Writing a review for Halo 5: Guardians is a daunting task, but not as daunting as creating the game itself. Halo has a fanbase that goes beyond devoted, and 343 have the unenviable task of moving the franchise forward while trying to keep that fanbase happy. What defines Halo? You could throw that question to 100 different fans, and you’d get 100 different answers. Some play for story. Some play only the multiplayer. Some prefer Arena, some the larger Big Team battles. The point is, Halo is different things to different people. And that, in my mind at least, is what makes the Halo franchise so special.
So – my review. I’m going to go into detail as best I can without spoiling things for those yet to play, but fundamentally, I am writing this review not just entirely for players new to the universe of Halo, but for the Halo fans. Hopefully, you’ll be able to glean whether Halo 5: Guardians is the Halo game you’ve always wanted.
Locke and Load
Halo campaigns have always held a special place in my heart. Since first stepping onto the Halo ring in Combat Evolved in 2001, the scale and intrigue has always hooked me, with Bungie putting an elegant focus on gunplay, grenades and melee in a continuous dynamic loop. I’m pleased to say that “30-seconds-of-fun” combat loop returns, but with a host of new abilities. Halo 5: Guardians has done away with loadouts and instead introduced new core abilities, equipped by default to every Spartan. These revolve mostly around the addition of thrusters on your MJOLNIR armour, allowing players to charge, slide, thrust, clamber and ground pound. The movement set is sublime, and controlling a Spartan has never felt so good. Weighty, but responsive. It finally captures the agility and power of the Spartan in the suit.
343 have also opted to target a locked 60 frames per second refresh rate, which I’m pleased to say is near perfect, aside from occasional drops during loading periods. This is achieved using an adaptable resolution – when the action on screen ramps up, the game will automatically drop the resolution to keep that refresh rate locked.
And it feels great too – the game is as smooth as butter. Sadly however, it comes at a cost. A staple of Halo since 2001, Halo 5: Guardians is the first mainline Halo title to ship without any form of splitscreen whatsoever. To some Halo fans, that’s a huge loss, but for me, the positives of this change far outweigh the negatives.
Other gameplay changes are also apparent. The game has been built from the ground up for 4 player co-operative play. You also have a revive function, a first for Halo. Instead of being taken back to the last saved checkpoint upon death, when you go down, you’re not necessarily out. You can be revived by your team if they can get to you in time. Sadly on the harder difficulties, the time window to be revived is woefully short. If you’re playing Solo, the AI on harder difficulties just can’t get to you in time, and you’ll find yourself back to your previous checkpoint more often than not. Halo 5: Guardians has also done away with peer-to-peer connections for campaign – everything you do with other players in Halo 5: Guardians is hosted by a dedicated server.
It’s not all sunshine and roses however – there are some elements of the game that leave a little to be desired, and most of my gripes centre around the Warden Eternal. We’ve seen this towering Promethean before at E3, and you face him several times in the game, at one point in triplicate. I give kudos to developers 343 Industries for attempting a boss fight of sorts in a First Person Shooter, but on harder difficulties your AI companions just can’t keep up. I feel that perhaps the design of these encounters hinges more on having 3 friends to play with, which stings all the more with the removal of splitscreen play. Suffice to say, after attempting this particular section on Solo Legendary, the obscenities I yelled in frustration cannot be printed here.
Halo 4 took some criticism from fans for a somewhat middling campaign, with linear corridors and a loss of the more open sandbox gameplay the series was known for. Clearly Halo 4 was pushing the ageing 360 to its limits, and the game was constrained as a result. Not so with Halo 5. Not only does the art style shine, the game features some absolutely bonkers encounters and set-pieces on a scale we’ve never seen before. The game can throw an obscene number of adversaries on screen at once, in areas that are as wide and open as they are tall. With the new Spartan Abilities, that verticality is important. The player can climb and explore maps in ways the original games could never allow for, which is something I’ve always loved to do. We also see the return of skulls, which are hidden throughout the games 15 missions. To say some of these are hard to find is an understatement. We also have intel items, like datapads and radios to find and listen to – 117 of them – these are also sneakily hidden away (Keep an eye open for the love poem from an Elite warrior to Spartan Palmer) However, despite the record number of unlocks, I still felt at times that I encountered a few too many invisible walls or instant death fields for my liking during my exploration. There are also some wonderful easter eggs to discover – keep an eye open for a very happy grunt holding on to a special birthday surprise.
The level design is wonderfully varied, with almost zero backtracking – something previous Halo games have been guilty of before. The game also includes levels featuring no combat whatsoever – a first for the series. In these missions, you’re tasked with finding information, and working out what to do next. This is accomplished by speaking to NPCs directly and investigating areas. One thing I especially enjoyed about these is the conversation between your fellow Spartans which served to expand the story further with incidental details and background exposition.
The music and sound is another element of the overall package I wanted to touch on – it’s a fantastic score, taking some of the best old school Halo themes, and giving them a new lease of life. I’ll happily admit, I was surprised to find myself humming the opening Team Osiris theme tune more than the traditional Halo tune. Sound effects are punchy and well mixed, and the chatter from your team mates adds a lot to a fight.
Hunt the truth
Halo 5’s marketing campaign has been pushing one major narrative – is the Master Chief, a man who almost single-handedly saved the human race, a hero – or a traitor?
