02 November, 2015

Review – Halo 5: Guardians

Never has there been so much ONI in a Halo game before; slick, black, and manipulative the word is never far from lips in the campaign and somehow it has even managed to worm itself into the multiplayer too. If that’s not reason enough to pick up Halo 5: Guardians then I guess you should check out the rest of the review?

Halo 5: Guardians jameson locke banner

Halo 5: Guardians

As with all traditional shooters I hit the campaign first, and despite having already watched the bombastic and somewhat anime-inspired opening cinematic, I was swept off my feet once again. When Fireteam Osiris finishes its raucous descent of a Covenant-covered snow drenched mountain, the game gives you control of the team’s leader Jameson Locke – you do play as poster boy Master Chief too but more on that later. I then assumed that in typical shooter fashion you would pick your way through a handful of bands of Covenant at a measured pace, as the game explains its systems. I was mostly wrong, you’re in a warzone; Jul M’dama’s Covenant is locked in heated battle with the planet’s Forerunner defences, and both are in your way. Osiris is there for Dr Catherine Halsey, previously head of the Spartan II project, creator of Cortana (the Master Chief’s late AI companion), and more recently traitor to humanity. The action felt fast, too fast for Halo or for an opening level, if there was a pause it was because I allowed there to be, Halo 5 provided me the space, enemies, and means to enjoy a gameplay experience in the opening minutes that previous titles in the series spent hours building up to.

The newfound intensity isn’t like the speed of the Call of Duty series, don’t worry it is still very much Halo, just refined by the high, silky framerate and bolstered by new movement and combat options. Hit the A button while jumping at a ledge and you’ll clamber up, hit B and a direction and your thrusters will kick in, perfect for escaping a grenade or clearing a gap. You can charge and unleash a ground pound while in the air by using the melee button, and if you aim down the sights while airborne your suits thrusters will hold you in place allowing you to take stable shots. There’s also shoulder charging while sprinting and that’s useful in and out of combat; certain walls can be smashed aside, as well as a knee slide which I’ve only ever used to look cool.

 Halo 5: Guardians fireteam osiris forerunner soldier

If you are familiar with other first-person shooters of recent years, you may recognise many of these abilities, and I had my doubts about their inclusion after playing the Halo 5 multiplayer beta earlier this year. I really can’t say whether the developer 343 Industries tuned and tweaked them, or if I just became better acquainted with the abilities in the campaign, a place free from the frustrations of competitive multiplayer. Regardless I’m now one hundred per cent on board, and similarly accepting of the option to aim down the sights. While it may sound like a totally minor addition, the aiming Call of Duty championed years ago has until this game never been present in the Halo series; in the past some guns like the Battle Rifle allowed you to scope in but that was mechanically quite different. Just like the movement options, the multiplayer beta didn’t sell me on it, yet now it feels like a totally fine; you’re not necessarily encouraged to aim down the sights, shooting from the hip is still completely viable. I tend to aim down the sights only when at range, meaning the close and mid-range action remains largely from the hip, unlike in Call of Duty where snapping down the sights is pretty much essential at all ranges.

The level design has changed substantially; partially to accommodate the new forms of mobility, but also to allow four players (using online co-op, or AI teammates) to fight effectively. Many areas are larger, more complex and vertical, with side passages accessible through vents or destructible walls, this of course allows for more enemies and at times allies. Halo has always had large open spaces, when I describe the levels of Halo 5 as larger I mean that all aspects have grown; what was once a corridor is now a maze of interlinked corridors, medium sized combat arenas have grown to large but retained their density and fidelity of cover and vantage points. It is the perfect venue for Halo’s signature sandbox action, easily making Halo 5 my favourite playing first-person shooter in recent memory. Destiny, the MMO-ish shooter from Bungie, the original developers of Halo, took the Halo combat formula in its own direction, one I find sorely disappointing; the action of pulling the trigger and head-shotting a Fallen is wonderful, but it’s level design and weapon options are all so woefully flat, streamlined rather than developed further. Halo 5 could not be more divergent, and all the better for it, yet the campaign offering is not without its flaws.

Halo 5: Guardians locke and vale sunaion

While the on foot action is the best it has ever been, helped by the tweaked Promethean (Forerunner) unit roster, the vehicular sections feel by comparison slower and for the most part underwhelming, they remain fun but haven’t evolved at the rate the core combat has. Although Halo 4’s Mantis, the bi-pedal mech armed with a machine gun and missile launcher makes a triumphant and explosive return. The sequence – almost every Halo has one – that see’s you boarding a huge moving vehicle didn’t feel epic in the least; it is bigger than anything before it, but it has up until that moment existed solely in the background of other battles, never once posing a threat to you nor its other enemies. Worse still, actually boarding and taking the beast down me perhaps a minute, it didn’t at all feel like an accomplishment – I’ve had more troublesome battles with single Ghosts.

