Master Chief’s first true outing on Xbox One is a return to familiar form; tight gunplay, staged sci-fi and steady pacing, says Cassandra Khaw.
“If you’ve ever binged on a Halo game, you’d be at home here. Fun, rather than challenge, is prioritised.”
The opening for Halo 5: Guardians is strangely balletic. The lights come on and we fade into a glimpse of Master Chief’s helmet. He runs his thumb across its back. The camera cuts. We see a ship coasting through a static asteroid field. Its destination reveals itself, a much larger vessel in the horizon. The Argent Moon.
Cut. We’re inside Master Chief’s vessel again; there’s a shot of Blue Team preparing for combat. The music is beginning to boil with anticipation. Another cut. Another look at the exterior of the ship. Cut to Master Chief again, this time showcased in full. The camera strokes his form like a lover, lingering on even the most miniscule action — the tilt of a wrist, the trembling of gauntleted fingers. It’s clear that 343 Industries understands what its audience wants and who they’re here for.
This fact is driven home in the next shot, when our iconic protagonist joins his compatriots. Even his entry — the way he sets his feet on the hard metal floor, the way the camera scoops upwards — is dramatic, deliberate. Like actors following a script, his crew take turns to interact with him: one gives him his gun, another addresses him with a gruff nod, the third quietly asks about his condition. Master Chief is fine, of course.
It’s all very systematic, very mechanical, and yet weirdly beautiful. From the way they skim through the asteroid belt to the way they smash through a window in their ship, anchoring themselves against the pull of space with judicious use of their thrusters, there’s something about Blue Team’s practiced, effortless motions that is evocative of a stage performance. Nothing about the opening cinematic conveys urgency, or doubt that the heroes could do anything but triumph, their victory already long preordained.
The imagery carried throughout my experience with the campaign mode for Halo 5: Guardians. Playable as solo or as a four-man co-op experience, it never really installs a fear of the expansive spacecraft you find yourself wandering. The innocuousness of your environment is further enhanced by a general lack of grime. You encounter bodies from time to time, but there is no dirt, no real evidence of plasma-fueled conflict, no indication that life did more than just exist. The last is particularly jarring. It’s possible that Blue Team’s trajectory simply skirts such things, but the effect of their absence is indisputable. The ship feels like a set piece, a playing field and in a very real sense. That’s precisely what it is.
Combat in Halo 5 is sharp, fluid — exactly what you would expect from a Halo game. Similarly, the controls do not deviate far from the standard formula for the Xbox shooters, with shoulder triggers and analog sticks performing as you’d anticipate. The catalogue of abilities, however, differs somewhat. Unlike the ones that came with your armor in previous games, these are universal for all players. They include an infinite sprint, a stabilizer to improve your aim, thruster packs for juking, and a Spartan shoulder charge that essentially allows you to mimic your rugby champion.
“The plot isn’t what brings people to Halo. It’s the opportunity to experience the world, to feel powerful, to be awesome — and to do it in the company of your friends.”
There’s a slight rawness to this pool of new talents. Use of the thrusters felt a bit awkward, and the explosiveness of the Spartan charge animations didn’t always fit the amount of space travelled. Luckily, these do little to detract from the overall experience. If you’ve ever binged on a Halo game, you’d be at home here. You can play it safe and pick enemies from cover, transitioning from weapon to weapon as you go, or dive in, gun blazing, until your armor becomes dangerously depleted. At normal difficulty levels, Halo 5 is, while also not necessarily being a jaunt through the park, far from punishing even for a neonate. It feels like fun, rather than challenge, is prioritized here.
That sentiment is further enforced by your A.I companions. They’re smart enough to pick off most early enemies on your own, a useful trait when you’re a new player flailing through the fundamentals of Halo 5. While happy to mill along behind you, they can easily be commanded to convene on a particular spot, focus fire on a specific enemy, or revive you after you’ve taken a fall. All it takes is a stroke of a button. In co-op play, it’s possible to have other people seamlessly swap into these roles. I’m told that there are unique loadouts for each of the other characters, but I didn’t really get the opportunity to play co-operatively with the other journalists that were in attendance.
Moving on, for all of Halo 5’s technical successes, it suffers from a competent blandness. There’s nothing obtrusively unpleasant about the narrative. However, there’s also nothing particularly outstanding. I spent most of the first level calmly pottering from room to room, routinely wading into full-scale shootouts with a variety of enemies, holding X to interact with machinery when instructed, and never really heeding the voiceovers that insisted danger was imminent. No matter how slow I moved, no matter how much time I spent milling about, the game did not punish me. Not even in the climactic end scene, where I was supposed to hold off waves of enemies.
“Halo 5 stomps across a lot of well-trodden ground and avoids engaging in too much risk.”
To be fair to the game, Enemy Lines – a different chapter with Locke and a fireteam – had better pacing. Trading Blue Team for Fireteam Osiris, we find a slightly more advanced HUD, a different environment, and the presence of an adversary too large to kill. Swarming with Covenant enemies, the alien planet is also festooned with ruins, abandoned temples, and the opportunity to commandeer hoverbike-like vehicles. I never really got the hang of driving them — a penchant for wedging my appropriated toys in narrow spaces — but they seemed like they could be considerable amount of fun. More importantly, Enemy Lines illustrated the possibility for multiple solutions to a problem. In one run, I found my way to the tunnels beneath a massive shield. In another, I gunned down the miscreants separating me from my goal. Both options were valid, and fun to poke through.
Given the Halo franchise’s track record, I’m somewhat dubious about the idea that the story might grow more memorable after the first few levels, but I wouldn’t rule it out. That said, the plot isn’t what brings people to Halo. It’s the opportunity to experience the world, to feel powerful, to be awesome — and to do it in the company of your friends. Everything about what I’ve seen in Halo 5 feels safe. We know what’s coming. We can see it from a mile away. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing when that’s what you want.
Halo 5 stomps across a lot of well-trodden ground and avoids engaging in too much risk. It’s predictable -at least the part that I got my hands on. Despite all that, that’s not a reason for condemnation. While far from perfect, it’s palatable — so long as you have the right mindset. No one watches a B-grade movie with the intention of discovering visionary work. Halo 5 is the same. Go in looking for something earth-shattering and you’ll probably be disappointed. But as a weekend diversion? Halo 5 could, if your tastes swing that way, potentially be out of this world.