Halo 5: Guardians Review – One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?

Halo has been a revolutionary in the FPS genre, being one of the first to execute the balance of a strong plot, multiplayer and gunplay very well. What Bungie started back in 1999 has swelled to massive proportions, spanning books, TV series and short films today. 343 Industries took up the mantle from where Bungie left off with the launch of Halo 4 in 2012, which received generally positive reviews for the single player but was panned for its multiplayer. Then came the Master Chief Collection, a seemingly straightforward package of Halos 1 to 4 for the Xbox One, but it turned out to be a technical comedy of errors. With Halo 5: Guardians, the majority of the flaws of the previous games have been fixed, but new and more pressing ones have sprung up in its place. The question is, which ones are dealbreakers for you?


Introduction

The evolution of Master Chief from Halo 1 to Halo 5
The evolution of Master Chief from Halo 1 to Halo 5 | Lyricalthunder, Reddit

Halo has been an absolutely massive part of my life, ever since I discovered the joys of trundling along on Blood Gulch in Halo: CE’s Trial for the PC. Like many others, the presence of Halo on the platform influenced my decision to purchase an Xbox 360 over the Playstation 3. The love for it compelled me to purchase and read all the books, trawl through Halopedia for information about the Halo universe, and in 2012 purchase the Limited Edition for Halo 4.

I greatly enjoyed Halo 4, for it introduced a dynamic in the story of Master Chief and Cortana that we had not seen beforehand. It also had many improvements from Halo 3, though its multiplayer was rightly slated for straying too far from its roots. It is for this reason I was hugely excited for Halo 5: Guardians, an excitement fueled further when finding out that the legendary Blue Team were going to be present, and the artificial reality game ‘Hunt the Truth’.

How did Halo 5 stack up to expectations? Let’s find out.

Gameplay

Fireteam Osiris - (From left) Tanka, Vale, Locke and Buck
Fireteam Osiris – (From left) Tanaka, Vale, Locke and Buck

Halos 1 to 4 have always seen the majority of the Master Chief focused missions be solo gigs. Sometimes you got the assistance of Marines, Spartan-IVs and Elites but they were just there for brief periods. As such, the games were designed for solo play. Even Halo: Reach, which featured the new Spartan-III fireteam Noble, seemed true to the spirit of satisfying solo play.

Halo 5, instead, seems to be tailored for co-operative play. Difficulty has been ramped up – Legendary isn’t as easy as it used to be – presumably due to the inclusion of the presence of Osiris or Blue Team in any given mission. It is assumed that this inclusion would make the game easier for the player, and it would, if the NPCs had any semblance of sense.

Don't expect this kind of help on the higher difficulties though
Don’t expect this kind of help on the higher difficulties though

There are many plus points on paper that would make the game greatly more enjoyable – you can call out specific targets on the battlefield for your team to target, you can highlight specific points for your team to move up to, and upon getting struck down you do not immediately die, but have a brief period of time where you can be revived by your teammates. This works perfectly fine on the Easy and Normal difficulties, but come to Heroic and Legendary, attempts to use this would simply end up in hair-tearing frustration due to the sheer stupidity of the AI.

Your teammates tend to forget the fact they have ranged weapons, and attempt to target enemies far away by charging up to them – attempts that always end in your teammates’ deaths. Sometimes they choose convoluted paths to come to your aid for revival, either not reaching your prone form in time or ending up dying themselves.

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The character and loadout selection screen | Windows Central

The story is much, much different when playing co-operatively. The ability to pick out individual targets, designate holding points and the revival mechanism make Halo flow much more smoothly and add a touch of much needed in-universe realism to it. Furthermore, the four different characters in each mission mean four different loadouts, perfect for balancing a fireteam and allowing each player to play to his or her strengths.

The difficulty also scales well – Legendary four player is not four times easier than solo Legendary, but is equally (if not more) challenging. Not only that, a death is greatly punishing – whether it is rightly so, or excessive is up to you to decide – but respawn times usually numbered around 30 seconds.

