Halo 5: Guardians Review
Iconic shooter franchise makes its Xbox One debut
Halo 4, the first game from the new developers of the franchise at 343 Industries, may not have featured any groundbreaking additions or revamps the ever-popular FPS franchise. But it was nonetheless a triumphant entry in the Xbox-exclusive saga, offering updated gameplay, an enjoyable campaign, and strong multiplayer. Three years later, the developers are back with their sophomore effort in Halo 5: Guardians, and it's also the debut of Halo on the Xbox One. The pressure is on, not only to continue evolving the franchise into their own vision, but to deliver a system-selling shooter for Microsoft's new console this Holiday season.
Similarly to Halo 2, the narrative in Halo 5 follows two different perspectives. At the outset of the game, the Spartan hero John-117, that everyone knows as Master Chief, receives a mysteries message from Cortana. If you recall, at the end of Halo 4 she sacrificed herself to defeat the greater threat and her fate was unknown. Upon seeing a vision of his companion AI, Master Chief immediately takes off to follow a trail of clues left for him. He is joined by his long-time Spartan-II unit Blue Team, consisting of Kelly-087, Fred-104 and Linda-058. This chase to find the truth apparently does not go over well with UNSC, who believe that Cortana may be up to no good. It's a bit of a silly motivation - surely the UNSC can let Master Chief (the man who saved the whole galaxy a few times now) follow a lead on his own. So they in turn send Jameson Locke and his Fireteam Osiris, which includes Spartans Edward Buck, Holly Tanaka and Olympia Vale, to bring Blue Team back.
During the course of the 6 hour campaign, as the Blue Team continues to follow Cortana's clues, Osiris is always not far behind, but the two rarely meet. Narratively, it's difficult to get behind Locke's subservience; we also know little about this character even though we spend most of the game with his team. It gets a little more complicated than that, of course, but the story in Halo 5 never quite feels deep or involving. Locke lacks a proper introduction for someone that shares the spotlight with Master Chief - he only appeared as a minor character in the past. Compared to Halo 4 - where we got introduced to the new Promethean alien race, had to stop their plans for dominating the universe, all while dealing with Cortana's personal struggles - the new campaign is just a chase to the final destination. And without resorting to spoilers, it must be said that Cortana once again takes somewhat of a central role in the game, though her motivations are a sci-fi cliché you've seen many times before - including in the original trilogy. At least this is likely the largest cast in any Halo game to date, and though the story mostly focuses on three or four characters, there is some variety. Fans that have followed the Halo lore heavily - such as the TV series, books, and so on - will get a little bit more enjoyment out of the campaign; but by and large, this is a step down from Halo 4. It all ends on a post-credits anticlimactic cliffhanger.
Perhaps part of the reason the campaign feels so generic is due to the focus on cooperative play. Whether you play as Blue Team or Osiris, you'll always be accompanied by the whole Fireteam. This means the campaign can't afford to have any personal or claustrophobic moments, because you know there are three more Spartans always behind you. As you move from one enemy-filled area to another, most of the levels don't offer anything unique. You visit different planets and there are a couple of very cool sections, but for the most part, you're just shooting your way through hordes of enemies in semi-open environments of a different color. Again, this works great for cooperative campaign play, as everyone has lots of weapon racks to choose from and enemies to pick out. The co-op is up to four players, but it is only online; Halo 4's split screen option is gone. Further, there's unfortunately no matchmaking for co-op, so you best have friends or find some.
If you're stuck playing with bots, you'll often be frustrated by their uselessness. The only commands at your disposal are to attack a target, use a vehicle, or go to a certain location. If you happen to fall, they can hopefully revive you. But beyond that, they aren't very good at dealing damage, and mostly hang back from the fight. If you're aiming for higher difficulties, playing with friendly AI is ill-advised. But these problems extend to the enemies as well - we saw many cases of enemies getting stuck, and pathfinding seems like a problem for all involved. One of the boss battles (which, by the way, are very uninspired and feature the same enemy each time) was easily beaten because apparently he could not attack a small platform located barely above ground.
You'll be fighting against many familiar enemies from Halo 4, using much of the same weaponry. What was once innovative - the Promethean weapons and foes - is now cannon fodder just like the Covenant. Some of the weapons have undergone functional changes; such as going from ammo to battery charge, or increasing their overheat timing, but for the most part these weapons are functionally similar to what you've used in Halo 4. One new sweeping change that applies to all firearms is the addition of Smart Link, a zoom function. It's a nice change, though anytime you get hit your vision resets, which is often disorienting. On the whole, the shooting and aiming is as smooth as ever in a Halo game. It's a little disappointing, however, that there are no major differences between the playable characters.
The enemies are also familiar, with the only notable change being able to dispatch Promethean Knights by picking apart their weak spots. Promethean Watchers, the enemy that create a dynamic battlefield by stealing thrown grenades or providing shields for enemies, feel underutilized while Promethean Crawlers are abused to the point of swarming. The Prometheans also bring one new vehicle - a VTOL called Phaeton - but like most things in the Halo universe, it's a similar counterpart to the existing Banshee.
The campaign levels are mostly large areas with lots of elevation changes and new breakable surfaces that create flanking prospects. They also give you a chance to try out the new Spartan Abilities. Unlike the Armor Abilities in the past games that acted as pick-ups, the new Spartan Abilities can be used at any time and with no cooldown. You can dash in a number of directions by using the Thruster Pack, as well as climbing ledges even from mid-air. From sprint (which prevents shield regeneration), you can execute a bash attack to get through walls or enemies, or a slide. Finally, anytime you're in the air, you can manually aim and execute a ground slam. Also, if you use zoom while in the air, you'll get a bit more hang time to make the shots. These abilities do well to greatly expand the familiar Halo moveset, and create new traversal and combat opportunities.
These new moves translate directly into multiplayer, which is what many fans of the franchise will be clamoring to try. The online offerings are split into two areas - Arena and Warzone. The Arena game modes are the classic Halo fare - two teams of four go up against each other, trying to eliminate everyone or complete objectives. Modes available to the players are mostly the standard offering of Strongholds (king of the hill), Capture the Flag, Slayer and Team Slayer (deathmatch), and their variants such as SWAT. Another mode is called Breakout, where players try to win 5 rounds by either eliminating all enemies or taking the central flag to the enemy base. The modes don't offer anything groundbreaking, but it's all solid fun. And if you want something unique, the option of custom games is still there, letting you tweak and save any kind of experience you want. Forge is also supposed to be coming at some point post launch.