Furthermore on the normal difficulty, which is usually what I play just about any game on the first time round, I completed the entire fifteen mission campaign solo in just 5 hours 27 minutes 56 seconds, depressingly short for a first-person shooter campaign and especially a Halo game. I’m playing through once more on legendary (the hardest difficulty level) and it is of course taking longer, but it still seems easier than most if not all of the previous games, in no small part due to how it handles death. Halo 5 features a down-but-not-out revival mechanic, allowing squadmates to revive fallen comrades rather than wait for a respawn or return to an earlier checkpoint, it’s a system I wholly approve of given the structure of the combat encounters.

Halo 5: Guardians blue team argent moon

You’re never alone in Halo 5, you will always be accompanied by three Spartan squadmates, whether they’re your friends through online co-op play – there is no split screen option – or the AI. The latter you can issue orders to, albeit simply ones like; kill that thing, or go over there. The orders don’t always work, the intelligence of the AI is questionable, so too is their ability to shoot, but what did we honestly expect? It remains a neat dynamic and I only really noticed their stupidity when playing again on legendary.  The campaign switches between Locke’s Fireteam Osiris, a squad of fresh and diverse Spartan IVs, and Master Chief’s Blue Team, the last remaining and decidedly dated Spartan IIs. The campaign split isn’t equal like you might imagine, and functionally their only difference is that Locke can ‘ping’ the environment with the new Artemis system, picking out points of interest, weapons, and ammunition. It’s actually extremely disappointing that the Master Chief can’t do the same; the game explains it with a line of dialog claiming Locke asked for the system specifically, but I honestly cannot think of a reason why you wouldn’t also want the Chief to be able to scan.

Halo 5: Guardians master chief cinematic

The story goes to some really fascinating places, both from the perspective of the universe and some of the characters in it, but the way it gets to those places is problematic. It’s not simplistic like the Bungie Halo stories, it is rather like the Halo 4 narrative in that it involves a lot of characters, none of whom are explored in any depth, and delves deeply into the history of the universe, but again doesn’t adequately explore what that means. I’ve read/watched/played/listened to almost every piece of Halo fiction there is, the only exceptions I am aware of is the latest Troy Denning novel, and the Frank O’Conner short story, I’ve started both but not finished either. Bearing that in mind, I was astonished by some of the events of this narrative; you see places and take part in actions that I never would have hoped to see in the form of a game, and the setup for Halo 6 is captivating. If you haven’t kept up with the lore and backstory, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend starting now, a lot of the recent material has been downright dull. However, go in blind and you’re not going to know anything about any of the characters, or truly understand the significance of what’s happening. Now that’s not to say you won’t enjoy seeing it through, but if I didn’t already have a vested interest in the fiction of the series then this game would have felt like a backhanded slap from a storytelling standpoint – say what you will about Halo 4, but at least it had a firm ending, a resolution. Halo 5 has the very real potential to disappoint in that regard.

The pacing of the story is also flawed; when you’re shooting or watching people punch each other it’s awesome, but Halo has always had quieter and more atmospheric scenes in which the story unfolds. Halo 5 is either action or nothing. There’s radio chatter and audiologs in missions – also skulls, but no terminals – unlike previous titles there are several dead stops, where you are confined to an area surrounded by NPCs and told to hit some buttons or check in on someone. The idea being you walk around and listen to the conversations and you can but there’s really nothing there that couldn’t have been conveyed better in a longer, better directed cutscene or two. The cutscenes that do exist look visually amazing and are well choreographed, but they don’t do a good enough job at telling you why anything matters. It is difficult for me to explain with the problems more specifically, because doing so would require spoiling key plot points.

Halo 5: Guardians arc warzone promethean knight

Just like I can blast holes in the campaign that I loved at times, I can and will do the exact same to the competitive multiplayer. Let’s start with the new and rather unique Warzone game mode because Halo 5’s most egregious issues sprout from that. It’s a large (12 versus 12) mode, with matches that tend to last upwards of fifteen minutes. The two teams spawn on either side of map, with three initially neutral buildings between them, a team can win be either capturing all three locations then destroying the core of the enemy team’s base, or by accruing 1000 victory points. These points are granted for killing enemy players and for eliminating AI controlled targets that appear around the map. The harder to kill ‘legendary’ bosses are worth 150 victory points each, meaning Warzone can be a great source of last minute comebacks and epic swings. There’s also a Warzone Assault variant that places one team in the role of attacker, trying to take the locations from the other team, though mode this lacks the AI-controlled enemies. There are three Warzone maps, each with a modified version for Assault.

