Halo 5: Guardians review

Game Info
Platform Xbox One
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer 343 Industries
Release Date Oct 27, 2015

Halo 5: Guardians has more weights around its neck than really seems fair.

Many Halo fans still feel like the series' adoptive parents at 343 Industries have things to prove, that the developer has yet to really demonstrate that it gets Halo. Halo 4 was a huge critical and commercial success, but its online community evaporated faster than ever. Microsoft needs a flagship release for its Xbox One console, which, though outselling its predecessor, is seeing a widening gap ahead as the PlayStation 4 sets records.

But more importantly, after the disastrous online component of The Master Chief Collection last fall, Halo 5's release sees trust in the franchise at what may be an all-time low.

343's response to that quagmire: to return to the fundamentals of what made the series great in the first place. The studio has brought Halo's mechanics kicking and screaming into the modern era, while providing the most bombastic, co-op-driven campaign in Halo history.

I was often confused by the game's narrative priorities

As Halo 5 opens, you're introduced to two Spartan squads: Blue Team, which is composed of the Master Chief and three surviving Spartan-IIs — Linda, Kelly and Frederic; and Fireteam Osiris, led by former ONI assassin Jameson Locke (if you played last year's Halo 2 Anniversary, you'll recognize Locke from the new Blur-produced bookend cutscenes) along with former ODST Edward Buck and new characters Olympia Vale and Holly Tanaka. As Osiris is dispatched on a secret mission to rescue Dr. Halsey, the creator of the Spartan program, Blue Team is assigned to secure a derelict research vessel in danger of being discovered by the Covenant.

From there the Chief defies orders and sets off to investigate a mysterious message from a familiar voice, and Locke and Osiris are ordered to bring him in by whatever means necessary. Halo 5's story is less scattered and confused than Halo 4's, and 343 has wisely ditched hiding important backstory in terminals scattered throughout the game. But I was often confused by the game's narrative priorities.

No splits allowed

While it didn't affect our reviewer's assessment of the game, it's worth noting that for the first time in the series' history, Halo 5 does not currently support split-screen play. It's 2015 and online multiplayer is where everything is going, obviously, but it does hurt a bit to lose something that a small but vocal group loved about the series.

Avoiding spoilers here, there are certain suspicions and potential plot developments that Halo 5 presents and teases without developing for far too long, instead going off on tangents that don't feel vital to the Blue Team vs. Osiris conceit. The game gives you all the information you need to understand what's happening, and in that regard, it's a step forward. But by the time Halo 5 gets where you know it's going, a destination the series has been somewhat telegraphing since 2004, the game is two-thirds over. At that point, I wondered how 343 could possibly present a story with any sense of resolution.

The short answer? It doesn't. Big, universe-changing things happen in Halo 5, but once it hits its peak, it's over. I imagine the reaction to Halo 5's conclusion will be just as divisive as it was for Halo 2's Arbiter-centric catharsis. And when the end does come, it's hard not to look at the time spent on things like the Sangheili civil war and wonder if that time couldn't have been spent better.

What could have been

Halo 5 is a linear game, structurally identical to every Halo game that isn't ODST. However, bizarrely, there are several levels in Halo 5 that gesture in the direction of something more open that never comes to fruition. In these levels, there is no shooting, and instead, you walk up to characters and talk to them, occasionally in an investigative capacity. These feel like nothing so much as mission hubs for something bigger and much more ambitious in design than Halo 5 is, and it's hard not to wonder what they suggest about what the game may have been on paper at some point.

The story doesn't fail on every front. While Blue Team is criminally underdeveloped, with little work done to explain why the Master Chief's squadmates are willing to go AWOL with him, Fireteam Osiris is a different story. Vale and Tanaka in particular are both interesting characters with lots of great dialogue and backstory told through in-game conversations. Meanwhile, Nathan Fillion's Buck is the voice of bravado-mixed-with-self-preservation as well as a frequent bit of human orientation for the team. It's good that Osiris is interesting, given that I'd estimate more of the game is spent with them than not.

