After nearly two years since its launch, the Xbox One is seeing the release of its first proper Halo game with Halo 5: Guardians. But where your previous Halo games relied heavily on the Master Chief and his specific story, Guardians takes the series in a drastically different direction.
What’s It About?
There isn’t much that to say about the game’s story without giving way to massive spoilers. There are directions the story takes and villains those new routes take that near immediate spoilers, so I’d rather keep it fresh for you. That said, the gist is that Master Chief is and isn’t the main focus of Guardians.
After the events of Halo 4, Master Chief and Blue Team have suddenly gone AWOL. Having their orders rejected by the Chief, the UNSC deploys Fireteam Osiris to hunt down and bring him in. Leading Osiris is Jameson Locke, a former ONI agent who joined the Spartan-IV program. He’ll also be the character you spend the most time with during the hunt for Master Chief.
I can’t trash this game as a terrible story, nor can I say it’s fantastic. It’s, at best, sort of a fractured affair. The nature of the story demands that you experience the hunt for the truth from the perspective of both Locke and Chief but doesn’t offer the proper sense of balance. What it creates is issue with Locke and Fireteam Osiris. Taken at face value, Guardians doesn’t offer any great reasoning why you should care about this team.
There’s only so much of a connection you can form with this team, because much of the backstory is locked up in the expanded universe the Halo franchise has created for itself. So if you’ve invested with elements such as Forward Unto Dawn or Nightfall, you’ll have better context of your primary Guardians squad. You won’t necessarily be alienated otherwise, but you won’t necessarily be in a great position either. I never felt that campaign offered a solid cohesive experience because the gripping points were so spread that it demands Halo 6 to really pay off.
It could be a great payoff, as the villain trope is one of the more interesting ones you can introduce. What happens when the villain doesn’t necessarily see what they are doing as evil, but just right and good for everyone? That can lead to far more sinister results, but Guardians is left as the setup for what could be a great story.
Why Should I Care?
Odd balance also affects just how the story is told through the level content. The Chief levels were fairly lengthy, taking upwards of an hour at a decent pace, but there are only a few of those. Locke levels were at times stacked with just waves of fodder enemies mixed with mini-bosses, such as Hunters or hardcore Forefunners. A decent challenge, but ultimately covering up the lack of substance. Yet those provided something to do more than the other levels I can only really describe as Achievement Stuffers. One, in particular, left me shocked. Not because it provided a great campaign moment, but because I walked from one side of a canyon (of sorts) to talk to Sarah Palmer, then walked back to chat with Halsey. End scene. What was the point of that? There was no sense of accomplishment. I didn’t need to be directly involved with that. Give me a 3-minute cut scene and get me back into some good action; preferably a Chief level. I like using my brain a little more than that.
What works well is increase squad involvement. I don’t feel as though you can get too much of a connection with the teams, but at least they more noticeably named characters that serve purpose beyond being a bullet sponge. Plus, you’re fighting alongside Captain Mal Reynolds of the Firefly-class ship Serenity! Or at least Nathan Fillion seemed like Mal as an ODST. Either way, he’ll be a part of one of your two squads to help you in a new revive system. It’s a good enough system so long as you issue a command to be helped should you fall; squad members seem more inclined to help each other than you without it. The command system is limited to revive, position, or attack as a single unit. You can’t take advantage of any individual attributes, as you would in a well-executed system found in Mass Effect. It works, but just enough to get by (almost like a beta feature).
Let’s talk about what usually carries Halo games — the multiplayer. Having such a tried and true method, Halo 5 is a good chance to offer up new online opportunities through two new modes and a requisition system I’ll cover first.
The req system is an enhancement of previous upgrade opportunities. It works similar to how other games handle upgrades: you earn points to generate packs of cards; those packs will unlock common to rare items to affect your cosmetics or gameplay. Cosmetic items have unlimited usage, so you can have a reskinned weapon or new assassin combination. Single use items are weapons, vehicles, or abilities that can only be used in Warzone mode. These are only available in Warzone because of the advantage they can give some players if you play your cards (literally) right. The reqs require a req level to be used and that level will go up the more successful you are in a Warzone match. But even if you aren’t super successful, you still generate new levels at a healthy, so you won’t feel so out of the action.
That’s good, because Warzone is the big, fun addition of 24-player combat with bot support and enemies sprinkled among the action. As a member of a team, you’ll have to secure a base and continually work to reach 1,000 victory points or destroy the opposing team’s core. What makes it fun is the hysteria it adds to the mix. Attention is split fairly evenly between the opposing team and bot enemies, but ultimately favors taking down the former of the enemies. Yet through hysteria, I felt a good sense of balance. Big team battles in Halo could always feel overwhelming. This experience is tighter in spite of its widened scope because it evens the playing field. That said, it doesn’t necessarily cheapen the experience for those who love the live combat. The mode strikes a wildly fun balance, especially when those requisitions can be brought into the mix. The extracurricular activities provided by Covenant or Forerunner forces can be easily ignored, but engagement can be beneficial to your winning chances and overall goal of the match.
However, Arena game modes will offer a more traditional multiplayer experience without the effects of req packs. Featured here is the other new mode, Breakout. Very team-oriented, you’re offered a single life and minimal power weapons on tighter maps. Ability-wise, it’s similar to SWAT without the immediate headshot kills or respawns. It’s a mode that requires more skill and patience, but isn’t alienating to those who aren’t insanely good at Halo.
I didn’t find many issues with the multiplayer, even with the req system. For a feature that could suck up your money through microtransactions, there are plenty of reqs to be earned naturally. You’ll only need to remain somewhat smart about how you play your cards.
I did find issues with connectivity, though. Even ensuring I wasn’t having any personal connection issues, I kept getting booted from about 40% of my matches due to the connection. Free-for-all was the only mode I never received issues with. Online chatter also seems to be experiencing the same thing, with one possibility being the New Xbox Experience through the Preview program, but I wasn’t enabled in the NXE at the time of play. So while it may not affect you, but be mindful of it.
What works incredibly smoothly are the mechanics, and Guardians throws in some new moves. I won’t call your Spartans more nimble, but you are able to scale structures through double jumps or crash through walls with a rush. Not new type of features for general gaming, but they offer just enough of a more modernized feel within Halo. Your weapon procurement is affected a bit, too. Normally in Halo games, sticking with the same type of weapon was easy and very successful. Guardians seems to encourage the use of a variety of weapons. Not that it’s necessarily shorting you anywhere, but you’ll naturally be forced into picking up new weapons that offer you nicer advantages. You’ll need it at times too, because of the previously mentioned issues of levels throwing quantity over quality at you.
What Makes It Worth My Time and Money?
Halo 5: Guardians is going to offer you a solid experience. The campaign is lacking in areas because, simply put, it feels like somebody was going through some ups and downs while working on structure. It still offers some bright moments and sets up a potentially great story in Halo 6.
The multiplayer will make up for most of the lacking parts by bringing itself to a more modernized element. It’s strong, despite some potential connection issues, and offers great balance. Perhaps the only retraction here is the lack of split-screen support for those who still like gaming directly next to their friends, but online-only is likely going to be the only route we can follow (and that’s an entirely different discussion).
Despite not being a revolutionary Halo experience, Halo 5: Guardians does just enough to push the series forward through its multiplayer offerings.