NB: We didn’t feel we spent enough time with Halo 5’s multiplayer component to judge it fairly for this review, so this review is based solely on the campaign portion of the game. Once we have spent some more time with multiplayer, we will update this review.
I spent the weekend telling all of my friends that Halo 5: Guardians is exactly the game I need right now. After countless hours spent playing open world games with checklist objectives and light stories, Halo 5 is a revelation of traditional storytelling and level design. Although there’s plenty of new in this game, both in terms of characters and game mechanics, 343’s latest offering feels like coming home.
One of the things I’ll get out of the way from the start is that Halo 5: Guardians might be the game to finally rival the great stories from Halo: CE and Halo 2. Compact, efficient storytelling gives us both epic adventures and intimate tales throughout. Yes, Fireteam Osiris, who are introduced in this game, are a hell of a lot of fun to shoot things with, even if they’re not exactly fully fleshed out by the end. And in terms of things to shoot, there are plenty of Promethean and Covenant enemies to satisfy that need.
I won’t spoil any part of the story for you that hasn’t already been established in trailers. So: Agent Locke is the leader of Fireteam Osiris, a new team of Spartan-IVs dispatched by the UNSC to find the Master Chief and bring him home. Chief and his Blue Team, his Spartan comrades from back in the day, have mysteriously gone AWOL during a mission in an ONI facility. While we’re hit with the reason for Chief’s departure pretty early in the game, the true nature of it doesn’t quite reveal itself so quickly. But when the story fully opens up to its epic scale, it is a wonder of sci-fi storytelling, mixing Star Wars space opera with John Scalzi political fiction. There are coups, oppressive governments, galaxy-destroying death machines (as is expected in this series), and lots of heartwrenching moments delivered by a solid cast of characters.
Let’s also get this out upfront: Agent Jameson Locke, who is played by Mike Colter, is the main character of the game, not Master Chief. Here lies the game’s biggest strength and weakness. You’ll spend most of the game with Fireteam Osiris, following the Blue Team’s tracks throughout the campaign, always on their tail, and this is a good thing. I found the team’s chatter highly entertaining, carried in a big part by Nathan Fillion’s Buck. He adds a lot of comedic relief to a very serious affair that barely gives you time to breathe between levels. He really is the standout Spartan, the only one that has any real personality. For the most part, I found it difficult to really differentiate one Spartan from the other, and I think that will only come naturally to fans who have gone through the entire expanded universe of novels, comics, and films.
But wait, I was talking about Locke. Well, Locke really isn’t that much different to Master Chief—the stoic soldier determined to get the job done. While there are a few moments to establish that Chief is more powerful than Locke, when you’re actually behind the controls, there’s no difference in gameplay or overall feel. Locke is quiet for the most part, except with shouting orders to his teammates. His saving grace is that he has Buck to talk to, while Chief has a group of equally stoic teammates. But without any sort of real goal, except to complete the mission, Locke feels like a missed opportunity. Instead of conflicting beliefs with the Master Chief or any competitive edge…or any real opinion on the events that unfold…Locke just kind of does whatever they order him to do. And when the mission is finally complete after about an 8-hour campaign, he’s quickly pushed off stage. We never get his thoughts on anything, because…well, he isn’t really that important to the story in the long-run, except as the witness to what’s going on with Chief.
Not that Chief’s portrayal in this game is much better. He’s ever the quiet “protagonist,” nodding at his teammates during cutscenes or just standing there like a badass. But we never hear his thoughts about a plot that should uniquely affect him. That’s why Locke and the rest of Osiris’ perspectives are so important to the plot. Watching Chief from the outside, like the Arbiter watching “the Demon” in Halo 2, lends him a mythic status.
Despite some missed character development, confusing opening scenes, and lack of participation from the series’ main hero, Halo 5: Guardians packs a punch once its emotional center is revealed. As soon as we learn the truth behind the events of the game, it’s a spectacularly fun ride worthy of the Halo canon. And with a cliffhanger that will undoubtedly lead into Halo 6, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more excited about the franchise.