The game introduces Jameson Locke – an ex-ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) agent turned Spartan, leading Fireteam Osiris, featuring some new characters, as well as the return of Buck from ODST.
The Chief has also been given a squad of his own, being reunited with Blue Team. Blue Team, if you’re unaware, are original Spartan II’s that John-117 grew up with, and trained with. All of them were taken by Dr. Halsey at the age of 6 and conscripted into the Spartan II program. To the Chief, they are as close to a family as you can get.
The story opens with Team Osiris jumping into rescue the aforementioned Dr.Halsey, who was taken by a Covenant fanatic – an elite warrior named Jul ‘Mdama.
Suffice to say, as the story progresses, you soon find out why the UNSC has declared the Master Chief as AWOL – and of course, why Spartan Locke is tasked with tracking him down, and bringing him in.
Again, it looks like 343 Industries have taken the criticism of Halo 4’s convoluted plot on board – Halo 5 is a far better, self contained story – of course, you will benefit from knowing more about the lore of the Halo universe via the books, comics and so on, but it’s not a requirement. There’s a decent amount of exposition delivered either via in-game dialogue or wonderfully animated cutscenes. However, I still feel the game would have benefited from a better introduction. While the admittedly fantastic CGI intro of Team Osiris dropping out of Pelican from on high to the battlefield below was exhilarating, I feel an ODST-style written intro would have perhaps eased players new to the series in a little easier as a starting point before that played out.
I have seen some panic online in the last few weeks with regards to the ratio of gameplay as each team, specifically the boots you spend time in – Locke or Master Chief. To put this to rest, I will say this – Yes, you do indeed play more as Locke than you do as the Master Chief, but it serves the story far better than playing as our favourite Spartan all the time. To ease your fears somewhat, the game and the tale it tells is all about the Master Chief and Blue Team, regardless of the the virtual boots you’re ground-pounding in.
343 Industries manage to instil Halo 5 with a genuine sense of intrigue and mystery as the story develops – what are the Guardians? Why are colonies going dark? Why has the Chief disobeyed orders? All of this becomes clear, and before you know it, you find yourself looking forward to tracking down the Chief and getting answers to these mysteries.
The marketing machine promised events that would “change the Halo universe forever”. Quite the statement! However, after finishing the game, I am inclined to agree. They have taken some bold choices, and while I personally feel some of it verged on being a little bit too fan-fiction-esque, 343 weaved their tale with confidence and a deft hand. I predict the story to be divisive – but I personally really enjoyed it.
I’m pleased to see the Halo universe has gone from being all about one-man shooting an alien race bent on genocide, and is now finally starting to show a lot more depth – I would almost liken it Mass Effect in that regard. 343 Industries have always stated they feel the Halo Universe contains a huge number stories to tell, and they are taking Halo in some interesting directions. I’m sure once the game is in the wild, fans will argue and dissect the events that unfold at great length – and I look forward to being able to talk about this more openly.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Once more…
I’ll only briefly touch on Multiplayer, as we’re going to give a separate verdict on this once servers are populated with real world volumes after launch. Along with an extensive and varied campaign, the game also ships with a well stocked multiplayer component – for some Halo fans, this is the part of the package you’ve been waiting for.
60 FPS. 4 v 4. Even starts. Power Weapons on map. Map Control. Dedicated Servers. If you’re a Halo fan, you’ll be pleased to know that all of this is now the standard in Halo Arena. The game is launching with 21 maps – although admittedly, some are Forge variants, which I felt was padding out that initial figure a little, but such is life.
Included in this number are 6 Warzone maps. Warzone is something new, something that most Halo fans have wanted for a long time – a 12 v 12 PvPvE gametype. 12 Spartans per team, with AI on the map, and objectives to capture or destroy. It’s like Big Team Battle only dialling up the crazy to 11.
The game does contain microtransactions in the form of REQ packs. Now try not to panic, they’re completely optional. You can watch this video for a quick overview on the REQ system.
Whether they prove to have any game breaking consequences remains to be seen, but having played the mode over several dozen matches, I found myself pleasantly surprised despite the potential for imbalance. The mode is a blast, but if you want to indulge your more competitive streak, 4 v 4 Arena is where you need to be. 343 also have an extensive post launch content plan, with a further 18+ maps coming after launch, as well as more REQ pack content to collect, an all-new Forge mode for the map maker in all of us to get to grips with and more. This is all free – so perhaps microtransactions in a non-competitive mode is a small price to pay.
Personally speaking, Arena has always been my go-to mode and it’s here where I’ll be spending most of my time. Halo has always, in my mind at least, been something like a game of chess. Yes, individual skill is important, but when you have a team that can communicate, and be in the right place at the right time, you can dominate your opponents. That struggle between two equally skilled teams is where Halo really shines.
In short, Halo 5: Guardians is in my opinion at least, a real return to form for a franchise that felt like it had lost its way ever since Call of Duty took the multiplayer crown on Xbox Live. This is a game that now proudly wears its roots on its sleeve, and plays to its greatest strengths. The multiplayer is fresh and exciting with the new movement options and feels like a true evolution for the series. The campaign is a confident, well told, galaxy spanning adventure with a huge amount of replayability on a scale we’ve never seen. 343 Industries have been open and clear about how important the Halo fanbase is to them – and it shows in every aspect of the game. It’s an impressive package and for the first time in a long time, I’m happy to end on this – The King has returned.