G&G Reviews: Halo 5: Guardians

Reviewer: Michael Mendis

Developer: 343 Industries

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Platform: Xbox One

Two years after the release of the Xbox One, Microsoft has finally released Halo 5: Guardians, the next installment in its storied first-person shooter franchise and the first new Halo game on the Xbox One.  With this latest installment, developer 343 Industries picks up their story arc where they left off in Halo 4, and some new features are introduced for the first time in franchise history, including 4-player co-op and smooth 60 frames-per-second gameplay.  It’s an ambitious title in many ways, especially for a brand new platform, but does 343 pull it all off and deliver the next-gen Halo experience that fans are craving?

Taking place one year after the events of Halo 4, the game opens with an introduction to Team Osiris, a squad of characters who are mostly new to the Halo games (Spartans Locke, Vale, and Tanaka make their game debut; Spartan Buck returns after having been playable in Halo 3: ODST, which released back in 2009).  Osiris is tasked with finding the scientist Dr. Halsey, who has valuable information for the human military (known as the UNSC) and is currently being held in custody by the series’ regular alien enemies, the Covenant.

Meanwhile, John-117 (aka the Master Chief) has reformed Blue Team, a group of Spartans including himself and three of his former squadmates from his early years in the military: Linda-058, Kelly-087, and Fred-104. During their latest mission, however, John receives a mysterious, urgent message, and Blue Team sets off on a new quest, without UNSC permission.  With the Master Chief having gone rogue, the UNSC sends Team Osiris to bring him back.

From a narrative perspective, Halo 5 both succeeds and fails in its ambition.  On the positive side, 343 brings in a number of characters and concepts from other Halo media (novels, comics, etc.) that haven’t been present in the games, they introduce an interesting twist to a couple of more established characters, and they set up a bigger narrative that should keep things exciting in future games.  There are some problems that arise from all of this, though.  With so many new characters introduced, there simply isn’t enough time in the campaign to really establish them; I struggled to care about the characters who I wasn’t already at least somewhat familiar with.  And while the game’s ending does a good job setting the stage for what is to come, it doesn’t leave one especially satisfied with where it leaves off.  343 clearly had a larger story arc in mind while making Halo 5, and chose to end the game at a logical, but not very climactic, stopping point.

While the storytelling is a mixed bag, the campaign is absolutely fantastic from a gameplay perspective.  The Halo series has always shined when it has allowed players to tackle enemy encounters in wide open spaces with lots of verticality and different approaches to combat, and Halo 5 leans heavily on this well-established tradition.  There’s a good mix of traditional Covenant enemies as well as the newer Promethan enemies, the latter of which have seen some additions and tweaks since their introduction in Halo 4. 

Halo campaigns have always given gamers the option to play 2-player co-op, but in Halo 5 this has been expanded to 4-player.  Each person can choose which member of either Osiris or Blue Team (depending on the mission) that they would like to play, and when a player’s health and shields run out, they are not instantly killed, but just temporarily incapacitated; another character (a human player or an AI-controlled companion) has a limited amount of time to revive them, or else lose that player until the next checkpoint.  It’s a nice new change to the Halo formula that puts an emphasis on teamwork, which is fitting given presence of so many new characters.  The one downside to Halo 5 co-op is that unlike previous Halo games, split-screen gameplay is not available (nor for multiplayer either).  If you want to play with friends, you’ll have to play over Xbox Live.

The Spartans’ moveset (for both campaign and competitive multiplayer) has been expanded in Halo 5, with several new abilities available at the gamer’s fingertips.  Players now have a thrust move that allows you to dart in or out of danger quickly, a clamber that lets you climb up ledges that you otherwise couldn’t jump to, and a powerful ground pound that can instantly kill an enemy if aimed properly, but will leave you exposed to attack afterwards.  Gameplay also generally feels a bit more fast-paced than in previous Halo games, though it should be noted that, similar to all the other Halo titles, it still takes longer to bring down enemies in Halo 5 than it does in almost every other first-person shooter out there.  This may seem trivial at a glance, but it goes a long way in defining the feel of Halo combat and helps it stand out from the crowd of shooters available on the market.

