Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: October 27th, 2015
Price: $59.99/£44.99 (Digital Standard Edition on Xbox Store)
Platforms: Xbox One
Reviewed on: Xbox One
The reviewer pre-ordered a copy of this product. A review copy was requested from the publisher but at the time of writing no code had been provided.
The second title in the Halo franchise’s Reclaimer Saga (Halo 4, Halo 5 Guardians), sees the return of John-117 (‘Master Chief’), alongside his childhood friends Spartan II Blue Team’s, Frederic-104, Linda-058, and Kelly-087. Following their dramatic return to the Halo canon hunting the Ur-Didact after the events of Halo 4, Blue team have gone AWOL; and the UNSC have tasked the newly formed Fireteam Osiris to track the legendary Spartans down and get answers about the mysterious Guardians.
The new team contains familiar faces from the games and expanded universe. Spartan Jameson Locke from Halo Nightfall (formerly of Office of Naval Intelligence [ONI]), leads the foursome of Spartan IVs, consisting of Edward Buck from Halo 3: ODST, Holly Tanaka from the Halo Escalation comics, and Olympia Vale from Halo: Hunters in the Dark (formerly ONI). Other returning characters include Thel’ Vadam (Arbiter), Sarah Palmer (Spartan IV Commander), Thomas Lasky, Captain of the UNSC Infinity, from Halo 4 & Forward Unto Dawn, and Doctor Catherine Halsey. If you need a refresher course on Halo lore, YouTuber Halo Canon and Xbox’s channel produced a great primer series. The story is much the same for the multiplayer, with a great deal of the new being deeply rooted in the classic Halo multiplayer experience.
We Were Worried for Naught
When last we talked about Halo 5 Guardians it seemed I went on about how worried I was for this game. Between Halo: The Master Chief Collection’s disaster of a release, receiving a Teen (T) rating by Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) instead of Mature (M) rating of previous Halo Franchise titles, and ongoing problems and the state of game releases in triple-A, we were rightfully concerned. In spite of all of that, 343 Industries have released a beautiful, fun, and functioning game that will give Halo fans something to rave about.
A Thing of Beauty
Fuck this game is beautiful. Just look at that screenshot. 343i rebuilt the Halo engine for Xbox One, and boy am I a happy customer. Looking through Chief’s eyes has never been this gorgeous. According to Josh Holmes, “new progressive resolution system that allows us to scale dynamically the resolution at which we render the game (up to 1080p) based on the needs of the scene. Enabling us to deploy resources where they have most impact across a diverse series of experiences throughout the game while delivering the most visually stunning Halo game ever.” Coupled with fantastic scripting, casting, and the ever amazing soundtrack blew me away. It is by far the best-looking sci-fi shooter in years.
As I said above, the talent is apparent. In addition to many of the old hands in Halo voice acting such as Steve Downes (Chief), Keith David (Arbiter) and Nathan Fillion (Buck). 343i have hired some great new voice and motion-capture actors, including Mike Colter/Ike Amadi (Locke), Laura Bailey (Vale), and Cynthia McWilliams (Tanaka). Very few games manage to make their characters look as expressive and human as in Guardians.
The Best Halo Multiplayer Experience Ever
Halo’s multiplayer in many ways set the stage for modern first-person shooters (FPS), although recent years its style has become more of a niche, and the game faded from the professional eSports scene. Despite this Halo 5 Guardians looks to buck the trend, with a fast paced and innovative multiplayer experience. Microsoft and 343i being confident in this are launching a $1 million prize for Halo Championship Series (HCS).
Multiplayer in Guardians comes in two main types, Warzone, a 24-man large scale battle utilizing AI controlled enemies and objective based combat, and Arena, a fast-paced 4v4 mode-based experience. I mostly played a lot of Team Arena (the official HCS game modes playlist) and Free-For-All. Both are great game modes, although I found more variety in Team Arena. The Arena gameplay is a clear evolution from the traditional Halo model. Purists will appreciate the retiring of Halo 4’s loadout system while fans of Call of Duty etc. will appreciate features like the “aim-down-sights”-type ‘Smart Scope.’ Armour Abilities from Halo 4 are back as Spartan Abilities, and in addition to a revamped Sprint system and the addition of the ‘scramble’ ability, the pace of gameplay and verticality have been vastly improved. Additionally we are happy to the return of a great selection of Button and Thumbstick layouts, including fan favorites like Recon and Bumper Jumper. On top of gameplay improvements, the CSR (competitive ranking system) and matchmaking has had a massive overhaul, with automatic re-queue and a reworked banning system for quitters seriously enhancing Guardians’ multiplayer.
