Published on November 24th, 2015 | by Chris Scott0
Halo 5: Guardians Review
Summary: It’s hard not be happy with Halo 5, unless you really want to be unhappy about it.
The internet is a weird place. I’ve played every Halo, I’ve dumped well over 1000 hours into playing the different games of the series. I have a Master Chief helmet in my bedroom that my wife stairs at with disdain every day. But because I didn’t dip my feet into the competitive side until Halo 3 (I never owned an original Xbox), there are some fans that consider me to be not a real Halo fan. Halo 2 is to many fans, considered the epitome of the series competitive side and with each subsequent release they’ve found issue with aspects of the multiplayer components. With the release of Halo 5: Guardians, we are now four games and a decade removed from the glory of Halo 2. If what you want out of Halo is Halo 2, and if what you want out of a Halo review is a violent response to the new thing not being more Halo 2, I’d suggest you move on. Halo 5: Guardians isn’t Halo 2, and so I guess I’m also not a real Halo fan.
All core Halo titles feature two very separate components to deliver the Halo experience. The military space opera campaign focusing on humanity’s fight against an ever growing variety of space baddies and the competitive multiplayer. Halo 5: Guardians (from here on out known as Halo 5) is no different. What it is though, is a return to classic Halo design, while at the same time advancing the Halo formula forward in some unique and interesting ways.
Picking up some time after the events of Halo 4’s Spartan Ops episodic campaign, Halo 5 introduces players to a new set of protagonists, Fireteam Osiris, led by Spartan Locke. The action kicks off with a thrilling set piece seeing Osiris jump into a battlefield on a rescue mission to retrieve Spartan project mastermind, Doctor Catherine Halsey. It’s all pretty amazing to watch with Locke, Buck, Tanaka, and Vale doing all sorts of incredible things. Things you can’t necessarily do in the game either, which sets up a little bit of a disconnect to kick things off. Once control is granted to the player though, it is non-stop traditional Halo. The opening level presents huge sandboxes with more enemies than have ever been in a single Halo firefight, but it all still feels very much like Halo, just on a grander scale and without the sense of isolation that you usually have due to the Master Chief being a one man war machine.
Locke himself is a bit stoic, not really showing much range one way or the other, but his team gives him quite a bit of character, as Osiris is full of very animated personalities. Personalities like former ODST and all around smart-ass, Edward Buck (Nathan Fillion, reprising his role from Halo 3: ODST). All this added personality helps to liven up the game. While there are still very grim situations being dealt with (you are fighting against enemies that want nothing more than to exterminate humanity), the back and forth commentary by the members of Osiris lightens the mood a bit. Unfortunately, for most of Osiris’s story arc they are just spinning their wheels.
That is because the core of Halo 5’ story revolves around Master Chief and his squad of Spartans, Blue Team. Almost all of the progression for the game’s narrative comes during Blue Team’s arc. Master Chief’s crew lacks the personality of Osiris. And while there is a bit of back and forth between Chief and his pals, it doesn’t have the same effect that Osiris does. Blue Team’s levels are harsh and grim, and the team’s personalities reflect and even enhance that feeling. They are also some of the best missions in the game.
It should be noted that while Master Chief is the iconic star of the series, him and Blue Team are used sparingly in Halo 5. They encompass just three of the 15 missions, although they will play into aspects of Osiris’s levels. Halo 5 isn’t so much a Master Chief game as it is a story featuring the Master Chief. The big marketing push foreshadowing a showdown between Locke and Chief is all misdirection, and while that aspect does exist, it’s such a minimal portion of the game that it almost feels like we were lied to. That isn’t to say that the story presented isn’t good though. I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Halo 5 and am perfectly OK with its cliffhanger ending. Don’t take that to mean that this is a Halo 2 storytelling repeat though. It’s not. There are resolutions to aspects of Halo 5, and while it left me wanting more due to the main thread still being open, I didn’t feel cheated at the end.
Story aside though, Halo 5 offers up 12 action packed missions (three of the 15 missions are weird hub areas) that will test your skills as a Spartan, be it as part of Fireteam Osiris or Blue Team. Halo has always been about movement on the battlefield, and Halo 5 cranks that up even further with a host of new Spartan abilities. Battlefields in Halo 5 are bigger and more populated than ever, and they are also far more vertical. There are points where you’ll be getting attacked from all angles, above and below. And players will need to utilize all their skills to survive. New skills like the Spartan Charge, a linebacker-like shoulder hit that annihilates enemies, will become your new best friend. Well, aside from your actual new best friends, your fireteam members, be they A.I. controlled or real life buddies.
