Halo 5: Guardians feels like it has more crosses to bear than is entirely reasonable. 343 Industries still have a lot to prove to fans of the series – Halo 4 was a critical darling but its online player base vanished almost overnight and it can’t be denied that the multiplayer component in last year’s Halo: The Master Chief Collection was a complete fiasco. Can 343 come back from such a devastating blow and restore confidence in the series they inherited from Bungie?
343 have taken a very back-to-basics approach with Halo 5: Guardians. They’ve worked very hard to move the series forward while still retaining the aging mechanics that Halo fans know and love. The campaign has received a great deal of attention, now more focused on co-op play than ever, and the multiplayer features a wealth of new modes and game types.
The campaign divides its time between two separate Spartan squads – Blue Team, led by series hero Master Chief and three of the last surviving Spartan-II’s, Frederic, Kelly and Linda and Fireteam Osiris, led by a former ONI assassin named Jameson Locke (who will be familiar to fans from the VOD movie Halo: Nightfall and the bookend cutscenes featured in last year’s Halo 2 Anniversary). He is joined by ex-ODST Edward Buck (played by Nathan Fillion) and a pair of new characters, Olympia Vale and Holly Tanaka. Osiris are on a mission to rescue Dr. Halsey, the woman who created the Spartan program. Blue Team, meanwhile, has been sent to investigate and secure a derelict research ship that the Covenant are getting a little close to.
Chief immediately decides to break ranks and goes charging off into parts unknown after receiving a message from a certain important somebody and the UNSC gives the order for Osiris to bring him in. Thus, the chase begins and the narrative never stops barrelling towards its rather somber conclusion.
There’s quite a bit about Halo 5: Guardians’ campaign that reminds of Halo 2, not least due to the fact that I only played it again within the last twelve months courtesy of the aforementioned Halo 2 Anniversary. The narrative is divided into sections where you play a Chief and sections where you play as Locke, recalling Halo 2’s Chief/Arbiter campaign. Being the middle chapter in the current saga forces the narrative to conclude on the series’ second huge cliffhanger which is sure to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many fans who remember Halo 2’s ending (which wasn’t so much an ending as it was a sudden stop and a swift kick in the teeth).
While the campaign doesn’t have the most interesting story the series has ever had, and only really shifts into top gear in the last two hours before the end, it’s certainly never dull. The Forerunner enemies remain varied and a lot of fun to battle. Levels are feel much larger than in previous games and are varied enough that you never feel like you’re just travelling through corridors and some of the larger pitched battles offer a stiff challenge when riding solo.
Challenge seems to be the biggest problem the campaign has. With two fireteams of four Spartans, it rare (if ever) feels like you’re in any real danger. If you get shot to pieces, it’s fine, you can call one of your three helpers over to revive you. Because the campaign is built around cooperative play, particularly when you’re playing with three other human beings who know what they’re doing, the challenge level drops even further. This leads to a campaign that is what a friend of mine called a “yolostomp”. With the sense of danger deadened by all the backup, you start taking the kind of damned fool risks you would ordinarily shy away from.
The other side of this co-op coin is that, when playing on your own, there are several boss battle scenarios that were clearly built with multiple players in mind. They can be blisteringly hard to get past by yourself, especially when relying on AI partners to do their jobs. The ally AI rubber bands in ability to such extremes that it could make Mario Kart sit up and pay attention. Sometimes your team is a crack squad of space murderers, a steadily advancing wall of gunfire. Sometimes you’ll get knocked down, and call for help only to have them ignore you, run directly into enemy fire and die. You can direct them to attack specific targets by pressing the up arrow on the D-pad but even that’s no guarantee they won’t suddenly derp out and leave you vulnerable.
The strangest multiplayer quirk is that 343 have removed the long-running couch co-op campaign mode from Halo 5: Guardians entirely. I imagine has less to do with its relevancy as a game mode (just about everyone I asked considered couch co-op core the Halo experience and were scandalised to find out it was gone) and more to do with the impressive work under-the-hood getting the game to run at a silky smooth 60 frames per second.
Much has been made of 343’s insistence on getting Halo 5 to run at 60fps and, following The Master Chief Collection’s similar boast (and ultimately wobbly frame rate), skepticism was rampant. The thing is, not only does Halo 5: Guardians run at a near rock-solid 60fps, it changes the way the game plays for the better. Spartans now move faster, as is turning. Spartans can sprint, climb and shoulder barge to their heart’s content and the frame rate helps make everything feel more weighty and tactile. Every weapon can now be switched to iron sights by holding down the left trigger, a move that many may decry as Call of Duty bastardry (and they’d honestly be right) but it works because it doesn’t necessarily alter your weapon spread any from its hip-fire configuration. Additionally, scoping while jumping will your small thrusters in your Spartan armour, allowing you to hover momentarily and pop off a head shot. These additions are all neat and truly add the experience. They’re all useful during the campaign but when you take them into competitive multiplayer, things get really interesting.
In traditional competitive multiplayer, you’ve got the usual suspects as far as game modes go with a few new additions and modes being stripped right back. Arena now feels more like deathmatch modes of old with players all starting with the same base weapons and vying for control of the best gear, all of which are on a respawn timer (aah, just like the old days!). The meatiest mode, however, is a big team game called Warzone. This mode has been a clear focus for the multiplayer team and it plays like Halo 3: ODST’s excellent Firefight mode set on the grandest possible scale. There’s two teams of 12 Spartans and a horde of AI controlled Covenant and Forerunner enemies. There are three bases that need to be controlled. Every base you control earns you victory points. Cribbing from Titanfall, mowing down the AI combatants will nab you extra points
This is a game all too aware of the weight upon its shoulders. While the campaign will probably divide fans, as a whole Halo 5: Guardians stands up under pretty intense scrutiny. It’s pretty, precise, surprisingly well-balanced, and a lot of fun.
Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: So pretty; well-balanced; plays smoother than ever
Lowlights: Spotty campaign story; team AI a bit dimwitted; no couch co-op
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: October27 , 2015
Platform: Xbox One
Reviewed on Xbox One