To be superficial for a moment, it also helps that Halo 5 is beautiful. There are genuinely spectacular setpiece moments within the campaign that go far beyond the skybox fireworks that have defined previous Halo titles, and the sense of discovery and awe that 343 injected back into the series with Halo 4 is in effect. The new generation of console hardware is also used to aggressively push forward on some of the neat visual design sensibilities from the last time around.

Levels feel much larger than in previous games, taller, with more enemies to shoot and more angles to approach and attack from before, likely in deference to your now-always-present Spartan teammates. The inadvertent traffic jams that would result during co-op sessions in games past from too many players trying to move through too-tight corridors are gone, and every player has something to do all the time.

This greater consideration toward cooperative mission design does cut the other way, however. There are several boss fight-style encounters that are clearly balanced toward multiple players coordinating on opposite sides of the combat spaces in question.

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That's all fine and good when you've got human friends, but more granular tactical maneuvering with friendly AI is like herding cats. Assigning your team to a vehicle or a weapon by pressing up on the D-pad isn't a problem. But the squad interface feels designed for ease of use and speed, not Patton-like combat strategy. On the bright side, there's now a revive mechanic, and your AI companions can pick you back up after you've been downed.

Generally speaking, this makes for a much more forgiving game, though on Heroic difficulty and higher, you're still likely to die plenty over the course of the nine- to 11-hour campaign. This is, in large part, because friendly AI isn't great — while I'd guess about 70 percent of the time, one of your teammates will get to you when you're down, that still leaves 30 percent of the time where I watched them ignore me, get caught on geometry or get annihilated by enemy fire while undertaking their rescue mission.

Co-op play is better in Halo 5 to be sure, and the production values are a fitting debut for the series on Xbox One — Master Chief Collection notwithstanding — but amid all that, the most important changes are related to more fundamental design decisions.

Sixty frames per second has been a steady talking point for 343, a drum beaten hard enough to be greeted with some skepticism. But it makes a pronounced difference in how Halo plays in a universally positive way. Halo 5 isn't the first Halo game to run at 60 fps — last year's Master Chief Collection boasted a similar performance target for all of its remastered titles. But where MCC often struggled to maintain that target, Halo 5 is unwavering.

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Movement in MCC felt slippery, a little like skating, but that's nowhere to be found in Halo 5. It's smoother than previous games, but it's also as satisfyingly tactile as the series has ever been.

343 has made noticeable changes to the way Spartans handle. Some of these changes are subtle; your base move speed is higher than it's ever been, for example, and turning feels different, slightly faster. But every Spartan across every mode can now sprint, as well as grab ledges and pull themselves up. Running Spartans can shoulder-charge with the melee button, hitting enemies (or walls) like a freight train. Holding the melee button down while airborne charges a ground pounding attack that's challenging to land, but extremely satisfying when it does.

These are natural, long-awaited evolutions for a series that's always felt especially physical. But boosting and aiming may prove more divisive.

Halo 5 allows zoomed-in aim on every weapon for the first time. Some protective fans have called this a sacrilegious concession to the Call of Duty series and its dominance of the multiplayer market. They may be right about the underlying motive, but 343's implementation of ADS feels appropriate to Halo's heritage. Weapon spread remains identical "from the hip" or aiming down your gunsights.

343 has also added a wrinkle of its own to the mechanic. Aiming while in the air invokes your Spartan's stabilizers, allowing you to hover for a short time. Meanwhile, taking fire while aiming will snap you out of the zoom. It's a smart interpretation of an industry standard the Halo series has, until now, stubbornly avoided, and this goes for sprinting as well. The game feels improved for these additions, not polluted.

All of these changes are keenly felt in the campaign, where the game feels very explicitly designed to leverage your new capabilities. But they're likely to make a bigger difference in Halo 5's competitive multiplayer component, Arena.