Playing the campaign cooperatively has always been a focus of Halo, even if it hasn’t always been as immersive an experience as one might like, especially if you are players two through four. Halo 5’s campaign is designed around the concept of cooperative play. It’s a bit weird considering the game has flushed one of its longtime components, split-screen play, in favor of maximizing visual performance, but regardless it is designed around that concept. Because of this design conceit, the concept of down but not out has been introduced. Fans of Microsoft’s other big shooter franchise, Gears of War, will be instantly familiar with this addition. If you get taken out by an enemy, your armor will lock up and your fireteam will have a limited amount of time to revive you. Likewise you can revive downed teammates. I found the game a bit easier on normal difficulty due to this, but I also found myself dying and having to be revived more often than I normally would due to feeling I could be more reckless in my approach. I’m a Spartan, damn it. I don’t hide behind a rock waiting for my shields to recharge. This more cavalier attitude resulted in a few complete wipes as I inadvertently put my teammates in more danger than was necessary as they tried to save me.
The levels hit all the high notes that you expect from a Halo game and for the most part they are pretty excellently designed, specifically the three Master Chief levels, but there is also a sense of been there done that to most of it. The level where you control a Scorpion tank in particular just didn’t have the same impact on me as past Halo games, probably because I’ve done the same thing 1000 times previously. It’s fun, sure, but not super memorable. Nothing about the campaign, aside from the new movement options is particularly new or noteworthy. It’s almost like Halo 5 was moving down a checklist of what was expected in a Halo game and somewhere along the line boss battles got added to that list.
Let me be abundantly clear. Boss battles in first person shooters almost always suck, and the ones from the Halo series that aren’t Scarab Walkers have all been terrible. Remember fighting the Brute Chieftan at the end of Halo 2? I do. It sucked then, and it sucks now. Halo 5 has a series of these types of boss battles, forcing you to battle the Warden. The Warden is an AI construct that is a bitch to fight, only really taking damage from behind. I will admit the first time I faced off against it, the experience was exhilarating. The first time. Sadly, the game then forces you to face off against it multiple times after that, with each battle adding additional Warden constructs and becoming more and more frustrating to deal with. By the last battle, I was running around in a circle avoiding getting hit while taking random pot shots at the Wardens. Spartans shouldn’t be playing Duck, Duck, Goose with a shotgun, it’s just not becoming of them.
Boss battles aside though, I really did enjoy the campaign of Halo 5, and I look forward to going back and collecting all the skulls and other collectibles, while playing with all my friends over Xbox Live. It’s not the best Halo campaign and doesn’t feature same affecting set pieces we’ve come to expect from the franchise, but the game’s moment to moment combat has never felt better. It’s the most fluid, smooth playing Halo to date, and that more than compensates for the missteps that are made.
A huge misstep that stood in Halo 5’s way before release was last year’s dream turned nightmare compilation, The Master Chief Collection. Thankfully Halo 5 suffers from none of the issues that plagued that release, and it’s been a smooth experience across the board for both campaign play and the even more online reliant competitive multiplayer component.
As much as I enjoy the narrative aspects of the Halo franchise, it’s arguable that its most impactful aspect has always been its competitive multiplayer. With Halo 5, 343 has taken a bit of the old and mixed in a bit of the new to deliver the Arena. Gone are the loadouts of Halo: Reach and Halo 4. In their place are what many longtime fans have asked for, even starts. Every player on each team starts with the exact same weapons and abilities, with most modes featuring an Assault Rifle/Magnum start. Because of this, map control and power weapon pickup have returned to prominence, with an even greater focus on teamwork than the past couple titles.
As someone who really enjoyed both Reach and Halo 4’s multiplayer, I have to say Halo 5 is something really special. There is a flow to matches that has been missing since Halo 3. But unlike Halo 3, where the game sort of encouraged camping, Halo 5 encourages player movement. A lot of this is because the radar is near useless, with super limited range. Instead, you’ll want your teammates to be making callouts to give you a heads up to where activity is taking place. In the past, I would have found this off-putting because unless I’m playing with friends, I generally don’t utilize my headset, but Halo 5 has incorporated Spartan callouts into the game, so even if your teammate (me) is not being vocal in the match, their Spartan will be, calling out weapons and encounters as they come across them. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than pure silence, especially when the game relies on you being able to be aware of your surroundings without a high-range radar.
The added mobility also adds to the flow of the match. Sprint, much maligned by the Halo community since its introduction in Reach, has finally been implemented to perfection, with positives and negatives to using it (Pros: can quickly get back to engagement or escape, Cons: speed of weapon draw leaves you extremely vulnerable). Classic Halo fans may still lament its inclusion, but that doesn’t negate that it feels right in Halo 5. Especially when used in conjunction with thrust and hover. I’ve become so accustomed to being able to dash out of enemy fire that I find myself attempting to use it in other games. Everything about movement feels natural now, and after three previous games using Spartan abilities and equipment, this finally feels like the culmination of what they’ve been working toward.
