Myself and the other Spartans of Team Osiris are surrounded by Covenant enemies who are understandably pissed off about the recent misunderstanding we had with their comrades. I’ve got four shots left on my pistol, and we’re outnumbered five-to-one — so it’s an even fight for a Spartan. I get a running start and bash through the wall in front of me, knocking an elite officer to the ground. I command my team to flank an enemy turret, while I jump in the air and stomp on a group of jackals. Suddenly, I’m ambushed by a suicidal grunt, and collapse to the ground. My teammates refuse to let me die so easily, though, and dash to my aid while finishing off the remaining enemies. We breathe a sigh of relief, when suddenly an eight-foot-tall Promethean materializes in front of us, wielding a glowing sword the size of a child. Looks like I’ll need a bigger weapon.
Moments like these are what make 343 Industries’ Halo 5: Guardians a truly captivating experience, and it’s the first game that fully realizes the fantasy of making the player feel like a Spartan. You’ve got some new tools at your disposal, most notable of which is a four-Spartan fireteam that can act as a unit to overcome some of the series’ most challenging obstacles yet. If you’re playing alone, your team is controlled by AI that can be instructed to move to certain locations, revive members of your team, focus their attack on certain enemies, and retrieve weapons from the battlefield. This mechanic is at the heart of the Halo 5: Guardians campaign, and creates the opportunity for a lot of awesome experiences that Halo fans haven’t been able to have in previous entries.
As good as the AI is (and has always been in the Halo series), playing with your real friends is even better. Each playable character has their own heads-up display based on their helmet, and starts with that character’s preferred weapon. Playing with friends completely alters the feel of the campaign, and requires lots of communication and coordination to overcome each level, especially since the game is made more difficult with each additional human player.
So just how good is the Halo 5: Guardians campaign? Really good. In fact, it might be my favorite campaign yet. The level design in the campaign borrows from Halo: Combat Evolved in that it is more open-world than more recent Halo games have been. Ever since Combat Evolved, campaign levels have become progressively more linear, which reached an all-time high with Halo 4 that featured a lot of hallways and closed environments. Halo 5: Guardians reaffirms the series’ interest in allowing players to do some exploring and figure out their own strategies for completing a level by providing alternate pathways, power weapons, and vehicles for players to discover. Levels aren’t anywhere as open-world as Halo: Combat Evolved, but Halo 5: Guardians is a great step in the right direction in this regard.
It’s the details of Halo 5: Guardians’ campaign, though, that make it one of the best campaigns to date. Tons of collectible intel can be found that further flesh out the story, and skulls can be used as modifiers to make the campaign even more challenging. Legendary mode creates an ultimate challenge for players, while boss fights break up segments of traditional combat — oh, and did I mention that there are boss fights? Yeah, that’s a thing in Halo 5: Guardians. Some of the boss enemies are a tad over-used, and maybe a little too unfairly challenging on Legendary difficulty (I’m referring to one Promethean foe in particular), but boss fights are a welcome change that I’d like to see expanded upon in future titles.
The story of Halo 5: Guardians picks up right where the last campaign left off, with Master Chief still shaken by the events of Halo 4. Master Chief begins to question the UNSC’s motives, for reasons I won’t state here, and Spartan Locke is tasked with tracking him down and bringing him in by any means necessary. Without going into spoilers, fairly early in the campaign, the story takes a sharp left and goes from being a hunter vs. the hunted story to something much more meaningful, and this is where the story really begins to shine. Some fans may be disappointed by the Locke-to-Chief ratio of gameplay, which is heavily weighted towards Locke, and others may take issue with how the story wraps-up (again, I’m being vague here to avoid spoilers), but both of these drawbacks have story-based reasoning behind them that make the decisions hard to criticize. More importantly, the prevalence of Fireteam Osiris in the campaign succeeded in doing the impossible and making me care about Spartan Locke. I can’t point you to the exact point where I found myself not hating Locke simply because he is not Master Chief, but by the end of the campaign I found myself giving Locke a definitive nod of approval, which I honestly didn’t think was possible.
An interesting tidbit about Halo 5: Guardians is that it definitely does not have as many cutscenes as some of its predecessors, but arguably manages to fit the most story within the confines of its campaign. This is due, in no small part, to 343 Industries’ excellent use of in-game storytelling. In fact, I can’t even pinpoint a section of Halo 5: Guardians’ campaign that is not advancing the story in some way — including sections of the game where I was standing idle or exploring needlessly. Characters will exchange dialogue based on their environment, or where the story is at so far, or just have idle chit-chat. It’s a nice touch that continues 343’s tradition of enhancing the storytelling in the Halo series.
The biggest improvement that Halo 5: Guardians brings to the Halo series, however, is a perfected combat sandbox. It’s hard to argue the fact that each Halo game has had a few glaring oversights to the sandbox. For example, Halo: Combat Evolved had some weapon balance issues (I’m looking at you, pistol), and Halo 4 didn’t have a very fleshed-out Promethean faction, especially in the way of enemy variety. I can honestly say that Halo 5: Guardians has a flawless combat landscape for the player to explore. No longer do a few weapons seem way overpowered, while a few go largely unused. No longer do Prometheans feel like a tacked-on horde, but rather feel equivalent to the Covenant or the Flood.
More importantly, 343 Industries has finally solved some of the biggest issues facing Halo for years now, the first of which is sprinting. Sprinting is a massively divisive issue among Halo fans, because all of the early games didn’t include it, but a modern game without a sprint functionality feels slow and outdated. Whereas Halo 4 regretfully embraced sprint, Halo 5: Guardians addresses sprint perfectly: by allowing unlimited sprint for those that want it, but doing so means that your shields will not recharge for an extended period of time.
