Two years after the release of Microsoft’s Xbox One console, Halo 5: Guardians has finally arrived — with things a bit different this time around. Master Chief is no longer the lone protagonist, and it’s up to Agent Jameson Locke and his Osiris Fireteam to #HuntTheTruth: Locate and rescue Spartan program creator, Dr. Catherine Halsey, and bring in a suddenly defiant John-117. Naturally, Chief has a quartet of Blue Spartans-IIs of his own, and it’s unknown throughout much of the campaign as to whether players are controlling a good-man-gone-bad, or just a man set with a differing ideology of circumstance…
Throughout this story-mode “journey for the truth” players will see missions that showcase both Locke and Chief, with a new team accompaniment of Spartans that will answer your general’s ever beck and call, including the ability to revive you whenever you go down. Of course these time-specific revives make more sense with the Fireteam (i.e. targeting specific enemies; directing your ‘mates to use vehicles/turrets or pick up special weapons), since both Chief and Linda-058 have always been known as lone wolves. It feels a little strange, especially on Heroic or Legendary difficulty (which you can only change during mission menu screens), to see either one constantly asking for assists. Either way, the new team dynamic gives Halo 5‘s campaign a refresher the franchise needs.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, when I tell you that the star of this show is former ODST Spartan-IV Eddie Buck (voiced by geek-icon Nathan Fillion). His gung-ho, charismatic marine adds a boatload of personality to a video game series not known for much of that, especially his play off of the more stern Locke. Players will also hear constant contexual party chatter (ala Dragon Age Inquisition) while traversing the missions with their team specified Spartans, who all have differing roles, weapon abilities, and HUDs — which becomes that much more apparent in co-op. Of course, this is the first Halo game with no split-screen — tell ’em why you mad, son! — but that fact makes more sense when taken under consideration that H5G is also the first Halo game to feature drop-in/drop-out online co-op.
Also, if you played the beta that took place at the end of last year, then you already know about the new gameplay enhancements a.k.a. “Spartan abilities” that work in all modes: thruster pack (used for a swift dodge boost, which will be a must in the campaign’s later stages but can often be too much of a good thing in multiplayer), a very useful and smooth clamber (the double climb is awesome for vaulting ledges in H5G‘s far more vertical experience), charge (a shoulder melee that can both down enemies and bash through walls to discover alternate routes), slide, ground pound, and modern COD-inspired smart scope (you can now iron sight/aim any weapon! What a “sin”!). Given that these new abilities will give your Spartan some much needed mobilization, your usual “run/cover/shoot” regimen makes battles that much more exciting and strategic. Best of all, there is a new, sort of “detective mode” with Artemis Tracking, which allows Osiris soldiers to highlight and discover those same routes, data chips and weapons of importance.
Fans of.. oh.. say.. Destiny will likely feel different about how the weapons in Halo 5 feel and respond (i.e. it’s widely argued that the Magnum, or just about any other Pistol ROF not named the MD6 is now nerfed — especially in comparison to last winter’s beta); but, for the most part, gun-fiends will be pleased with what they find: Some of my favorites throughout my time with Campaign, Arena, and Warzone were the DMR-infused Light Rifle (which feels like being inside Iron Man’s HUD when scoped; funny, since Olympia Vale is sort of a “Rescue” Pepper Potts), the Forerunner assault Suppressor, Boltshot, Binary laser, Hydra launcher (essential for killing those Hulk-smashing Hunters), Linda’s camouflage Nornfang sniper, and, Allen Iverson’s favorite gat, “The Answer”. You’ll be happy to know that big guns are everywhere in every mode, too, as in addition to the usual high-jacking of ghosts and banshees, your Spartans can exchange rifles with each other or random soldiers–even of the Sangheili.
The first thing I noticed once H5G took 200-hours to upload onto my console (I kid, I kid) was how great it sounded in Dolby surround. From the titillating soundtrack that brings back the classic Halo theme from Combat Evolved with new hints of triumphant Avengersesque horns, to the creepy 80s-inspired fusion of Mass Effect-meets-Blood Dragon, the new Halo is a joy to the eardrums.
It also doesn’t hurt to start the game in epic fashion, as your new fireteam begins battle in something that resembles a ginormous aquarium. 343 paid great attention to detail in many of the environments’ landscapes, as most missions and levels have all the feel of a giant space opera–background spaceship warfare included. The gorgeously rendered cinematics don’t hurt, either. Adding more authenticity to the campaign is the different tension of the missions, with Chief’s beginning as the dark and misty, chemical-filled Dead Space/Alien horror to the Spartan-IV’s more Transformers vibe of grand explosion; the intergalactic scenery raises the stakes a bit, with booming portals, lighting fast Covenant ships, majestic plant life that wildly sways back and forth, little bugs and sea slugs that crawl beneath the bush, and impressively weather-worn meteoric rock and volcanic structures. Just wait ’til you parishionerds get to Mission 10, which offers some goose-bump inducing Pre-Covenant architecture.
