Review: Halo 5: Guardians Lockes Down The Gameplay Experience Masterfully
Halo 5: Guardians is the next in the long-running series of fanatically worshipped, outrageously celebrated, and ridiculously overrated series of Halo games. But the question is, does this one live up to its billing by continuing the fresh and exciting story introduced by 343 Industries, or does it suffer the same fate as Bungie's older games? Read on and find out.
- Worth The Time?Perhaps unsurprisingly, yes.
- Things LovedThe visuals are next-level, and there's always a whole hell-of-a-lot going on around you; The cast is diverse and richly characterised, which should silence many critics; The emphasis on mobility works like a charm and transforms an otherwise sluggish series of games into the new Unreal Tournament; AI feels very much like human players at times, which makes for intense combat segments; This is the most fun you can have in a Halo game, hands down.
- Things HatedThe story is somewhat lacklustre and might disappoint veteran Halo players expecting more Master Chief; 9GB day one patch means you're going to have to wait a while to play online unless you have first-world internet; The UI remains a little unfriendly to users; The subtitles are really ugly.
- RecommendationHalo 5: Guardians is a game you should buy for your Xbox One, if you either enjoy playing games online with friends, or gawking at beautiful sci-fi-inspired visuals. In many ways it's the least "Halo" Halo game yet, and that's what helps it transcend to being something better. Buy it, and enjoy it, but only if you're a fan of sci-fi action romps with a strong emphasis on movement but only serviceable storytelling.
- Name: Halo 5: Guardians
- Genre: Master Chief Correction
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: Co-operative, competitive
- Platforms: Xbox One
- Developer: 343 Industries
- Publisher: Microsoft Studios
- Price: $60
- Reviewed On: Xbox One
This is going to be long so let’s get right to it. Halo 5: Guardians is very likely the best game currently available on the Xbox One. It isn’t perfect, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does way too much just right, and for that reason it’s extremely difficult not to recommend it for purchase.
Given the dual nature of the game, and who would buy it for what reason, it seems only logical to break down this review into two very specific sections; we’ll first talk about the singleplayer campaign, and then we’ll move on to multiplayer. In the meantime I strongly encourage checking out my initial impressions for the game, which detail all the cool new changes to the way the game plays while also saving us a few thousand words here.
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Before we begin, do keep in mind that when you first put the game disc into your Xbox One and install
all 45GBs of it ,there will be a 9GB patch awaiting you. The patch enables all multiplayer content, so if you should opt out of it for any particular reason, you’re stuck with just the solo campaign to play through. Set aside 9GB when you buy the game, for this reason. With that out of the way, let’s roll.
Singleplayer: Locke’d and loaded
Sliding down a mountainside into the thick of a ground fight, landing on an enemy alien and proceeding to assassinate it. I grab my weapon and get moving, shooting down the left flank, moving to the right, climbing a wall, dodging off a ledge into the thick of things. Sprinting up a nearby ramp into enemy fire before charging into the assailants with melee. Quickly slide back in cover to reload, before popping my head out again to find my next target. A quick sprint and a jump, aiming in the air to hover for a moment and steady my precise shot. Bang. Headshot. And this was just the first few minutes of Halo 5: Guardians…
To say that the singleplayer starts strong would be an understatement. This game forgoes much need for a tutorial and just throws you into the thick of things. Gone are the old Halo tutorials involving looking at shiny lights, or having your shields cut off so they recharge. Halo 5: Guardians starts hard and fast, with one of the most incredibly exciting opening cutscenes in recent memory, and not even that much care for explaining exactly what the hell is going on. You’re a Spartan, you’re in a battle, that’s all you need to know soldier.
But as much as the gameplay is on point, and it really really is — this is the most abundantly fun Halo game I’ve played, ever — the story doesn’t quite keep up, and the result is a campaign with pacing issues and a narrative that fades into the background amidst all the action.
Halo 5: Guardians plays out very similarly to Halo 2, which coincidentally was also the middle-game in a planned trilogy. Like Halo 2, it follows the perspectives of Master Chief and another character — in this case, former ONI agent turned Spartan Jameson Locke. Like Halo 2, it attempts to bridge the story from the previous game — Halo 4 — while setting up the story for the eventual next game in the series. And like Halo 2, that means it’s mostly ineffectual, and ends just when things were starting to get good. Make no mistake, you could quite easily skip the campaign of Halo 5: Guardians, briefly skim the Wikipedia page, and go into Halo 6: Halo Hardest knowing all you need to know about what went on. But that doesn’t mean you should…
For all intents and purposes, Locke is the main character of Halo 5: Guardians. The game takes great pains to portray him as a paragon-level good guy who is polite, fair, and follows orders without asking too many questions. He leads Fireteam Osiris but also listens to their advice, and when he is tasked with bringing in Master Chief, he is reluctant to go against a man he considers a hero. Master Chief meanwhile, starts off the game going on mission after mission to get his mind off his former AI companion Cortana, whom he had thought dead (or lost to rampancy) in the previous game. However as anyone who has gone through a breakup will tell you, Cortana somehow finds her way back into Master Chief’s life via a dream-state explanation that she hasn’t died and is in fact on a certain planet, and Chief goes officially AWOL, directly disobeying orders in an attempt to find and retrieve her.
