Halo 5: Guardians Review: The Passing of the Torch
343 Industries has a pretty tough job if you ask me. Taking control of a prolific franchise and being responsible for delivering a product that becomes the poster-child of the Xbox One, which appeals to newcomers of the series whilst also satiating the rabid existing fans, is one hell of an assignment. Their response to this seemingly insurmountable task is Halo 5: Guardians, the second game in 343’s Halo trilogy and the first entry for the Halo franchise on the next-generation of gaming consoles. Make no mistake, this is still very much a Halo game – however, the developers have prioritized some features and introduced new mechanics at the cost of others in a way that is likely to divide fans and newcomers alike.
Halo has always been an iterative franchise. As the old saying goes, “If it ain't broke, don’t fix it”, which seems to be the mantra for the Halo series as a whole. Successive entries have refined what their predecessor’s had established and simply added extra layers on top of a solid foundation. This more or less continues to be the case for Halo 5: Guardians, however some pretty significant changes have been made to the formula this time around.
The main bullet points in relation to the campaign for this iteration is the inclusion of squad-based mechanics and the narrative focus on a new cast of characters. The campaign is set shortly after the events of Halo 4 and follows Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris, each with their own assignments. The campaign alternates between the perspectives of the two groups over the course of 15 missions as the two narratives intertwine. The Blue Team missions follow Master Chief and his squad as they search the universe for Cortana who disappeared at the end of Halo 4. The Osiris missions follow newly appointed Spartan Locke and his squad as they hunt down Master Chief who has gone AWOL and is being indicted by the UNSC.
Gameplay wise, the two teams function identically and find themselves in similar gameplay scenarios, however the majority of the campaign missions follow Locke and his squad as they try to track down the Chief. Locke is an interesting character and although he will never be as significant to the Halo experience as Master Chief himself, having Locke at the forefront of the narrative provides an interesting story perspective while still retaining the same Halo feel. Locke’s squad mates on the other hand, aren’t characterized much at all and come off as rather devoid of personality and will most likely be remembered as Nathan Fillion and ‘the other two’.
In terms of gameplay, this is still very much the Halo you’ve come to know and love, with a few tweaks and additions. The biggest addition in this iteration is the introduction of squad mechanics. No longer is Master Chief taking on armies of opponents lone-wolf, he and Locke are now tailed by three other Spartans that fight enemies alongside you and can be issued orders. Squad commands are limited to a single button press that gives an order contextualized by what you are aiming at. Pressing Up on the D-pad whilst aiming at an enemy orders your squad to focus fire on that enemy. Doing the same whilst aiming at a gun on the ground or on empty vehicle orders the closest squad member to use that gun or vehicle. It’s a simple mechanic, but it works very well and is a neat addition to the Halo gameplay, especially when playing the campaign alone. Numerous enemies encountered throughout the campaign have weak points on their backs or sides and ordering your squad to focus-fire an enemy causes the enemy to focus the squad, allowing you to attack from behind.
The flip side of this is that if you aren’t ordering your squad around, they’re borderline useless. When left to their own devices, squad mates will slowly take out enemies, but you are still responsible for clearing the majority of foes. However, if you end up taking lethal damage during combat, you now go into a ‘downed’ state and a squad member can come over and revive you within a short period of time, which works more often than not. However, typical AI behavior is frustratingly present during this process, as squad members will run straight past nearby enemies and try to revive you, only to be mowed down themselves in the process, causing the game to revert to the last checkpoint.
A number of smaller gameplay tweaks have also been added this time around. The swappable armor abilities featured in Halo 4 and Halo: Reach are no longer present and have since been replaced with permanent, in-built armor abilities. Your character is now able to mantle up ledges that are just out of jumping height with a quick tap of the jump button. A quick dash with a short cool down has been given it’s own dedicated button and the ability to sprint indefinitely has made a welcome return from Halo 4. Another neat addition is that when you are in aiming mode with a weapon, pressing the jump button causes your character to jump and hover for a short time, allowing you to line up quick shots in the air before dropping back into cover.
Speaking of aiming, one of the smallest gameplay tweaks with the biggest impact is the addition of an aiming mode for every gun. In previous Halo games, pressing the button to zoom in would either bring up the gun’s scope if the equipped weapon had one, or zoom in with your visor if it didn’t. Now every weapon has a zoom and can be fired from that viewpoint. Aiming down the sight doesn’t grant any extra accuracy or damage, yet it’s a welcome addition and makes the gameplay feel more like a modern first person shooter. To the old-school Halo players out there, don’t fret – there are plenty of control schemes to choose from that retain the classic Halo feel.
343 had some very clear priorities in mind regarding the visual design of Halo 5: Guardians from the outset of the project. It’s obvious that the developers wanted to guarantee a locked 60fps campaign, no matter the costs. As a result, a number of concessions have been made, for better and for worse.
The game does indeed run at a locked 60fps and looks gorgeous. Animations are silky smooth and even when explosions filled the screen and enemies flooded the map, not once did I encounter any semblance of slow-down or frame rate dip during the 10 or so hours of the campaign. On top of this, characters, enemies, vehicles, weapons – almost all the models in the game look great. They all have great textures with lots of detail and very fluid animations.
The quintessential Halo aesthetics are still as strong as ever. Characters, weapons and enemies all have unique designs that look downright awesome. Projectiles and explosions are bright and vivid, whilst saturated colors fill the screen at all times. The first few missions of the game take place in rather dull and unexciting environments, however the back half of the campaign has some spectacular scenery. The majority of textures look great, environments are gigantic and full of life while sky boxes are busy with detail that gives a great sense of grandeur and scale to the levels.
