We’re going to start out this review with another disclaimer. I am a huge Halo fan. That, in your eyes, may be a good or bad thing. It means I have a certain affection for the series, but it also means I am very critical of the games. So maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all. A “zero sum” if you will. My track record with Halo is a long one, and most of the games I have enjoyed. With that being said, I enjoyed far less of Halo 4 than I did the previous entries in the franchise. Halo 5: Guardians is not Halo 4, and that’s a very, very good thing.
Where to begin. Halo 5 details the story of two families, more or less. Team Osiris, led by new playable character Spartan Jameson Locke and Blue Team lead by the Master Chief. One of my first gripes with the story is that not a lot of background is given on either team. With Osiris it’s a bit easier to swallow, as you can just assume they (Buck (of Halo 3: ODST fame), Vale, and Tanaka) could easily be a team ONI just threw together. But for Blue Team there is so much history there that the game doesn’t even touch on. Blue Team (Kelly, Linda, Fred), as those who read the extended fiction may know, is a group of Chief’s closest friends from way back during the Spartan II training program. They were assumed MIA by the game’s story and touched on a lot in the extended fiction (books mainly). It would have been nice if 343 Industries would have given them a proper reunion scene with Chief, but instead they are just there. That gripe aside, the story was much better than Halo 4. I did have issues with how light the story seemed and the cliffhanger they left it on, but compared to the mess of a narrative (and hidden story in terminals) Halo 4 was, Halo 5 is a breath of fresh air. It still may be a bit confusing to people who haven’t followed along with the new terminology (Prometheans, Guardians, Didact, etc.) but in general you, even having only played the games, can gather that something bad is happening in the world, Chief goes to investigate against the UNSC’s orders, and Locke is sent to bring him back. Overall that is the story, with a few twists that I don’t want to spoil here. It’s not amazing but it’s fine overall. You get to go to some great places and see some great scenery, and hook up with characters from past games along the way. It’s a fun Halo romp.
From a gameplay perspective Halo 5 is one of the best playing Halos. It blends modern gameplay mechanics with classic Halo play in the form of Spartan Abilities. Gone are the unbalanced and random perks and pick-ups from Halo 4, and in their place are a core set of abilities every Spartan has. Abilities that you would think a walking tank should have in combat. The additions are ground pound, clamber (climbing up objects), Spartan charge (boosting melee attack), and dodge (using boosters). Sprint also remains. All of these additions work very well together to make you feel much more like a Spartan than any past Halo really has. They are also a 100% better compromise in between old Halo and new gameplay than the randomness in Halo 4 was. The addition of these elements to gameplay enabled 343 to build a campaign that really takes advantage of the abilities. You’ll find much more open levels, hidden side paths blocked by a wall you can charge through, vertical areas to clamber up to for an advantage, and more. Because of all this, this Halo campaign feels much more open than Halo 4, and much more like the openness of the classic Halo games. That being said it also feels a bit more modern in design. Meaning a bunch of big awesome rooms or set pieces interconnected with smaller hallway or path areas. I didn’t mind this overall, though, because the core gameplay made each level really fun to play.
343 has also added collectibles in the campaign in the form of audio logs, legendary weapons, and skulls. With the levels being so much more open I ended up spending a lot of time looking around and trying to find hidden items. I think this added a lot to my enjoyment as well, because some of the spaces 343 created are fantastic to look at. Fans of collecting will love Halo 5, but if you skip it altogether you’ll still get the gist of the story (unlike Halo 4).
So that’s campaign. It’s good. Not amazing in the story department, but really fun gameplay-wise. Also it looks gorgeous overall, and 60fps goes a very long way.