Warzone is a blast; it truly capitalises on the chaos of large-scale Halo action by sprinkling the AI units around, providing multiple avenues to victory and plenty of ways for individual players to contribute without needing to be masterful at the combat. To me it feels like an evolution of the Invasion mode introduced in Halo: Reach, but much like the campaign it presents a wider breadth of gameplay options. Unfortunately, Warzone is the central cog in Halo 5’s poor implementation of microtransactions. Unlike every other instance of Halo that I can think of, no weapons or vehicles spawn on the maps themselves, to use either REQ (requisition) cards must be spent. These cards come randomly assorted in tiered packs, purchasable with in-game currency (granted for playing matches) or real world money; they contain single use weapons, vehicles, and boosts (like overshields), as well as permanent cosmetic items. Primary weapons (all human) can be used infinitely when unlocked.

The cards that can be used in a match are limited by a regenerating energy meter; the bigger equipment like tanks aren’t available until the later stages of a match. But that doesn’t mean it’s balanced, because your ability to spawn one in the first place is predicated by the contents of your REQ packs. For example, at the time of writing I have played more than thirteen hours of multiplayer and unlocked (single uses) of the following vehicle’s; three types (different skins) of Mongoose, three types of Scout (no turret) Warthogs, three types of normal Warthogs, and Ghosts. Worse still, I haven’t yet gained the ability to use the DMR, a human primary weapon. I should also point out that I bought the deluxe edition of the game, which came with additional REQ packs and have put £10 more into this hellish system. That you can pay for REQ packs doesn’t bother me on its own, I myself frequently purchase similar microtransactions in other games, to expedite customisation unlocks for example. But the way they are implemented in Halo 5 is such that they adversely affect the balance of the game, what used to be part of the experience is now restricted to random rolls of a loaded dice. I can think of few ways they could have been integrated more dreadfully.

Halo 5: Guardians arena ground pound

Now you might be thinking, just play Arena, the more traditional multiplayer experience. Well you could but you still won’t find vehicles on any of the maps. There are very few game modes currently available and Big Team Battle isn’t one of them, there are at most half a dozen different modes and a reasonable selection of maps, though they vary considerably in visual quality. Perhaps half of them look great as you would expect, but the other half look suspect at best, some of these are I believe made using the Forge map editor – which isn’t yet in the game – and use almost texture-less walls and harsh flat colours as if pulled from an early last generation title.

One ‘advantage’ of Halo 5 including microtransactions is that all future map packs will be free, meaning they can be fully incorporated into the map hoppers for all players, the player base will no longer be fragmented. Furthermore, the absent map-creation mode called Forge is due to be released sometime in December. I don’t believe however, that it’s inclusion will fully flesh out the game’s offering; unlike the previous three Halo first-person shooter titles, 5 lacks any co-op mode outside of the campaign – which has always been co-op . Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach both had the compelling wave-based Firefight mode, and Halo: 4 had my personal favourite, the episodic story-rich Spartan Ops mode. In some ways Warzone partially plugs that gap with its AI enemies, but as we’ve already discussed it has its own issues, and at its core it is a competitive player versus player mode.

Halo 5: Guardians sunaion

Halo 5 boasts a strong art direction, which gets to run wild in some new and magnificent locations, the series has always featured some of the most impressive skyboxes and this game is no different. As I’ve mentioned it runs like butter at 60fps, the trade-off comes at the resolution which is variable, in other words it will decrease during intense scenes in order to maintain the framerate. The only dip in fidelity that I noticed was that once or twice distant enemies appeared to have jerkier animations. With the exception of some of the Arena maps, Halo 5 looks sharp and sounds thunderous. The weapon effects boom and crack with terrific weight, though the soundtrack didn’t move me in the way the series has in the past. The music lacks the drum-heavy action of Halo 4’s soundtrack and doesn’t aim to capture the choirs of the earlier games either. It has its moments, and includes the Mantis theme from Halo 4 which I genuinely appreciated, but it didn’t hit when I expected it too and rarely felt epic. Most of the time I failed to unconsciously notice the music at all.

Halo 5: Guardians review score Halo 5: Guardians plays exceptionally well. It offers my favourite first-person shooter action of this generation, perhaps ever, no mean feat considering how many great titles there have been in recent years. Intelligent level design, finely-tuned movement options, and the silky 60fps framerate all elevate the signature Halo sandbox action to unprecedented heights. This is all undermined however by the inadequate story telling of the extremely short campaign, the relatively paltry offering of game modes, and most deplorably of all, the microtransactions that literally gate your access to weapons and vehicles. Halo 5 has lost a lot of what Halo games have previously offered, such as dedicated co-op modes, and the Warzone mode, damaged as it is by the effects of the microtransactions, doesn’t do enough to offset this. It’s a good game; it could have been great had it not been harpooned by issues from almost all conceivable angles.

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