Halo 5 Guardians Review – Is this the Spartan you’re looking for?
Da Chief. Chief Rocka. Whatever you want to call him, the green armored mystery soldier is one of the most iconic video game protagonists ever. As the visual definition of the Halo franchise, being Master Chief (or any ‘Spartan’ actually) should feel like being a powerful super soldier capable of taking on alien hordes all alone. 343 Industries’ first full fledged Halo release on the Xbox One console certainly makes you feel that great, and yet some of the Halo faithful aren’t quite convinced that Halo 5 Guardians is the Spartan experience that they were waiting for.
Point blank, Halo 5: Guardians is a stunning looking game. It’s very clear that graphically 343 Industries went through great pains to ensure that all character closeups in the cutscenes as well as action sequences and backgrounds all looked as if they were done within the game engine. Flowing smoothly and laced, as expected, with gorgeous colors, explosions, and effects, Halo 5 visually is one of the best looking games on the Xbox One. Watching a match or a campaign session of Halo 5 is far from an eye sore and the total package is without a doubt an easy console seller. Proof of that is seen by the impressive sales numbers that have been reported after the first week of sales (+$400 million in software and hardware considering the console bundles in the figures).
Still, despite all of the rah rah that Microsoft has announced and the realization that Spartans alone cannot bridge the PS4 sales gap, reviews on this blockbuster title have remained…mixed. So, what to believe?
Let’s face it. The story in each of these Halo games typically are not their strongsuit. Of all of the different Halo games, I can probably tell you what actually happened in only one or two of them. For most Halo heads that I know, the appeal of the story or campaign portion of Halo games is based upon how often they get to man the vehicles and whether or not the ending feels ‘epic’ enough. So, maybe that description is a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is that Halo as a franchise doesn’t really hold up too well against other story rich games (like Bioshock, Dragon Age, or even Far Cry 3 for that matter). Instead, I like to look at my Halo games as video game versions of old 80’s action movies with tons of guns, explosions, a few one liners, and an against all odds kind of desperation.
While Halo 5 does attempt to offer all of that, it seems to fall short of some of the appeal of the previous Halo campaigns. For example, as you start the game, the squad meant to ‘hunt down’ Master Chief leap into battle and go on an impressive combat cutscene scuffle that makes you wonder why they aren’t letting you take control of this action. In fact, some of the maneuvers used by these Spartans make you wonder what all they added to the controls and if you can do them (which I’m certain you can’t). Still, the addition of moves like the shoulder rush and the ground pound do make for some excellent ‘record that’ moments certain to incite giggles over and over again. After the laughter is done, you’re still left battling the Forerunner enemies that look like metallic versions of a Tron movie gone wrong for some reason. Personally, I much rather fight the Covenant and the Flood than these computerized teleporters. As a result, a majority of the story just feels like a disjointed Call of Duty campaign where you jump between controlling two different teams throughout the game. As Spartan Locke (played by Mike Colter who is cast to be Luke Cage in an upcoming Marvel Netflix series), you run around with your 4 Spartan team (which includes the Nathan Fillion voiced Spartan Buck) trailing Master Chief and wondering why he’s disobeying orders…to chase down Cortana.
Yes, Cortana is back and Chief is, once again, chasing after her. For a moment, I wondered if I was playing Halo 5 or Halo 4 HD. Gone is all of the anticipation of the Chief actually being a ‘traitor’ as the trailers all suggested. That portion of the story actually is a bit tame since Chief is just disobeying orders to go and chase after Cortana. The real question is what are Cortana’s intentions… but I won’t spoil anything for you here.
Where 343 Industries has really excelled has been the multiplayer. Those Halo fans that were unimpressed with the Call of Duty-esque loadout classes of Halo 4 as well as the distracting armor powers will notice a return to canon (aka Halo Reach imo). This game finally feels like Halo again. The aforementioned shoulder charge and ground pound meld beautifully into the action of the matches and are easy to use. Tack on a simply beautiful jetpack boost and slide maneuver and you have a Halo that doesn’t feel too slow or too fast. The pacing is perfect. The balance of each of the guns feels good and the domination of the Magnum pistol has returned. Gunslingers from the original Halo will be pleased that this default weapon is as effective as it used to be without being overpowered in multiplayer matches. You still must headshot your way to glory for it to do anything, but headhunters can certainly deal with that fact.
