Developer: 343 Industries
Formats: Xbox One
Released: October 27, 2015
Copy purchased at retail.
After evolving combat, finishing the fight, waking up to start a new fight, and appearing in his own Xbox One collection, the Master Chief is back for another tour of alien ass kicking in Halo 5: Guardians. 343 Industries, Microsoft’s stewards of the Halo franchise, have had a less than stellar track record with this legendary franchise. Halo 4 had a polished campaign but its multiplayer drove away the diehard community with its causal design. They’ve done exceptional work porting previous Halo games onto new consoles but the broken launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection has been forever immortalized in the minds of disappointed fans. But none of that has stopped 343i from making Halo 5: Guardians the most ambitious Halo game to date. Boasting several new gameplay features as well as the removal of features dating back to the first game, can Halo 5: Guardians reinvigorate one of the most revered first person shooter franchises or should it put back into cryo-sleep?
The Storage in the System.
Here’s some technical details on Halo 5: Guardians. In order to play Halo 5: Guardians, you’ll need more than 60GB of free space on your Xbox One to install the game which is around 46GB. On top of that, you’ll need an internet connection to download a 9GB “Day One” patch that enables the online multiplayer. Halo 5: Guardians does not feature split screen or LAN options so those looking to play with friends will need an Xbox Live Subscription and a steady internet connection.
It’s quite a shame considering the game is built with cooperative play in mind and that previous Halo entries have had spilt screen built-in. According to the developers, this feature was cut in order for the game to natively run at 60 frames per second in 1080p and that’s half true. While game does look great in motion and is locked at 60 FPS, the screen resolution will drop if the network connection is bad and if gameplay is too hectic. Weirdly enough, the animation frames on computer controlled enemies render at 30 FPS. While it’s not noticeable when fighting up close, enemies viewed from long distances look like monsters from a Ray Harryhausen movie. 343i has made many concessions to make the game run at a native 60 FPS and I’m satisfied with the results. A more extensive account of this games visuals has been well documented by Digital Foundry here.
The Story of the Spartans.
Once again, the fate of the entire universe lies in the hands of Master Chief but this time he’s not alone. The campaign is split between multiple storylines similar to Halo 2’s campaign but Master Chief’s team is only playable in three out of the fifteen missions leaving Spartan Locke’s Fireteam Osiris the bulk of the campaign. Eight months after the events of Halo 4’s Spartan Ops campaign and the galaxy is not a safer place. The civil war between the Storm Covenant and the Arbiter’s “Swords of Sanghelios” is at its peak just as several human colony planets are being attacked by emerging Promethean super weapons called “Guardians”. In an effort to stop the Covenant once and for al, the UNSC deploys Osiris on an assassination mission for the Covhenants leader while Blue Team embarks on a rescue mission. But just as Fireteam Osiris completes theirs, Blue Team goes AWOL after seeing a familiar face from the past. It’s unknown whether or not Master Chief is in trouble or if he’s turned traitor so the Office of Navel Intelligence (ONI) tasks Spartan Locke and Fireteam Osiris with tracking down Blue Team and bringing them in for questioning.
The twelve hour campaign is action packed with plenty of great firefights and lush worlds for you to fight in. The large terrain compliments the new spartan abilities/weapons while the missions where you investigate a self contained area provide an interesting, yet underwhelming break from the action. Halo has never been known for responsible friendly A.I. and the Spartans who fight beside you are no exception. While competent on the normal difficulty, the friendly A.I. just isn’t responsive enough to handle anything on the harder difficulties. In one instance on the Heroic Difficulty, I was downed by a Sword Wielding Elite and needed to be revived by my Spartan Comrades but as they were trying to pick me up, they all fell one by one from the same Sword Elite and we all died. It’s clear that Halo 5: Guardians was built for 4 Player Co-Op and while there is no matchmaking, it’s fun with friends who know not to get killed repeatedly by a Sword Elite.
Despite how fun it is to play in Halo 5: Guardians campaign, the narrative is a mess. Characters make insane leaps in judgement, the Spartans that aren’t Master Chief are blank ciphers with backstories filled in by in game fiction (movies, comics, and even an animated series) that’s never explained in game, and the promise of an intriguing mystery is sadly undelivered. Worse is that the rivalry between Locke and John-117 that was heavily hyped up in the games marketing just fizzles out. You have little context on what you’re doing and the audio files from the intel you collect just add more weight to an already confusing plot. Once you see the games cliffhanger ending (and it’s a universe changing one like in Halo 2), your disappointment will lead to frustration (also like in Halo 2).
The Speed in the Smash.
