what we’re all used to from recent-vintage shooters, this particular feature is initially vastly annoying; however, as the game rolls on, play style adjustments are made accordingly and it’s easier to appreciate how this choice was made to deliberately affect gameplay, making it harder to stay relatively stationary and pick targets off at range, and instead keeping you on the move and taking opportunities to focus fire when you can get them. Spartans also gain a ground-pound ability which they can launch from the air, but it doesn’t seem particularly practical in the campaign, and may come more into its own in multiplayer.
There’s definitely plenty to enjoy in the game’s story. Level design breaks away from the generally fairly flat style of previous Halo titles, adding plenty of crags, ramps, and platforms – reachable with a new leap-and-mantle move – that add literal dimension to fire fights. Almost all the campaign levels are also admirably roomy, and alternate approaches to a situation are nearly always on offer; do you leap across a chasm to directly confront the enemy, or circle around the higher path to the left and come in from behind?
The weapon mix remains fun, and the new mini-mech Mantis vehicle is just what you want from your standard future-war-mini-battlemech thing, with the vehicle play in general as solid as ever. The excellent standard of the series’ music is maintained here again, too.
It should be noted, too, that the game looks fairly spectacular – you might well call a temporary halt to the death-dealing so Master Chief can stand and consider the ripples in a pond for a bit. There are some gorgeous alien worlds to explore, shot through with the now-familiar Forerunner architecture of the series. This is getting a bit samey by this point, but it can still impress just with its sense of scale.
Lots of little details impress, like the specific way a Covenant jackal will beat off an attacking Promethean crawler with his shield if you watch them fighting, or the swoops of alien bird creatures screeching around the skies. And it all hums along at the high frame rates that certain sections of the gaming populace seem very concerned that it should.
But there are buts. The bombastic cutscene that sends Osiris into action at the top of the game serves rather well to summarise the campaign overall. It’s an undeniably cool sequence that’s all action, high production values and spectacle, but it’s nonetheless rather drastically removed from what it’s possible for the Spartans to actually do in the game. Style-over-substance, then; this could be said to apply to a certain degree to the campaign itself.
Back to get shot up again after Halo 4, the Prometheans still simply aren’t as fun to fight as the Covenant (or indeed the Flood), and their weapons are the least inspiring to use as well. The recurring boss battle that occurs throughout is overused in a short-ish campaign and has tipped very firmly into “Sigh, not this guy again” territory by the conclusion, and the expansion of the Spartan roster is only a qualified success in terms of characterisation.
While Locke and the rest of Osiris prove interesting enough, helped immensely by another top performance by Space-shooter Voice Acting MVP of the Moment Nathan Fillion, Master Chief’s squaddies in Blue team are generic drones with no hint of personality, and it feels like what could have been another good ol’ “Master Chief vs the universe” part of the story here is rather hamstrung by the need to include the game’s squad-based play.
The story follows Master Chief’s investigation of a mysterious signal and the activation of the titular Guardians (giant forerunner weapons/artifacts) at sites around the galaxy, while Fireteam Osiris track the Chief and thus become entangled in events themselves. It moves along gamely enough – although as mentioned, it may pay to have your Halo reference encyclopedia handy on occasion – and contains some exciting moments, particularly a chase/showdown that takes place across teleporting Forerunner platforms, a race against time on a crumbling Covenant sea installation, and a last-ditch rescue at the end.
But urgh – Halo 5 gives us just a slice of a story (just as Halo 2 infamously did), with the game screeching to a halt mid-action just as things are poised for a dramatic conclusion. In a world of two-part Hunger Game movies (and an inevitable Halo 6), it’s probably not that surprising, but it’s still somewhat unsatisfying, especially when the campaign only comes in at around the 10-12 hour mark, and some of that feels like padding. Two of the campaign’s 15 missions consist of wandering around large base areas and talking to people, for example.
Let’s face it though; many fans will be here primarily for the multiplayer, anyway. Classic modes like slayer, capture the flag and free-for-all all return, but the big news here is Warzone, an entirely new mode for the series that takes inspiration from MOBAs by dropping two teams of 12 onto a huge maps and having them battle to be the first to reach a set number of points.
