After a three year wait, the time has come once again for us to take up arms in the name of humanity against the mongrel horde of aliens that stand against us. It’s a past time shared amongst Halo fans the world over, and one that since the release of the Xbox One has been teeming with potential to be one of the best experiences you’ve ever had shooting aliens in the face. Halo 5: Guardians launched October 27th, and is the first new Halo game to be released on the eighth generation of consoles. As someone who’s played all the previous games in the blockbuster shooter franchise multiple times, across three successive generations of Xbox consoles as well as the PC, and who’s read six of the surprisingly decent best selling novels, this game has been on my radar for a while.
Before we kick things off, I think a little background is necessary. Truth is, despite my anticipation for the game’s release, I’m actually a little late reviewing Halo 5: Guardians. With Halo 4 having issues with player retention and Halo: The Master Chief Collection launching in a nigh unplayable state, the last two games by the series’ current developers, 343 Industries, have been a disappointment (and that’s putting it nicely). So my reluctance as a consumer to buy their latest game should be understandable, and it’s what drove me to wait over a week until I got the all-clear signal from word of mouth before purchasing Halo 5. In doing so, I left the store with fingers crossed in the hope that Guardians was going to be the Halo title to deliver after years of mishaps. Now that I’ve finally spent considerable time with the game, I think its high time to give Halo 5: Guardians a thorough critique from the perspective of not only a consumer but long time fan of the series.
Halo campaigns are something special. When Bungie released Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001 alongside the original Xbox and players found themselves stranded on one of the enigmatic ringworlds known as a Halo, the experience proved enough to spawn a multi-billion dollar franchise and ensure Microsoft’s risky first gaming console didn’t fade into obscurity. Fourteen years later, Halo remains one of the few first person shooter games that people purchase for the campaign alone.
The games themselves inhabit a universe rich in lore, but sadly most of it has only been found in material outside of the games. That trend seemed like it was breaking in the weeks leading up to Halo 5′s launch. The story mode was touted as the longest in the series, and there was an extensive “Hunt the Truth” advertising campaign centering around a duel between the series’ iconic protagonist, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, and former clandestine operative and series newcomer Jameson Locke as he hunts the Chief across the galaxy. Also Blue Team, long time fan favorites and Master Chief’s original fireteam whose presence had previously been confined to the novels, were finally making their debut appearance in a Halo game. In order to effectively incorporate the mechanics of leading a squad like Blue Team in a game, 343 Industries was happy to announce they had hired as their new creative director the brains behind Star Wars Republic Commando (2005), itself a highly praised squad based shooter.
If all that puts you in the mood to speed off to the store and snag yourself a copy, then give me a moment to temper your expectations, as what you get in the final product is quite different than what pre-release marketing would have you believe. For starters, the story mode isn’t the longest in the series. Like Halo 2, it ships with fifteen missions, a misleading statistic as three of those are short five minute interludes in which you do nothing more than wander about making small talk with a few NPCs . As far as the time you can expect to spend playing the rest of the campaign, my solo playthrough on Legendary, the highest difficulty, clocked in right around thirteen and a half hours. A feat which would put it more or less in line with past games if not for the fact that a chunk of that time was spent meandering around levels looking for collectibles. For those playing on lower difficulties or with friends, expect a noticeably briefer experience.
The disappointment doesn’t end there. The aforementioned well produced and hype-inducing “Hunt the Truth” ads painted a picture of Halo 5: Guardians that was in actuality nothing more than a footnote in the game’s overall narrative as the whole Locke vs Chief showdown gets resolved before we even reach the story’s halfway point. And for all the optimism toward the inclusion of Blue Team and squad based mechanics, in the end we’re left with nothing more than undeveloped characters programmed with shoddy AI that often ignore even the most mundane orders given them by the player. It’s immersion breaking to say the least, and left me pondering the merits of even including these characters in the game.
Other issues with the campaign abound. The inclusion of two protagonists means players will find themselves playing some missions from the perspective of the Master Chief and Blue Team and switching over to Jameson Locke in command of Fireteam Osiris for others. This isn’t the first time Halo has done a game from multiple perspectives, but it is the first time you’ll be assuming the role of a character who just isn’t particularly interesting. No one is outright unlikable, but Locke and Fireteam Osiris suffer the same fate as Blue Team in that they’re just undeveloped and boring. The only standouts are the two returning characters from the Bungie Halo games, Edward Buck and the Chief.
Sure, if you’re familiar with the fiction outside of the games you won’t have a hard time relating to the rest of the cast. But the vast majority of players haven’t read the books or watched the live action movies, and so there’s no justification for 343 Industries to leave out such crucial pieces of exposition. It’s something I could potentially forgive if I wasn’t forced to play as Locke and Osiris for twelve out of the game’s fifteen missions. Yeah, you read that right. You only play as the Master Chief for three missions. The Halo universe is vast and is bigger than any one character, but for Halo 5 including more playtime as the Chief would have gone a long way seeing as he’s the one person most Halo fans will know anything about for the duration of the game.