Now, multiplayer. This is why a lot of people come to Halo. Let me be the first (or 100th) to tell you that this is not Halo 4. 343 has split its multiplayer into two general components, Warzone (random gameplay) and Arena (classic Halo). We’ll start with Arena since that is the easiest to explain. Arena is Halo classic multiplayer. This means everyone starts with the same equipment, weapons spawn on the maps, and you play all your favorite gametypes like CTF, SWAT, Slayer and more. The Req Pack system (discussed later) works here, but you can only use cosmetic items like armor, skins, and visors in Arena. Nothing that alters game balance is allowed. This is great for those players that left Halo 4 because there was nothing left for people who loved the balance of classic Halo. The ranking system also makes a return in Arena. 343 implemented a system similar to what Starcraft 2 uses. You play 10 placement matches and get put into a tier. You can move up/down within the tier and then up to the next tier, but you can never drop entire tier levels. Also, over all the modes in halo 5, there is an experience-based rank. Arena is the balanced Halo goodness you remember and love, just with a sprinkling of modern movement on top.
Warzone is the newest mode from 343, and it can be a lot of fun. Think of Warzone as a first person shooter MOBA more or less. You have a huge map, 24 players (12 per team) and AI bosses that spawn in over the course of the match. The match starts with your team being dropped off at your base that is filled with AI enemies. You clear them out, and the game begins. The key is to take 3 different buildings on each map, and both teams fight to hold as many as they can. While the fight for the buildings is going on AI bosses will spawn in, each worth some number of points (25 to 150). If your team kills that boss you get those points, and the first to 1000 wins. So the overall key to Warzone is to not only hold bases, but also kill bosses. The team who does both generally wins. If a team happens to get all 3 bases, the enemy team’s core becomes vulnerable (in their home base) and if your team blows up their core, the game is over.
The big key feature of Warzone is a new system called the Requisition system. Basically there are three levels (Gold, Silver, Bronze) of card packs you can buy (real money or in-game points) that give you a random mix of armor, weapons, skins, animations, vehicles, and more. As I said above, in the Arena mode you can only use the aesthetic items (which remain unlocked forever when you get them in a pack). In Warzone you use all of the cards, including cards for vehicles, power ups, and weapons. If you unlock a gold pack and get a Scorpion tank, once in a Warzone match you team must get to the proper Req Level, and then you can call in your tank to use. Same goes for weapons and power-ups. It makes the games very interesting, because as they go on people get more and more powerful. I’m still not 100% on-board with the Req card system, though. I like getting packs and unlocking armor and fun skins, but opening a pack of cards and getting 10 mongoose cards and rarely getting a Banshee is not as fun as I’d like. For the packs to be awesome in Warzone I think the frequency of good items needs to be increased, or just do away with the cards for Warzone altogether.
My only main gripes with the Halo 5 multiplayer overall are the Req packs for Warzone, and the map selection. The maps are mostly fun to play, but lack the character that Bungie embedded into their Halo 1-Reach maps. Most of the Halo 5 (and even Halo 4) maps feel like UNSC bases, and that’s cool for a few maps, but not all of them. I’d love to see more “shaped by the environment” maps like Bungie used to make. Other than those complaints, though, Halo 5 has the best multiplayer since Halo 3. Easily. The addition of Forge and Big Team Battle this Winter will help provide even more variety, as Forge looks like a full-fledged map editor this time around. The multiplayer also looks visually a bit rough around the edges, but using under-powered Xbox One hardware will do that. 343 uses variable resolution to keep the game at a smooth 60 fps, though, and that framerate is one of the biggest additions to the series.
Overall Halo 5 is a fantastic game, one which could get better with time. Tweaking systems like Req cards, adding maps via DLC (all of which will be free) and Forge, and honing the playlists in arena will ensure the game gets better and better. I’m left feeling much more optimistic with Halo 5 than I was with 4. With Halo 5 all the minor gripes I have are fixable, which was far from the case with 4. 343 has a solid base here, they just need to keep up the improvements to gametypes like Warzone, and Halo 5 will evolve into something even greater. I’m excited to see where the campaign goes in Halo 6 as well, but I do hope the 343 writing team keeps getting better as they go, as I wasn’t enthused with the lack of character backstory and the light overall narrative in 5.
If you love Halo, buy 5. If you hated Halo 4, but love Halo, buy 5. Even if you’re new to the series and just want to see who this big green dude is, Halo 5 will not waste your time, and is quite the fun little adventure.