These are accumulated via capturing bases, making frags and eliminating AI-controlled enemies, all while being able to call in new equipment as the match progresses via the REQ points / purchasing system (also the source of cosmetic upgrades for your Spartan). You can also jump into co-op campaign, although couch co-op split screen is gone - rather frustrating, given the new emphasis on squad play.
Halo 5 certainly has the goods to be a big success for 343 and Microsoft; the refinements to the series’ gameplay are solid, the visuals make the most of the new generation hardware, and although the campaign’s a bit of a mixed bag in some ways, the promise of the new multiplayer modes is solid at this early stage. Over the coming days we'll dive deeper into the its multiplayer now that its live, and return to this this review with a score and some additional thoughts.
Fortunately for all concerned, a week on from launch, it looks like 343 have rooted out and exterminated the last of the gremlins that plagued previous Halo release The Master Chief Collection, as the launch issues that blemished that title seem to be nowhere in evidence here. Multiplayer matches are readily found and simple to get into.
The classic arena modes are a great demonstration of the game’s solid shooter mechanics and 343’s well-tuned level design. Even 14 years down the track and numerous iterations later, Halo franchise multiplayer retains a unique flavour of its own, a heavy-hitting, fast-but-lumbery sort of feeling that seems perfectly appropriate for the universe’s heavily armoured, high tech protagonists.
Combat inevitably heats up over heavy weapon drops in each map, but even grabbing the advantage of superior firepower is no guarantee of success, as most maps offer the opportunity to surprise an opponent from above, say, or close distance without exposing yourself to sniper fire. A skilled individual in Free For All or a well-oiled team in Slayer can still certainly dominate heavy weapon possession and thus the match, which can be frustrating, but there’s often a way back for players who know the map well, which leads to some enjoyably see-sawing matches and epic comebacks.
New single-life elimination mode Breakout and the pared-back visuals of its Tron-like arenas seem ready-made for e-sports; there’s probably no clearer indicator for this than the mode seemingly being the number one spot for verbal abuse from random teammates, which is one legacy feature of the Halo series it would be nice to leave behind. It's unfair perhaps to single out one game for the wider problem of abuse in gaming, but the fact is I've heard more insults flying around in a week or so of Halo 5 than I have in a year or so of Destiny.
To its credit though, 343 seems determined to clean up the culture a bit, so hopefully their efforts pay off over the long run. If you can shrug off the verbal barbs though, the quick-fire, tactical nature of Breakout's brutal capture-the-flag mode provides quite a different flavour to standard arena, and is good for a change-up.
The multiplayer star mode, though, is undoubtedly Warzone. The base-capturing, alien-killing and Spartan-fragging contests that rage across these gigantic maps have a bit of a propensity to be one-sided, but on those occasions that you get a close contest, there’s nothing quite like it. Doggedly defending a base or battling to finish off a Promethean Warden as both teams close in on a victory, or using Guardians’ in-game upgrade / collectable REQ(uisition) system to call in a Scorpion and rolling up to turn the tide with it are thrilling moments of a kind you’d struggle to find anywhere else in first-person shooting today.
And for those that like their objectives simple, asymmetrical variant Warzone Assault takes the same maps and reduces them to a simple attack / defend preposition, with the attacking team given a certain amount of time (per base) to capture two bases and then destroy the defenders’ core, all while the defender’s battle to delay them. It’s amazing how often captures in this mode seem to be made with just thrilling seconds to spare.
The variety and innovation on display in Guardians’ multiplayer manages to go a long way towards erasing any slight feelings of disappointment that may linger over its campaign. Fans of multiplayer shooters will be in (Wart)hog-heaven, and even those than can take them or leave them will want to give Warzone a crack. While its campaign has its disappointments, Halo 5: Guardians is an easy overall recommendation for Xbox One owners, and will be likely spinning in the drives of many of them for a good while yet.
New Warzone mode and variant Warzone Assault are tremendous, chaotic fun. Returning Arena modes are as solid as ever. Excellent map design.
Copping an earful of abuse from some fun-detonating troglodyte still an occasional hazard.