In fact, those three missions as Master Chief are the only ones that move what little plot there is forward. For the rest of the game the narrative just stubbornly plods along unwilling to really take us anywhere. It made me feel like for the nine or so hours I was playing as Locke I hadn’t actually accomplished much of anything. It’s a symptom of a campaign that overall just feels like it lacks direction. Not only are the characters flat and the plot slow but the tone and writing feel like they’d be more at home in a comic book than a game that has traditionally been military science fiction. I love Halo because it has always been closer to Robert Heinlein, not Stan Lee. I think once you find yourself being taunted in a menacing British accent as you battle the game’s robotic villain you might feel the same.
To make matters worse, the level design is overly linear. Wide open spaces are sparse, and it leads to uninspired enemy encounters that take away from Halo’s iconic sandbox feel. It doesn’t help that Halo 4′s loathed promethean enemies are back. Granted, they’re much improved from their counterparts in the previous game but still can’t hold a candle to the dynamics encounters between packs of Elites, Grunts, and Jackals seem to have. In fact, my favorite missions in Halo 5 were those mid-game that had me battling what was left of the Covenant Empire.
All that aside though, perhaps Halo 5′s most egregious shortcoming is its lack of split screen play. Unless you have two Xbox Ones and two Xbox Live Gold memberships, you wont be sitting on the couch together with your roommate, wife, son, brother, or sister and playing Halo 5. The non-inclusion of such an important feature is baffling, especially when you pause to consider that every other game in the series has had split screen functionality. It’s an essential feature that for years has brought friends and family together around a single television set to play Halo. Even a mediocre game can be made fun with friends, and no local co-op is something that holds Halo 5’s campaign back perhaps more than anything.
The experience here simply leaves a lot to be desired, something 343 Industries has no excuse for after their previous installment which for many was an interesting new take on the series. However, as it stands Guardians is the most sterile Halo campaign yet. My hope is that Halo 6 will bring back some of the spice to the series’ saga that made Halo a standout amongst its peers in the shooter genre. Some of the pieces are already in place for a better sequel; the game’s vistas are still gorgeous, and they still manage to send the player to worlds full of mystery, begging to be explored. And, for the first time since Bungie left the series, the score is wonderful. Kazuma Jinnouchi proved his worth by crafting music worthy of any Halo game. If Microsoft aren’t total buffoons, they’ll make sure to bring him back for the sequel. A game which hopefully will right the ship for more singleplayer and co-op minded fans of the series.
Multiplayer, on the other hand, is Halo 5′s crown jewel. As I alluded to earlier, Halo 4 brought unwelcome changes to the series’ multiplayer that alienated swaths of fans, ultimately making the game’s online population a ghost town. Things like loadouts, which allowed players to pick which guns they started a match with, and perks, which were unique ablities players could use to gain an advantage over others, went against the idea that Halo matches should be decided by player skill and teamwork and nothing more. What we have with Halo 5 is a game that ditches perks and loadouts and brings back equal starts for all players.
The end result is the most refined multiplayer experience in a Halo game since Halo 3 eight years ago. There is even a ranking system which places players in a particular division based on their ability to win matches. All of this takes place within Arena, the title for the selection of competitive playlists. Should competitive multiplayer not be your cup of tea, Guardians also introduces Warzone, a mode that will have you battling AI and players alike in a bid to capture bases and eliminate high value targets. Both modes are heaps of fun and by far something 343 Industries should be commended for.
A few caveats, however, as I know there are a sizable amount of fans who gravitate toward Halo just for the multiplayer. One, the lack of splitscreen from the campaign also applies to the multiplayer experience as well. Two, the map variety for both Arena and Warzone is lacking. For the most part, the Arena maps all look and feel relatively the same. The Warzone maps see a bit more diversity in their locales and layouts, but there are only three of them, a fact which had me often playing the same map two to three times in a row. Considering Warzone matches can last twenty minutes, spending an hour on the same map got somewhat tiresome.
In addition to the lack of maps, there is also a severe lack of playlists. There is no dedicated Capture the Flag, Doubles, Infection, or Objectives playlist, and Big Team Battle was only just added this past Wednesday. To compound things, the selection of custom game options has regressed and there is currently no Forge mode. I firmly believe that for a sixty dollar asking price, consumers should get a little more bang for their buck than Halo 5 currently has to offer. In the future, 343 Industries has pledged to deliver regular content updates free of charge. That means gametypes, like the aforementioned Big Team Battle, will see their way into the game as well as new maps, all at no additional cost. Forge is also slated to be added sometime in December. So what the game lacks now hopefully won’t be an issue down the road.
My final verdict on Halo 5 comes as both a long time fan of the series and a value oriented consumer. Right now, as we prepare to begin the thanksgiving festivities and enter the holiday shopping season, Halo 5: Guardians is not worth picking up. The campaign, with its lack of direction and removal of splitscreen, is a massive disappointment, and the multiplayer, while mechanically the best it’s been in years, suffers a severe lack of content that will likely have players losing interest after only a couple of weeks. I think that perhaps by Christmas and as we move into the new year the value offering of this game will start to look a bit more enticing as they add new features, but for now, Spartans, stow your weapons and wait a bit longer before making the drop into Halo 5.