There's a lot riding on Halo 5: Guardians. Halo 4 was good, but it felt like the perfect forgery, not the genuine article, just a really well crafted imitation. So close in fact that you almost couldn't tell, but in the end its lack of authenticity made itself known. Since then 343i has had time to perfect their art, but now with the fifth numbered Halo game the reputation of the series is on the line, especially after the botched launch of The Master Chief Collection. And so the question on everyone's lips, does Halo 5 deliver? Yes, yes it does.
Campaign first. The story of Master Chief continues, but this time there's a definite co-op lean to the action. Of course that has always been a part of the Halo experience, but here it has been formalised by 343i, a decision characterised by the appearance of two four-Spartan teams that blast through the campaign. Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris star in a two-tiered campaign, played out from the perspectives of iconic series hero Master Chief, and new co-star Jameson Locke.
Our concern going into the game was that a two-pronged narrative might get messy, convoluted even, but despite the duality of the story, it was clear and concise in a way that the more conservative Halo 4 never managed to achieve. In terms of story beats, Guardians is a return to form, and it does interesting things with some of the characters we've seen in games past. Simply put, it's a well told story with a compelling overarching narrative delivered via entertaining voice-over during missions and beautifully animated cutscenes in-between.
Locke makes his first playable appearance in a Halo game, and there's other new characters in the mix too (one of them first appears towards the end and ended up a favourite of ours). There's plenty of personality that comes across from the two fireteams, with Master Chief's cohort helping bring extra humanity to the towering warrior. The dynamic has previously focussed on John 117's relationship with the AI, Cortana, but this time he's with his fellow soldiers and the shift of emphasis introduces a new side to his character.
Perhaps you might even argue the Fireteam Osiris is the more personable cadre thanks to dialogue between Locke and his team, which includes a returning Halo favourite in the form of Buck, who last made an appearance as an ODST in the Halo 3 spin-off made by Bungie (and which was recently added to The Master Chief Collection as a peace offering to those who endured that game's terrible launch).
Could there have been more to the campaign? It did feel a little on the short side, and we played it on Heroic so there was friction in some areas. Perhaps, though, we should be careful what we wish for, because any more might have bloated what was ultimately a lean and succinct collection of missions populated by some memorable set pieces and a great story. It was better than we were expecting.
Short or not, the four-character dynamic is a point of strength, but at times it was also a weakness. The strength comes through in the formalisation of the co-op focus that underpins the game for so many, because now a whole team is there, rather than everyone sharing the role of Master Chief, which is great if you're playing as part of a group. Halo is great solo adventuring, but it's brilliant co-op.
That said, when you're playing alone with AI-controlled squad mates, the illusion of being a super soldier is somewhat shattered. It starts off with a breathless CGI sequence, Locke and co jumping into a combat situation, guns blazing, enemies falling left, right and centre. 343i quickly sells us on the idea that we're a deadly fighting force, but alas the bubble is quickly burst, and it's not long before our teammates are having to resurrect us and we're reminded that actually we're not as capable as the pre-rendered versions of the same characters we're now controlling.
Making things worse, the AI isn't great, and sometimes our fellow Spartans will come to resurrect us while standing in the line of fire when they could be in cover, or they'll run straight for us and past a sword wielding heavy who dispatches them with ease that goes against our understanding of these characters and their abilities. It breaks the immersion, the stupidity of our cohort crashing into the fiction being sold to us. It's our single biggest gripe.
These moments aren't that commonplace, and for the most part everything works as it should, which is a good job as it'd be a shame to be shaken from the immersion and atmosphere that has been worked into the game by 343i. Much of that comes from the wonderfully realised worlds that we find ourselves battling through. We'll try and avoid spoilers regarding where you'll be playing, but know that there's some lush visuals, interesting locations, and the odd vista that will take your breath away.
The sandbox levels that many consider the beating heart of a Halo campaign are back in force, and whether waltzing through sun-drenched ruins, or jumping between platforms where beneath lies only a watery death, we're reminded that the series has its own special identity, one that's retained here thanks to the open spaces that players are left to navigate on their own - on foot, in the air, and behind the wheel of the franchise's iconic vehicles.
Of similar quality to the level structure and aesthetic style is the audio design. The signature sights of Halo are accompanied by the sound effects that you know and remember. The explosions, the gun fire, the voice over work, and of course the score, all shine brightly. In terms of visual style and audio, the quality is first rate, comparable to anything else coming out this year on console. Technically it felt solid, and we didn't notice any frame-rate drops, even during some of the more demanding sequences.