It’s important to point out that you also spend a lot of time playing detective in this game. When you’re not shooting bad guys, you’re looking for clues all over the battlefield and Forerunner structures. New additions like the Artemis Tracking System, a scanning system not unlike detective vision in the Batman Arkham games, allows for an intriguing bit of tracking when used to that effect, but most of the time, it’s a cheat sheet for where you’re supposed to be going. The same goes for little hub sections that allow you to interact with NPCs for clues. Those sections aren’t fully-realized, though, more a suggestion than actual gameplay, and mostly there to break up the action just a tiny bit. It almost felt like 343 was dipping its toe in RPG gameplay, but only for a second.
New thruster abilities are fun, but a bit unnecessary. You can dash and dodge with the B button, and sprinting at an enemy in order to perform a devastating melee attack that sends grunts flying around the battlefield are all neat tricks, but you’ll barely need to use them. Guns, grenades, and melee are still king. There’s also an interesting ground pound ability that I may have used all of one time. I feel that perhaps these abilities will come in much more handy when it’s time to play multiplayer, but when fighting Covenant and Prometheans, you’ll probably want to stick to your old tricks.
Enemy AI has improved, especially when it comes to Prometheans. While Covenant soldiers are still pretty much bullet sponges, Prometheans are fast, teleporting adversaries that are much more difficult to sneak up on, grenade, or punch in the face. Especially Promethean knights, which can only be taken down by shooting certain spots on their armor to reveal their weakpoint. Taking them down is very rewarding. In contrast, friendly AI needs a bit of work. While the Spartans in both Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris are a lot more responsive and intelligent than those infamous space marines (aka future corpses) from past games, I still grew frustrated with them at times, as they got stuck behind rocks while trying to complete commands or drove me into pillars or enemy fire while in vehicle sections. Really, you’re much better off driving that Warthog than letting Vale get you killed.
It doesn’t help that button commands severly lack complexity. With just the top D-Pad as your command button, it’s easy for your squad to mistake “Pick up this weapon” or “Take this vehicle” or “Focus on this target” or “Go here.” While you don’t have to be exactly precise when pointing your squad to something, watching your squad rendezvous somewhere instead of shooting a specific target can be frustrating, especially if it gets them all killed. I would’ve liked to see way more squad commands, especially if it meant the use of the other D-Pad buttons. Maybe some “Go loud” and “Stay low” commands would’ve helped or some kind of flanking command. Maybe a team grenade attack. Something more could have been done to fully implement this system. Overall, I’m happy that this game has finally added squad commands to the series, though.
My biggest issue with the multiplayer beta from way back in January was the gunplay, which I felt was uncharacteristic of Halo, as shooting took a more realistic Call of Duty approach. I wasn’t a fan of aiming down iron sights with the beloved Battle Rifle (or a scope-less Battle Rifle, for that matter) with the left trigger and throwing grenades with the left bumper. And I really disliked the thruster abilities, which seemed more distraction than necessity (I still feel that way now). But some improvements, including easier handling of all the weapons’ sights, have reintroduced the arcade shooter style of classic Halo gunplay. And I absolutely never want that to change. If I wanted more realistic shooting, I’d play Call of Duty, which is starting to take the Halo approach now anyway. One change that survived from Halo 4 is sprinting, and that’s great. I’d say that Halo 5: Guardians‘ gameplay, minus the ridiculous ground pounds and the like, is the best to date for this series. I’m really excited to shoot more things in the coming weeks.
I’ll say this again in case you missed it the first time: if you’re tired of open world games and feel that there isn’t enough being done about linear gameplay anymore, than Halo 5: Guardians is the game for you. Going from point A to B, while mowing waves of enemies down, has never felt so good. And it’s nice to return to a game where storytelling comes first and gameplay second. We live in a time where checklist gameplay is all the rage. Recent releases like Mad Max and Metal Gear Solid V, and all the way back to Destiny, have focused on task completion instead of telling amazing stories. But Halo 5: Guardians is here to keep the storytelling tradition alive, and boy, I’m glad it is.