343 Industries took a lot of risks with Halo 5: Guardians. Tampering with the fundamentals of a series as respected and beloved as Halo could be disastrous, but the Microsoft-created studio went ahead and did it anyway. Considering Halo 4 divided the fan base and caused many to worry that the franchise might be in the wrong hands, you would think the next step would be to give the fans exactly what they want – exactly what they've always known. But that's not what's been done. Instead, 343 has gone ahead and given us what we didn't know we wanted. And we're really glad they did.
The best way to sum up Halo 5 is "combat evolved." Spartans now move like we've always imagined – in an athletic and authoritative way. The addition of Spartan abilities has created many new gameplay possibilities. You can now clamber up ledges, thrust a few feet in any direction, temporarily suspend in air while zooming, perform a charged melee attack, and slam into the ground from an aerial position. And with a few fundamental changes – unlimited sprint, scopes for every gun, left trigger / right trigger shooting mechanics – this is the snappiest and most mobility-focused Halo yet.
But don't worry – Halo 5 still feels like Halo in nearly every way.
These changes permeate the entirety of the game, and they elevate every mode, new and old. Even returning multiplayer game types feel revitalized. It may take some practice to adjust to the button configuration, but it will become second nature before long. Thrusting out of the way of a sword attack or barreling down on an unsuspecting opponent is immensely satisfying, and it's already hard to imagine Halo any other way. But there's a part of the game that struggles a bit despite these new additions: the campaign.
The first few campaign missions are impressive; the new Spartan abilities are put to good use, the technical prowess and superb art direction are on full display, and the orchestral score adds extra oomph to the combat scenarios. Straight out of the gate we're made aware that this is a bigger, fresher, and more expensive version of Halo, and the thought of what could be coming around the next bend adds to the impact.
The problem is, the campaign has shown most of its hand by this point. Majority of what follows repeats the same formula from the first handful of missions and throws the exact same enemies in your face over and over again. In Halo 4, for example, the slow-burn introduction to the Prometheans caused us to move with trepidation and devise new gameplay strategies, and the face-to-face between The Didact and Master Chief put a clear villain front and center so you knew what you were up against going forward. Halo 5 doesn't really have any of that going for it. There are a couple Promethean enemy variations that can only be eliminated with well-placed shots, but it's not really anything we haven't seen before – it's similar to the way Destiny's enemies have weak points.
There's a point in the campaign where Blue Team (Chief's squad of Spartans) winds up in a stunning jungle-like environment on a Forerunner planet. As we pushed forth, we kept hoping we'd come across some sort of indigenous species with hostile intent – something intimidating to keep us on our toes – but it never happened. There is a Promethean boss that makes his appearance here, but other than being exceedingly powerful, his appearance isn't far off from a Knight. Even something as simple as being attacked by a flock of the flying creatures that soar overhead at the beginning of the mission would've went a long way. Sadly, the enemy predictability can make things feel routine far too often.
In a way, it's the manner in which the terrain is laid out that helps to make up for the familiar enemy encounters. Thanks to the clamber and charge abilities, the landscape is riddled with changes in elevation and optional pathways. It's an intricate level design like we've never seen in a Halo game, and it provides vantage points and/or flanking routes in most combat scenarios. For this reason, along with the Spartan abilities, gunplay is more dynamic than ever.
When playing solo, the inclusion of AI Spartan teammates yields mixed results. At times, these soldiers can be utterly useless – not obeying basic commands or regularly approaching firefights in a casual manner. Then, when we least expected it, they would eliminate the remainder of an enemy threat while we were on a short detour for intel. This implementation makes the most sense for online co-op, where your friends can jump in a match and play by your side. Unfortunately, there's no local split-screen, and we'd be lying if we said this omission didn't sting.
Warning: There are some minor plot spoilers in the next two paragraphs.
Bouncing between the perspective of Spartan Locke and Master Chief actually works fine, but, despite what the advertising campaign might have led you to believe, it isn't harnessed to create mass levels of tension, mystery, and drama between the leads; Chief and Blue Team aren't committing unthinkable acts in the public spotlight as shown in the commercials. Instead, Chief defied a simple order to return home and decided he would pursue a transmission that appeared to be from Cortana. Because the UNSC is concerned that Chief might not be capable of thinking straight if proposed with a tough choice, Fireteam Osiris (Locke's team) are then sent to stop Chief from getting to his destination. Chief is hardly painted as a traitor and Locke's ego isn't exactly getting the best of him. Regardless of what the advertising campaign suggests, this narrative angle just isn't as impactful or emotional as it could've – and probably should've –been.
Even though the campaign lasts just seven hours and ends on a massive cliffhanger – similar to Halo 2 – we were satisfied with the final revelation and the ramifications it will have for Halo 6. And despite our issues with the premise, there are many intriguing plot developments and abundantly cool cinematics throughout the course of the game. We'd still take the intimate Cortana/Chief story of Halo 4 any day, but the campaign does end up in a compelling place by its final stretch.
As a whole, the campaign is enjoyable but familiar. It's clear that 343 has altered its approach in response to the criticisms of Halo 4, and that should be commended. The studio is on the right path when it comes to Spartan abilities, level design, and the spectacle that comes with the presentation and plot, but new enemies, surprising locations, and memorable gameplay scenarios need to receive special attention next time around. The narrative could also use more focus and a bit more heart.