While our expectations were exceeded by the campaign, the story missions aren't the reason we adore Halo, and thus it's the multiplayer that will ultimately define whether Guardians is a highpoint in the series or not. Having played hours with the beta, and now even more on live servers ahead of the full launch, we're happy to report that Halo 5 delivers.
We sampled a selection of game types on a playlist that alternated between different modes, with Halo standards like Slayer sitting next to newer offerings that felt right at home in the rotation. We already knew that from a mechanical point of view Guardians was up to scratch, but now we've experienced it over new maps and modes, and we like what we've seen.
Our favourite new addition isn't a mode, but rather a subtle addition to the Spartan's repertoire of tricks; the new mantle feature that appears across both multiplayer and campaign. It changes the dynamic of each game, empowering the player in a way that we didn't fully appreciate in the beta. There's nothing more effective at destroying the feeling of being a superhuman warrior than trying to make a jump and face-planting a wall, and the addition of mantle has pretty much made this a thing of the past.
Throw in a slide and the new shockwave attack whereby players hover in the air before delivering a powerful attack on the ground beneath, and you've got new moves that expand your options in the field. The key thing though, is that everyone comes to the party on an equal footing, and that makes all the difference. Halo has always been about the deadly dance you enjoy with your opponent, where you know that in a one-on-one battle, the better player will usually win. This feeling was somewhat lost in Halo 4, but in Guardians it returns.
The overall balance has been improved in Halo 5, and the overpowered loadouts that players were able to cultivate in Halo 4 are now thankfully long gone. Instead Arena play is now much more about the strengths and weaknesses of the individual, and the quality of one's all round play is the ultimate defining factor when it comes to success on the battlefield, and that's exactly how it should be. With 343i's previous outing they started to mix in new features more akin to those we'd normally expect to see in a Call of Duty, but Guardians ushers in a return to the purity of the earlier Halo games, and it's all the better for it.
Another great new feature, one that feels so natural it's almost like it has always been there, is the smart-link aiming system. You can now aim down the sights of all the weapons (which certainly changes the feel of the assault rifle), and it's yet another example of subtle design tweaks building on top of already strong foundations. The increased aim that the new system brings is countered by the fact that hitting someone who's scoped will knock them from that perspective and put them on the back foot, which will surely help players combat effective snipers.
That's not to say that there aren't imperfections, but they're small in comparison to previous flaws, and you can forgive the odd poorly placed spawn point, even these concerns eased by knowing that once enough matches are played and they're able to look at the data, those exposed spawns are likely to be moved in future patches.
There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in Guardians' multiplayer, so much that you can expect a more detailed assessment/guide once the servers have gone live, but there's new modes to tell you about that we were able to sample in the limited rotation on offer during the early access period.
In Arena there's an exciting new mode called Breakout, where both teams of four are aiming to be the first to win five quick-fire rounds. Every player has one life, and either teams wipe each other out, or there's a flag that can be picked up and dropped on the opposing base for the win. This mode sits next to the more conservative Strongholds (capture and hold two of three points on the map), Slayer (including the odd game of Swat), and Capture the Flag.
The aforementioned modes are all 4v4, and they appear alongside the new MOBA-inspired 12v12 Warzone mode (it's not dissimilar to Invasion from Halo: Reach). With minions running about, multiple objectives, and big maps, it's basically chaos, and will cater for the more casual crowd put off by the more serious nature of Arena play (we're not terrible at Halo PvP, but even the early access players were razor sharp and punished our every mistake, but no doubt this is something that will ease when a wider range of abilities are online this week and beyond).
The multiplayer modes are going to get their own playlists at launch, and we also need to see what the widespread use of the new Requisition system (rewards that players can unlock and spend in-game at terminals) will do to the balance of play, as such we'll offer up a more detailed analysis of the different modes and maps shortly after launch. In the meantime, rest assured that Halo 5's competitive play is a return to form for the series. Does it have the same nostalgic charm as previous entries, perhaps not, but it also doesn't borrow from its contemporaries in a way its predecessor did. 343i are obviously looking ahead to the future, instead of to the side or even the past, and for that they should be commended.
Halo 5: Guardians feels like a step forward for the series. 343i have finally emerged from the shadow cast by Bungie and have crafted a shooter that stands side-by-side with anything made by its original creators. Is it our favourite game? Halo 3 still holds a special place in our heart when it comes to multiplayer, and Halo: Reach remains our favourite campaign, but Guardians comes very close to besting both. It might not be the best Halo ever made, but it's certainly a return to form, and the most enjoyable title in the series we've played post-Bungie. Simply put, this is an excellent game, and shooter fans on Xbox One are in for a treat when they get their hands on the next chapter in the continuing story of Master Chief.