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Ground Pound isn’t always useful, but is devastating when used correctly | The Verge

If you are a solo player, though, you can ignore the presence of your teammates and the game is still hugely fun. Guns feel powerful and satisfying to fire, weapons that needed them have got the appropriate buffs (Storm Rifle) and nerfs (Boltshot), and the new movement mechanisms are much more fluid. The dash ability is included by default, as is a charging melee move and “Ground Pound” which is right out of a Marvel fantasy. Also removed are the armour abilities we saw introduced in Halo: Reach, which is a welcome addition for multiplayer but is slightly confusing to see the UNSC and Covenant stop using them in terms of a lore explanation.

Sprinting is also present by default as it was in Halo 4, but now your shields do not recharge while doing so, adding to the challenge. While sprinting, you can also press crouch to enable the new slide mechanic to scurry from cover to cover under fire. Chest-high walls are no longer a hindrance to progress, with the new clamber mechanism which makes much more sense. The new, included-by-default thruster pack also allows you to hover in place when scoped in which is useful in sniping enemies hiding behind walls at a distance.

The Assault Rifle, like many weapons, is pretty powerful now
The Assault Rifle and many other weapons are pretty powerful now | Halo Waypoint Forums

Speaking of scoping in, Halo 5 has finally introduced ‘iron sights’ for all guns, called Smart Scope. It is a great additions that increases the usefulness of many weapons, while leaving classic marksman weapons like the DMR, Battle Rifle and Sniper alone. Getting shot at while scoped now causes you to de-scope again, a welcome return which increases the challenge to snipe while making escaping from snipers easier.

We also see the inclusion of Forerunner enemies that can pilot (and hijack) vehicles, in the form of Soldiers that function much like the Knights in Halo 4. Knights are still present here in Halo 5, but they now have been upgraded to become extremely resilient save for three glowing orbs on their bodies that are their weak points. With these Soldiers now, we also finally see Forerunner vehicles – but only one – called the Phaeton (yes, like the Volkswagen sedan). The Phaeton is pretty much the Hornet from Halo 3 in Promethean form, but also with the movements from Halo: Reach’s Falcon.

The Volkswagen Promethean Phaeton
The Volkswagen Promethean Phaeton

Not everything in the gameplay is better, however. Boss battles are more frustrating than ever (especially playing solo) and defeating sub-boss-tier enemies such as Hunters and Knights can sometimes turn into long bullet sponge sessions, with victory often feeling uninspiring – just how many times has the concept of weak points been used in countless other games?

There is another catch to all the fancy improvements. Split-screen does not exist in Halo 5, so you and your friends better own an Xbox One each if you want to play together. Gone are the days when you could crash at your friend’s house and spend hours whooping and killing on-screen right next to each other. This is a feature that will sorely be missed, though there is a chance it may return in future games.

Gameplay-wise, then, Halo 5 is a massive improvement over Halo 4 and will certainly draw in many players back into the fold after the poor Halo 4 multiplayer and the Master Chief Collection fiasco. But how is Halo 5’s campaign?

Plot and Character Development

Mild Halo 4 spoilers ahead.

Storytelling has always been a major part of the game for Halo, much more so than almost all other FPS franchises. World-building, has generally been the focus of the Halo games, but with Halo 4, 343i felt (rightly so, in my opinion) to bring the character development from the books into the games. The Forerunners were finally brought out from the shadows of the past, thrust into the forefront of the conflict just as the UNSC was gathering its wits after the devastating Human-Covenant war. The concept of the geas, Janus keys, Prometheans and all that harkened back to the ancient human civilisation’s war with the Forerunners was very greatly developed in the fourth Master Chief game.

All that was dumped out of the airlock for Halo 5. It is still not certain if these themes are going to be featured again in the following Halo games, or will simply be retconned into the past, but these themes on which Halo 4 (and countless other Halo media) had built upon were nowhere to be seen in Halo 5.