The game features a significant amount of cut scenes in between missions that look absolutely incredible. If you’re familiar with the cut scenes that were created for the Halo 2 Anniversary Edition, then you know what to expect – except now they look even better. Character’s are motion captured with great effect, environments look amazing and the cinematography is astounding. The opening sequence to the first mission features a lengthy, action-packed cut scene that is magnificent to say the least.
The resource cost of this powerful aesthetic direction has led to the removal of all split-screen local multiplayer, including campaign co-op. However, online-only four-player co-op with difficulty that scales in relation to the number of players has been added in its place. This may be a bigger issue for some more than others, however for me personally it’s a huge disappointment. In my eyes, Halo had always been one of the last bastions for terrific local multiplayer and to have it removed is disheartening, but understandable. The decision would no doubt be informed by data suggesting that local multiplayer just isn’t as much of a priority to gamers as it once was, and if Microsoft are going to be showing this game off at Xbox One kiosks in malls around the world, they don’t want anything compromising the impression of the Xbox One being a graphical powerhouse.
The draw of Halo has always been just as much about the multiplayer as the campaign, and from what I’ve experienced so far, the multiplayer component of Halo 5: Guardians is as strong as ever. In gameplay terms, the updated mechanics makes the multiplayer feel a lot quicker and far more modern than we’ve seen in previous iterations. Fans of the lumbering, bullet sponge gameplay from previous Halo games might find this to be an unwelcome change, but I found the experience to be far more enjoyable than previous Halo multiplayer gameplay.
Opponents still take relatively the same amount of hits before going down – a full clip of an assault rifle to the torso, followed up be a melee is still just enough to bring down an enemy – however it’s the movement abilities and sense of speed that has the biggest impact. Getting to the fight after respawning is faster, running from an opponent is more viable and chasing down a fleeing enemy is exhilarating. It’s these aspects that make the game feel more dynamic and fast paced.
The classic Halo game modes make a welcome return, whilst a number of new game modes have been introduced. The most interesting new mode is Warzone, a 12v12 battle that combines the gameplay of Battlefield’s Rush game mode with MOBA elements to create a really unique multiplayer experience. The objective of the game mode is to either obtain a set number of points to win the match or to destroy your enemy’s base. Each team has a base at either side of the map and in the middle of the map are a number of neutral base’s that need to be captured. Capturing and defending a base gains points for your team total, as do enemy kills. Once a team has control over every neutral base on the map, they can then assault the enemy team’s base, destroy their core and win the game. However, populated throughout the world are neutral AI opponents that can be destroyed to acquire extra points for your team. More difficult AI opponents that reward more points may require a number of players to team up to destroy them and are located at certain locations throughout the map.
Completing objectives, defeating enemies and destroying AI opponents awards Energy, a form of currency that can be used to spawn vehicles or equip advanced weapons that become available from REQ cards (more on that shortly). So basically, you’ve got a progressive base capturing game mode on a map populated by creeps that can be destroyed to acquire currency, which is used to obtain better items with the objective being to push into your enemy’s base and destroy their ancient – er, I mean core. On paper it sounds like a really contrived game mode designed to tap into the popularity of MOBA’s, but in execution it’s a rather interesting and unique game mode that has the potential to provide some intense skirmishes.
Another major addition is the introduction of REQ’s. These are like collectible cards that are acquired randomly from REQ packs that can be earned in game or purchased with real world money. Theses cards come in different types: cosmetic items to customize your avatar, XP boosts for completing various challenges and as one-time use equippables for use in the Warzone game mode as mentioned before. Each card has an associated rarity and some of the cosmetic designs are very unique and eye-catching, whilst others are rather drab and uninspired.
As far as I can tell, these cards can't be traded, however if you unlock something that you will never use, they can be destroyed and reclaimed for REQ points. Any introduction of micro-transactions to a series is going to come along with some feelings of cynicism. This type of micro-transaction system is now quite common in games and having the ability to purchase REQ packs does mean that someone that buys a lot of packs is more likely to have a better supply of vehicles and weapons for use in Warzone, so we’re going to have to wait and see if this becomes an issue for the game mode further on down the line.
Overall, Halo 5: Guardians is a solid Halo title and an impressive first outing for the series on the next generation of consoles. The campaign is good, with a number of great and memorable moments to be found after the first few rather dry missions. The focus on Locke as a protagonist is interesting and provides a unique perspective to the Halo story, however I would have liked to see the supporting cast fleshed out a bit more. The mechanical additions are a benefit to the series and provide a refreshing, modernized Halo experience. The visuals and cinematic cut scenes are seriously impressive and really show off the power of the Xbox One. The multiplayer is as strong as ever, however the implementation of REQ packs is still up in the air. The new multiplayer mode is a ton of fun that adds significantly to the longevity of the game, and the addition of four-player online co-op is great if you can find the friends to make it happen. The being said, the lack of any local multiplayer is a huge disappointment for me personally, however you already know if this is something that you care about or not.
Halo fans won’t need convincing to pick this one up, so to newcomers of the series, now is a fine time to jump in – so long as you’re prepared for significant background reading beforehand if you want to engage with the story. For those of you that previously had little interest in the Halo games, Halo 5: Guardians has been streamlined and tweaked just enough to make the experience feel familiar to fans of modern FPS’s whilst still retaining the classic Halo essence. If you have an Xbox One, Halo 5:Guardians is well worth your time.
Final Say: Play It