A staple to the series, Halo 5: Guardians’ plot is built off one premise: humanity is faced with destruction on a galactic scale. And though we’ve seen this core premise game after game again, 343 Industries’ latest installment in the sci-fi shooter series brings with it changes that not only propel the franchise to unparalleled heights, but speak volumes to the studio’s aptitude to learn from past mistakes.
Set eight months after the events of Halo 4’s Spartan Ops, Halo 5: Guardians opens quite jarringly. The Master Chief is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we’re introduced to Fireteam Osiris as they’re debriefed on their mission to rescue the UNSC’s most wanted war criminal: Dr. Catherine Elizabeth Halsey. The galaxy’s outer colony worlds are threatened with total destruction and the UNSC believes the old doctor may know the source of such impending threats. As the fireteam plunges out of their Pelican dropship and into the fray against Covenant and Promethean forces, a significant gameplay change is discovered. Rather than tracking down your mission objectives with a band of completely faceless AI companions, your fireteam acts as a unified weapon; an extension of your own lethality. Issuing orders via a simple button click can have them picking up new weapons around the environment, concentrating their fire on a targeted enemy, or even moving their position to a ridge overlooking the battlefield as a means of flanking the enemy.
When playing solo, your fireteam is your weapon, but cooperative play is where the game is most enjoyable. Now with drop-in, drop-out Co-Op, players added to the game can choose between one of the remaining fireteam members and in the event they need to split earlier, the game will carry on as the AI takes control of their character. It’s all rather dandy playing with a group of friends, and it’s a cold shame local Co-Op was scrapped from the game for performance reasons.
This squad-based gameplay mechanic is a welcome addition to the series, though it’s not without its faults. When a Spartan takes too much damage, they will enter a downed state – much like the Borderlands games – and have a ten to fifteen second window before their inevitable death. When playing solo, the AI often times reacts poorly when their squad leader – that’s you – goes down in the middle of a giant skirmish. You can holler at them for a helping hand, but they’ll often time get downed themselves in the process of finding the optimal route to your position. Despite its slight annoyances, experience proved that the fireteam was more of help than a hindrance throughout the game’s fifteen mission long campaign.
What’s more, thanks to the new Spartan Abilities such as Thruster Packs, Clamber Jump, Spartan Charge, Ground Pound, and Smart Link, the core gameplay opens up a variety of ways in which missions can be tackled. Thanks to the verticality of the environments you explore, you can now find new routes behind weakened walls, damaged floors, hard-to-reach ledges, and hidden passageways that simply wouldn’t be possible to access without such a pool of abilities. From a gameplay perspective, it feels fresh and adds a level of immersion to being a Spartan super soldier.
As far as the enemy encounters go, a few notable changes have been made to really improve combat scenarios. When dealing with the Covenant, you can still expect normal resistance from Grunts, Jackals, Elites, and Hunters, though Hunters have been tweaked to be more agile, aggressive, and tank-like. Prometheans have undergone the most significant changes however. For starters, Knights have been replaced with Soldiers as the accompanying force alongside Crawlers. These Soldiers lack energy shielding, meaning they’re not too bad of a threat. They can still teleport around the map too, but their paths are predicable. While Crawlers and Watchers have been untouched for the most part, the latter have far less of a presence throughout the campaign. Lastly, Knights have undergone a tremendous design overhaul. Appearing rarely throughout missions and acting as mini-bosses much like Covenant Hunters, Knights are now equipped with heavy armor plating and lack their insipid teleporting tactics from Halo 4. They actually feel like the enemy they were always intended to be: strong, tank-like Promethean forces that can only be taken out once their armor has been stripped away via pop-shots to various weak points on their shoulder mounts.
A question still remains: where is the Master Chief? Shortly after rescuing Dr. Halsey and bringing her back home, the narrative switches gears and transfers perspectives from Spartan Locke and Fireteam Osiris to Master Chief and Blue Team, a squad of Spartan IIs that are actually never given any proper background introduction when their mission opens up. If you’re a hardcore lore fan and have indulged in the franchise’s extended universe, this may be forgiven. But for those fans who have only ever paid attention to the games, heads will undoubtedly spin upon realizing that there exists more Spartan IIs past the Chief.
