I’m torn about Halo 5: Guardians. After three missions I wasn’t sure whether I was playing a Halo game or a Call of Duty–Crysis hybrid. I soon found myself in familiar territory, but that doesn’t mean Halo 5 isn’t unlike any Halo game I’ve played before. It’s drowning in the series’ lore — it probably goes to greater lengths to embody the franchise’s expanded universe — but it’s ambitious in a way that is sure to both infuriate and excite Halo diehards. It’s lacking the personal drive of Master Chief’s other adventures, instead opting to establish itself as a distinctively cooperative affair. It has its moments of flair and extravagance, with the plot’s impressive balancing act redefining the series’ storytelling devices. Pushing you towards cooperative play, its solo outing can often become overwhelming, but there’s enough variety here to keep it interesting.
The multiplayer beta should have given many players an idea of how different Halo 5 is compared to past games in the series. An enhanced sense of character mobility is on display from the get-go, with a variety of manoeuvres that we haven’t seen in Halo before. They certainly complement the game’s increased scope and approach to cooperative play. Some players will surely see similarities in the likes of Titanfall and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but there’s a crisper, more refined approach to how these new moves are used in battle (as opposed to them being a necessity to move through and beyond combat areas like the aforementioned games). I would go long periods without really using any of these new abilities, and I appreciate that they’ve been added merely as a means to mix up the combat.
The thing that stood out for me almost immediately is how the game encourages a different approach to defensive manoeuvrability. In past Halo games you were restricted to jumping as a means to avoid gunfire, combining Master Chief’s big leap and air time with tight aiming and gunplay. Jumping around to avoid enemy fire is still a very important and effective defensive manoeuvre in Halo 5, but sprinting, the side-dash and dash-melee offer some much-needed variety on that front. Spartans certainly feel more empowered by their armour. These additions give the combat a more fast-paced, explosive feel to it.
Are they always effective tools, though? Not quite. These additions are welcomed because they expand the Spartan repertoire beyond tired mechanics, but sometimes they just felt a little too stiff. The side-dash is incredibly useful against larger, tougher enemies, but its cooldown timer makes it tough to build some momentum and get around an enemy. The power melee mechanic is useful in patches as well, but again, it’s almost too stiff to rely on as much as I would have liked to. There’s also a power slam (jump in the air, hold down RB, aim your landing spot and release), which is great for clearing out areas of weaker enemies, but it leaves your Spartan incredibly vulnerable. Enemies still fire and attack you while you’re suspended in the air trying to mark your landing for the slam, and the move is useless against bigger enemies. While it will cause some damage, the enemy will generally respond with a strong melee attack once you’ve completed the slam, which can often be a one-hit kill.
These melee and movement additions are great when used effectively … and sparingly. By the end of the campaign I realised I hadn’t used them anywhere near as much as I thought I would when I was introduced to them in the early stages. Maybe that’s a good thing. With Halo 5’s additions, it feel likes, “Here are these new melee mechanics, use them if you want, or don’t: whatever!” Useful in patches, forgettable at times, and certainly not a necessity to progress through the campaign. They’re obviously more useful on Heroic and Legendary, but the same issues persist in their ineffectiveness against bigger enemies and the ways in which they can leave you vulnerable to attack. It’s a balancing act for you as the player, one I think can be mastered and used in a way that is useful on harder difficulties. I just don’t think that any of the new moves will be as important a pillar for the experience as the basic melee mechanic is and has been since the franchise’s creation.
At its core, Halo 5 is still a shooter. I shouldn’t even need to say that, but I’m reiterating it because these melee additions act as complements to the important stuff, not as alternatives. The gunplay here is still as great as it’s always been: tight, balanced and varied. Success is still determined by your ability to balance maneuverability with well-placed shots. Some weapons have classic ADS viewpoints, which is new for Halo, but wasn’t something I rushed to use. It’s a useful addition for certain weapons, but familiar weapons from past Halo games still work better when fired from the hip. That’s what I thought always separated Halo from other games in the genre: its ability to maintain a perspective without submitting to contemporary approaches to refinement. It had its own identity in that regard. Halo has never needed ADS, but now it’s there as an option for improved accuracy. You still move swiftly when in ADS view, so things certainly don’t close down and restrict movement when you’re in that position. I can’t say at this point how that will translate to the online component, but in the campaign it certainly makes automatic weapons more useful at long distance. For close-range, arena-based combat (which makes up most of the experience), it’s still far more effective to maintain a broader hip-fire view as opposed to breaking into the ADS viewpoint.
