35 days out: Hands on with Halo 5's campaign

We spend more than two hours with Halo 5's campaign to bring you our impressions — and video recaps of two full campaign levels

After playing Halo 5: Guardians's campaign for, give or take, about two hours and change, I am both much more excited for it, and a little disappointed in what I've seen.

Please note that this text avoids discussion of Halo 5's story entirely, primarily because there are plot spoilers we're prohibited from discussing and also because two missions isn't enough to make any substantive sort of observation. Also, because it's 2015 and there's a tendency to label the lightest bit of impressions or thoughts about a game near its release a "review," I need to say up front that this is not a review. I've played a fraction of Halo 5's campaign, and what I played is a build a few months away from release. It was slightly glitchy in spots and it wasn't final, so some things could change in either direction.

That said, structurally, the build I played should be representative. And it was a lot of fun. Halo 5 is the first Halo title built around sixty frames a second in a series that has always set its flag at thirty, and while frame counting has become a spectator sport this console generation that can often feel overblown by platform partisanship, I think the distinction here is worth making. Halo 5 feels like a faster, more physical game, even more so than The Master Chief Collection's retinue of previous Halo titles felt at the higher framerate.

And the slightly disconcerting slipperiness that sat under the surface of Halo 2: Anniversary et al was not present in my time with Halo 5. In MCC, I often felt a little like I was an ice skater zipping along. In 343's second, original Halo game, I felt like a linebacker.

This is borne out by the new means of delivering your Spartan bulk at speed toward enemies in Halo 5 in lethal form. Standard melee attacks are still present, and still deadly, and assassinations are also back, but players of last Fall's Halo 5 multiplayer beta will recognize the addition of a gravity defying ground pound and what I can really only describe is a shoulder tackle the likes of which the NFL is trying to make less common due to safety concerns.

The Spartan shoulder tackle delivers the kind of hit the NFL is currently trying to outlaw for safety concerns

It's worth noting that the ground pound is so legitimately powerful and dangerous that while playing co-op later in my session, it proved to be my number one cause of death (at the hands of my teammates), easily eclipsing whatever plasma fire I took from my supposed enemies. Friendly fire in Halo has never been as much of a contradiction in terms as it is in Halo 5.

This physicality and speed seems to be set against some of the most enemy-packed combat environments of the series. Once Blue Team, the second chapter of Halo 5's campaign and the first of two levels available in our play session, had gotten properly rolling, there was almost always numerous sources of enemy fire coming from various directions at any given moment, from multiple levels of verticality.

And that's the other big, obvious thing so far: Halo 5's sandbox feels much taller than it ever has, with multiple points of attack — and points from which to be attacked.

The result is a game that doesn't feel new yet, necessarily, but it does feel evolved. So far Halo 5 has a more active feel to it, with more seeming options at any given moment due in part to the new abilities at your disposal at any given moment as opposed to the sort of revolving door of temporary abilities that Halo: Reach or Halo 4 would bestow upon you.

This is important from a game design perspective — and forgive my armchair designing here — because levels now seem to be designed around your Spartan's ability to haul themselves over ledges, boost in any direction, ground pound, and shoulder charge. I make this assumption because Blue Team makes a point of explaining some of your abilities in detail, forcing you to use either the shoulder charge or ground pound to advance through a level. The Nintendo school of design suggests this kind of tutorialized element wouldn't be there if not for a good reason.

The point is that I felt like I was more active moment to moment in Halo 5 than I needed to be in Halos prior. It felt good. It felt good enough for me to get drawn in and enjoy my time with Halo 5 an awful lot despite some caution flags and actual twinges of disappointment at what I was seeing.


One of the big things 343 has hung its hat on for this Halo is the inclusion of a much more robust cooperative element, even in single player. This manifests in the constant presence of three other Spartans, who can be given simple commands to attack, move or even pick up weapons with the push of a button.

Solo, this definitely added a range of potential options to the game. Your other Spartans will take kills, though not so many that you'll feel cheated (probably) out of a sense of accomplishment, and theoretically, in Halo 5, being downed by enemies doesn't mean you're thrown back to a checkpoint, as your AI teammates can revive you if they get to you in time.

halo 5 campaign screenshot 1

This assumes they don't get killed trying it, which, on Heroic — which is how I chose to start my time with Halo 5 — is a fairly large assumption. More directly, the AI can be kind of dumb, a lot of the time. But I was never angry they were there, and I never felt thwarted or held back by them.

They also never killed me with a ground pound, so. There's that.

My issues with the AI were null when playing the game in co-op, and Halo 5 does feel better in that regard than previous games if for no other reason than there seemed to be a lot more things to shoot from a lot more places than its predecessors. But even in co-op, one thing in particular stood out to me that makes Halo 5 a little disappointing, barring some last-minute game-design changing revelation.

Evolution is the watchword for Halo 5, but evolution has been the order of the day for every Halo sequel since 2004, save one: 2009's Halo: ODST. ODST has its defenders and detractors, but no one can argue that it didn't radically shake up the Halo formula with its open world, lone-survivor-at-night setup. In that regard ODST is the most distinctive Halo game out there, and having played it recently as part of 343's MCC make-good, it holds up so, so well. It has an identity.

I'm not saying Halo 5 won't have an identity — the back and forth, flip sides of a coin conceit of Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris could be a thing, and I haven't played enough to know if that will be the case or not. But the big, risky moves that a part of me had hoped to see in Halo 5 aren't apparent yet, at least in the campaign.

So. I'm excited by what I've played so far, excited to dive into a Halo that feels like a leap forward. It's just that part of me hopes it's more than that, and I don't know if it will be.

Halo 5 is out in 35 days, on October 27, 2015.