Another week, another high-profile release! This is really the busy season that keeps on giving. Hot on the tail of new entries in other beloved franchises like Guitar Hero, Assassin’s Creed and Yoshi, we’ve got Halo 5: Guardians, the latest in the iconic shooter series. As always, this is an Xbox exclusive that’s meant to move some consoles for the holiday season. How does it do? Let’s take a look.
Guardians follows a new character, Spartan Locke, and his Osiris team of Spartans as they search for an AWOL Master Chief and his Blue Team. Chief’s been searching for a lost friend and has abandoned his duty in the process, so Osiris is tasked with bringing him back. Naturally, capturing the UNSC’s greatest hero isn’t exactly a cake walk, and during the chase both teams will uncover secrets about the Forerunners, the Covenant and the galaxy at large, including battling a new and surprising foe.
The plot is typical Halo, so you can probably guess what you’re getting with this one, and personally I wasn’t invested enough in Halo lore to care much about it. You play as both Locke and Master Chief, but the differences between the two are academic at best. Locke tends to battle the Prometheans while Chief usually goes up against the Covenant, but their abilities are the same, and the dual perspectives don’t really add much to the experience.
We’re in kind of an interesting position when it comes to talking about the gameplay here. It’s Halo. You probably have a pretty good idea of what Halo looks and feels like. It’s 343 Industries Halo, so it’s a little lighter and floatier than Halo 1-3, but I’m still a fan of this style. The conundrum we face, though, is that now we’ve also got Destiny, essentially Super Halo RPG, to compare it to. Personally, my vote goes to Halo over Destiny given the latter’s sparse variety of weapons and nonexistent plot, but if you’re into longer games with more replay value then you might be disappointed with the lack of randomly generated loot here.
Movement feels very similar in both games, especially given Guardians’ increased focus on mobility which certainly feels inspired by similar advances made in Destiny. The Spartans are now capable of Unreal Tournament-esque dashes in most directions, for instance, as well as being able to mantle up walls, slide into cover and hover in midair for enhanced aim while airborne. Other new abilities include a powerful melee dash and a diving slam attack, both of which are used liberally during the campaign to open new areas.
Gunplay, meanwhile, is fairly close to Halo 4. You’ve got your usual loadout of Human, Covenant and Forerunner gear, including a few new faces such as several new heavy weapons. In particular, the Forerunner holographic weaponry has seen quite a few changes since Halo 4, with just one example being the evolution of the pistol and SMG into homing weapons. This is a welcome change that provides a little more variety in the available gear and shakes things up a bit. Guardians also focuses a bit more on the aim-down-sights mechanic we’ve come to know and love from endless iterations of military shooters; this allows for a little more precision with many weapons, but if you’re shot you’ll stop aiming, which is a little irritating.
The most significant change in Guardians from previous Halo entries is the increased focus on cooperative play. You’ve got four Spartans on each mission, allowing for up to four players to each take control and join in. Even in single-player, you’ve got three AI companions backing you up. This paradigm shift affects every aspect of the gameplay, in particular enemy density and player health; the former is way up while the latter feels like it’s way down, since it’s now possible to “die” and be revived by your allies. Suffice to say, that’s going to happen a lot on higher difficulties.
As for the AI companions themselves, they’re fairly dumb, but the game isn’t exactly rocket science so they suffice for the job at hand. You’ve got a limited ability to issue orders and direct the AI around as needed, but I found that my robot pals did alright on their own. Well, they did alright unless I needed a revive, in which case they’d often get stuck on geometry or get slaughtered by whatever killed me on the way over. I don’t think this AI’s going to be taking over the world with its maniacal genius anytime soon.
You’re better off getting some friends together for this one. Er, better not get them together in the same house, though. Local splitscreen multiplayer is gone, gone, gone, allegedly to preserve the game’s visual fidelity. If local multiplayer is a make or break issue for you when it comes to Halo games, well, uh…sorry, I guess. Maybe it’ll be back in Halo 6. At least you’ll be spared Mountain Dew and Dorito dust stains on your furniture, right?
If you’d rather shoot your pals, competitive multiplayer is available as always…if you’re cool with online play, as local splitscreen is just as gone here as well. You’ve got the typical array of modes, maps and weapons to choose from, including the SWAT mode from earlier titles. The new movement and melee abilities add a bit of variety, though at its core this still feels like Halo. Run around, get the guns, shoot the mans, capture the flags, mute the other players so you don’t have to listen to nerdvoices.
As for the question on everyone’s mind: while admittedly I was one of the few who didn’t have many issues with the matchmaking in The Master Chief Collection, I’m told that the netcode here is vastly better than what we saw in that title so gamers who got burned should be pleased. We are missing the classic Forge level editor mode at the moment so I can’t really comment on that, but it’s allegedly coming in December. We’ll see.
So about that visual fidelity: it’s present and accounted for in spades. Halo 5 looks and sounds gorgeous at all times as one would expect from a flagship franchise. The presentation retains the Metroid Prime-esque helmet HUD from Halo 4 as well as the more cinematic scripted moments that defined that game. This feels like a highly polished experience overall and it’s a great example of the kind of power that the Xbox One is capable of.
Halo 5 has been released to fairly middling reviews, and I can’t say I’m surprised. We’ve talked about the lopsided focus on “innovation” in modern games writing, and, frankly, this isn’t at all innovative. The removal of splitscreen is painful as well and certainly merits docking a point or two. Regardless, this is a solid, well-polished game that does its series credit and is likely to receive some flack for being a new entry in a series it’s “cool” to dislike on a console it’s “cool” to dislike. We’ll talk about how nothing in video games is actually cool some other day, but I’m sure we’ll see many of the same reactions when Black Ops III releases later this week. It’s not the game that revolutionizes FPS genre forever, but Halo 5: Guardians is worth your money and time.