Thankfully, my complaints towards Halo 5: Guardians weak story were offset by the responsive gameplay and new features. All guns now feature “Smart Link” which is a fancy way of describing aiming down the sights like in Call of Duty games. It’s a bold move that moves Halo towards its contemporaries but unlike them, you’ll get de-scoped if you’re being shot at. So while precision is now more important than ever, you’ll still need to rely on firing from the hip which feels right in Halo 5: Guardians.
Besides being able to shoot down digital sights, several fan favorite weapons have changed in Halo 5: Guardians. The most shocking weapon change is that the Magnum is useful again. It’s precision damage is useful in the campaign and absolutely devastating in multiplayer. While it doesn’t have the ammo capacity of the Battle Riffle (nothing’s changed there) nor the long range of the DMR (ditto), the Magnum is the perfect utility weapon. The newly designed Rocket Launcher has a decreased blast radius due to the ability to aim down the sights but it can still home in on airborne vehicles. The Hydra Cannon is great when locking on to enemies but it’s not very powerful on the higher difficulties of the campaign. Not much has changed with Covenant weapons but the new Plasma Cannon adds an interesting wrinkle to the typical grenade launcher. The weapon can either be rapidly fired or charged up to release a plasma grenade onto foes for a sticky, lethal explosion. With the exception of the Incineration Cannon, Promethean weapons have been retooled to be more utilitarian. The Boltshot no longer has an overpowered shotgun blast but now fires a three round burst that tracks enemies. The Suppresser rifle also has tracking rounds but it’s still a full auto weapon. The Binary Sniper Rifle is no longer a one hit kill on anything that isn’t a headshot and fires a particle beam. Lastly, the Lightrifle is just a stronger DMR…with a badass laser scope. While not all of the weapon changes have been drastic, no weapon feels game breaking.
Spartan Abilities are back but unlike its processors, Halo 5: Guardians has these built into every single Spartan. You can still sprint like in Halo 4 but doing so won’t regenerate your shields which makes fight or flight decisions more crucial. From there, you can shoulder charge by pressing the melee button while running to crumple foes or knock down debris blocking your path. You can slide by crouching while running to move into cover faster. You can even evade incoming fire or dash in mid air with the thruster pack but it needs to recharge with each use. You can clamber onto ledges which make traversal much more faster. After jumping, you can hold the melee button to do a ground pound on enemies below you but you’ll need a direct hit for a kill. You can stabilize in mid air briefly after a jump by aiming down the barrel of your gun but it doesn’t last very long. All of these Spartan Abilities feel great and really makes you feel like a cyborg in space. Knowing when to use these abilities and how to chain them together is key to successful engagements on the battlefield.
The Slayer of the Skirmish.
Multiplayer is back but now its split between two different experiences. The first is The Arena which is home to the traditional Halo multiplayer modes and it’s a return to form after Halo 4’s disappointing War Games suite. The Arena is designed with e-sports and competitive play in mind with skill taking a top priority over luck. With the exception of weapon specific modes like SWAT and Grifball, each player spawns on the map with the same load out and spartan abilities on an even playing field. Maps have been designed not only with Spartan Abilities in mind but for power weapons. Mid-tier power weapons like the shotgun appear in specific sections but high-tier ones like Rockets and Snipers spawn on pads with visible timer letting you know when it’s available to be picked up. This allows for hectic moments as players all rush to get weapons that can fundamentally alter matches. For those old school type, you can lob a grenade on power weapon spawn pads to knock them off just like in Halo: Combat Evolved.
Halo 5: Guardians features two ranking systems. The Spartan Service Record (SSR) is raised with the experience points you earn in matches and from commendations. Arena Ranks are earned in each of the individual playlists for overall wins with penalties for losing, quitting early, and betrayal. Each of the game modes are broken up into playlists with no option to vote for which mode or which map to play on. Replacing Halo 4’s Dominion is Strongholds where teams must capture and defend nodes on the map similar to Call of Duty’s Domination mode. To score, teams need to hold at least two nodes with the first to 100 point declared the winner. It’s fun but matches tend to end early with uncoordinated players getting destroyed by a well oiled fireteam. Breakout is a 4 vs. 4 elimination styled mode where teams must win five rounds by either wiping out the enemy team or capturing the central flag. Speaking of capturing flags, Capture the Flag has gotten a shot in the arm with the addition of Spartan Abilities and the return of Flag Juggling since running. The flag carrier still has the infinite “Flagnum” but can no longer run which makes expert Flag Juggling crucial to win.