It turns out Cortana survived, and has actually been cured of her rampancy (something that terrifies the UNSC, and her creator Dr Halsey). And in doing so, she feels herself burdened with
glorious divine purpose. I won’t spoil too much here, but the game takes an interesting twist in how it portrays the characters we’ve grown to adore (or hate, depending on who you are). Also making appearances in this story are characters from the original trilogy as well as spinoffs including ODST and Spartan Ops.
But there’s one problem with all of this. See, as much as Locke spends most of the game playing catch-up with Chief (who features very little in this game it must be said) which is basically what every trailer has teased since the game’s reveal, you’re still mostly fighting the Prometheans and Covenant. In that sense, not a lot feels very different from Halo 4. Some of it is explained away, for example the Covenant attacking you are rebel forces that formed after rejecting the Arbiter’s ideals, whereas Prometheans are guarding a specific area. But it still seems very forced, as if those enemies are just put there to give you something to shoot at, because you’ve gone long enough without firing your weapon.
Nothing feels justified and the story just sort-of plays out in mixed sequences of shooting stuff and gawking at stuff, and then having characters talk around you before you move onto new areas to repeat the sequence. So, Halo. It might feel a little disingenuous, especially when it all ends and you’re sitting there going, “… huh? Wait, that’s it?!” Setting up for an epic final game is all good and well, but you also need a meaty campaign here, to keep the interest. One questions why we are told but not shown most of Master Chief’s story, why we couldn’t just play Master Chief throughout the game, and why the need for Locke (who is stylistically identical to Master Chief anyway) in the first place, if only to create an Arbiter-like rivalry with Chief. Ultimately while it is still an entertaining experience, that entertainment comes more from the buttery smooth gameplay than from the story itself.
Some other things to note about the story: This is the first Halo game to my knowledge not to feature a level actually situated on a halo structure. The Prometheans look decidedly less menacing in this game, at times indistinguishable in combat style from Covenant. The AI is exceedingly well-coded in Halo 5: Guardians, with enemies hiding when weakened, and attacking when you’re weak, just as you would expect, and squad members doing what is expected of them for the most part. The great focus of Halo 5: Guardians is on gameplay, and as such there are fewer directly involved set-pieces when the action begins, and more focus on no-fuss, no-frills gunplay. However that also means it can start to feel a little plastic at times, as if it’s just different areas of the game to shoot at things, without as much attention paid to where you are, or why you’re shooting, all in the name of creating a smooth and flowing gameplay experience. Does it work? Yes, but it just feels as if everything in the background is disconnected, look but don’t touch, that sort of thing. Plastic. Finally, the subtitles look horrendous.
Singleplayer rating: 6/10
Before we begin with multiplayer, yes I know there are singleplayer-related things I’ve not covered yet. Stuff like visuals, for example. We’ll come back to that later. First let’s get the two main modes out of the way.
Multiplayer: Putting the “s” in laughter
If you’re worried about Halo 5: Guardians after Halo: Master Chief Collection’s abortion of a multiplayer mode, don’t be. Prior to relase, 343 Industries Franchise Development Director Frank O’Connor said that Halo 5: Guardians would be running on an entirely new code base… and you know what? It really, really shows. Not just in multiplayer but across the board, Halo 5: Guardians does not feel like your traditional Halo games. It is in fact superior in every way, while miraculously maintaining the spirit and charm of the games of old. This game works and is easy to control, with the greatest emphasis placed on gameplay.
As a result, the multiplayer is an absolute freaking blast to play. No pun intended. It’s strong. Really strong. Like virtually no lag with up to twenty-four players across the world strong. All the while in glorious sixty frames per second.
Incredibly the same thing that makes Halo 5: Guardians singleplayer feel plastic makes Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer feel incredible. It’s the emphasis on mobility and gunplay that works wonders here, with the addition of things like a melee charge, ground pound, directional boost dodges, sliding, clambering, and aiming down the sights with the added ability to hover when doing so in the air, there are so many ways to get around that it almost makes original Halo games feel like a joke by comparison. Just the act of running around can be an absolute treat, and it only helps that weapons fire accurately and without much fuss, just like in singleplayer. Where there you felt forced into shooting galleries, here it shines to bring out the absolute best Halo games have to offer.
Multiplayer modes on offer are split into Arena, Warzone, and Custom Games.
Arena consists of your classic multiplayer modes, including Breakout, Slayer, Strongholds, Capture the Flag, and more. You can also custom-create your own game mode in true Halo spirit. There’s quite a lot to do here, as most certainly expected. Currently there are just over twenty maps on offer, which makes for a decent amount of variety that mixes up old favourites with some new contenders. Maps mostly feel fresh and exciting, with lots of potential for choke points, hotly contested weapon spawns, and neat ways to get around. Importantly, you don’t need to race to the rocket launcher the moment the game begins, to win. Not that you’ll care, as you race to the rocket launcher the moment the game begins. As you play, you acquire ranks which then grant you access to tougher matches with more experienced players.