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After experiments with ability loadouts in Halo: Reach and weapon loadouts in Halo 4, Halo 5 has reset things in favor of something that feels more classically Halo. All players now spawn with the same weapons, the assault rifle and the pistol. These provide a good degree of versatility while focusing players back toward the power weapon tug of war that defined Halo at the peak of its popularity.

In previous Halos, this emphasis could often lead to lopsided ass-kickings for players who never committed the locations of power weapons — or their spawn timers — to memory. But Halo 5's weapon locations are always marked, and the game announces their spawn timers at various points. Not only does this allow for greater situational awareness for everyone, it provides a greater chance of standoffs and interesting fights around those weapon spawns.

That streamlining of systems combines with Halo 5's greatly refined Spartan mobility and controls to create something that I find immensely gratifying. Every Halo fan has their favorite game, multiplayer-wise. I think that this might be mine. The interaction between each component of your toolset feels balanced for the first time in as long as I can remember. Melee options in particular don't feel like afterthoughts this time around, making for a Halo that feels more full-contact than it ever has.

Balance is the key word here, by the way — not just in the effectiveness of your Spartan's base abilities, but across the entire Arena experience. Your starting weapons will always be useful. I haven't yet seen extremely advantageous sniper nests or good patrol spots in maps. The open spaces and traversal options available to everyone mean you have opportunities and risks to consider everywhere. Some players will obviously dominate, because it's a competitive game. But in my time with Halo 5, I've never felt like I was being punished by design priorities, even when I was receiving a pretty classic Halo ass-kicking.

Halo 5's philosophy seems to have finally let go of the concept of progression that the series has flirted with since Modern Warfare changed the way shooters approached long-term player engagement in 2007, and it finally feels like the flat playing field that it did at its best. Games like League of Legends and Dota 2 have demonstrated that there's a hunger for that even ground in-game, and Halo 5 is smart to take that lead and run with it.

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That's not the only way Halo 5 is borrowing from the MOBA field. Halo 5's new progression system is based around credits, which can be used to buy Requisition Packs, which contain special armor and weapon modifications and skins that are strictly cosmetic in Arena (and 343 has promised that Req packs will never have an effect on gameplay in Arena). That didn't dampen my enthusiasm for them. I want more, and that's probably why all the mechanisms are in place to sell them for real money. You can't buy them as of the time of this writing, but in a build I played in September, the functionality was there.

However, even when microtransactions make their way into Halo 5, the developer is offering fans a hell of an olive branch, committing to an entirely free multiplayer DLC plan. After the brutal fracturing of Halo 4's multiplayer community right out of the gate with various tiers of map DLC, it's a welcome change, and one that should hopefully foster a more active community for the game.

But if Arena feels like a massive, welcome refinement to Halo's balance and core competitive ideals, Warzone is the next evolution of ODST's Firefight and Halo 4's Spartan Ops. As a match of Warzone starts, each team of up to 12 players is dropped into either side of a massive map full of AI-controlled Covenant and Promethean forces. Teams compete for control of three bases; possessing a base contributes points toward victory.

However, killing AI enemies and more powerful "hero" class combatants and mobs also awards points to the team that kills them. As your team gains ground, you'll earn requisition points that can be traded at terminals or on respawning for more powerful equipment, adding a kind of in-match economy and resource management to the mode.

Warzone is the Halo mode I didn't realize I wanted in a Halo game until I had it. It makes so much sense that it's hard for me to imagine Halo without it once I've played it.

If Arena is laser-focused on balance, Warzone is more relaxed. The Req Packs you'll earn also include single-use cards that can be redeemed during Warzone games for specific power weapons and vehicles that are otherwise unavailable, like Scorpions, Wraiths and Phaetons. These still cost in-match points to use, so no one will be able to spam the vehicles and overwhelm the match automatically. But Req Packs are randomized, and it's unclear if the mode will suffer for those who don't have as many cards to burn per match.

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