Warzone is the other half of Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer suite and it’s huge. Set within the in-canon Wargames simulations, two teams of 12 Spartans fight on gigantic maps with the goal of earning 1000 victory points (VP). You can also win instantly by capturing all three bases to expose the enemy teams core and destroy it. Bosses will periodically spawn and grant bonus victory points (VP) upon death that can easily turn the tide of battle. The number of objectives on screen is dizzying and with decision affecting the outcome of the match, it can be hard choosing between capturing bases to advance your team or to take out bosses for points. You level up by gaining experience and earn REQ Energy that can be redeemed at REQ Stations for multiple tiers of weapons, vehicles, and power ups. The REQ Energy you earn is tied to your characters level and they recharge at a slow rate once you spend them. For instance, a Plasma Caster costs 4 REQ Energy so if you purchase it and die, you can’t get another unless you have 4 REQ Energy available. You’re also limited by the number of REQ cards you have (more on that later) so you can’t summon a Mantis unless you have the energy and the card at your disposal. Despite the structured design, Warzone is pure anarchy and addiction.
The Synth in the Symphony.
The Halo franchise has some of the best melodies in all of gaming but their absence in Halo 4’s synth heavy soundtrack was noticeable. Thankfully, composer Kazuma Jinnouchi has brought back the classic Halo theme and “117” from Halo 4 but uses these familiar sounds as a springboard for new songs. The “Halo Canticles” theme that plays every time you boot up the game is the clear standout with the Gregorian Monks chanting the Halo Theme leading to an sweeping orchestral symphony and a piano interlude. The five act “Fireteam Osiris” suite does a commendable job of portraying the jingoism of Locke’s team with glaring horns and there’s techno beats to represent the alien foes.
Sound design has been improved from 343i’s previous Halo games. Gunfire, explosions, and energy hums sound more impactful and less comical. Voice acting is top notch with notable performances in the campaign by Steve Downes as the Master Chief, Keith David as the Arbiter, and Jen Taylor as Dr. Halsey. Jeff Steitzer returns as the Multiplayer announcer but he’s thankfully less chipper than he was in Halo 4. Jennifer Hale announces Warzone matches in character as Spartan Palmer and while she gives out a play-by-play on what’s going on, it’s sad that she doesn’t call out medals the way Mr. Steitzer does in the arena. Newly added to the arena is that your teammates will yell out what’s going on like “SNIPER” or “They’ve Got Our Flag”. These can be turned off in the options menu as they’re too distracting when playing with your friends in a party chat but the Team Leader voice (voiced by Steve Blum) that calls out when power weapons spawn in the Arena is always active.
The Sins of the Shameful.
The REQ Card reward system is a fascinating, controversial addition to the Halo multiplayer suite. As you complete multiplayer matches, you’ll gain REQ Points which can be spent to buy REQ Packs which contain a random assortment of REQ Cards. Some of these cards unlock permanent items like weapon skins, armor pieces, and emblems but most of them will unlock consumable items for Warzone such as weapons, vehicles, and power ups. Cosmetic items and experience boosts don’t effect gameplay and are the only types of cards allowed in the Arena. Warzone revolves around this REQ economy as you cannot make requisitions without the cards and the most valuable items are locked behind a certification REQ card. REQ Packs are acquired at a steady rate but if you’re impatient, you can them with real money.
REQ Cards are Halo 5: Guardian’s microtransaction service that’s built into the game. Players start out with a REQ bundle that includes 54 REQ cards and 7500 REQ Points and you can choose not to buy cards with real money. But the in game economy revolves around buying them as card packs are reasonably priced from $1-3 and the option to buy them exploits players impatience. The most egregious option is the $25 Warzone Req Bundle which delivers two “premium” REQ Packs every week for seven weeks (but it’s bundled for free on the Limited and Collectors Editions so if you bought those, you bought into the games micro transactions). I enjoyed Halo 5: Guardians without ever spending a penny on REQ Packs and 343i is offering additional multiplayer maps and the Forge map editor to all players post launch for free as a peace offering of sorts. Buying the most lavish REQ Packs is not a guarantee you can win in Warzone as skill remains the most important aspect of the game. You can spawn a Scorpion tank but a well armed platoon of enemy combatants can dismantle it out in no time. If you truly believe that Halo 5: Guardians is worth more than the price you paid for it on your ad sponsored, online subscription powered, game console that costs hundred of dollars, than knock yourself off. Personally, I think that microtransactions have no place in a $60 games, least of all in Halo.
The Stars in the Sky.
Halo 5: Guardians evolves the combat Halo is known for but 343i’s ambition has cost the game its scope. The constant 60 FPS gameplay feels fast and fluid but the reduced graphics and enemy frame rate animation is a disappointment. The level design and spartan abilities are great but the story is by far the weakest of the series that will alienate veterans and newcomers alike. The multiplayer has never felt this refreshing since Halo 2 but the in game microtransactions feel like a war zone of attrition between the developers and my wallet. For better or worse, Halo 5: Guardians is a Halo game made for this era of shooters and the series is up to par with its contemporaries. It’s big, it’s bold, and it feels good to see this series back at the top of its game. If you own an Xbox One and love shooters, you have to own this game.