From then on out, the narrative jumps back and forth between Blue Team going AWOL and Fireteam Osiris tracking down the Spartan IIs in an attempt to bring them home. It’s a narrative full of twists, deceit, and most importantly, loyalty. And while its pacing and overall execution falls extremely short of being great, the direction 343 Industries takes the characters and story arc is beyond exciting. Spoilers aside, familiar faces will surface, unlikely alliances will be forged, and the story will end in a tantalizing cliffhanger similar to Halo 2, whose sole purpose is but to set up the next installment in this epic Reclaimer saga.
On the multiplayer front, Halo 5: Guardians truly shines between its two different modes: Arena and Warzone. In the former, you’ll find your classic 4v4 playlists such as Team Slayer, Team SWAT, Territories, and Capture the Flag, all of which offer that familiar, competitive team-based action. There’s also Breakout, a brand new game mode with limited gear, absent of shields, and only one life per player. This best-of-nine game type is exhilarating from start to finish and allows for a different pace of action compared to the classic modes.
Where the game types and general gameplay prosper, the multiplayer maps disappoint. Although there are a total of fifteen maps, one can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed in their design. Nothing stands out like Halo 2’s Lockout, Halo 3’s Guardian and The Pit, or even Halo 4’s Haven and Solace. Whereas past game’s map designs were varied in size and offered colorful landscapes, Halo 5′s Arena maps are all small-scaled environments, built around the same UNSC-inspired architecture. Add to that the fact that map rotation in certain playlists is improperly balanced – you might play 10 out of 14 games on only two maps! – and it’s truly difficult to get sucked into Arena for anymore than a few matches here and there.
Luckily, Warzone is a whole different monster on the multiplayer side of things. In this 12v12 game mode, two teams will compete for three static territories on maps that are three to four times larger than those found in Arena. Points are earned for killing enemies on the opposing team, holding down bases around the map, and even killing AI Covenant and Promethean bosses that drop into the battlefield from time to time. If your team is able to hold all three bases at once, then the enemy team’s home base will be open for infiltration. And while games are usually won when one team reaches 1000 points, you can prematurely end the game by destroying the power core inside your enemy’s home base. Generally, Warzone matches will last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, so it’s a nice change of pace from Arena multiplayer.
Another highlight of multiplayer is the all new REQ System. After each match, you will earn REQ Points. These points can then be used to buy REQ Packs which generate a certain number of REQ Cards. Each pack can also be purchased by use of money, which essentially makes this system a form of microtranstion – but hey, what’s there to complain about when this means all future DLC will be free? Each time a REQ Pack is opened, you will be rewarded with multiplayer items based on a rarity-scale. These items included permanent unlocks – for both Arena and Warzone – such as helmets, visors, stances, and weapon skins, and one-time use rewards – which can only be used in Warzone – such as Wraiths, Rocket Launchers, Sniper Rifles, and Scorpion Tanks. The REQ System is a great way to ensure players keep playing online past launch in order to unlock more and more customization options. And if you’re worried about such a system bringing an imbalance to Warzone, the short answer is that it doesn’t.
Halo 5: Guardians has something for every fan. The campaign, while poorly executed in certain areas, offers a narrative that sets the stage for the bigger picture in what’s to come next. The AI displays bouts of incompetency at times, but when commanded properly, they can make trekking through a solo Legendary playthrough a piece of cake. There’s also over one hundred collectibles to be found throughout the missions, all of which add back-story to certain characters, locations, and in-game events. The multiplayer is where the game’s heart is, though. The gameplay is at its best in this title and with the return of classic 4v4 Arena and the addition of 12v12 Warzone, there’s plenty of content to dip your toes in. 343 Industries has come a long way since its initial outing with a dying community in Halo 4, and an unfortunate launch fiasco with The Master Chief Chief Collection. If anything, Halo 5: Guardians shows tenacity, creativity, but most importantly, growth for the studio and the franchise as a whole.
Halo 5’s narrative is going to leave the community split, but the multiplayer will unite those who have been longing for something this tight since the days of the original trilogy.