Since its inception, the Halo series has always made incremental but significant changes to its sci-fi first-person shooter tenets. But while the ones in Halo 5: Guardians (Xbox One) are a bit more fundamental, this ends up being just another Halo game…albeit with all the usual good times that implies.
After getting a strange message from Cortana, Master Chief defies a direct order and instead heads out to save her, with his pals in Blue Team tagging along. In response, central command dispatches Spartan Locke and the rest of Fireteam Osiris to stop the O.G. M.C. by any means necessary. What no one realizes, though, is that they’re heading for a showdown that could impact every sentient creature in the universe.
In terms of the action, the biggest — and most welcome, and most overdue — change in Halo 5 Guardians is that you can look down the barrel of your gun for better accuracy. Which not only makes the shooting a lot better, but it also makes this game feel more modern then previous installments. As fun as Halo 4 may have been, not having iron sights made it feel a bit dated.
That said, iron sights here doesn’t come with the auto-lock is does in other games. Instead, Halo 5 Guardians has the same slight aim assist as the other Halo games. But while I wish this did give you the option of an auto-lock, since snapping onto a target always makes it feel like the total bad ass master Chief is supposed to be, I’m just glad this finally lets me look down the barrel of my guns like I’ve been doing in every other shooter since Modern Warfare came out eight years ago.
Along with better shooting controls, Halo 5 Guardians also gives you a small, jetpack-like booster, which gives you a quick burst to the side or straight ahead. It’s this latter move that’s especially handy since, if you hit the melee button at the end, you can pull off a Spartan Charge, which can not only knock someone out, but can also destroy weak walls that may be hiding secret passageways. You can even, while jumping down from up above, use the booster to slam into an enemy who made the mistake of standing beneath you.
The booster also comes in handy because many of the battlefields in Halo 5 Guardians are larger and more open, as well as more vertical. Which is why it’s good that you can not only do longer jumps with the boost, but you can also pull yourself up onto ledges. Though the real advantage of the broader, more vertical battlefields is that it makes the firefights feel bigger and more epic.
Even the presentation of Halo 5 Guardians has been improved, as you can now turn the music down, or even off. This is especially welcome given how Halo 4 not only had terrible music, but the score was also often louder than that game’s dialog or sound effects. Even cooler, turning off the music doesn’t kill all the sound in the cutscenes, a mistake we’ve seen in too many games.
As for specific aspects of the story-driven campaign in Halo 5 Guardians, which you can play solo or co-op with up to three friends, while it may not have the urgency of Halo 3, it does have a similar grand scale. And while there are elements of the story — which I won’t spoil — that some fans might hate, I felt they were both interesting and, narratively, rather brave.
In terms of the mechanics of the campaign, Halo 5 Guardians adds some light squad commands for when you’re playing on your own, not unlike those in Star Wars: Republic Commando or Rainbow Six: Vegas. While you can’t tell a specific teammate to do something — they’re your coworkers, not your assistants — you can tell your group to go somewhere, attack a specific target, or even grab a weapon, secure in the knowledge that one of them will do it. You can also revive them when they go down, a favor they’ll reciprocate. Though don’t worry masochists, you can still get killed, as can they, if someone doesn’t come to your aid quick enough. Or, as I found out, if you fall off a cliff.
Sadly, the lack of guard rails on cliffs isn’t the only place where the campaign of Halo 5 Guardians goes a little awry (though only a little). For starters, while your A.I. teammates can help you up if you get knocked down, you can’t get up on your own or move around like you could in the Gears Of War games.
The story mode of Halo 5 Guardians also adds the ability to scan the area for your next objective, as opposed to having the waypoints just appear automatically, except that these waypoints disappear rather quickly. As a result, you have to keep hitting the D-pad over and over again, which gets tiresome after a while.
Halo 5 Guardians also makes a mistake that, sadly, a lot of cinematic games do: It shows an exciting bit of action as a cutscene instead of a playable one. Again, I won’t say what, but there were a couple times when I had to watch Master Chief or Spartan Locke do something cool instead of getting to do it myself, despite having done something similar in other games.
But the biggest problem with the campaign in Halo 5 Guardians is that you end up playing second fiddle too much. As I mentioned, the Master Chief’s desertion leads his bosses to send Spartan Locke and Fireteam Osiris after him. As a result, the game alternates between Master Chief’s missions and Locke’s, and this 50/50 split makes Master Chief seem more like a co-star than the lead role. Granted, this isn’t like when Metal Gear Solid: Guns Of The Patriots pulled a bait-and-switch and made you play most of the game as Raiden, but given how playing as The Arbiter was the weak part of Halo 2 (well, after making Gravemind look like Audrey II from Little Shop Of Horrors, of course), it’s surprising that they’d make the same mistake again.
Of course, for many people, Halo 5 Guardians is a multiplayer game that has a story mode for some reason. And like the campaign, the online parts of this game have also gotten some fun new toys as well.
For starters, there’s now a reward system called “Requisitions.” Earned by leveling up or by buying them for real money (or, as it turns out, by buying a book), these give you such redeemable bonuses as heavy weapons (rocket launchers, energy swords), vehicles (Ghosts, Warthogs), and better armor or other power-ups. It’s basically the same card-based system as Titanfall and Forza Motorsport 6, and has about as much impact on the game. Which is to say it occasionally gives you an advantage, and occasionally gives your enemy an advantage — or, depending on your perspective, occasionally gives you an unfair advantage, and occasionally gives your enemy an unfair advantage — but otherwise doesn’t really make this any more, or less, fun to play.
Halo 5 Guardians also has a new mode called “Warzone” (which, despite the similarities, is not to be confused by the mode of the same name in the Killzone games). In it, your team’s objective is to earn 1000 points during lengthy, 12-on-12 skirmishes fought on a really large and intricate battlefields. But you not only earn points by killing members of the other team and capturing points, but also by killing A.I. controlled enemies, some of which are high value targets. There’s also a variation where you can capture three points, which will expose a core inside your enemy’s base that you can destroy to automatically win the match. Either way, this mode gets really frantic, and does a good job of keeping you on your toes, especially since, despite the map size, there always seems to be someone right around the corner.
As for the usual multiplayer modes in Halo 5 Guardians, those can now be found in the section called “Arena.” Here, the big change is the scale: matches are 4-on-4, and while the arenas have the same verticality as the ones in “Warzone” and the campaign, they’re actually a lot smaller. But while this works fine for me — “Team Slayer” here, for instance, feels like it always has — it’ll undoubtedly annoy those who’d like to play a match of 12-on-12 in a big open area, but with a single objective.
In the end, Halo 5 Guardians isn’t the best game in this series. Sure, it’s better than Halo 4, but falls short of Halo 3, the original game, and, well, the other Halo games made by Bungie. But by adding iron sights, more open battlefields, “Warzone,” and the other improvements to its usual mix of smooth controls, addictive multiplayer, and engaging fiction, it shows that it is still moving in the right direction. Even if it is slowly.