Halo 5: Guardians’ story campaign is the result of a mature studio that’s now able to confidently lay claim to the iconic franchise.
Having played Halo 4 a number of times, I realised that it left me with the same feelings after each play-through: that there should be more to it, that some things were done right, and few instances where 343 Industries failed to break from Bungie’s mould of what a Halo game should be.
343 Industries got their second chance with Halo 5: Guardians, and the studio had to do better with that game in every way – a herculean task that only few teams manage with their sequels. Now, having finished Halo 5’s campaign, I can safely say this is the most consistent story out of all the Halo games, but, more interestingly, the absolute best-playing one.
As you’ve no doubt seen in the game’s trailers, you will alternate between playing as Blue Team (led by Master Chief), and the newest addition to the series, fireteam Osiris (led by Spartan Locke). In the first hour and a half of the game you will have played each team’s opening mission and will have a firm grip on the game’s narrative.
The old gives way to the new in every way in Halo 5: Guardians. Fireteam Osiris’s debut is set to new music that’s completely different from the Halo theme we’ve always known, while Chief’s opening mission starts with an energised new arrangement of those classic strains.
It made sense, established a tone to the story pretty early, and made it easy for us to set our expectations for what’s to come: an equally thrilling ride across alien planets. The story follows different paths than what the trailers had us believe, but it is nonetheless the series’ best.
This standard is met by Halo 5’s aesthetic and graphical design. This is easily one of the best looking games of the year. There’s something to be said about how 343 chose to texture materials. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a distinct feel; coupled with the lighting engine, it delivers a very realistic-looking environments. Rocks, metal, plastic, mud – everything is easily identifiable to a striking degree.
It’s hard to judge something like this if you can’t feel it, but the remarkable thing is that the illusion is there, and it’s unbreakable.
That Halo 5 achieves this new visual height while running at a near-constant 60 frames-per-second is what really puts the work 343 has done with the game’s tech in perspective. There has always been, and will continue to be, an absolute joy and a unique rush to playing 60fps games, shooters or otherwise.
It’s a shame that very few titles adhere to this target, but reaching a stable 60fps makes gameplay outlive graphics and all other peripheral details. Just go back and play classic games running at a high frame-rate and you’ll know what it is.
The innovation however doesn’t stop there. Halo 5’s movement places it in a category of its own among current shooters, and doesn’t come off as a cheap way to push the series forward. Just look at Halo 4’s Spartan Abilities: an honest attempt at making the standard formula more interesting, but one the majority didn’t take to. One could argue these tribulations are part of why the studio succeeded this time around.
In Halo 5, key movement enhancements all feel like natural extensions of their parent moves, completely nullifying any complaints one could have about just making the game faster at the expense of gameplay.
You can boost in any direction, but the ability is limited to once every few seconds. It’s perfect for quickly exiting engagements and you’ll learn to use it like you would a dodge button in an RPG. Running for a short distance changes your reticule letting you know you can do a Spartan Charge. You can use this to blast your way through cracked walls, or as a more powerful form of melee. Jumping to higher ledges is made much more viable when you use the Clamber ability, which lets you reach ledges with ease and ensures your momentum isn’t broken too much.
The combat is also more vertical than ever, thanks to the new Stabilisation ability, which gives you some precious seconds of stability if you aim down sights mid-air. And finally, the most empowering one of all: the Ground Pound, which you can trigger from almost any height and cause you to charge down causing a shockwave of destruction.
All of these, while fun to pull off on their own or chain together, wouldn’t be nearly as exciting if the game didn’t offer you opportunities where you can use them. Which means level design needed to accommodate these abilities and make them fun to use over and over.
Halo 5’s levels aren’t just the biggest and more varied out of any game in the series; they offer multiple routes to the action, and it’s unlikely you’ll discover them all during your first time through. There are paths in the middle where vehicles can be used, hidden alleyways that let you pop up behind enemies, and various tiers of high ledges that offer verticality unlike any other shooter on consoles.
Exploring levels for hidden power weapons, looking for collectible Skulls or Intel, or just to vary your angle of attack is the single most exciting and rewarding thing you can do in the game. The Halo sandbox is taken to entirely new levels that all scream at you to come play, and none of it feels cheap or hastily put together.
The game’s player count had to be upped to support these vast new levels. Both fireteams consist of four members, each with different weapon loadouts and personalities. You always control the leader in your game, but get a choice of any of the remaining three when you’re invited to one.
We weren’t able to test out dedicated server support for co-op play. The buddy AI, however, is all over the place. At times, teammates will be quick to help get you out of your DBNO state and provide fire support. Other times, they will be standing next to you as you go down, and wander off to do whatever. This got me killed a couple of times on Heroic, but shouldn’t be an issue on lower difficulties.
Of course it doesn’t help that the game only gives you one contextual command option that changes based on what you aim at. I don’t know if this a hardware limitation or if 343 didn’t want to have the action focus on squad commands. Either way, it’s a part of the game that needs work but is thankfully marginal to the overall experience. If you get into too much trouble, just make sure you highlight a boss and have everyone focus fire.
I am about a third of the way on my second play-through of the game on Heroic. It’s a great way to re-examine what works and what it doesn’t. However, one thing is obvious: how 343 Industries transformed as a studio between Halo 4 and 5. It’s a bit similar to Infinity Ward’s journey from the first to the second Modern Warfare game.
Both sequels were produced with higher production values, improved on their prequels in every possible way and left everyone with a sense of accomplishment that there’s new talent in the industry.
Many regard Modern Warfare 2 as Call of Duty’s peak. Halo 5: Guardians, too, is the peak of the series – and that’s just one of its many accolades.
This review is based on final code of the games’ campaign (in single-player) provided by Microsoft upon request.