Wednesday 23 August 2017

Halo 5: Guardians review - Big blockbuster bangs but little love for legends

Halo 5 - Spartan Locke takes on the starring role
Halo 5 - Spartan Locke takes on the starring role
Frank Whelan

Frank Whelan

Xbox’s flagship franchise is back and hoping for a tactical strike in the console wars.

8.5/10; Xbox One; 343 Industries

Halo 5: Guardians has been promising greatness for a long time. The reveal trailer teased us with so many tantalizing questions. Later marketing suggested that this would be the game where Spartan Locke had a final reckoning with the legendary Master Chief. What an epic head-to-head that would be! A Halo release hasn’t been so exciting in such a long time...

... and then an overwhelming sense of disappointment reigns as you play the game and realise a great opportunity was wasted.

In terms of storyline, Halo 5 is the equivalent of The Matrix: Reloaded. If you don’t quite remember the second Matrix movie – and many have burnt it from their mind – it was a lot of action and complicated plot points but very little substance and resolution.

Developers 343 Industries have taken some odd choices to leave campaign players with a sense of emptiness rather than longing.

Action plays out between two protagonists and their squads. The familiar Master Chief has his Blue Team and former assassin Spartan Locke with Fire Team Osiris. Similar to Halo 2, the action swaps between the two characters, but the game never finds the balance of its predecessor.

Halo 5 - Fireteam Osiris in full pose mode. Throughout the game we get to learn more about each spartan.
Halo 5 - Fireteam Osiris in full pose mode. Throughout the game we get to learn more about each spartan.

Only three of the 15 missions feature the Master Chief, yet he’s the true protagonist, he’s the one trying to save everyone from certain doom again. The role Spartan Locke and his team play is trying to catch Master Chief, so rather than being directly involved in the evolving story, you’re getting the Master Chief’s leftovers.

There’s no real tension or emotional investment. Though Spartan Locke is sent to bring the Master Chief in, there’s a sense of just following orders without any major feeling either way. All of the drama and motivation stems from the Master Chief’s side, yet it feels like his inclusion was about keeping Halo 5 in line with the franchise while bringing in a new alpha spartan for the future.

Halo 5 - Though the Master Chief drives the story, we only play as him for three missions
Halo 5 - Though the Master Chief drives the story, we only play as him for three missions

The ending of Halo 5 will no doubt cause conflict amongst gamers. Without going in to further detail, and in attempt to avoid a dissertation on the topic, let’s just say we’re definitely getting a Halo 6.

Gameplay goes back to the heart of the Halo series. Fancy notions of jet packs and dual-wielding have been left aside and it’s back to pure run, gun and take cover while your shield recharges action. 343 have done a good job of making this the very best Halo experience yet with some subtle but significant changes to the original formula.

Halo 5 - A big glowing sword and fully loaded with grenades. It's hunting season, chaps!
Halo 5 - A big glowing sword and fully loaded with grenades. It's hunting season, chaps!

The ability to grab onto ledges adds a whole new vertical aspect to the levels and platforming elements creep in to take advantage of the new skill. Another trick that features extensively is the addition of a shoulder charge, used to smash through walls and enemies alike.

Climbing and hidden routes are part of the broadening of battlefield choices. While we’re still talking linear corridors leading to open battle arenas, there’s now a sense that exploration will reveal genuine strategic options. For example, an assault on an enemy stronghold is near impossible with your probable weapon load-out, but a battery found up high can overload the protective shield or a fragile wall can open up an underground route that bypasses the shield completely.

Halo 5 - Arena level design really takes advantage of the new climb ability.
Halo 5 - Arena level design really takes advantage of the new climb ability.

Other changes are more subtle but noticeable. Movement is faster and complements the new 60fps frame rate to create a more fluid experience. For the first time, every weapon has zoom aiming and taking fire drops your sights. It may sound a small detail to some people, but sniper-heavy players will really need to alter their game.

For the most part you’re facing Prometheans, with a dash of Covenant forces to keep things interesting – if occasionally confusing. There’s been no major advancement in the area of enemies and it’s a noticeable weak point. At big moments the developer has nothing special in the bag and you even battle the same boss eight times.

Combat has been improved, but it’s still classic Halo. At this point many people will know whether they think that’s a good or bad thing.

Halo 5 - The Breakout mode in the Arena is 5-v-5 capture the flag where each player only has one life. Caution advised.
Halo 5 - The Breakout mode in the Arena is 5-v-5 capture the flag where each player only has one life. Caution advised.

