Combat More Evolved, Story Still Debatable.
The middle chapter of a series can be tough. But when it succeeds on building off the world established in the original, when the characters are deeper, when the conflict more layered, when all that happens, you can get an extraordinary title like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Halo 5: Guardians is not the second game in the series (obviously), but it is in the middle of the Reclaimer Saga and it does struggle with “middle chapter” syndrome.
After Bungie left the franchise with Reach, 343 Industries went big with Halo 4. They put the focus back on what fans of the series loved: Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana. Gone were the ODSTs and other characters who weren’t dressed in metallic green and glowing blue. Here was a story any fan would suit up for—to save Cortana—a wonderfully emotional tale in a series that hadn’t had a solid narrative since Halo 2. Plus, it looked incredible on the seven-year-old Xbox 360. Halo 5, by the very inclusion of the subheading Guardians, lets players know right off the bat that its story will be much more sprawling, one that will include not just the Master Chief, but a host of other Spartans as well. And Cortana too… sort of.
Without spoiling the details of the story too much, 343 should be applauded for really going for it. Halo 5 is a lengthy campaign for a shooter—15 missions long—and like Halo 2 the missions are divided between two distinct characters taking the lead. The bulk of the campaign is with Fireteam Osiris, a four-person squad led by Spartan Jameson Locke, a character who was introduced in the web series Halo: Nightfall, and consists of Olympia Vale, Holly Tanaka, and Edward Buck (voiced by Nathan Fillion as he was in ODST).
The other missions are with Blue Team led by, you guessed it, the Master Chief aka John-117. His crew includes Fred-104, Linda-058 and Kelly-087, all of whom were introduced in the book Halo: Fall of Reach and are the Chief’s closest allies. If you’re a fan of everything Halo, this is an awesome melding of mythology that was largely not in the games.
Of the 15 missions, only three star Master Chief. At first, that wasn’t much of a problem. Spartan Locke and his crew are a super chatty bunch, written as the more "normal" ones. We see their faces a lot. By contrast, we never see anyone on Blue Team without a helmet. (The fact that the Blues are given a single name and a number is telling.) As the campaign goes on, though, Locke never really becomes an engaging character and is pretty much a stoic solider. Granted, the Master Chief has never been much more than that either, but he's been our anchor for the series for fourteen years.
With his character back with Fireteam Osiris, Fillion delivers just the right amount of matter-of-fact sass, with dialogue that is smart and clever. Think of it as Borderlands-lite, replete with the upper left corner of the screen showing a quick ID shot of who’s talking. It works great, giving the whole feel of the campaign a less isolated feeling than most shooters. Yes, you are essentially still just moving forward to each new area shooting Covenant and Promethean baddies, but at least now there’s fun commentary. Whether you're with Blue (Master Chief) or Osiris (Locke), the bells and whistles are the same. While I felt controlling Locke was slightly less responsive than the Chief, that might just have been in my head since both have the same abilities.
As with everything in Halo 5, the Covenant looks better than ever while still being the same fun shooting gallery of foes since the first game. Grunts are still my favorites since they always get the best scaredy-cat lines in the series. Hunters, which are used a lot, are hard to take down unless you have the more powerful weapons. The Prometheans (seen in Halo 4) are for the most part the main opponents, AI that used to be humans who were turned by the Didacts. Visually, they’re like a mix of Tron-glowing lights with no joints, a la Rayman. Every time they burst apart, the impact is powerful. With the exception of a pseudo-boss stage every few levels (more on that later) there is a great variety of enemies to shoot, amongst the best-looking locations in the history of the series. A desert canyon level late in the game is a real stunner approaching the kind of rich detail in an Uncharted game.
The main plot has Fireteam Osiris chasing down the Master Chief after he, apparently, disobeyed a direct order from his superiors and has since gone AWOL. That’s because the Chief had a vision where Cortana called to him, urging him to find her. His crew is suspicious (I was too... I mean “Visions? Seriously?"), but it’s Master Chief, so who’s not gonna follow? Along their travels to find Blue Team, Osiris gets to do some rudimentary sleuthing which involves listening in on conversations of colony folks stationed at a planet of glass. There are no dialogue options of course, but still, such inclusions point to the series breaking out of the on-the-rails shooter shell, which is fantastic.