For Halo 5’s multiplayer, 343 opted to split their offerings into two distinct categories: Arena and Warzone.  Arena games focus on a consistent, level playing field and competitive environment, heavily influenced by eSports.  While Halo 4 took a step toward other shooters by introducing customizable weapon loadouts, Halo 5 Arena modes harken back to the earlier Halo games, where everyone starts with the same weapons, while other more powerful weapons appear periodically at strategic points on the map.  Picking up these weapons and controlling the map is the key to victory.

There are five Arena modes available at the game’s launch which cover most of the biggest multiplayer offerings from throughout the series’ history: Slayer (a straightforward team-based deathmatch), Team Arena (a mix of Slayer and some objective game types, like Capture the Flag), SWAT (an intense, fast-paced mode where shields are disabled), Free-for-all (every Spartan for his/herself, which is different from the 4v4 setup of the other modes), and Breakout (a new round-based game type with no shields and no respawns; the first team to win 5 rounds wins the match).  It’s a decent mix of game modes, and the maps are well-designed and fun to play on.  It does seem that 343 should add more maps to the rotation for certain playlists, though; for example, I have found myself playing the same few maps in Slayer over and over again, when there are other good maps that I see in Team Arena that haven’t appeared elsewhere.

The one major omission from the list of game modes is Big Team Battle, a staple of previous Halo games where teams of eight players clash in Slayer and objective game types.  While this mode is scheduled to arrive sometime soon after launch, it’s still disappointing to see it missing right out of the gate.

The big new multiplayer mode that 343 has introduced in this game is Warzone.  In this mode, two teams of 12 players compete to be the first to score 1000 points; points are accumulated through killing enemy players, defeating tough AI-controlled bosses, and capturing bases.  It’s an interesting fusion of multiple game modes, where there are a variety of ways you can help your team, and players are beign rewarded for pretty much every activity they are engaged in.  It also takes longer to complete than most other multiplayer matches; while other game types last 5-10 minutes, Warzone matches last around 30 minutes.  In the (temporary) absence of regular Big Team Battle, this is a suitable substitute.  If there’s one downside, it’s that it can be frustrating if the score becomes lopsided and the game continues to drag on for a while before the team that is clearly ahead finally puts the last nail in the enemy’s coffin.  343 attempted to address this issue by adding in another win condition to help keep matches interesting; if a team  manages to capture all three bases, and then proceeds to destroy the opposing team’s power core, they win automatically, regardless of score.  In my experience playing Warzone, though, if a team is struggling to take down enemy players or AI bosses, they probably aren’t skilled enough to take all three bases and push to the enemy core.  A core is only likely to be destroyed by the team that is already winning, already controlling more ground in the battlefield.

Another aspect of Warzone multiplayer is the presence of microtransactions, in the form of card packs that can be purchased with real money and redeemed for special weapons and vehicles in Warzone matches.  In order to keep the game from becoming too lopsided in favor of players with great cards, however, the best cards can only be used late in a match, and even the fanciest hardware won’t save a terrible team.  I haven’t purchased any cards myself, and have still been able to enjoy my time with Warzone.  Nonetheless, a powerful weapon in the hands of a skilled player can certainly tip the scales in a close match, so players hoping for a strictly level playing field will probably prefer Halo 5’s Arena multiplayer.

Finally, a quick word regarding potentially objectionable content; for parents considering a game for their teenagers (or even kids slightly younger than that), Halo is a pretty good choice.  As a shooter there is plenty of violence taking place onscreen, but it is never depicted in a particularly gruesome or disgusting manner.  Other types of questionable content (such as foul language or sexual innuendo) is practically nonexistent in this game.

All things considered, Halo 5: Guardians is an excellent new title from 343 Industries that continues the tradition of strong Halo campaigns and exciting, competitive multiplayer.  The gameplay is buttery smooth, and even though the action tends to be faster than most other Halo games, the DNA of what makes Halo great (cool power weapons, open level design, and longer, more strategic encounters with enemies) are still present.  The storytelling stumbles at points, but has nonetheless held my interest, and I look forward to seeing where they will take this saga next.

Content Score: SUPPORTABLE

Overall Score: A