The final new and somewhat baffling addition to the campaign mix is non-violent missions where you have to walk around an area and talk to people. These sections completely disrupt the flow of the game and add little. If they were properly executed they would be a welcome change of pace, but AI that fails to acknowledge your presence and unnatural story deliver is what we get. Games are so far past such wooden interactions. 

Halo 5 - Somebody used a card to summon a mantis. Very fancy.
Halo 5 - Somebody used a card to summon a mantis. Very fancy.
Halo 5 - Forerunners are big fans of grey and blue

A four-player co-op mode is a nice touch to the campaign and saves players from the frustration of the single player squad AI. Much of the game is designed for co-ordinated attacks, from enemy types to the multiple route options mentioned above, so co-op definitely is the best way to experience the campaign. 

Multiplayer really saves Halo 5’s space bacon.

As with the campaign, 343 have stripped Halo 5 back to the fundamentals and built up from there. Special abilities and load-outs are gone, allowing Halo to once again stand apart from the shooter pack.

Halo 5 - Fireteam Osiris take on some Promethean jerks
Halo 5 - Fireteam Osiris take on some Promethean jerks
Halo 5 - It's the Warden. The one boss you'll meet over and over again.
Halo 5 - It's the Warden. The one boss you'll meet over and over again.
Halo 5 - The Forerunners have created a world full of green foliage and handy ledges.

Jet packs and gadgets are all the rage these days, but Halo 5 manages to keep things interesting with only the new movement changes. Familiar, but different enough to catch old pros off guard. Players start each match with the same load-out, with the focus now back on the race for the big weapons. Yet again this sounds like old Halo, but 343 have tweaked the formula. For example, each new rocket launcher spawn is announced to all, making the matches less about memorising where the weapons are hidden and more about battling for dominance.

343 have turned their backs on the progression craze where better gear can be earned through play, preferring to have combatants start on as even a footing as possible. Halo 5 does feature "REQ packs" which contain cosmetic changes such as armour parts and once-off cards to use in certain modes, but they won't give an unfair advantage in Arena matches.

Arena is mostly classic 4-v-4 action with a number of core modes such as Slayer done well. Some of Halo’s old quirky modes, such as Odd Ball, are missing but in their place we have the massive Warzone.

Halo 5 - Master Chief suddenly realises Spartan Locke is after his sponsorship deals
Halo 5 - Master Chief suddenly realises Spartan Locke is after his sponsorship deals

Warzone is the big multiplayer development in Halo 5. 12-v-12 matches on a huge battlefield filled with objectives and enemy AI. Warzone brings a level of strategy that Halo has largely lacked when compared with the likes of Battlefield. Teams will have to prioritise targets – do they swarm a base or maybe split into teams to take down the AI and earn valuable points to summon perks or spend REQ cards.

As it stands, and bearing in mind the disaster that befell The Master Chief Collection once players swarmed the servers, Halo 5’s multiplayer is very good and the promised free DLC should help its longevity and regain some players lost due to the previous Halo debacle.

Halo 5: Guardian’s single player feels like a missed opportunity. There’s an interesting story building, but the focus on Spartan Locke feels too much like filler. You could completely remove certain Locke missions and never notice.

The gameplay is good. It’s not consistently great and there are plenty of flaws, but when it hits the right beat there are certainly some of the series’ best battles here.

Each exciting cutscene shows you the Halo 5 that could have been and the game you want to play, but instead you passively watch the movie before returning to what seems like the best version of a game that wowed us in 2001, minus the heart.

There are plenty of negatives above but they’re amplified by disappointment. Halo 5: Guardians is still a fine game and one worthy of playing. The campaign may not quite be worth buying a console for, but the multiplayer has the potential to be an absolute winner.

Here’s hoping 343 Industries don’t try to do a Hobbit and stretch a good yarn out over three games.

Halo 5: Guardians is available now for Xbox One.

Halo 5 - Up close with our Promethean friend
Halo 5 - Up close with our Promethean friend
Halo 5 - Remember Reach.
Halo 5 - Sanghelios looks beautiful and allows for some great ledge climbing fun
Halo 5 - I feel that a warthog is never really a great choice in Warzone. So easily blown-up.
Halo 5 - REQ packs contain armour upgrades and cards to play during Warzone
Halo 5 - Warzone is all about the base, bout the base, no trouble

(Xbox One version played. Digital version supplied by publisher.)

Read More: Independent.ie Game Reviews 2015

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