Nothing new for Buck - the opening cinematic has Fireteam Osiris frolicking through a battlefield
Nothing new for Buck – the opening cinematic has Fireteam Osiris freefalling and frolicking through a battlefield

What we do see in Halo 5 are massive set pieces worthy of a place in Marvel’s superhero movies – right from the very first cutscene where you are reminded more of Age of Ultron rather than Halo, with Fireteam Osiris quite literally flying through a battlefield. While it is nice to see and makes the important distinction in tactical decisions between the Spartan-IIs and Spartan-IVs, it ultimately ends up unable to hide the holes that the game’s storyline has. Most of what we saw in Halo 4 is curiously missing.

Not all of the Halo 5 themes have been spaced, though, with the rampancy (and eventual death of Cortana) still a focus of the story. Without going far too much into spoilers for the game, it is suffice to say that while this is the main crux of Halo 5, it is far too little to hold up the story with.

Superficiality seems to be far too common a presence in Halo 5. The motivations behind character decisions are ultimately hugely underwhelming, with the constant feeling of “Surely there is more to it than simply XYZ?” Even plot points introduced in this game itself are just left up in the air, with nothing but questions for the player at the end of it all. Now this could have been somewhat excusable if there was a larger, more compelling plot that bound the story together and drew the player in but there was not.

Warden Eternal
Warden Eternal

This egregious issue of explaining nothing is hugely grating to someone who expects a level of storytelling greater than Call of Duty’s cookie-cutter formulae. There is no explanation given regarding the identity or genesis of a rather major character, Warden Eternal, except in an offhand comment spoken in passing. The function of the Guardians seems to simply be Halo’s version of the Death Star, but with even less information other than they can travel through slipspace. Nothing on how they work, or how they were used millennia ago. If you have not read the Forerunner trilogy books by Greg Bear, the Domain is simply another proper noun to pass into one ear of the player and out of the other.

Characters too are hugely wasted in the game. Not one, not two but three (and perhaps even more depending on how harshly you judge the writing) characters from Halo 3 and 4 are certainly present in Halo 5, but do absolutely nothing except some bursts of walking-talking exposition. Even the presence of Blue Team, an absolutely huge addition for lore-hungry fans like myself seemed to be simply paying lip-service to their name. The dynamic shown in the books is only hinted at, with nothing of the sort being present in the game itself. So poor is the structuring of the plot, is that it genuinely feels that Halo 5 could very well have been a solo Master Chief game rather than have included Blue Team at all.

Even the newly introduced characters of Fireteam Osiris are flatter than a one-dimensional pancake, and the dialogue between them feels forced at times. Feeble attempts at telling (not showing) their backstories are made, but they fall well flat of the mark, being insipid and uninspiring. Locke’s poor characterisation in Halo: Nightfall does not help either.

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Blue Team – (From left) Linda, John, Kelly and Fred

Not only that, the Halo 2: Anniversary cutscenes we saw with the Arbiter and Locke are not only missing but that story arc seems to have been completely discarded. “Hunt the Truth”, the artificial reality game (ARG) created to drum up hype for Halo 5 also barely makes any appearances and ends up being more suspenseful than the actual storyline itself. A possible reason for this could be the departure of Halo 4’s chief writer, Chris Schlerf, to Bioware. He was replaced by Brian Reed, who worked on Halo 4’s Spartan Ops and the comic series Halo: Escalation – both of which were panned for their writing – and on a multitude of Marvel comics. It is perhaps due to this reason, that we have seen a shift from the great emotional aspect we saw in Halo 4 to this Michael Bay-esque plot here in Halo 5.

