It’s been an uphill battle for 343 Industries, coming off of mixed reception to its debut Halo title on Xbox 360 in 2012 and catching major heat for the messy launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection on Xbox One last year. Now, the Kirkland-based developer is still out to prove that it has what it takes to bring the legendary franchise back into the limelight on a new generation of hardware with Halo 5: Guardians.
After a promising multiplayer beta almost one year ago, things were certainly looking up. Since then, riveting ad campaigns have hooked story fans in while talk of a return to true multiplayer form along with bigger experiences than ever before has gotten PvP devotees on the edge of their seat.
With October 27 having come and gone, is Halo 5: Guardians evidence enough that 343 is finally worthy to bear the Mantle of Responsibility? With days of play time both before and after launch, we’re ready to make the call.
Steering clear of any story spoilers, I felt let pretty down by the rather uninteresting narrative between the campaign’s two protagonists: the legendary UNSC soldier, Master Chief, and the rising ONI hero, Spartan Locke. It wasn’t the tale that Halo 5’s masterfully crafted ad campaigns lead us to believe we would get. Instead, the campaign spent most of its efforts setting up the beginning of a brand new and very unexpected arch that is clearly meant to be concluded in Halo 7 or Halo 8. In other words, it’s Halo 2 all over again, and I think fans will be very divided over their thoughts on it.
To my relief, most of my story-related concerns were buried and forgotten underneath the campaign’s excellent sandbox and combat design. Halo’s gameplay has never been this refined and it only gets better as more and more human-controlled Spartans join the fray. Especially on Heroic and Legendary difficulties, you’ll find that many of the higher-tier enemies will soak up a ton of damage if attacked in a standard, head-on fashion. That’s because encounters are now built to reward careful thinking and proper execution of team tactics.
Flanking, for instance, will yield quicker kills now that many enemies’ backsides can be targeted as critical points once enough damage has been done to their armor. On Legendary, even mid-tier baddies like the Promethean Knight will make fast work of your fire team if you’re not quick to co-ordinate; it may often take a few tries to discover the perfect strategy. It’s the kind of difficulty that’s fair, rather than frustrating, and only gets more challenging and rewarding as more players are added.
Furthermore, environments are cleverly laid out to encourage exploration and experimentation, be it to overcome a difficult fight or discover bits of intel that tell more of the story, and to spur multiple play-throughs. A craving to experience the campaign all over again as a team of four while taking full advantage of the rich sandbox options that 343 has laid out kicked in almost immediately after my first, solo completion. Playing alone simply doesn’t do it justice.
A brief note on a pretty neat new feature: players can now save and keep up to three checkpoints to return to at any time during the course of the campaign. Achievement hunters tackling difficult challenges that they’d like to return to at a later time will certainly appreciate this detail, as would anyone simply wanting to relive a boss fight or cutscene without having to struggle through earlier checkpoints.
Amidst the number of improvements over 343’s 2012 debut title is a perceivable upgrade to the game’s audio design, most notable in multiplayer. Every little “beep” and “boop” comes through clearly and with purpose so you’re precisely aware of that ‘nade you just picked up, whether your shields are low or recharging, or, best of all, if you scored a headshot with that oh-so-satisfying “pop.” It’s music to my ears. Weapon sounds are true-to-life — the human weapons, at least — and react to your surroundings, whether you’re outside, inside, in a big hall, or in a small room.
On the field, Spartan callouts help make the player aware of their surroundings, but can also be turned off. They might not be of use to a party with strong communication, for example. My suggestion, however, would be to take advantage of them, as they’re awfully specific. In Arena multiplayer, 343 has nailed down names for nearly every open space, platform, or catwalk for each map and it’s totally worth memorizing some of the important ones by exploring areas in a solo Custom game.
Visually, Halo 5 is a pretty game thanks to the beautiful artwork and wonderful character design, though I wouldn’t call it the prettiest game on Xbox One. Some textures, especially in multiplayer, could use more detail and some of the lighting techniques don’t appear up to the standards of other games. In addition, effects like explosions are still noticeably flat, and the game does this weird thing where the animation of characters at a distance are displayed at 30 frames per second. It’s quite jarring when juxtaposed with an environment that is otherwise presented at a rock solid 60 frames per second.
But wherever the game’s visual quality might fall short, it does so for the greater good and in the name of performance and gameplay. As a result, Halo 5 is the smoothest and most responsive Halo ever. Even in hectic Warzone matches, with 24 players, enemy AI, vehicles, and explosions everywhere, the frame rate never budges. It leads to gunplay that’s as precise as you can get on a console shooter and makes the controller disappear, so to speak, as you feel more connected to the action.
