Halo 5: Guardians
Developed by 343 Industries
Published by Microsoft Studios
Available on Xbox One
Halo 2 and Halo 5: Guardians have a lot in common. Both have split narrative campaigns. Halo 2‘s boasted the return of Master Chief and gave fresh perspective by allowing players to play as the Arbiter, previously a Covenant enemy. Halo 5 has players stepping back into the role of Master Chief and his Blue Team, while following the path of Spartan Locke and Fireteam Osiris who’ve been tasked to track him down. Both games feature strong player versus player arena multiplayer modes, which went on to shape the future of the series in the case of 2, and is certain to do so again in the case of 5. Both games also take the series to bigger, more explosive places than what came before, with amazing set pieces, mechanics, and a sense of scope and scale that exceeds their predecessors. Yet for all of their similarities, achievements, and successes, Halo 2 will retain its legendary status as the game that changed online multiplayer forever, while Halo 5: Guardians occasional missteps threaten to make it one of, if not the most glanced over, even frowned upon, entries in the series.
It’s no surprise Halo 2 and Guardians have their similarities with developer 343 Industries just coming out of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which operated as Halo 2 Anniversary for all intents and purposes. Much like Halo 2, Halo 5‘s narrative is divided in two, one half focusing on the series’ protagonist, Master Chief, the other half focusing on a new party, Spartan Locke and Fireteam Osiris in the case of Halo 5. Where Halo 2 wisely spent more of its focus on Chief, Guardians is far from Chief’s game, regardless of what cover art, advertisements, and developer statements might suggest. Instead, roughly three-fourths of the game are spent playing as Fireteam Osiris, composed of Locke (who premiered to players in the feature Halo: Nightfall included in Halo: MCC), Vale, Tanaka, and Buck from Halo 3: ODST. Osiris does have some satisfying development over the course of the game, like learning Vale can speak Sangheili, the native tongue of the Elite enemy types, because she was neglected by her father when he was out on business, or witnessing Buck’s less than heroic responses to situations (a highpoint for the game, largely thanks to the voice talent of Nathan Fillion). Locke, however, can’t quite hold the screen like the man in green. For one, his motivations seem limited to responding to orders, at least until the situation goes from serious to dire. Comparatively, Master Chief’s reactions are coming from some place incredibly human and relatable, and not focusing on that and whether Chief can still retain the title of the greatest Spartan of all time without his friend and AI companion, Cortana, is a shamefully missed opportunity.
It’s also a shame that Chief’s Blue Team isn’t developed as far as Osiris is. From his first second on screen, Chief is seen to be mourning Cortana in his own way, noted and felt by Blue Team, composed of fellow Spartans from the Spartan Two Program, and friends and comrades from childhood. In short, Fred, Kelly, and Linda are the closest things to family John-117 has, and in light of this, their willingness to follow him, even as he goes rogue, makes sense. Thus, the story of Halo 5: Guardians begins to unfold. Unfortunately, that’s the end of the characterization of Blue Team, outside of a couple of crucial moments for John. Perhaps even more of a shame is that Fred, Linda, and Kelly are all returning characters from the Halo extended universe, and this the first on screen introduction to the characters. There are small details to the characters that demonstrate 343i are truly fans themselves, like Kelly, known in the novels as the fastest Spartan, being faster than the rest of her team in game, or Linda, the best marksman of the lot, being equipped with a sniper. Yet no time is spent filling in players who haven’t read the novels, giving a sense of who these characters are, or even spent describing where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to, leaving even players in the know in the dark. I guess they were hanging out on Infinity and were there when Chief got back?
Either way, in Halo 5: Guardians you’re never alone. Locke always has Fireteam Osiris, and when you do occasionally get to play with Chief, he is assisted by Blue Team (a name that also stems from the books). The campaign is built for the cooperative play of up to four players online. When alone, the player is left with fairly competent AI partners who can respond to simple orders from the d-pad. Aiming and clicking up on the d-pad will tell the team to head to a point, get in a vehicle, pick up a weapon, and target an enemy, all with relative ease. Leaving your team to their own devices can be unproductive, but by having your entire team focus on one enemy, strong adversaries can be handled quickly and effectively. Just ensure that the enemy isn’t too far away, as the AI are more than willing to clamber through the flames of hell to get to the enemy you highlighted. AI allies can even pick up downed allies, including the player. If the player plays too recklessly, and is downed in the middle of a warzone, there’s a good chance the AI won’t make it in time. Unfortunately, they might not make it in time even if you find yourself behind cover. More than once I had an ally coming to pick me up, only to be stopped by a small crate or ledge. Further, certain boss encounters are also clearly intended for multiple human players. One boss’ weak point is in it’s back, and with no good way to have your team split up and draw enemy fire in a different direction, these moments feel like hardly any consideration was given to single players and their trying AI allies.
That’s not to say the campaign doesn’t have strengths. Some new mechanics truly let the player feel the strength of each Spartan. For starters, each character is far more mobile than ever before, courtesy of an endless sprint mechanic. Similar to the armor ability from Halo 4, players can utilize the jets on the Spartans’ backs to boost in any direction, ideal for long jumps or even better for evading incoming fire. These mechanics are balanced by the fact that while sprinting and boosting, shields won’t recover, making for some interesting fight or flight dilemmas. Gone are the days of jumping and crouching to reach tricky, high ledges. Instead, players can grapple by tapping the jump button once more near a ledge, making for quick, easy, satisfying scaling. Changes to mobility have also impacted combat. While sprinting, Spartans can unleash a brutal shoulder charge, which both damages and displaces enemies. From above, players can use a ground pound move to jet into enemies below at the risk of being shot out of the sky while the jets build power and the player takes aim. Finally, by aiming down sight while in air, players can hover for a short period, which can be used to land a couple of headshots before dropping behind cover, to trick enemies who are expecting you to come around the corner at eye level, or even to evade incoming grenades. While these mechanics may take some getting used to for veteran players, they are welcome additions to the series that demonstrate the raw power of a Spartan and add versatility to combat.
