Halo 5: Guardians Review (Xbox One)
The Halo series has long been the benchmark by which all other Xbox games are judged. There have been some stumbles in the great lineage of Master Chief as of late, in particular last year's Master Chief Collection falling prey to launch woes that would have crippled any chance for success a true sequel could have had. Now one year later, 343 Industries has returned with the first true Xbox One Halo game, Halo 5. There are a lot of new aspects 343's thrown on top of the existing architecture that's become so familiar to fans over the past decade plus, and most of them work quite well to help bring the Halo franchise into a new generation. There just must be something about second entries in Master Chief's life.
Following Bungie's narrative blueprint, the second entry in 343 Industries' Reclaimer Trilogy splits its narrative between two leads, Master Chief and former ONI agent-turned-Spartan, Jameson Locke. The lead-in to Halo 5 has been all about Locke and his team of Spartans tracking down Master Chief and his Spartan friends, with advertising going so far as to brand Chief a potential traitor to the UNSC. You'll see both sides of that story unfold throughout Halo 5's campaign, though early chapters lack the focus of the final third of the adventure.
Both Chief's and Locke's stories intertwine in interesting ways, though the supporting cast on Locke's team is much more interesting. The other Spartan-IIs in Chief's Blue Team don't offer much in the way of interesting development, though they are loyal to John-117, perhaps to their own detriment. Locke's Fireteam Osiris isn't just along for the ride, they're just as involved in the story, at least from a developmental standpoint. Each of the other three Spartans brings their own ideas and insights to the hunt for Chief, and as a result, those chapters feel much more engaging. That said, if this is your first Halo or you're a bit out of practice with the story, good luck keeping up.
There are other differences between the two leads, and the other team members as well. As Chief's team is one of the earlier Spartan squads, the gear they use is a little outdated. While new combat mechanics like Spartan Charge (a powerful sprinting melee attack), Ground Pound (a slow, thunderous aerial melee slam), clambering and sliding have been included for all Spartans regardless of what era they came from, Fireteam Osiris has the ability to use a sonar ping to search the surrounding area. Not only does this point you in the direction of the next objective, but it's also handy for locating that pesky, well-hidden intel during a given mission. Blue Team's HUDs are also a bit less busy, but Osiris' more informational helmets don't offer much beyond a cosmetic upgrade. It's a subtle way for your screen to show the slight difference between the Spartan-II and Spartan-IV recruits.
The largest change 343 Industries makes with Halo 5's campaign doesn't come from its characters or story, but from being built with four players in mind at all times. While previous Halos have allowed you to play with multiple partners, none offered quite as much freedom and space for combat. Every single one of Halo 5's chapters is massive, not so much from a length standpoint (all told you can finish on your own in about six hours), but from a strategic standpoint. Though you could command a battlefield well enough with maneuverability before, Halo 5 opens new paths and opportunities based on verticality earlier games can't match at all.
Of course, Halo 5 is still a linear experience in that you'll be funneled through the same combat zones no matter which route you take or how you wish to engage the enemy. That there's a choice in how you can do it makes all the difference. This is especially true when playing with other actual humans, who you can actively communicate with to create better points of attack. You have a limited set of commands to give your AI partners, including where to move (as a group) or which enemy to attack (as a group). Individual taskmastering isn't really possible until you bring a friend or two along for the ride.
Additionally, revival plays a big part in Halo's campaign, whether playing with AI teammates or real ones. On lower difficulties, no longer will you be forced back to a checkpoint when downed. Now you can call for your teammates to revive you, and you can revive them if they fall to an enemy attack. There is a time limit, and not all downed instances allow you to be revived, but when pinned down in particularly challenging firefights, revival is a key factor in success. While it's a new mechanic for the series that may upset the apple cart for longtime hardcore players, it's a welcome addition for less-skilled players who just want to be able to enjoy Halo 5's story without being sent back to a checkpoint every time they fall.
Competitive multiplayer gets its fair share of update love too, and it's almost all entirely for the better. Arena is the familiar meat and potatoes in the Halo multiplayer buffet, but Warzone makes a case for being an attractive and engaging second entree. While all the multiplayer we played was on dedicated servers set up prior to the public launch, which is a thing we must disclose now in an era of online launch uncertainty, the action across both modes was fast, exciting and addictive. Like the campaign, all Spartans come with those handy new abilities, which adds a new wrinkle to the familiar run and shoot formula.