Probably the most interesting of changes that 343 Industries has done is the featured Big Team Battle evolution mode called Warzone. Instead of it being a slayer match filled with vehicles and power weapons, Warzone is an objective based massive battle that features a sprinkling of AI foes as well as a hint of Domination topped off with the ‘core defense’ mechanics found in Battlefield’s Carrier Assault mode. Essentially there are 3 ‘strongholds’ for both teams to battle over for control that are well placed on each of the different maps provided for the mode. In the midst of this power struggle, the system drops in AI bosses that, if defeated, provide the team that took them down with a significant point boost. Then, as you play through the match, your team achieves ‘req levels’ that determine what kind of weapons and vehicles that you can spawn with. These ‘bonuses’ are governed by how many cards of each weapon, boost, or vehicle that you’ve acquired from Req packs. These packs are purchased by a point reward system allocated to each multiplayer match completed. Non Warzone matches usually give you up to about 1000 to 1500 points while Warzone matches can certainly double that.
The packs of ‘cards’ that you can purchase are of differing levels and values with the ability to provide some pretty interesting content. You can get assault rifles with scopes or ammo that damages vehicles more. You can get Ghosts that fire explosive rounds rather than just energy bolts. You can get weapon skins, armor mods, armor types, helmets, armor skins, and more. This system (which is much like Titanfall or even Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare) really makes you feel like you are working towards something as you play the game. Since you are constantly using these cards in Warzone (which is the only mode you can use them on), you will basically always need to buy some of them. Quite the clever system. Throw in the fact that you can get awarded card packs for gaining experience levels, achieving challenges, and other special events, you will always be curious for that next pack opening.
As usual, 343 plans to release more maps for the multiplayer modes. They’ve promised up to 16 new maps for free before summer of next year which is great. This will certainly make one wonder what paid DLC content 343 may have in store for its Spartans, because let’s face it. Today’s great games offer a wealth of ways to play and content to delve into. Metal Gear Solid V has it’s base management feature integrated into the game and story as well as their multiplayer component. It just seems as if 343 needs to add a bit ‘more’ of something. For example, horde modes are fantastic for coop. Firefight from Reach was a very popular mode and even games like Star Wars Battlefront and Call of Duty Black Ops 3 will have such a mode. Why can’t Halo 5 have this?
Also, there has been some attention drawn to the Spartan Companies that are managed by the out of game service Halo Waypoint. While it is always good to have ‘clans’ to bring together friends and strangers to fight for a common ‘banner’, there needs to be a bit more purpose behind the organization. Most great games (like Grand Theft Auto V and even Call of Duty AW) used interesting timed community goals, clan competitions, and such to increase player activity over the weekend or to promote new content release. I have a feeling this is in the works, but I’m hoping the existence of these companies are more than what they are at the beginning. Considering 343’s push to make Halo 5 an eSport favorite, I’m hoping that the Halo Waypoint functionality in driving the game in that direction will continue to foster ways to get its players involved in online tournaments and the like.
This Halo package as a whole may not be the best offering, but it is certainly worth the price tag. The real question will be how will 343 Industries continue to ‘alter the playing field’ after launch. While it has been confirmed that development of the next Halo game has begun, one can’t help but feel like Halo 5 is missing something. As I’ve mentioned time and time again on Geekswagg Podcasts, oftentimes a story is defined by how diabolical or even how ‘cool’ the villain is. The Halo franchise seems to be lacking that since at one point you’ve fought against the aliens and then you fight as and with them. Then there are the Forerunners who, at some point, were meant to be like the grand daddies of all of this alien cooperation versus other greater universal threats. Heck, I don’t know. All I know is that the Flood was pretty disgusting and diabolical and it made the first few Halo games pretty good. For some reason, the community and Bungie felt that the Flood was overdone and not necessary at some point and then got dropped. I think that was a mistake. They should have found some way to evolve the Flood and make them a bit more difficult or something to that nature.
In the meantime, the on point multiplayer mode will definitely hold its own over the holidays and into the coming year as one of the top played FPS games for sure. Then, just when you had warm and fuzzies about the whole effort, for some reason, 343 decided NOT to include local coop. That’s right. No longer can you do splitscreen coop campaign or multiplayer play in this latest Halo. Unfortunately, that fun is reserved for the Master Chief collection that 343 had such a hard time with.
Halo 5 Guardians is a solid outing that will certainly bring the multiplayer Halo faithful back to the fold. While the story is its weakest point, that won’t stop a Spartan charge in the end. Hail to the Chief.