It is not entirely doom and gloom, however. The story, terrible as it might have been in this game, has set up an excellent stage for future games to continue on with. Some of the characters in the game also have some nice dialogue, and drop some tidbits of information that are actually much more important than the game lets on. Certainly, if you are coming into Halo 5 simply having read the synopsis of the previous games and treat it as a standard FPS game, the story is actually pretty damn good, for it has incredible amounts of potential and hints at much bigger machinations.

A Guardian in Halo 5
A Guardian in Halo 5

However, to veteran Halo fans this is a very disappointing entry in the series. Hints are not enough to satisfy them, and the pacing is far too rushed to allow players to catch up. In every single Halo game there has been a large, overarching threat with minor challenges in the way. Halo 5, too, has the large threat but it is only talked about, and has too little of an explanation. The challenges in the way are also too hollow to be considered substantial, and it seems that the writing team has fallen into the primary school trap of telling instead of showing.

One thing is for sure – if you’re like me and play Halo games mainly for the story, you’re honestly better off watching a Let’s Play series on YouTube. However if you’re willing to make some (rather sizable) concessions or are simply looking for some light single-player fun, then you will be at the very least satisfied by the story. But what if multiplayer is your cup of tea? Well, read on to find out more.

Multiplayer

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Now this is Halo. May it be a 2015 AAA title, released under 343 Industries and not Bungie, and is on the Xbox One not the 360, but this is pure, classic, Halo. Gone are the pesky influences from Call of Duty and Battlefield we have been seeing in Halo: Reach and Halo 4, and back is the core of a very strong shooter with a level playing field.

Regardless of the game-type, all players spawn with the same weapons as each other – usually a mix of the standard Assault Rifle, Battle Rifle and Magnum. And boy, do you get kills much quicker now that the insanely powerful shield systems have been toned down a notch. Four Battle Rifle or three DMR shots to the head are enough to down you, making Halo’s multiplayer gameplay much more fast paced and skill-based than it was before.

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The quicker time-to-kill does mean you will sometimes get attacked from the behind and have no recourse, but play for long enough and you will get out of the groove of Call of Duty and Titanfall, and into the groove this game. Given a certain skill level, you can definitely walk away from an engagement having fired the second shot (maybe George Lucas was onto something there…). But make no mistake, when players get good in this game, they’re good. This scale back to original Halo multiplayer style has certainly made it easier for new players to the franchise to join in and have fun, but the skill ceiling has been raised significantly that one needs a fair amount of practice to consistently place top.

The various multiplayer game modes
The various multiplayer game modes

Now, given the horrendous thing that was the Master Chief Collection matchmaking, it would not be remiss to be wary of a similar situation in Halo 5. Then, players were locked out of the multiplayer for weeks with no response from the developers due to its crippling connection issues. Good news is, matchmaking issues are few and far between. While there were times where I ended up playing 4 v 2 or 8 v 5, most of the time matchmaking created level teams both in terms of numbers and skill.

The use of dedicated servers, while welcome in reducing lag and removing a host advantage, is mostly good news (compared to previous use of peer-to-peer connection). Still, a server browser with user hosted servers would definitely have been a better option, and would have increased the longevity of the game further (Halo: CE multiplayer is still going strong).

Customisations in Halo 5 are great
Customisations in Halo 5 are great

One definite drawback is the switch from armour linked scopes only on certain weapons to the Smart Scope system in Halo 5. While it is extremely useful in campaign, and to an extent in Warzone, in classic Arena mode you quickly figure out that if you wish to survive, you have got to shoot from the hip. This somewhat nullifies the advantage you got using marksman weapons in close quarters combat (CQC), but with the quicker pace of Halo 5 you hardly feel the need to scope in. It’s simply a habit to be shorn of.

By returning to the roots of its multiplayer experience, namely in following the strengths of Halo 3 (e.g. active camouflage and overshield as map pickups), 343 Industries have given us the best Halo multiplayer in eight years. With the graphical and performance improvements, new gameplay mechanics and a whole new platform, this is a multiplayer offering I can see myself playing for years to come.