There’s an important element of the Halo 5 experience that lone wolf players need to know from the start: this is a game built for cooperative play. Anyone that’s played Halo knows that the series’ campaign thrives when played cooperatively on Legendary. However, while past Halo games were competent (and rather personable) when played solo, Halo 5’s campaign is explicitly designed for cooperative play. There’s no way around that.
That’s not to say that the game isn’t competent when played alone. The thing is that you’re always playing alongside three AI-controlled squadmates, and because of that, the combat is more intense, there are more enemies, and you will need help from your squadmates. The AI just works insofar as your squadmates attack and move towards objectives, but you’re going to need to direct them a lot. They are great for healing your character if they’re critically injured — pressing X calls a squadmate over to heal you — but you’re going to face the standard issues associated with playing alongside AI friendlies. Things like a lacking sense of awareness of enemies, and less of a sense of urgency to attacking the more powerful enemies. You can mark tougher enemies (which actually works well: simply tag the enemy and the AI will attack them, allowing you to focus on weaker enemies to preserve ammo), so you definitely have adequate control of the AI.
Don’t get me wrong: Halo 5’s campaign is still a lot of fun when played alone. It took me just over seven hours to beat on Normal, and half-way through the campaign on Heroic I’m looking at about 9-10 hours. It does admittedly take a while to get used to your AI companions and to remember that you can direct them to areas and mark enemies, but once you get into the flow it’s easy to overlook their intelligence issues. They’re essentially ineffective unless you explicitly direct them towards an enemy or spot, and I often caught them simply enemy watching or shooting into cover because they couldn’t process that they needed to move around the enemy to get a clear shot. Thankfully, the enemy AI is probably the best I’ve seen in a Halo game. They flank and attack with intimidating aggression, side-stepping and jumping out of lines of sight, stealing Warthogs and taking control of unmanned turrets.
As a cooperative offering, Halo 5 shines. Early stages of the campaign on Heroic are a breeze, but the difficulty spike comes in hot and fast. Strangely, AI friendlies seem to get dumber as you bring more people in to play with, so I recommend playing either alone or with three others. In some experiences with two players, the fourth squadmate seemed to struggle to process requests, and died more often than in solo play. I assume this has to do with just general team dynamics: AI friendlies work better with other AI, but struggle when teamed up with two or three human-controlled Spartans. It’s not a deal breaker, because if they do get knocked down and bleed out, they eventually spawn back into the game, but it can hurt you at times. I wouldn’t mind seeing the AI in this regard tweaked a little, perhaps to be a little more aggressive but also more aware of teammate placement and pacing. In coop I found myself resurrecting the AI controlled squadmate more than I did either of my friends.
It’s important to experience Halo 5’s campaign with friends, because there’s a bigger, wider approach to combat areas. I certainly feel that this is to accommodate Halo 5’s aggressive focus on cooperative play, which is fine and gives the game a higher standard of difficulty on Normal when played alone. There are more enemies and more choke points, and often I’ve found myself surrounded by enemies without much of a way out. This never happened in the early stages of other Halo games. It makes it tough when playing with the AI, but it’s manageable and actually a lot of fun. Being able to be revived by squadmates balances this out if you’re not playing with friends. I just feel that enemies are tougher and more aggressive — again, I think this is just a result of balancing the difficulty out next to the expectation that you’ll play cooperatively — but it could also just be that I’m overwhelmed by playing alone. Whatever it is, Halo 5’s early stages are surprisingly chaotic, which opens the door to experimentation with the game’s varied approach to combat and added manoeuvrability. Factoring in that added manoeuvrability, squadmate features and large battles, Halo 5 certainly seems to stand out from the rest of the series. Combining all of these elements points to a pretty ambitious and sudden turn to how we approach a Halo campaign.
