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.
New to Halo 5's multiplayer is the Competitive Skill Rating (CSR) system. Each player will need to complete 10 Arena matches before they are placed into one of seven skill divisions. The rank levels are Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Onyx, and Champion, and there are six levels within each. From there, the system will try to ensure that all your future Arena matches are well balanced, with similar player ranks. Controversially however, the only way to increase your rank is to win games, not by performing well individually. The developers hope this will put more emphasis on teamwork, but it's likely many players will find it frustrating, unable to advance to another rank because their team failed to perform. On a positive note, players that teamkill, go AFK, or disconnect frequently will be placed on cooldown timers to prevent constant abuse.
The big new introduction to multiplayer is the Warzone mode. It's the largest multiplayer mode ever for the franchise, featuring two teams with 12 players per side battling towards control of target locations. Controlling the majority of the strategic locations earns your team points, as you race to reach 1000 before the opposing team. If you control all points of the map, the enemy core device becomes vulnerable (as in Unreal Tournament), and the match can be ended by destroying it. All the while, the large map is populated by AIs as well, both friendly and enemy, as well as alien. You'll need to clear out the enemy AIs (and any players) before you can take control of a base. The Alien AI drop in during random points of the match, trying to cause havoc and offering a points bonus if you defeat an elite boss.
Warzone matches play out similarly to large-scale and longer lasting King of the Hill, with players throwing their collective forces around the map, taking and retaking objective structures, and having large scale firefights. Alongside the core Warzone experience, there's also a Base Assault variant. Here, the AI and Alien components are removed, and the match focuses on a one-way attack. Similar to Invasion mode from Halo Reach, the attacking team has a time limit to overwhelm the target location, before moving on to the next one, and eventually the enemy's power core. This mode feels more focused than Warzone because both teams have a single target to fight over, and it can result in more tense matches. Though it lacks the scale and player count, Warzone and Base Assault can be compared to Battlefield's Conquest and Rush modes.
Warzone is certainly the most chaotic and open mode that Halo has ever offered, with large maps and tons of enemies. However, you won't be seeing players swarm the battle with vehicles and rocket launchers, because everything in this mode is tied into the new REQ (requisition) points system. In order to gain access to power weapons, vehicles, and even ability enhancements, you need to call them in using a REQ card, similar to Titanfall. So if you want that sniper rifle or the Scorpion tank, you best have a card to use for its deployment. Anything found on the field of battle is fair game however, so be sure you're not knocked out of that Ghost.
To ensure that the Warzone matches are always balanced and escalate with time, each card has a REQ level. As the match progresses and you do well, your REQ level ceiling rises. So calling in a tank is only possible when you've reached a high enough level to match the card's rating. Subsequently, using that card drains you of Energy, and you must wait for it to refill before using another high level card; or you can use a lower level card as soon as you've got enough Energy. It's a very flexible system and allows players to decide on what call-ins work best in any specific match.
To get these one-time use REQ cards for Warzone item deployments, you buy REQ Card packs with REQ points. The points system is deeply rooted into Halo 5's multiplayer, as you earn these points for your performances during any match, be it Warzone or Arena. Once you've got enough, you can buy one of three packs of different value, which contain a number of items. Most commonly these items are Warzone deployment items that you want, but you can also get new visual customization items, or permanent unlocks such as new basic deployment weapons.
Earning REQ points feels well balanced. The best pack costs 10k points, containing rare and unlimited use cards, and this can be earned within an hour or two of play. And since the game limits players with the Energy and REQ Level systems, you can only use a few cards per match at most. You can sell cards you don't plan to use for a small points refund. However, it must be said that it's regrettable for the cosmetic drops to be included in the REQ system. You get weapon skins, armor, and other cosmetic customizations from REQ Card packs. The visual variety is actually quite notable, and it's easy to make your Spartan feel unique, along with a personalized badge and profile. However, because the rest of the REQ cards actually affect the outcome of Warzone, you'd want to get the best value for your REQ points by getting actual gameplay items, not a new helmet or weapon skin. The customization system is highly impressive, but we wish it wasn't tied into the REQ Card packs.
Being an Xbox exclusive has always meant that the Halo franchise could push the hardware of Microsoft's console to its limits, and Halo 5 tries to do so as well. The online connectivity was unblemished during our time with the game, as well as at launch when the public joined the fight. While matchmaking or loading the game, you can browse through your Spartan profile and make customization changes without a hitch. The game performs very well overall, though the graphical fidelity is a bit of a mixed bag. While the cutscenes look absolutely gorgeous and are very well directed, the lighting can be very realistic and the far reaching background scenes impress, most of the game is a little less remarkable. The game runs at a very steady 60 frames per second, regardless of the amount of action on screen, however there are some notable dips in texture quality - even on assets that players are meant to see up close, such as the pedestals with buttons on them for you to push during the campaign. The voice acting in the campaign is serviceable, not helped by lackluster writing. The soundtrack is of equally high quality, with an appropriately epic score that fits the sci-fi legacy of the franchise. Sadly most of the time it's drowned out by gunfire and dialog - or simply not used at all for some reason, such as during matchmaking, instead leaving you with ambient noise.
If Halo 4 was the big coming out party for new developer 343 Industries, than Halo 5 can be considered a continuation of that, sans the party hats. The successes that the developers achieved in Halo 4's campaign are mostly intact here, but that's about it. The story is a letdown, and though it can be played in co-op, there is no matchmaking. The gameplay remains as solid as ever though, with new moves and abilities that add further variety, even if the arsenal and vehicles remain largely the same. Your online options in Arena are stock standard, with new skill ratings and visual customization options that help expand the multiplayer experience. Warzone is a big new mode, and it plays well with the balanced REQ system. The game looks and performs great overall, albeit it won't threaten this year's frontrunners for best visuals. Halo 5: Guardians is a strong continuation of Halo 4 , and despite a disappointing campaign, the core gameplay and new multiplayer options make this Xbox One exclusive shooter worth checking out.