Online multiplayer, on the other hand, is thoroughly exceptional. After the botched release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, it's relieving to see 343 take multiplayer to the next level without any technical or logistical issues getting in the way. The dedicated servers have been reliable, matchmaking has been snappy, and we haven't experienced a hint of lag. Literally, we have zero complaints on the matter.
Since its unveiling at this year's E3, Warzone has been touted as the most ambitious multiplayer mode in the history of Halo, and we'd say that's accurate. This mode puts two teams of 12 in a massive map and has them fighting for territory. But it's not that simple. There are AI enemies, bots, and bosses that enter the landscape, creating a battlefield that feels dynamic. Earning a win comes one of two ways: Your team can either reach 1,000 points by shooting up as many hostiles as possible, or you can capture all bases in the map, expose the power core in the enemy base, and blow it the heck up. It's an amalgamation of game types, and it's chaotic, action-packed, and as fun as advertised.
The REQ System (short for Requisitions) is an important cog in the Warzone machine. These in-game cards are used during a match to summon better weapons, vehicles, and status effects. Your performance on the battlefield dictates how many points you can spend on a card, and this keeps players from using their best cards whenever they want. There are always going to be scenarios where someone else has a much better weapon or vehicle than you, and there are also going to be plenty of scenarios where you're the one with the advantage. So while it may not appear to be balanced at first glance, it actually is. It works. It's fun. And we haven't come across any situations where we felt we couldn't match the incoming chaos with an equal-sized dose of chaos.
REQ Packs also contain permanent customization unlocks that allow you to alter the look of your Spartan – these carry over to Arena since they're cosmetic only. From helmets to armor, weapon skins to assassination stances, there's a ton to unlock. It's a good thing, then, that REQ Packs are awarded frequently for leveling up and hitting new milestones; the currency that you earn for general activity is also a method of accessing these card packs. You can spend actual money stockpiling REQ Packs if you desire, but the REQ System does a great job avoiding any pay-to-win scenarios. Besides, we obtained REQ Packs organically throughout our review sessions and never ran out great cards to aid us in the midst of battle.
Arena makes up the other portion of multiplayer, and it contains a number of new and old game types: SWAT, Slayer, Capture the Flag, Free-For-All are joined by Breakout and Strongholds. This is where you come if you want a more straightforward and grounded competitive experience. Even returning game types have been reinvigorated due to the new mechanics. The only playlist we found problematic was Free-For-All. Because some of the maps are quite small, it's not uncommon to spawn within proximity of an opponent and absorb half a clip before your crosshairs have uncovered their position. Otherwise, Arena offers plenty of variety and the most even playfield in the game.
Some people might be disappointed to find that Halo 5: Guardians doesn't yet offer any Big Team Battles – this mode is said to arrive post-release. Warzone isn't far off from the feel of BTB, but it's not quite the same thing. When it comes to Arena, maps are tight and controlled – hosting a total of eight players – and there's no sign of vehicles. For our money, Warzone is a more-than-worthy substitute for the time being, but we know everyone won't feel the same. Those with the creative itch might also be saddened to learn that Forge won't be available until December.
The important thing is that Halo 5 still feels like a complete game without BTB and Forge. While we might be bothered if there were no plans to include these modes in the future, that's not how it is. With a big-budget multiplayer shooter, free post-release content updates – much like how Nintendo has handled Splatoon – serve to keep the community engaged and active, and there's more than enough to keep busy with until Forge, BTB, and new maps become available.
Graphically and technically, Halo 5 screams "massive budget" from the campaign's opening cinematic and first mission. The game runs at a steady 60 frames-per-second while pushing the limits of the Xbox One hardware – wait until you see the enormous Guardians towering overhead. The art direction is simply incredible, and the contrasting color palettes, lighting, and particle effects ensure a visually-stimulating ride that's practically unrivaled on Xbox One. But it's not all good; texture and foliage draw-in is prominent at times, both in campaign and multiplayer, and it can be distracting. These are minor blemishes in the grand scheme of things, but they're blemishes nonetheless.
A very special mention needs to go to the audio design, which is out of this world. There's so much action going on – guns firing, Spartans yelling, music thumping – that, with a surround-sound setup or quality headphones, the audio utterly consumes you. It's truly phenomenal stuff. The first song in the campaign, "Light Is Green," which plays during the opening cinematic, had the hair on our arms standing upright by the time the title screen had flashed. The only audio-specific complaint we have is that the volume of the intel logs can easily get lost in the mix when there's voice over or nearby action, which is often. But since these logs can be accessed from the menu at any time, where there's no intruding commotion, it's a complaint that's easy to brush off.
With reinvigorated mechanics, Halo 5: Guardians ushers the series into a new era with confidence. The core gameplay has never been better and more involving, and it benefits all areas of the package. While the multiplayer components are the best since Halo 3, the campaign disappoints in a few key areas. It's still enjoyable and exciting on the whole, but it lacks the narrative concentration and the memorable gameplay scenarios to stand neck and neck with the best entries in the series. Halo 5: Guardians still gets a massive recommendation from us for many reasons, though there's certainly room for 343 Industries to improve and evolve the campaign formula next time around.