Warzone is the new 24-player mode that can best be described as Unreal Tournament’s Onslaught mode meets Dota. Yes, seriously. Warzone pits two teams against each other, with the objective being to either complete objectives to score points up to 1,000 or destroy the enemy team’s core for an instant victory. The Dota/MOBA element comes not just in destroying the enemy team’s core (something Onslaught also featured) but also in the existence of AI-controlled opponents that we shall call creeps. Maps in Warzone are much larger, as a result, with a minimum requirement of eighteen players — nine per team — before the match will even start. Once it does, you can either capture points to make your way to the enemy’s core, or complete objectives to score points. There are lots of ways to get things done, and the result is nothing short of chaotic. But somehow enjoyable. You can also call in special weapons and vehicles for yourself, which you unlock using REQ packs (we’ll get to that). It’s a fun and exciting new mode that will likely be where you spend the majority of your Halo 5: Guardians playtime, but chances are old-school Halo veterans might scoff at it. The rest of us won’t care, we’re too busy trying to destroy the enemy’s core.
Further modes to these include the co-operative campaign, which once again allows for up to four players to play through the game’s story. Pro-tip: Legendary is very difficult this time around, so definitely pick characters that play to each of your strengths. Unfortunately there is no split-screen here, apparently because it’s already tricky enough to maintain 60FPS without two times the rendering required. Oh well. You can still invite players online, although it’s currently impossible to tell if they’re already in a game. You could also opt for Theater mode if you’re feeling a bit gun-shy, or need to finish your fap session.
Customisation options include the usual Halo story of armour, helmets, colours, weapon skins, IDs, and more. This time around instead of having to level up and spend decades getting a cool-looking character, you can use REQ packs — which are kinda like Titanfall’s burn cards — which come in different varieties and, when opened, yield different rewards and customisations. Some of these can be used for cosmetic purposes, whilst others help you out in Warzone (weapons, vehicles, that sort of thing), or provide XP boosts for your multiplayer session. You can purchase REQ packs in a few ways, either by playing multiplayer as normal and earning REQ points, or with real money — and this is where the microtransactions for Halo 5: Guardians come in. You can find out more about REQ packs here.
Overall, multiplayer is the strongest it has ever been for a Halo series, and that’s saying a lot coming from me. It’s fast, it’s frantic, it’s fantastic. You can really tell that the larger focus of development on this game centred on how well the multiplayer worked. Whether it’s lag-free games with large player counts, custom game modes with hundreds of variances, or a wide range of maps to run around on, there’s a lot of game in the multiplayer for Halo 5: Guardians. Also, no ugly subtitles.
Multiplayer rating: 8/10
Now let’s wrap this crawler up.
Other pertinent business: 1080p ftw!
Once again I must direct anyone interested in finding out more about the game to my initial impressions article, to help save space here. Since I can finally throw an opinion on top of all that writing, it delights me to say that this is the most aesthetically-pleasing Halo game for a very long time. It looks proper sci-fi, and while it’s not as lush and chunky as Halo 4, Halo 5: Guardians looks like a futuristic space game with all the lens flare and HUD effects those bring. At first it doesn’t really hit you because you’re so busy fighting stuff, but when it hits, it really hits. It is staggeringly beautiful. And throughout your game you will enjoy a perfect 60FPS experience. The only time I noticed any kind of framerate drop was the millisecond the game took to save a checkpoint.
We have to touch once again on the changes to mobility in the game. As mentioned in the initial impressions article and in the multiplayer section above, lots of changes were made to how your player controls. These include the ability to boost-dodge in any direction, clamber up low ledges onto higher areas, aim down the sights with any weapon, hover in the air while aiming, sprint and charge to do extra melee damage or slide into cover, and aim a mid-range ground pound attack while airborne. This then removed the need for powerups in the singleplayer, with some reserved for multiplayer maps as pickups. It cannot be explained in words how these changes transform the Halo experience. The game is now all about mobility and movement, and you have so many options to get around that at times you’re just having fun being a Spartan that you don’t even stop to think you’re just using the base controls. Everything is faster, more responsive, and it results in quite the adrenaline rush when you really kick into gear.
It must now be noted, once we’ve come right to the end of this review, that Halo 5: Guardians is a bit of an exercise in misleading marketing. Every. Single. Marketing asset for this game teased some great hunt, a showdown between Locke and Chief, and a fallen soldier turned enemy of the state. Right up until launch, that was how this game was marketed, and that was what Microsoft wanted you to think Halo 5: Guardians was about. It’s not. There are parts where yes, you’re following in Chief’s footsteps. But a hunt? An epic showdown? A battle of the champions? Eh. I wonder if perhaps Microsoft were afraid of marketing Halo 5: Guardians as primarily a multiplayer game, so instead they pushed the more lacklustre part of the offering and hoped that the multiplayer would sell itself. Time will tell whether the gamble pays off, but when playing you can’t help but feel a little cheated, as if the trailers promised something the game has yet to fully deliver on. And that’s a bit of a shame, because after the strong showing that was Halo 4, another great story would have been awesome. As it is, we get an altogether uninspired (but still serviceable) story, and the best multiplayer yet. A mixed bag, then…