The story is once again one that involves Cortana and, of course, the fate of the entire universe. Early on I was intrigued with what the writers were doing, since in the last game Cortana was no longer bound to the chip inserted in the back of the Chief’s helmet, which meant she was now 'free' so to speak. That perceived freedom leads to some compelling revelations about the nature of AI.
Unfortunately, about halfway through the campaign I realized that these interesting concepts would be dropped in favor of boss fights. Strange, as this series doesn’t generally do such level-ending confrontations. Here the boss is a character called The Warden who can only be defeated by shooting him in the back. In most shooters, NPCs tend to always face you as you try and rotate around them making that kind of weak point on The Warden frustrating. By the time three of them need to be taken out I was annoyed. Still, by and large the narrative keeps you going.
The bigger issue, more than just a boss being reused over and over, is that while the combat has indeed evolved, the way 343 tells the story is still mostly cutscenes. As mentioned before, I loved the constant banter as a way of filling in the lives of the characters, and all the big universe-shattering sequences, especially with regards to Cortana, is handled with beautifully rendered movies. It's a marvel to look at, as is the whole game which runs a smooth 60fps in 1080p, but it's still not that engaging.
There's also the matter of the game ending on a cliffhanger and whether this was the right move. It will certainly provoke discussion. I'd be lying, though, if I said I wasn't still loving my experience with the campaign for the eight hours it took me to complete. In fact, I've already begun another playthrough. For one thing, there are plenty of intel voice logs I have yet to collect which will undoubtedly give more clues to what transpired.
Along with the standard "two guns, two grenades" loadout, there are a host of new features. There’s the cool Ground Pound, as players who tried the beta have seen. The trick of jumping in the air while holding the right button and aiming where you will land takes some getting used to, but it’s an ability I can’t imagine not having in further installments. Like most modern shooters, verticality has become a part of level design, and now hitting A twice to jump can give players a chance to grab a ledge for a leg up. It's a small addition, but one that I used all the time.
Another new power, the Spartan Charge allows players to break through specific doors and walls but is less useful. The best new addition is the Man Down feature: Any time you lose all your health/shields, another player NPC or another player online in up to four-player co-op can revive you as long they get to you within an allotted time frame. (If you’ve played Gears of War, you’ll be accustomed to it.) But it is a tad disconcerting to hear the Chief say “I’m down. Need an assist!”, as I never imagined that the fabled super soldier would ever need help from anyone other than Cortana.
Once the story is done, I dove into the two multiplayer modes: Arena and Warzone. Arena is the standard four-against-four team match featuring staples like Capture the Flag, Slayer, Breakout, and Stronghold. Each was randomly generated and played great. I quickly lost myself to hours of time spent on these two-minute matches.
A far more ambitious mode, Warzone requires a minimum of eighteen players (up to 24) and takes place on a much larger map with changing objectives, in sort of a combination of PvP and PvE. While defending your base is important, the main goal is to reach 1,000 victory points by killing opponents, NPCs, or taking over your rival's base. Every break between matches (six minutes) brings an assortment of gift cards in the form of the REQ system, which gives rewards for playing in multiplayer.
Every match you get points which then can be used to buy cards that have a host of options: unlockable weapons, armors, enhancement, and point boosts. It's an amazing perk to an already addictive multiplayer. Warzone is the most important leap for multiplayer in Halo since the good-old reliable Slayer. It's that good.
As a series, Halo has been the one triple-A shooter that has fans for the story as well as the multiplayer. Depending on where you are on the spectrum between story and gameplay, you can take my grade up or down a half point. If you’re looking for a frag-fest, plus all the enticements of the new Warzone mode, Halo 5 is a must-own. All the new abilities and maps are terrific. Those who care about the single-player campaign might not find the story to be as compelling but will appreciate the treatment of lore and production value. Either way, In the coming months, Halo 5: Guardians will undoubtedly have both supporters and detractors playing and commenting about it for years.
Copy provided by publisher. Xbox One exclusive.