Because of the team dynamic, areas are far more open and vehicles become an even more essential part of the game. Thankfully Warthogs — despite still being a bit of a pain in the ass to drive — move more fluid than ever before, and the Mantis, Mongoose, and Wraiths are all the more pleasure to steer. My only issues with vehicle play were the overall lack of enemies to take on during the quick Warthog chase interludes, and AI teammates that were downright horrible drivers. Hell, that’s if they even moved anywhere. Turrets also seem useless (unless you command one of your squadron to man them), as I often killed too many grunts before their use or got blown up too many times in the process. And with more access to vehicles and turrets comes smarter, more intense Hunters and Elites…and some largely unforgiving checkpoints. Cooler, the campaign gets significantly more difficult as it goes on and you wind up in the trippy technogalaxy of the Forerunners.
There are a few hiccups along the way. Some campaign missions are too short and should perhaps be labeled “interludes” instead; I mean, there are a few moments where you actually stop to talk to characters for no reason (other than for some moments of mindless expository time-kill) and then go run to some CPU gadget at the end of the road with the level abruptly moving onto the next. Then again, you have the aforementioned Mission 10, which is sprawlingly epic and could take a couple hours to finish alone. There is a clunky underwater/half above river vision moment that would have served better if there was actually something to find. But, in addition to one minor frame-rate hiccup in my 9-10 hours of Normal and Heroic campaign time (at a very eye-pleasing 60fps), there was only one other odd moment: no matter how many times this particularly paralyzed Jackal was pistol-whipped and shot, the undead — and nonetheless discombobulated — alien just wouldn’t die.
And then there is “the ending”. Since we aren’t allowed to spoil anything here, just let me tell you that it comes faster than you think, and not all is resolved. You’ve got to watch all the web and animated series, listen to all the podcasts, and buy all the novels and comics for that. Worst yet, despite an ongoing and evolving war with the semi-interesting Warden Eternal (who took me only 30-seconds to beat initially, but gets far more dangerous the more consecutive times you face him and his cronies), there is no boss battle at the end of Halo 5: Guardians. To some, that beats the flick of a joystick during a mere QTE; to many others, it will feel like the end of Halo 2 all over again.
Maybe “the hunt” is the reason for far more Locke-centered missions in the game than those with Master Chief; still, since Halo has always been about the Master Chief, I figured at the very least that missions would shift back and forth — but you’ll likely play a few hours before returning to any of the Blue Team excursions. My roommate asked me what I thought of Agent Locke as a character, and the best I could answer to him was “good” (which means “boring”). Yeah, there’s a whole lot of mumbo jumbo leading up to their face-off, but nothing too critical comes out of it. Great marketing campaign, Microsoft, but as far as the story goes I’ve go to take a cue from The X-Files: the truth is apparently still out there…somewhere.
Getting down to logistics, the Halo 5: Guardians campaign should take roughly 6-7 hours on Normal, 9-10 on Heroic, God-knows-how-many on Legendary; of course, co-op and gameplay abilities pending. Arena matches are fast-paced “Call of Duty-type” match-ups — team deathmatch Slayer, pistol-only SWATNums, and territory-capture Strongholds — made with eSports in mind, and will be frustrating for larger map multiplayers like me, who don’t have the time or hand-eye precision of a 13-year old kid from Missouri. Gratefully, the level of Spartan customization in multiplayer is second to none, with a near infinite number of cosmetic unlocks. Warzone is the big one, however, this year, and those 12-player team matches can last anywhere from 10 to an epic 25-minutes. There’s a lot of fun and frustration in having to balance both objective (take down your Spartan opponents, in addition to easy-to-tough CPU-handled Covenant and Promethean drones/bosses, on your way to controlling 3 bases or earning 1000 points before they do) and location (since most match-ups will offer quite many), and whenever your pals/enemies are shielded, it can be a little difficult to tell who is on your team or not in the killing field. Expect a little bit of “friendly” until you get a grip with it.
Of course my prerelease experience (alongside multiplayer game expert “Papa Justified”) with Warzone was limited, as more playlists will be available at launch and the future; but I really enjoyed the teamwork, random boss battles and the frantic nuttiness that sorta reminded me of any fun I had playing Titanfall and Battlefront‘s 40-player “Walker Assault”. If any Halo will be played past the onslaught of November gaming releases, then Warzone will be the hours spent playing. Unloading on the other team from a Scorpion or Phaeton was an immense thrill, and loading times were also fast between matches. There’s good news for those smart enough to play the beta a year ago as well, as you’ll be rewarded with special emblems, XP boosts, and REQuisition packs (weapon and armor mods and skins ala “burn cards”). In all, there is plenty to enjoy and love about 343’s long-awaited, beefy and technically impressive 3 mode-driven Halo 5: Guardians.
Just don’t expect the campaign to be the instant classic story it has largely been set up to be.
Microsoft/343 Industries’ Halo 5: Guardians can only be purchased for the Xbox One tomorrow, October 26.