This also becomes evident as you learn to master Halo 5’s new Spartan Abilities, which are intuitively integrated into all control schemes and, for once, actually make you feel like the super soldier you really are. Every player has access to them; they aren’t unlocks or perks and they’re available across all modes of play. Of the new moves (slide, shoulder charge, ground pound, thrust, and clamber), thrust and clamber had the biggest and most exciting impact on gameplay for me.
After a few games getting used to dashing in and out of cover, boosting across large gaps, and clambering up and over ledges, I think you’ll agree that the new maneuvers really do become the fourth pillar to Halo’s “holy trinity” of guns, grenades, and melee. More importantly, the new mechanics blend in naturally without disrupting that classic “Halo” feel. In fact, with the return of de-scoping and flag-juggling, along with the inability to recharge shields while sprinting, 343’s shooter, feels more “Halo” than ever.
Speaking of past Halo titles, it’s truly heartwarming to see Halo 2’s philosophy of balanced gameplay and fair competition return to a new era of Arena multiplayer. 343 couldn’t have drawn inspiration from a better source while introducing what they’ve learned to a more modern landscape of first-person shooters where equal loadout starts and power weapon drops are rare.
The sense of balance extends to the new (and returning) Arena maps and power weapon layouts. Pick-ups like the Battle Rifle, DMR, and SMG still excel in their given roles, but at the same time, starting weapons like the Magnum and Assault Rifle can be just as useful. Critical weapon spawn locations will be highlighted by your HUD, but most of the mid-tier weapons and other power-ups must still be discovered by the player.
It reinstates a level of complexity in otherwise simple game modes like Slayer and Free For All, giving skillful players the opportunity to rise above the rest while hopefully inspiring others to master the arena and not just their aim. This is perhaps the crowning achievement of Halo 5’s Arena multiplayer: at times, it can feel more like a well-established sport than a video game, bringing out the competitor in everyone.
To me, no mode demonstrates this better than Halo 5’s new Arena Breakout mode, my new personal favorite. A fairly new concept to Halo, Breakout trades your ability to respawn for quick, successive matches of elimination. Player shields are removed, upping the lethality significantly, and maps are built like small paintball courses with more direct and symmetrical lines of sight with plenty of obstacles and cover strewn throughout.
Success is determined by proper positioning and good callouts, so it wouldn’t hurt to either get on the mic or bring in a fire team of your own. That said, a fast and accurate trigger finger can carry an entire team to victory with some crazy turn-arounds that will get everyone off their seat screaming. 343 has also made improvements to the mode since the beta, adding a central flag that can be captured and taken to the enemy base for a point. It adds an alternative path to winning while discouraging players from hiding in corners.
At launch, you’ll find a very focused list of only four Arena game types, plus a Team Arena playlist that mixes modes together, including Capture-the-Flag and Strongholds, Halo 5’s take on Domination. It leaves a bit to be desired, but 343 has stated the team’s intention to shift playlists around and add to them when appropriate, as the studio has demonstrated in previous projects. There are enough maps, though some appear to be weighed more heavily in the rotation than others, leading to a number of repeats. Of the new Arena maps, Coliseum and Truth standout as some of the more memorable ones, the former being a colorful Forunner battle ground and the latter being a remake of Halo 2’s iconic Midship map. Fathom and The Rig, made up of more human architecture, have also been growing on me the more I play.
Keeping up your highest level of play in competitive four versus four matches in order to place well in one of Halo 5’s five different ranking tiers (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond) can be exhausting. That’s why, for those times when you just want to shoot sh*t and have fun while being part of something really big and epic, there’s Warzone.
Warzone is a new concept for Halo, though perhaps lightly inspired by Halo: Reach’s Invasion mode. It ups the player-count to 24 while successfully mixing elements of Big Team Battle, AI boss fights, and MOBA-style mechanics from other games. Matches can range drastically in length from 5 minutes to 25 minutes, depending on how well-coordinated the teams are, and come complete with opening and closing cutscenes. Interestingly, a win state can be achieved in one of two different ways: by being the first to accumulate 1000 points through player kills and high-level boss kills, or by capturing and controlling east, west, and central spawn locations before opening up and taking out the cores at enemy HQ.
Throughout, in addition to scoreboard points, players earn Requisition points individually through their actions which gradually increases their REQ level. Each level opens up a new tier of increasingly powerful loadout options, power weapons, vehicles, and boosts that can be called in at REQ stations or upon respawning after death. It’s a very well-thought out progression that turns what would otherwise be a bland game of Domination into a storied battle that moves through different phases. And there’ll certainly be stories to tell when your team calls in two Scorpion Tanks, a Wraith, and a Phaeton late in a gruesome, neck-to-neck fight.
