Since its first tease at E3 2013, the metaphorical river of superlatives used to describe the latest instalment in Microsoft’s Halo franchise hasn’t stopped flowing. Seattle-based developer 343 Industries has told fans that Halo 5: Guardians would be the biggest, most expansive, most epic Halo yet, in terms of both story and scale. A new engine would be built from the ground up for the Xbox One, and Halo 4’s somewhat disappointing multiplayer would be totally overhauled into something more reminiscent of the classic and intensely competitive arenas of Halo 2 and 3.
Halo 5 totally delivers on every front.
Its campaign is told from two opposing, playable viewpoints; the Master Chief and Blue Team are declared AWOL near the campaign’s start and are subsequently hunted down by newcomer Spartan Locke and his team of mostly-fresh faces, Fireteam Osiris. This dynamic gives a slight feeling of déjà vu if you’re a veteran of Halo 2’s campaign, although the switches in perspective aren’t nearly as jarring due to prior marketing and, of course, the game’s cover art. It comes as a huge surprise that Locke’s team get the lion’s share of the missions (twelve out of the fifteen in the game), however a few of those are five-minute – almost RPG-esque – fetch quests, so that evens the score a little. This lack of the Master Chief has come off as a little forced, almost suggesting that Microsoft could be getting ready to retire the Chief as Halo’s main protagonist.
The missions themselves are a breath of fresh air when compared to the last instalment, which took place almost entirely on one planet with a singular taste in architecture. Halo 5 brings a sprawling space opera across three worlds and several vastly different settings, each with unique art direction, music and atmosphere. Criticisms from Halo 4 have clearly been heard and improved upon massively, which is a recurring theme throughout the entire package. Soldiers, a new enemy class, take over from Knights as the main stock of Promethean encounters, in turn elevating Knights to a rarer, and genuinely intimidating threat level. Combat with Promethean forces never gets boring, always keeps you thinking and is always a challenge (on Heroic or Legendary difficulty of course).
Halo 5 brings a sprawling space opera across three worlds and several vastly different settings, each with unique art direction, music and atmosphere
Squad mechanics make their core series debut here as well, the player is surrounded by three AI-controlled (when playing solo) teammates in every single mission. Teammates can be given standard squad orders, somewhat limited in scope but still pretty solid in context. Revival by a teammate is now an option, which works sometimes, but you have to be within reasonable range of the AI, and hope they’re not preoccupied with combat. On many occasions I died waiting for a revive from a teammate who clearly couldn’t care less about my situation.
Creatively, everything is immaculate here. From art to music, skyboxes to animation, it’s immediately obvious that every aspect is the result of one of the best art and audio teams in the industry. The environments are stunning and every shot, footstep and vehicle sound feel wholly authentic. Cutscenes are fully motion-captured bringing brilliant realism, boosted by series best voice acting. Music is another high point, with composer Kazuma Jinnouchi pulling out a stunning score which manages to reference themes from all over the franchise while seamlessly integrating new ones. This carries over to multiplayer as well, where every map is unique and equally beautiful, and attention to detail on minute sound effects makes every kill feel incredibly satisfying. Keeping all of this running at a rock solid 60 fps is a huge technical achievement and makes gameplay silky smooth across all modes.
Possibly the most talked about part of the Halo series is multiplayer, and 343I have delivered – in my and many other reviewers’ opinions – the best multiplayer since Halo 2. Core gameplay has been taken back to old-school equal starts and power weapon control, there’s none of the Call of Duty-style loadouts of killstreaks to be found here. Again, a result of vast community backlash after the unwelcome additions to Halo 4. The Arena is the home of competitive play and includes classic 4v4 Slayer / Objective along with “Breakout”, a tense, one-life elimination gametype; while the chaotic, 24-player “Warzone” mode provides crazy vehicular madness and introduces “Requisitions”, Halo 5’s answer to Titanfall’s burn cards. There’s also some great new maps to be found, although whether they’ll be added to the pantheon of legendary Halo maps like Lockout and The Pit remains to be seen.
Gameplay has been completely overhauled and feels infinitely better for it. Certain weapons have been tuned to perfection since the beta, most notable being the pistol – which is now competitive against more powerful, longer range weapons, balancing the entire sandbox. Hugely controversial Spartan abilities like sprint, thrust and ground pound have also had a slight tweaking, making them feel like an integral part of the game instead of a tacked-on marketing hook to draw players from other FPS titles. Matchmaking works perfectly and is a far cry from The Master Chief Collection.
This is quite simply the best overall Halo game in recent memory. It’s too difficult to rank the games against each other, so I won’t try. But the quality and value of the complete bundle makes it a must-buy for both series veterans and newcomers alike.