Another ongoing issue in Halo is the use of abilities. Halo 3 had consumable items, while Halo: Reach and Halo 4 had equippable abilities and let you choose one for your loadout, but both of these were imperfect solutions. In Halo 5: Guardians, you have a new set of Spartan abilities, and you can use them all. The flipside here is that none of the abilities are as game-changing as a jetpack or an armor lock, but they all do a great job at making the player feel like a badass without causing gameplay balance issues. The “Spartan charge” allows the player to run and bash through enemies and barriers, the “ground pound” allows Spartans to attack their enemies from above, and “clamber” allows the player to pull themselves up a ledge, solving another long-running issue in Halo where players had issues with verticality.
Finally, Halo 5: Guardians also manages to solve a long-time gripe I’ve had with the Halo series wherein many weapons felt like re-skinned versions of an existing weapon. For example, I had trouble seeing a need for an assault rifle for each faction when their functionality appeared to be identical. Halo 5: Guardians makes it a point to give each weapon a distinctly different feel. Using assault rifles as an example, the human assault rifle can be fired longer than the storm rifle, the Covenant equivalent, but needs to be reloaded; the storm rifle never needs to be reloaded, but frequent breaks must be taken to avoid overheating. The Promethean suppressor, on the other hand, has bullets that home in on their target, but the weapon does less damage per bullet than the other two. These distinguishing features give each weapon their own use, which creates more unique encounters on the battlefield.
With all of these major improvements to the Halo sandbox, you’d think that multiplayer would feel like a major departure from the classic experience that fans have come to adore, but it doesn’t. Halo fans will feel at-home with Halo 5: Guardians, which in many ways feels like a return to the series’ roots. At the center of the multiplayer experience is Arena, a 4v4 competitive mode that prides itself on everything that made Halo a standard in competitive console shooters. In Arena, you won’t find loadouts, vehicles, or a team armed entirely with rocket launchers. Instead, each team starts with an assault rifle, a magnum, and a few grenades, and the gameplay revolves around controlling the few power weapons that spawn on a timer (that’s no longer invisible) and accomplishing your task using raw skill.
There’s something in store for those that were a fan of Halo 4 as well though. Warzone is a 12v12 mode that combines PvE and PvP to create an experience that will feel familiar to MOBA fans. Players compete to reach 1000 points via killing other players and AI enemies, which can be accelerated by defeating bosses that spawn on the battlefield and net players a ton of points. Alternatively, a team can attempt to capture all three of the bases in a level, which opens up the core of the opposing team’s home base. If one team’s core is destroyed, then that team loses automatically, making this an excellent strategy for teams that find themselves trailing on the scoreboard. In this mode, players can summon weapons, vehicles, and power-ups, and customize their loadouts, but this is tempered by the team’s “REQ Level,” which starts at level one and grows based on the team’s overall success. Higher levels allow the players to summon more powerful items.
This is where microtransactions come into play for the first time in the history of Halo, unless you count Doritos and Mountain Dew codes as microtransactions. REQ packs can be earned in-game by simply playing Halo 5, or alternatively can be purchased, which gives the player additional resources and can unlock certain cosmetic items. Fortunately, the impact of microtransactions seems minimal, since you get REQ packs on a regular basis just by playing. I didn’t spend any money on microtransactions in the five days I had to play Halo 5: Guardians online, and never felt like I needed to buy one, so I’m curious why anyone would do so. Furthermore, these microtransactions only affect the Warzone game type, which is a lot of fun, but not really all that “competitive” to begin with, so the impact here is minimal.
343 Industries hasn’t always had a successful run with multiplayer maps. In Halo 4, many maps were more chaotic than they were fun, which became pretty frustrating after repeatedly visiting them. Halo 5 has made vast improvements in this regard, particularly in Arena, which have plenty of shortcuts, lines of sight, and other nuances that are perfect for a competitive setting. Warzone maps, on the other hand, are absolutely huge and pretty chaotic, but they also serve that game mode perfectly. It also helps that most of the maps in Halo 5: Guardians are absolutely gorgeous, and in at least one instance I was murdered by an opposing player while taking in the sights. There are 21 maps in vanilla Halo 5: Guardians, with more than 18 free maps promised in the months following the game’s launch, which is awesome because Halo fans won’t have to worry about the player base being fragmented in the months to come.
Big Team Battle and Forge Mode are noticeably absent from Halo 5: Guardians, but both are planned to come in the months following release. Forge Mode is scheduled for a December release, and from what we know so far, it looks to be yet another incremental improvement to the popular map creator. Big Team Battle does not yet have a release date, but will likely be released alongside a map pack, since the Warzone maps are far too large to accommodate Big Team Battle, while the Arena maps are way too small.
The presentation of Halo 5: Guardians is without a doubt the best in any Halo title so far. For starters, the sound design is so good that it makes me angry. Halo’s soundtracks have always been awesome, and Halo 5: Guardians is no exception, especially since it draws on Halo: Combat Evolved a good deal more than previous Halo games, which I’m a fan of. Sound effects are also stellar as usual, particularly the revised weapon sound effects, which seem to have a common theme of feeling more powerful just in how they sound.
Visually, Halo 5: Guardians might be the best-looking game on the Xbox One so far. At 1080p, and a rock-solid sixty frames per second, there is very little left to be desired. That said, most of the cutscenes run on in-engine graphics, and so don’t look nearly as good as the pre-rendered stuff you’ll find in Halo 2 Anniversary, for example.