(Xbox One Review) Halo 5: Guardians

Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Action / First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-24
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Ryan Newman

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

The rocky release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection made for an unfortunate Xbox One debut for everyone’s favorite Spartan. Nearly a year has passed since then, and it seems as though lessons were learned, as the Chief returns to form in the series’ latest mainline release, Halo 5: Guardians. While not strong enough to overtake some of the fan favorites, 343 Industries’ newest entry does offer up some interesting and much-needed twists on the Halo formula. It’s time to get back into the fight.

Halo 5: Guardians is going to come as a bit of a surprise to those who haven’t been following its development or paying attention to the promotional materials leading up to its release. Instead of playing as the definitive Spartan, Master Chief, on a one-man crusade to save humanity, players will take on the role of both the Chief and Spartan Locke. This time around, the Chief has decided to go on a personal mission and Locke, along with Fireteam Osiris, have been sent out to compel 117 and his squad to return to duty. The game shifts perspectives as the timeline advances, with Osiris getting caught up in Covenant politics and galaxy-redefining events alongside Master Chief as the squad struggles to complete their mission.

The approach isn’t as drastic as it sounds. Unlike Halo 2, The Raiden Effect isn’t as drastic and there’s an easier transition between the groups due to the leaders’ many shared traits. Both have similar capabilities and characteristics. Their weaponry is from the same pool (UNSC issued and scavenged from the enemy), their suits have short-burst booster packs for dashing and shoulder slamming, they can access data pads for intel, and they can issue commands to their squad (e.g., heal me, attack target, take a vehicle). Their paths also cross, so they will be exploring the same locations, though often approaching from different areas. It also helps that Osiris is a likable group, with solid voice acting bringing their personalities to the fore with goofy banter and a believable sense of camaraderie, with the most notable being the voice of Nathan Fillion as Spartan Buck.

I can’t divulge too much about the story given some of the twists, but I will point out two broad items of note. The first is that the big hook of the game— that Master Chief is on the run—isn’t nearly as prominent as presented during the build-up. In fact, save for a brief conversation amongst the members of Osiris, it isn’t treated as big deal. All of the possible upheaval or dissention caused by taking action—any action—against 117 is swept under the rug. The story is also fairly by-the-numbers, without the grand scale of Halo, political intrigue of Halo 2, or mystery and intimacy of Halo 3: ODST. But then there is the other item of note, the ending. The final sequence stands in stark contrast to the rest of the story, offering an unexpected, course-changing twist that represents a sizable shift for the series. As irksome as cliffhangers can be, this one’s a doozy.

Inversely to the story, the level design starts off strong and gets weaker as Osiris catches up to Master Chief. The first two acts are comprised mostly of mid- to large-sized areas that offer at least one stout defensible position on an end opposite the oncoming enemy swarms. Not all of these set-pieces are equally well designed, but by and large, there are plenty of places to not only pilot vehicles, from the mighty Scorpion to the ridiculously fun Mantis mech suit, but also take advantage of the new abilities. Players can now climb on top of objects by jumping towards the ledge, with the character automatically grabbing on and pulling themselves up. There are plenty of boxes, cliffs, and overhangs with which to utilize the move, and it goes well with the dash ability: climb up a stack of boxes, then jump-dash over a gap to barely grasp a ledge. The dash can also be used with melee attacks to initiate a shoulder slam, and with jump to cause a ground pound. The ground pound isn’t terribly useful in single- or multiplayer, however, due to its slow start-up leaving the player vulnerable, but the shoulder slam works like a charm. The latter can also be utilized to break down weak walls to create side paths throughout many of the levels. These flanking walkways will often lead to pockets of surprised enemies, weapon caches, or offer circuitous routes that skip large portions of dangerous, exposed terrain.

The side paths and spacious combat zones are the best part about the campaign. Even if the area doesn’t offer as exciting a firefight as others, there’s generally something going on to supplement for thrills, such as massive action in the background or greater leeway for wheeled vehicles (sometimes a Spartan just needs to do donuts in a Warthog and fire wildly). The tighter, less-floaty controls also help to keep the more mundane encounters lively. Things change heading into the final act. The large areas are replaced by elongated and widened corridors that tend to blend together. As both squads make their way through the same areas, the level similarity is matched by similar encounters, turning the last chunk of the game into a lengthy slog. It’s a shame the final scenarios weren’t as bold as the ending.

After tackling Covenant and Promethean forces, it’s time to battle the wiliest faction: other players. Multiplayer has three primary modes which include Arena, Warzone, and Custom. Arena hosts a handful of playlists: slayer, free-for-all, team arena (a ‘best of’), breakout (single life), and swat (no shields or motion tracker, emphasis on headshots). Custom offers access to a few more, such as capture the flag, strongholds, shotty snipers, and neutral flag, which can be searched per map and by a variety of filters (shield recharge speed, damage resistance, etc.). However, the most notable addition is Warzone, which is comprised of Warzone and Warzone Assault. The basic premise is the same for both with two teams of 9-12 players facing off against one another on a sizable map to destroy the opponent’s base core; victory is also possible in Warzone by reaching 1,000 points. In a nice touch, well-meaning but not terribly deadly AI marines also guard the core. The main base is buffeted by surrounding buildings that can be captured by either side, and these turn into hot spots as players try to secure the defensive structures and their associated REQ stations. Warzone tosses in random assaults by the AI, with each defeated grunt and boss adding more to the victor’s points. Warzone Assault removes the random AI drops and tasks one team with taking multiple buildings in succession while the other attempts to stop them until a countdown timer reaches zero. Each taken building resets the timer as the assaulting force moves on to the next structure. Both modes are chaotic, exhilarating, and a lot of fun.

Warzone is closely linked with the new card-based Requisition System (REQ). Cards are attained by purchasing Bronze-, Silver-, or Gold-graded packs with real money or earned points. Bronze packs contain more common cards, while the pricier ones include more uncommon, rare, and legendary REQs, along with permanent unlocks. Duplicates can be kept or sold back in order to fund future purchases. Some cards offer purely cosmetic perks, such as gun skins or new pieces of armor, while others offer access to vehicles, weapons, and power-ups. All gameplay-associated Requisitions are based on a level tier system that gradually unlocks more powerful items as games progress. This makes for even more pandemonium in longer Warzone matches as players request streams of powerful weapons and vehicles. Seeing multiple Scorpions and Mantis suits blowing away Ghosts and Warthogs while players dart around boost all over the place is a sight I don’t see myself tiring of anytime soon. REQ points are earned in Arena as well, but their use is restricted to cosmetic cards.

If there is one negative to multiplayer, it’s that co-op is limited to online-friend only play. Local splitscreen co-op isn’t available, nor can players utilize matchmaking to work their way through a level with a stranger. Playing through the story with a stranger might not be for everyone, but having recently enjoyed my time doing just that in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, I hope to see matchmaking added down the line.

Halo 5: Guardians is a solid entry that doesn’t break the mold but manages to sufficiently shake things up. The campaign has some great new features, including additional combat moves and a focus on side routes, but it starts to creak towards the end, which is just when the story begins to pick up steam. That said, the tighter controls, ability to command a squad, and increased mobility adds a refreshing jolt to the core mechanics. Multiplayer has also performed well since release, with Warzone being every bit as over the top and fun as I had hoped, though local co-op and matchmaking for online co-op is sorely missed. The Requisition System will take time to adjust to fully, but it fits in well with the mayhem of the new modes and should keep Warzone exciting for quite a while.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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