Speaking of which, in both the campaign and multiplayer there is an extreme sense of balance. Each gun has its purpose, and previously mediocre weapons from Halo 4 have gone from useless to useful. Take the Promethean Suppressor for instance. What was once a poor substitute for an Assault Rifle is now a tracking bullet tool of death. While some weapon debuts fall a little flat, like the UNSC Hydra, which just doesn’t do enough damage for how slow it fires, newcomers like the Plasma Caster, which operates like a plasma grenade crossbow, are sure to bring some smiles and maniacal laughter. Despite some aesthetic changes, most old favorites will be just as reliable now as ever. Unless you’re expecting the return of the Combat Evolved Pistol, in which case you’ll be disappointed. Just let her go.
Halo 5: Guardians also looks incredible, with impeccable level design in terms of beauty and surroundings. Each level not only brings about an engaging new aesthetic in what is perhaps the largest galaxy spanning campaign in Halo history, but each level, while maybe not the grandest in scope that Halo fans will have ever seen, has such depth and intricacy that a second play through is merited on exploration alone. Countless times I got through an enemy encounter only to find an alternative path with a powerful weapon hidden elsewhere in the area in the aftermath. Often, the path you pave will reward you with weapons suited to the area. Take the high road and perch on a ledge to take enemies out from above, and you might find a sniper there waiting for you. Cut your way through the middle, and you might find a sword to literally help you cut your way through the middle. Exploration is rich and rewarding, with audio intels to find giving more backstory, and what Halo would be complete without skulls to find?
Just like Halo 2, Halo 5: Guardians true strengths lie in its multiplayer. Broken into two different categories, Arena and Warzone, Halo 5‘s multiplayer has a lot to love. While I, personally, was really in to Halo 4, a lot of people weren’t. Lucky for them, in Arena, loadouts, ordinances, and armor abilities are gone. Like Halo 2 and 3, all weapons must be found in the level. Quite cleverly, Halo 5 even informs you when power weapons are about to drop, making for some fun mayhem around the likes of the rocket launcher, sniper, sword, and more. Arena, which is composed of several different game modes all featuring four versus four play, retains plenty of returning playlist favorites like Slayer and SWAT, while also breaking new ground with a couple of new modes. While not in its own playlist yet, Strongholds plays a lot like Territories of the past, with players controlling points on the map to score. Far less familiar is the Breakout playlist, a game mode that is broken into rounds where the first team to five wins. The catch, the maps on Breakout are particularly small, shields are significantly reduced, and every player has one life per round. Overall, I found Breakout to breakdown the pace of the game too much, but some players may find it fun.
The best new addition is the Warzone mode. Warzone features the largest multiplayer maps in Halo history, and combines a multitude of elements including capturing bases, fighting enemy players, and fighting AI combatants in large scale, twelve versus twelve firefights. Teams can either win by scoring a total of 1,000 points, or by destroying the enemy teams base. Kills, particularly of high notoriety AI bosses quickly rack up points for the team. But, capturing all three bases on the map, will lower the shields of the enemies home base, leaving it susceptible to attack. In this way, even teams with an enormous point lead can lose if players aren’t careful, and by taking bases or landing some crucial boss kills, teams can easily mount a comeback. Scoring kills not only helps your team, but builds the player’s REQ score in game. By building up their score, players can purchase requisitions that include power ups, power weapons, and vehicles. Some items are more expensive than others, requiring both a higher score and a longer reload before another big purchase can made. Each requisition also requires a REQ card, which can be acquired in packs just by playing the game. It is a fun, rewarding mechanic that encourages more play, and intelligent spending. This also allows players to truly play how they choose, assuming they have the cards to do so. Most weapons won’t be hard to come by, but some vehicles rightly prove more rare, especially their new, exciting variations. The only downside to the mode is that it might feel too much like Halo 4 for some, REQs merely replacing ordinances.
It is also worth noting that all character customization is unlocked through REQ packs, meaning unlocks are random and not through leveling up or through commendations, though both of those things will award you with packs. While players can no longer select specific armors for their arms and legs, the sheer number of helmets and armors makes up for it, and the new approach to emblems is engaging and fun.
It is in its multiplayer that Halo 5: Guardians truly shines. Through new game modes like Warzone and new playlists, 343i has kept Halo feeling fresh while returning to its roots. Well designed maps, great balance, and some new mechanics keep things flowing swimmingly. Its only in its campaign that Guardians stumbles. After Halo 4, with its emotional resonance and impacting conclusion, it was the first time in the series that I was more excited for the campaign than the multiplayer. I have to confess myself more than a little disappointed. While level design has reached an all time high, with some true treats for fans of the franchise, like visiting the home world of the Elites, and brilliant new mechanics and balance, the lack of the Master Chief and character development for Blue Team has me hoping that Guardians, like ODST was intended as a spinoff and not a proper sequel, though that’s nothing but a fool’s hope. With a narrative that only seems to exist to get characters from point A to point B, and a less than stellar plot twist that proved too predictable, and seems to be leading the franchise into all too familiar territory for the sci fi genre in general, there is much to be desired from the fun, but half-hearted campaign. Halo 5: Guardians is probably worth it for the multiplayer alone, but here’s to hoping for a better story in the future. Or at least for a little better formula, and that formula is a lot less Locke and a lot more Master Chief. Tank beats everything. And that tank is John-117.