343 Industries had something of a difficult task in redeeming their reputation and persuading millions of players that they were up to the task of taking over the Halo franchise. When the original creators, Bungie, left to go and create their very own shooter in the form of Destiny, the studio was put together by Microsoft specifically to carry on developing future games in the series. While they certainly didn’t cause too much harm with the release of Halo 4, their first attempt didn’t exactly set the world on fire either. Meanwhile a disastrous launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection raised many questions about whether the developer was capable of handling such responsibility.
It is partly due to the fiasco that surrounded the online multiplayer portion of The Master Chief Collection that this review has been delayed until now, so that we could ensure that the title did not suffer from any of the same problems. On that front at least, 343 Industries has definitely learned from their mistakes. The servers in Halo 5: Guardians work perfectly well, with players able to search for and join matches quickly and easily. There is not repeat from the past, with matchmaking refusing to work and players constantly being disconnected from games.
But what about the rest of Halo 5? The title has largely been built up in commercials and marketing materials such as the Hunt the Truth podcast to be a game that has put much effort into telling an epic story. Promises were made that the player would track Master Chief across the galaxy and discover his true motives.
Unfortunately, the plot fails spectacularly to live up to this hype. It isn’t a terrible narrative by game standards, yet it isn’t the story that 343 Industries seemed intent on creating. The studio have made little effort to develop the characters of Master Chief’s Blue Team or Fireteam Osiris led by Spartan Locke. There is no real conflict shown between the two groups and the relationships between the two tight-knit parties is never explained or expanded upon, leaving you to wonder why the other Spartans are willing to join the Chief in going AWOL. Even when the decisions being made obviously have huge consequences for the world, they don’t seem to carry any real weight. In the end, Halo 5 peters out in a twist that you can see coming a mile off and then finishes on a cliffhanger in much the same way as Halo 2.
The disappointing campaign story is more than made up for in other areas though. Like its predecessors, Halo 5 is at its best when you are playing with your friends and fighting bad guys in large open spaces. It does this particularly well and 343 seems to have put plenty of focus on making sure environments have plenty of verticality to them, giving you plenty of options in battle to not just move side to side but also up and down. There has also been a clear aim to ensure that the campaign is suited to co-operative play, with the large open spaces helping to ensure that none of the players are in the same place at the same time.
This does cause some problems though. Playing on your own can become frustrating as the AI of your allies leaves a lot to be desired. You can bark commands at them that they will try to follow but all too often they will not go where you tell them to, get trapped by a piece of the environment or just die in a devastatingly stupid fashion. Even worse are the boss fights that have clearly been devised to need an effective team to beat them. They are reasonable and fun to tackle with friends, though soon become exasperating when you have to rely on the AI rather than real humans.
The Halo 5 beta gave everyone the chance to experience the new gameplay additions that the developer had incorporated for the first time in January. Most of them have remained unchanged since then and work just as well as they did in the earlier version. The climbing mechanic, sprinting and the ability to quickly thrust in any direction give you more control over your character. It also makes the whole experience feel more fluid and dynamic, allowing you to traverse around maps and campaign missions like never before.
The other noticeable change to the basic Halo formulae is the ability to aim down the sights. When it was first introduced many long-time fans were upset that 343 Industries was essentially bowing down to the superiority of games like Call of Duty. However, the way that it has been implemented works so that it doesn’t feel out of place. There’s no difference to accuracy if you fire from the hip and any incoming fire will snap you out of the zoom mode, so that it never becomes an all-consuming action.
The online competitive multiplayer aspect of Halo 5 has largely remained the same. There’s a great variety of maps and the overall experience seems incredibly well balanced. Power weapons are shown on-screen along with a timer of when they will spawn, the starting weapons remain the same for everyone in the Arena mode and there’s very little way one team or player can take any unfair advantage. One new game mode that has been introduced is Breakout, a single life mode that brings a level of drama and tension to the multiplayer that Halo has previously lacked.
Lastly, there is an entirely new type of experience in Halo 5 called Warzone. In it players can customize their loadouts, swap REQ cards for powerful weapons and vehicles and take on enemy teams and AI controlled soldiers at the same time. It feels like a far expanded version of Invasion from Halo: Reach and works very well in creating a strategic feel, where you aren’t simply competing to see who can get the most kills.
The REQ cards themselves can be bought with in-game and real life currency and supply the weapons and vehicles you use in Warzone, though they also provide cosmetic features such as weapon skins and new armor pieces. The microtransactions are not exactly a welcome addition but they are easy enough to ignore and can be unlocked fairly frequently using the points you accrue from playing the game. They also mean that the community will get additional multiplayer maps free of charge over the coming months, something which should combat the splintering of the player base.
Ultimately, 343 Industries have lived up to their role as guardians of the Halo franchise. Although they have failed to construct a riveting and compelling narrative, they have improved much of what makes Halo great. The multiplayer is brilliantly balanced and refined and new featured add rather than detract from the overall experience.
This review was carried out using a retail copy of Halo 5: Guardians that was purchased by the reviewer.