Halo 5 launched with five Arena playlists, Team Arena, Team Slayer, Free for All, Breakout, and SWAT. Team Arena is a grab bag of Slayer, Capture the Flag, and Strongholds. Team Slayer is your standard Team Deathmatch, Free for All is self explanatory. Breakout is a new, round-based combat engagement where each Spartan only has one life per round. It is probably the most tense game mode of Halo I’ve ever played. And SWAT is Team slayer with no shields and precision weapon loadouts. It is undoubtedly a diminished list from what we’ve come to expect from a Halo multiplayer experience, and it is missing some key modes like King of the Hill, Oddball, Juggernaut, Infection, and most notably Big Team Battle (which may be out as of this review publication date). It is inexcusable that these Halo staples are not available yet, however, what is there is solid, focused, and most importantly fun. I can’t stress that last part enough. I haven’t had this much fun with a multiplayer shooter in a long time.
The big new addition to Halo’s multiplayer suite though is Warzone. Warzone is undoubtedly the reason Big Team Battle was delayed from the outset, as it encompasses a similar space in regards to Halo gameplay. Warzone features big team battles working on enormous maps to take objective points and defeat AI enemies, all while fighting against each other. There are a couple different hooks to Warzone that make it stand out from standard Halo Big Team Battle. For one, there are AI enemies and allies that join either side as you progress; think Titanfall’s grunts. In addition to that, it will drop in third party enemies that teams will want to take out for big point bonuses. The biggest standout though is the inclusion of Requisition cards, one time use cards that can drop game changing weaponry and vehicles onto the field of battle. Req cards are earned by opening packs, which can be bought with Req points earned from playing Halo 5’s various multiplayer modes or by using real money.
The ability to buy using real money puts Warzone in a weird place. While utilization of cards is reliant on players reaching a certain in match level, there is nothing to stop anybody from purchasing $300 worth of Req packs to amass a significant arsenal to use in game. I personally don’t feel it makes the game unbalanced, mostly because the awards in Req packs are all random so $300 in packs could get you the world’s biggest arsenal of Needlers and Mongooses. And I seem to be getting Req packs as rewards on the regular just from playing and have amassed quite an arsenal of Covenant Wraith tanks for free. Still, that feeling of distrust in microstransactions can lead to second guessing if the game is actually being fair, especially when a team drops 8 Scorpions on the field and your team is running around with Needlers and Mongooses. That said, it’s not meant to be a balanced mode, just something big and fun to play. So don’t take it too seriously, and you’ll probably be just fine.
Req packs also come into play when customizing your Spartan. There are a ton of different helmets and armor pieces to combine. It’s not as in depth as Reach’s system was, but there seems to be enough variety that I’m seeing lots of cool combinations in matches. There are also unlockables of gameplates, stances, and assassination animations. As someone who loved to collect cards as a kid and still like to collect things as an adult, I kind of love this aspect of Halo 5.
Content, or lack thereof, is a big talking point with certain people in regards to Halo 5. I don’t necessarily agree, considering it has a fully featured co-op ready campaign, 15 Arena maps (5 of which are Breakout specific), and 3 Warzone maps, but the lack of Forge, Halo’s fully featured map/mode creator, a staple in Halo since the release of Halo 3, is a bit of a head scratcher. Unlike Big Team Battle being left out to give Warzone a chance to take off, there is no competing feature for Forge, so I don’t see any reason for its exclusion.
I personally don’t use Forge, but I have utilized modes and maps created by others in custom games. It’s a feature that adds value and longevity to Halo and needs to be included for the sake of the community. Fortunately, we shouldn’t have to wait long, as 343 have said it will be part of their December update, but the fact remains, we shouldn’t have had to wait for it at all.
There are some other itching concerns about Halo 5, like the matchmaking lobbies being completely useless, ranks being seemingly random, and the map selection algorithm being somewhat broken. But when it comes down to the gameplay, it’s near perfect Halo, and that is the most important thing. The game is fun and competitive, and it keeps me wanting to come back for more. When you add in that 343 has a long schedule of updates and support coming, including free DLC for all players, it’s hard not be happy with Halo 5, unless you really want to be unhappy about it. In which case, you are probably a real Halo fan and have hated everything I said about it anyway, so carry on with your distaste, I’ll be shooting dudes in the face on Plaza having a good time.