343 Industries' ownership of the Halo franchise has been inconsistent. Halo 4 was a decent hand-off that we classified as stage-setting, but it wasn't an unqualified hit. The Master Chief Collection was a great anthology of Halo campaigns, stymied by buggy multiplayer that took months to fix. All this is to say Halo 5: Guardians still had a lot to prove about the franchise's new caretakers, and I was pleased to find it succeeds with aplomb. 343 has finally claimed authorship with its own clear vision of where to take the series.
The Master Plan
I've been critical of the story in Halo games, mostly because its generous dollops of space-magic and lore has overshadowed its characters. Halo 5: Guardians addresses this head-on by putting the focus on individuals and relationships. Master Chief's decision to go AWOL is motivated by his care for Cortana, a relationship that has been built slowly over the course of four games. Blue Team has just enough banter to justify their decision to go along with him, out of respect if not genuine concern for their surrogate brother. Locke's Fireteam Osiris feels conflicted about targeting the legendary Master Chief at all. Buck, played by Nathan Fillion, puts in an especially human performance in this regard.
All of this happens fairly early, and the decisions are made so quickly that they could have hit with more weight. It feels like 343 rushed the premise to get to the conflict. Still, the performances carry it through and give everything that follows a more personal feeling. I felt a stake in the plot because I understood where everyone was coming from. As it reached its climax, there was even a moment that was genuinely chilling.
The two squads--Master Chief's Blue Team and Locke's Fireteam Osiris--don't actually show very much differentiation. Though Master Chief is canonically the more experienced Spartan, and Locke's history is in stealth and assassinations, the pair play identically, aside from some visual cues like animations and the visor overlay.
It's the focus on the squads itself that makes Guardians feel so different. This is a squad-based shooter first and foremost, and it's clear that everything is built around that. The size of the maps, the scale and greater number of enemies, and even an increased focus on targets that require flanking, make for a Halo game that is very much built around group encounters.
It's Dangerous to Go Alone
If you play without a band of friends to make up your fireteam, you'll still have three teammates following in the form of A.I. companions. This means you can play through the entire campaign without ever going online, but you probably shouldn't. This was my single biggest frustration with Halo 5, and one that came up repeatedly throughout: your bot co-op teammates are only occasionally helpful, and more often act as useless liabilities. These Spartans--the best of the best of the UNSC military--are idiots.
Revivals are the major problem. Halo's combat puzzle loop has always led to lots of deaths as you figure out your approach, and the ability to revive teammates means you have a little more flexibility if something goes wrong. However, your teammates oscillate wildly between situational blindness and overenthusiasm.
If you go down, they don't seem to realize your death is a fail-state: they'll come revive you if you're conveniently close, but otherwise they're happy to let you bleed out. You can instead order them to come revive you, in which case all three of them will run directly into oncoming gunfire and fall like dominoes. Smarter A.I. would mark the closest ally to act as medic as the others lay down cover fire, but no. They all just run towards you like an excited puppy chasing a ball into traffic.
They aren't particularly great combatants either, since they seem to prioritize clearing an area over sticking close to you or finding a good angle. I would usually find myself far ahead of the pack. At one point I had pushed forward into a swarm of enemies thinking my teammates were right behind me, but after being chased away in a hail of gunfire I realized all three of them were stuck trying to take down a single Promethean. A repeated boss encounter, the Warden Eternal, requires cooperation to flank and aim at his weak spot, but your A.I. companions don't seem to understand that vital strategy and the game presents no good way to communicate it to them. If you can help it, always play with human beings.
Despite my constant frustration with my A.I. teammates, the campaign itself was wonderfully designed and the best the series has ever looked. It did sometimes feel a little too neatly bisected between Prometheans and Elites, but I barely noticed in the thick of combat. I've always enjoyed Halo's improvisational style of constantly finding and swapping weapons in the middle of the battlefield, and the Promethean weapons from Halo 4 have gotten substantive tweaks that make them viable alternatives to the usual Human and Covenant weapon sets.
Plus, it has more than a few of Halo's grand setpieces. My personal favorite, in which your squad runs down the side of a structure with noticeable impact on the gravity of your jumps, was especially thrilling.