Thing’s aren’t perfect, though. Warzone suffers from being quite similar to Battlefield 4’s Conquest game mode, something I never really got into. While fun, it is a poor substitute for previous Halo games’ Big Team Battle modes. The new REQ (requisition) system is interesting but contains the ever dreaded ‘micro-transactions’ that are increasingly sneaking into triple-A titles. On top of this, making the game run at 60fps with 24 players has led to a significant aesthetic toll in Warzone, where the game looks very dated graphically (a shame as it is beautiful in single player).
Arena also has problems. The veto/vote system for map and game-type selection is gone; therefore, playlists can get samey. The maps, while fun and well-balanced lack polish, and there aren’t that many of them. The intro and outro sequences are cringe-worthy, and the in-game character voices are a bit to ‘bro’-like for my tastes. The Spartan companies’ clan system and the new emblem system are fit for purpose, but I would have liked to have seen improvements on the old model, not yet another overhaul on the latter. We will have to wait and see if they address this and the lack of playlists in patches or DLC. Although, all things considered, these are minor concerns.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to review Forge. Everyone’s favorite Halo map-making tool will be a post-release update in December. While a bummer, I hope this means they are taking the time to polish things and give us the best Forge yet. 343 plan to have all Arena and Breakout mode maps available, in addition to three large-scale forge maps designed to “maximize Forge-ability.” There are no current plans to include Forge for Warzone maps, though a range of other improvements were announced, including more objects, an improved control scheme, and unconstrained objects (allowing for placement of pretty much anything anywhere).
A Truly Legendary Story (Spoiler Light)
I have seen the game get a lot of flak for the campaign. Granted, the story is a bit confusing if you didn’t play previous games, and many of the missions are only serviceable when compared to classics like Halo 3, it bears mention that 343i are trying something entirely new here. In spite of the hate, Locke is a fascinating character, and his interactions with Fireteam Osiris, Arbiter and Blue team were a fresh new twist on the Halo, story-mode model. On top of this we get to see Chief like we have never seen him before, with his family and mad as hell. We also get to see Sanghelios (home world of the Elites), a forerunner world, new types of Promethean units (Soldiers), and a ton of great new lore, which made the geek in me smile.
I know you may want to hear more about the ins and outs of the campaign, but that would require spoilers as so much of the story is involved with unanswered questions from previous Halo stories. I don’t like spoilers, so you will need to play the game or go elsewhere for them. Suffice to say there is an awesome fist fight, some edge of your seat action, and no flood or Brutes (sorry guys).
Gameplay wise, Halo 5 Guardians’ story mode is very similar to multiplayer. The Spartan Abilities take some time to get used to, as does the increased verticality of the landscape. You also get to command your squad, which while fun and new, seemed underutilized and often buggy. That said your squad being able to revive you was a life-saver playing on Heroic. Following that, while we are on difficulty, I would recommend you first playthrough on Heroic. It provided a well-tuned experience that sufficiently punished you for not using your team or being excessively lone-wolf-ish (which I did miss as Chief). Despite being well balanced, the pace of the game did feel unfamiliar. With vast numbers of strong enemies, a more squishy feeling Spartan, and unlimited sprint, it took a wee while to get to grips with how quickly you tore through areas, but also how quickly you could get stomped flat (fuck you Warden).
All in all, I have little bad to say about the campaign. It had my prized vehicle segments, some platforming, a good story and fun enemies. That said, the death of an individual enemy in a cut scene instead of combat annoyed me and some of the later missions’ gameplay got pretty repetitive. I have one warning though some of you may not find the ending fulfilling.
We should not have been so worried. We did 343 Industries a disservice though our pain is understandable considering Halo: The Master Chief Collection. The story is fun, the multiplayer is fresh, and the game looks great. Halo on Xbox has a bright future if this game has anything to say. Buy it and come play!
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Halo: The Fall of Reach (Animated Series) is exclusive to the Limited Edition. Unfortunately, the reviewer was unable to watch the series before writing.