If Red versus Blue is the only fight you’ll take part in, 343 has also thrown in a variation of Warzone called Assault, an asymmetrical mode that removes enemy AI from the battlefield and changes up the objectives to an attack/defense structure. The goal of the attackers is to sequentially capture two enemy bases before breaking through the defenders’ final line that protects the core of their HQ. The defenders, on the other hand, need only to successfully defend one capture point within the six-minute time limit to win. It’s a fairly simple game mode that is, once again, greatly enhanced through the use of REQ cards as players level up and the match ramps up to its grand conclusion or tragic finale.
Map selection is fairly limited with only three Warzone maps at launch and an alternative of each for Warzone Assault modes. To 343’s credit, they’re pretty big and it’s likely you won’t explore the entirety of any one map in your first few play-throughs. Nevertheless, this is an area that could definitely benefit from post-launch support in order to provide more variation for dedicated players.
As with most of Halo 5’s multiplayer offerings, Warzone becomes more and more enjoyable the bigger your party and fire team gets. If you can muster up anywhere between five to eleven other friends, it’s highly worth the effort and organization.
Leading up to Halo 5, I held some apprehensiveness over the idea of reward cards that could be acquired randomly through the purchase of tiered packages. As it turns out, they make a lot of sense and retain usefulness without granting any one player too much power. REQ packs come in three different sizes: Gold for 10,000 REQ points or $2.99 USD, Silver for 5,000 REQ points or $1.99 USD, and Bronze for 1250 REQ Points. REQ points are accumulated by completing Warzone matches and come in at a steady enough rate that I never felt deprived. Even if you throw your wallet at the screen and rake in a mountain of sweet loot, you still need to earn it in-game. Power weapon, vehicle, and boost rewards are also set to a cooldown timer.
REQ packs are also the source of cosmetic items, like helmets, armor pieces, and skins for your weapons. These can be sported across both Warzone and Arena game modes, while consumables and loadouts are exclusive to Warzone.
Naturally, REQs definitely do alter the unlock path you might be used to from previous Halo games. No longer can you purchase or earn the armor you’re after. Instead, you just have to hope for the best as you open packs you’ve purchased or earned upon completion of a commendation or upon ranking up. As I mentioned earlier, the flow is steady enough to keep me satisfied, but it’s really up to your preference whether or not you welcome the random progression over the traditionally predictable unlock system. Admittedly, I’d be a little sad if REQs didn’t return in Halo 6, as I personally enjoy the excitement of blindly opening packs like Christmas presents. However, in the future, it wouldn’t hurt to include a mix of items that can also be attained by completing specific achievements.
So, what about Halo 5’s launch? Right. The unplayable state that Halo: The Master Chief Collection was in during the months following launch has put a great deal of doubt into the minds of those affected that 343 could launch a quality product. It’s likely that a lot of you are basing your purchase decision heavily on what early adopters have to say about Halo 5’s performance thus far.
I’m happy to announce that, except for a brief period of time when Xbox Live’s servers couldn’t be accessed, stability between Halo 5’s launch and this writing has been exceptional. In my testing, I’ve gotten into all my games in a matter of seconds and can reliably maintain a strong connection throughout. I’ve run into the odd teleporting enemy that’s lagging out, but almost always feel as if my shots are landing where they’re supposed to. Clearly, 343 was careful avoid their earlier missteps, but as a title built from the ground up for Xbox One, I suppose Halo 5 was set on the path to success early on.
Halo 5 is a game with very clear objectives: smooth 60 FPS gameplay, refined sandbox combat that’s even better with friends, perfectly balanced Arena multiplayer, bigger than ever Warzone battles, and a strong online structure with stable dedicated servers. Though a few sacrifices had to be made in order to achieve this, Halo 5 accomplishes its goals. Between Co-Op Campaign, Arena, and Warzone, 343 has crafted experiences for both the competitive gamer and the casual crowd, making Halo 5: Guardians the definitive Xbox One multiplayer shooter of 2015.
With a vastly improved Forge mode launching in December, there are even more experiences to look forward to just over the horizon. Beyond that, I forecast a united and healthy Halo 5 community that out-lives the holiday season thanks to 343’s decision to offer all future downloadable multiplayer maps for free.
4.5 / 5
If you’re a multiplayer nut, Halo fan or not, and own an Xbox One, it’s my recommendation that you add Halo 5: Guardians to your library. That said, if the direction 343 Industries took Halo 4 in 2012 only left you with disappointment and last year’s Master Chief Collection mess left you with a broken heart, I’d understand if it’d take a little more than my praise to make the leap. But what I will say is this: should you take my word for it, I think you’ll find 343 now worthy to bear the Mantle and agree that Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer is the series’ best.
This review was based on an early review code for Halo 5: Guardians, courtesy of Microsoft, as well as the post-launch, retail environment on a personal Xbox One.