Warzone

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Warzone is chaotic, but immeasurably fun | Engadget

Warzone is easily one of the greatest changes to Halo’s multiplayer offerings, ever. It is best described as the brainchild of “Firefight” and “Big Team Battle” (i.e. an all-out shoot fest featuring every fathomable Halo gadgetry known to mankind). It was marketed under the tagline, “You versus Everything”, and just like most things in Halo 5, that’s not actually what you do. What you do experience, however, is certainly deserving of the heaps of accolades the game earned.

Basically, Warzone is an objective game mode. Your team of 12 Spartans needs 1000 points to win, translating to about 30 minutes of all-out mayhem. You earn points in three ways: capturing and holding bases, killing enemy Spartans, and taking out AI-controlled Bosses or Legendaries. There is technically a second way to win, which is to hold all three bases at once such that the enemy team’s HQ shields are down, allowing you to destroy their core. However, this rarely ever happens; and when it does, the game is usually swung so heavily in a team’s favour you’d wish it ended.

What does this mean for the average player? Basically, you get treated to one of three awesome opening cutscenes every time a match begins, where 12 gun-toting Spartans enter the HQ and clear it of AI influence (either Covenant or Promethean). There are marines which assist you, but they’re pretty much ‘Grunts’ you’d more or less ignore. Then, your HQ’s defenses open and each team captures the base nearest to their HQ. You do this simply by eliminating all enemy influence, and then staying in the base long enough to capture it.

You get to see this charming guy again
You get to see this charming guy again

Then, all hell breaks loose. Spartans on both sides will clamour for the base in the middle, resulting in a lot of CQC and sniping from afar. Throughout this battling, players can attempt to grab other bases, go after spawning AI bosses (usually dispatched and dispensed with within 10 seconds), or simply join in what is essentially Team Slayer.

As a below average Halo player myself, I can vouch that the hubbub of activity means you feel constantly immersed in action, that every little bit you do contributes in some way to your team’s overall victory, and that there are ways to contribute even if you can’t handle a direct firefight (like capturing a base or being a nuisance so your team mates can take someone out).  More proficient players, by contrast, might feel irked by the low weight given to “Spartan Kills”, basically killing the enemy players. Stringing up long kill chains without capturing bases or tackling tough AI is not the way to win Warzone, and it might lead some to conclude that a lone soldier can hardly influence the outcome of the battle.

Some of the REQ classes | iDigitaltimes
The seven REQ classes | iDigitaltimes

This is why 343’s REQ system saves the day. While confusing at first, REQ points are essentially Halo 5’s virtual currency. You can earn this from all multiplayer game modes, not just Warzone, except Co-op Campaign. REQ points are needed to buy REQ packs, which come in the Bronze, Silver, and Gold variety, and they are the only way to unlock new Armour pieces in Halo 5.

Yes, that’s right. Assassination styles, visor colours, helmets, chest pieces, and everything else that has been the mainstay of Spartan customization since Halo 3 come from REQ packs. It’s not a problem as the system is generous enough to grant a steady stream of REQ points, and you do get variety. However, the real deal with REQ packs is the power weapons and vehicles it unlocks in Warzone. So, yes the game wants you to play Warzone and thankfully so. REQs are saviours to low-skilled players like me. By buying the Silver and Gold packs, you gain access to Sniper Rifles, Scorpions, and even Mantises that you can call down at will in Warzone.

You can also customise your assassinations now
You can customise your assassinations now

Before you scream “imbalanced”, “micro-transactions”, or “chaos”, that bit about raining hellfire at will needs to be explained some more; the Big Guns can’t just be hailed willy-nilly. Each REQ has a level associated with it that unlocks only at the later stages of the game. For instance, a Scorpion is a level 5 REQ that only unlocks at a late stage of a Warzone game where your team unlocks level 5 REQs. On top of that, when you call down a Scorpion, you use up that REQ card in your inventory and 5 REQ energy points. So, if your scorpion gets driven off the map, you need to wait until you gain 5 energy points (read: a long time) before you can call one down again. This helps the game stay balanced, rewarding skill not cash. After all, you can always hijack an enemy’s hard-earned REQ.