Naturally, the campaign is only half of the package. Multiplayer provides the long-term enjoyment for Halo fans, and in its tenure Bungie had a tendency to build on what came before to create more and more expansive offerings. 343 took a side-step in Halo 4, choosing to invest its energy in the episodic cooperative Spartan Ops mode. While I enjoyed Spartan Ops, it was a hybrid between campaign and multiplayer, and didn't feel like the dramatic leap forward for multiplayer I found in Guardians.
It's split in two this time around. All of your traditional Halo multiplayer game types have been sorted into the "Arena" mode, complete with newfound Spartan Abilities that give you more traversal tools than ever before on the battlefield. It's no secret that 343 is making a push into the realm of eSports, and Arena is where the move is most noticeable. The balance is impeccable even as the game speed moves at lightning pace, thanks to the new abilities and sign-posting for weapon drops. The maps strike that perfect blend of open spaces and tight corridors, forcing confrontation at every turn.
The second pillar of multiplayer is the new Warzone mode, which feels more like a natural extension of multiplayer than Spartan Ops ever did. These engagements are essentially control point matches at a much larger scale, but it mixes in randomized single-player elements like boss fights. This mode isn't quite as precisely balanced as the Arena modes, since the boss encounters can make for wild swings and even a losing team can win in the last moment if they push enough to destroy the enemy power core. As someone who often gets tired of static modes that simply ask me to score kills or run a flag, though, the constantly refreshing variety made this my mode of choice.
All of the multiplayer modes grant you Requisition Points, which you use to buy Req Packs for customization options. The pricing of these was not detailed during the review period, but given that these cosmetic flourishes are apparently being used to fund development of free map packs, it's hard to complain. I can imagine completists pulling their hair out at the mind-boggling array of helmets, armor, visors, assassinations, stances, and weapon and vehicle skins, though.
The absence of Forge Mode is most keenly felt. It's currently in development and planned for release after launch. While I appreciate 343 giving it the time it may need, missing such a popular suite of creativity tools does make the package feel slightly less complete than it could have. Still, that's a minor quibble in such a massive game, especially since it's on the horizon anyway.
Halo 5: Guardians isn't 343's first Halo game, but it's the first that really makes the series its own. This isn't a reflection of Bungie's efforts, or a remaster, or stage-setting. The studio has put its own identity on this Halo game with smart moves like a more identifiable story and a wider array of multiplayer options, along with increased polish like Guardians' incredible visual punch and impeccable multiplayer balance. For the first time since 343 took the mantle, I came away feeling that it was a change for the better.
This review is based on a Xbox One digital code provided by the publisher. Halo 5: Guardians will be available on October 27, for $59.99. The game is rated T.
Halo 5: Guardians
- More personal story with relatable characters
- Well-designed and stylish campaign set pieces
- Gorgeous visual presentation throughout
- Impeccable multiplayer balance
- Warzone is the best new Halo multiplayer mode in years
- Co-op A.I. companions are useless liabilities
- No Forge Mode at launch
Steve Watts posted a new article, Halo 5: Guardians Review-in-Progress: The New Master
Less than 5 hours to go... so pumped!!!
Nice write up sounds really good, I am really looking forward to tomorrow and Halo 5 I have mine scheduled for delivery in the morning. Could be the best Halo, that is my feeling it may just end up being we shall see.
Interesting about the bots, I play SP mostly so looks like I will have to try the co op. Reminds me of Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide which I just got recently and play solo the bots in that game are also complete shit which really sucks. I wish games made better bots, but I know they are not easy to make so I get that.
I am ready for tomorrow that is for sure.
Please god let this be PC bound
Damn. I hated Titanfall and this sounds a lot like it. If the AI is this stupid, then it almost forces you into playing the game online, which I fucking loathe. I like to play through the game single player. I may never play online and I am fine with that. It's gonna suck if Halo goes down this route.
FYI: After testing on live servers today, the review-in-progress has been upgraded to a full review.
No split-screen co-op campaign bums me out just because Tommy and I have played the snot out of every other Halo game, but this one we're going to sit out until ti's cheap. :/
Totally agree with this, sad to not be able to play a split screen co-op campaign this time around after playing every other Halo title with my brother and starting to play them with my sons.