Halo 5’s design director Kevin Franklin told me that the game’s bigger battles are inspired by the series’ novels, which often depict larger scale conflicts compared to what we see in the games. While he was referring to the Warzone multiplayer mode, I can definitely see the inspiration in the campaign. Further to this, Halo’s storytelling techniques offer a deeper look into the backstory of Blue Team and Master Chief’s relationships. Developer 343 Industries has hinted at an interest to tell a more detailed and structured narrative in its games in an effort to pay more respect to the expanded universe, and Halo 5 certainly achieves this goal. I wouldn’t say that it’s explicit in the backstory or intentions of the characters, but it’s clearer. The character development also points to a pretty extravagant conclusion once this part of 343’s story reaches full circle. Unfortunately, Locke isn’t a particularly interesting character, and I feel that he doesn’t quite live up to the expectations of the expanded lore being introduced in Halo 5. The game’s structure has us moving between Locke’s and Master Chief’s teams, which is great, especially when it all ties together towards the end, but I found myself clamouring for more interaction with Master Chief. Halo 5 presents Master Chief in an intriguing new light, and while I think some fans might be hostile to how he’s depicted here, I appreciate the new approach to paint such a formidable character in a new light.
Halo 5: Guardians has been out for a week now, and it’s given me time to really dig into its online component. While the campaign can be a bit of a mixed bag of poor characters, AI frustrations and difficulty spikes, the multiplayer component is a more consistent offering. Warzone, 343’s much-hyped new 24-player game mode, is undoubtedly the series’ most ambitious addition for years, but the outcome isn’t quite what I look for in a Halo game. You’re fighting to either capture points and kill NPCs, or destroy the enemy team base, and with larger maps and length, Warzone tries to jam in a lot of the Halo multiplayer experience. I just felt that it didn’t feel as rewarding as more traditional Halo multiplayer modes, although it’s hard not to commend 343 for creating a mode like this and have it work so well from day one.
One of the more controversial additions, REQ points, can be earned and spent over time to unlock a whole range of weapons, vehicles and power-ups. You probably could argue that Warzone is “pay to win” in that its in-game rewards are paced out as such so as to encourage the impatient to fork out cash, but I didn’t feel that the mode was unbalanced or favourable more to those that paid real money. I spent my REQ points in a way to eventually build up to a Scorpion tank or something along those lines, and I haven’t played a match where I felt as though it was explicitly in favour of one team over the other outside of just simple tactics used to benefit a team. Sure, you can get a leg-up by forking over real cash and unlocking better things at a faster rate, but I don’t feel that the game really forced this onto you if you’re a seasoned Halo player, one that’s probably going to earn REQ points fast enough anyway to defeat any need to pay cash.
I’ve spent a vast majority of time in Arena, Halo 5‘s restructured esports-centric collection of multiplayer modes. Slayer is simple: the team with the most kills wins. First to 50 nabs the victory, or the team with the higher kill count once the twelve minutes are up. Slayer is where you should be starting your Halo experience if you’re a new recruit, as it will give you the best introduction to the maps and core gameplay features.
The classic Capture The Flag has been mixed up a bit. You can now throw the flag onto the base, with the main goal to steal the opponent’s flag and bring it back to your own base. However, you won’t be able to steal a flag unless your flag is secured, and the first team to three captures. Alternatively, the team with the most captures as time expires, wins.
Strongholds is basically King Of The Hill with three stronghold points. When you capture two or three of these points at once, you gain at least one point per three seconds. The first to 100 wins, or the team with the highest score at the end of the timer wins.
My favourite addition, Breakout, is an interesting new mode that blends together Slayer and Capture The Flag. Either kill all of the opposing team, or bring the central flag to the capture base. First team to do either wins the round, with the first team to five victories granted the overall win. I love this mode and I’m looking forward to seeing how the esports community embraces it.
The manoeuvrability mentioned above really changes up the multiplayer. Simply jumping and bopping about was predictable for seasoned Halo players, but your trajectory is unpredictable now if you use these new Spartan abilities effectively. These changes certainly give Halo 5 a fast(er) paced feel that I think really ramps up the overall competitiveness of the entire multiplayer experience.
The Final Verdict
Undoubtedly the most ambitious Halo release, Halo 5 admirably tries to establish its own identity amidst a long-standing and revered franchise history. The solo experience lacks the personal drive of past Halo games, which makes it harder to appreciate the story and its focus on teamwork and relationships. It still offers a commendable solo experience, though, but it ultimately shines in coop. It passionately embraces Halo’s expanded universe, and opens the door for new characters and perspectives. Subtle gameplay additions like ADS and melee mechanics are nice touches, but this is still Halo at its core, and those additions merely compliment rather than replace the series’ classic gameplay pillars.