Whether playing Warzone or Arena, the various melee attacks like the charge or aerial pound force you to rethink your approach to close-quarters combat whether attacking or defending. It's incredibly satisfying to set an opponent up for both a big Spartan Charge kill or the Ground Pound, but that's because they both come at significant risk. The Spartan Charge requires you to be at full sprint to pull off, which means your shields won't be recharging if you're being shot at while rushing enemies. The Ground Pound requires you to pause in the air so long to properly target that you yourself become an easy target for anyone remotely paying attention. Still, you've constantly got them at your disposal if you can get good at the timing, and you'll always have to be thinking about someone else using them. Just the mere existence of these two options in the repertoire changes the battlefield dynamic.
Warzone, the big new battle mode that features PvP and PvE combat. For the most part, Warzone is all about controlling the map and racking up points in order to be the first team to 1000. These matches are long, involved, and a great way for less familiar players to orient themselves to competitive play without making them feel like they aren't accomplishing anything. Capturing bases earns you points, taking down the AI enemies earns your team points, and helping hold down the forts (so to speak) keeps your team earning points. Even if you're absolute rubbish when you start out, you can contribute in meaningful ways. There is a Warzone match type is all about defending a base against an attacking team which doesn't take quite as long, but it's also not as fun.
The 12v12 mode is also home to the new Requisitions System, which is the collectible card supplemental mechanic to bolster your available arsenal in Warzone. Everyone starts out with the same basic loadout, but as the match progresses, your team's Requisition level increases. The higher the Requisition level, the better the weapons and vehicles you can summon. Now, you will have to have the actual item handy in your card library in order to summon it, and once used, it's gone forever. The card packs are relatively easy to come by as you level up and perform well in Warzone, though they come a bit slower as you play more and increase your level. That said, the items do drop with great frequency in packs, it's just that rare and legendary items are harder to come by.
You can also purchase more Req Packs with actual money, but they merely offer the tools for your Spartan. It's still up to you to use them to their best advantage. It's a great feeling to finally get your Req Level up enough to summon a SAW or rocket launcher. It's really burns to then hit the Warzone and get taken out before you can unleash your latest Requisition. It happens often though, and using any Requisition is a gamble. Saying goodbye to your shiny new Ghost before you even smashed someone's face in is not a good feeling. Fortunately, anyone you kill does leave their current loadout on the field, so you might be able to take advantage of some nice armaments you'd otherwise not have gotten in your own collection.
The only place you'll find any use for Requisition in Arena are with cosmetic upgrades. There are armors and helmets and weapon skins, but nothing to impact the flow of the game for one player or another. Arena sticks to a more tried-and-true formula, pitting players against one another with the same loadouts and requiring them to grab the various power weapons from specific spots on a given map. It's a tale as old as time, and one that feels really great to play on the new maps and at 60fps. The tides shift constantly no matter what mode you're playing (Breakout, Stronghold, Slayer or CTF), and running around exploring the new heights and vantage points 343's included to make use of all those Spartan abilities keeps things feeling fresh no mater how many times you've been on the same map.
Arena provides a much more intimate experience, and where Warzone had you fueling victory for a large machine, these PvP matches make your success and failures that much more meaningful. Unlike Warzone, it's also really easy to develop a rivalry in Arena, particularly when you stay within the same playlist without backing out. Of course, it's early and players are still feeling their way through the maps to uncover the optimal strategies for victory. With all the extra nooks and crannies jammed into even the smaller, more personal Arena maps, Halo 5's multiplayer feels like a brand new frontier even if the ambiance seems familiar. It does feel good to be back in the mix again with so many changes to the formula that's been slightly tweaked over the past few entries and under 343's watch.
It's taken 343 Industries a few games to get a handle on its own version of Halo, but with Halo 5 the company seems to have settled into a nice groove. At least when it comes to the multiplayer portion. The narrative direction still has a few rough edges to work out, but there's promise enough in the final portion to give hope for the conclusion of the Reclaimer trilogy.
Though the story is a draw for longtime fans, most people will be stopping in to check out Halo 5's multiplayer, and it's there 343's direction really shines. Warzone is a lot of fun, and Arena's classic inspiration is made all the better thanks to 343's latest twists to core mechanics. It's gorgeous, it's fast-paced, and it's a blast to play regardless of your skill level. Halo 5 is absolutely the flagship title the Xbox One deserves.
This review was completed with a download code for Halo 5: Guardians provided by the publisher for Xbox One.