Red and Blue will team up together quite often in Warzone
Red and Blue will ‘team up’ together quite often in Warzone

TL;DR? Warzone is a complicated but not confusing game mode which is simply awesome fun. If you have 20 minutes to sink into a single Halo game, you’d love the variety of options to charge towards victory. Your main battles involve you and enemy spartans, while enemy Marines and Covenant/Prometheans provide for fun distractions. AI Bosses, like the infamous Warden Eternal, however, are worth 150 points, which is 15% of the entire number of points you need to win (read: a game-changing number). At times, it seems the game unfairly rewards the team that fortuitously gets the last shot. However, the game usually rightfully credits the team that works the hardest, rendering this frustration moot.

A more pertinent bugbear, though, would be that REQs progress faster for teams in the lead, accentuating inequality as they gain access to the power weapons first. 343 needs to fix this, but I can’t help but think it’s a sadly accurate reflection of life. Good thing we’re just here trying to get a bit of fun, something Warzone certainly delivers in spades.

Performance and Graphics

Yeah, not pretty
The price you pay for 60 FPS… worth it?

Halo 5 is the first of the new Reclaimer saga on the Xbox One, a system that is already known to be weaker than the Playstation 4, not to mention nearly half a decade behind in PC development. What Halo 4 managed on the Xbox 360 was to squeeze every last drop of processing power from the console to keep itself looking pretty, but often at the expense of frame rate. It was with trepidation, then, I awaited Halo 5 after 343i’s announcement of favouring a constant 60 FPS with dynamically scaling resolution (with a maximum of 1080p).

Thankfully, character models are untouched and still gorgeous. The art style has received a slight tweak to make the Spartans feel more like the tanks they are supposed to be, rather than generic soldiers. However environment textures and resolution take large hit throughout the game to maintain the 60 FPS target.

Yeah... not pretty
Yeah… not pretty

Another quirk I noticed in the game was that turning your face away from any character addressing you saw their volume drop over a sharp gradient, with a 90 degree orientation away from them causing absolutely no audio to play through. This made hardly any sense, since the MJOLNIR microphones should be multi-directional, should they not?

Nevertheless, finally being able to keep a consistent 60 FPS is a godsend, and extremely important in a competitive title. The smooth motions are what every FPS requires, and finally, Halo has achieved it. The largest advantage you see is in multiplayer, where the constant 60 FPS allows you to aim far better than before. However, given the fact that the Xbox One, like all consoles, is a closed system with a far too long lifespan, we’re not going to be seeing much improvements in the graphical department going onward if we are to keep 60 FPS in the future.

Conclusion

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The eight main characters in the game

So what is Halo 5 then – a rip-roaring return to classic Halo multiplayer or a bumbling mess of a story? It is both, to be frank and to me it is far from worth $70 for a campaign and multiplayer combination where the campaign part might as well have been an hour long cutscene.

Who is it for then? Certainly, if the campaign is the side-show for you, it is a must-buy. Halo multiplayer finally feels like how it should have always been, but now with updated visuals and in 60 FPS. Games are extremely fun now that everyone starts off on the same page, and the skill ceiling is sufficiently high. However if you’re a lore-nerd like I am or on the fence, then you’d be better off investing your time and money elsewhere.

Can Halo’s story be saved? Certainly. It is shaping up to become an absolutely exciting conclusion to the Reclaimer saga with the upcoming games, but it remains to be seen how the writing is like. If the team returns to a style like was seen in Halo 4, and keeps the multiplayer core intact from where it is now then I have no doubt the next Halos will be the massive blockbusters like they used to be. But stay with the current Marvel-esque style and they may just end up losing the sizeable chunk of fans that adore the series’ story.

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