Halo 5: Guardians

Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Mi­crosoft De­vel­oper 343 In­dus­tries For­mat Xbox One Release Out now

Halo 4’ s achieve­ments were many. It was a proof of con­cept, for one thing, ev­i­dence that Halo’s new cus­to­di­ans at 343 In­dus­tries were ca­pa­ble of adding to the work of the se­ries’ real-life Fore­run­ners at Bungie. It also demon­strated how Halo’s even-handed mul­ti­player might be recog­nis­ably re­tooled for to­day’s pro­gres­sion-heavy, su­per-ki­netic first­per­son mar­ket. But above ev­ery­thing else, Halo 4’ s most sig­nif­i­cant act was to give us Mas­ter Chief back. And in light of that, it seems care­less of Halo 5 to take him away again.

It feels like we’ve been here be­fore. Per­haps it’s a se­quels thing – Halo 2 wasn’t the bet­ter for di­vid­ing its cam­paign mis­sions be­tween the Mas­ter Chief, Xbox icon John Wayne, and the Ar­biter, an eight-foot alien who looks like a hair­less Al­sa­tian in a hel­met. But 343 has re­peated the mis­take, with play time dur­ing Halo 5’ s story – in which Mas­ter Chief goes look­ing for an of­freser­va­tion Cor­tana, and new Spar­tan Jame­son Locke is or­dered to pursue – sim­i­larly di­vided be­tween er­adefin­ing hero and, well, the new guy.

The is­sue here isn’t with be­ing Locke – who’s fine, if bor­ing in a man­dated-by-the-plot way – but in not be­ing Mas­ter Chief. This nar­ra­tive struc­tur­ing puts us out­side him, makes us du­bi­ous of his in­ten­tions, even pits us against him, all while we wait im­pa­tiently to be him again, be­cause Halo is the story of be­ing a stoic green su­per­man with big guns. It’s a mis­cal­cu­la­tion that gives the cam­paign a stop-start mo­men­tum, Locke’s mis­sions like an out-of-the-body-we’d-like-to-have ex­pe­ri­ence that, de­spite their var­i­ous mer­its, are tempt­ing to rush through to re­join the main event.

And they do have mer­its. Halo 5 is a beau­ti­ful game, filled with imag­i­na­tive sci-fi stag­ing: el­e­gant alien shore­lines; ar­chi­tec­ture bur­rowed into cliff faces and other slop­ing ge­o­log­i­cals; and daz­zling ex­pan­sive interiors. The Covenant Elite home­world of Sanghe­lios is a par­tic­u­lar high­light, with slow, heavy waves sulk­ing be­neath a cold, bright sun as Locke and his fireteam rush across a se­ries of raised plat­forms as they crum­ble into the sea. In fact the only com­plaint about the places in which Halo 5 puts us is they some­times seem al­most too Halo, in com­bi­na­tion with the mov­ing-tar­get nar­ra­tive strat­egy of there al­ways be­ing some­thing just out of reach. There’s al­ways an­other pol­ished cor­ri­dor to run along, an­other an­gu­lar dais to climb, an­other door­way to open – an ex­ag­ger­ated ge­om­e­try that, to­wards the end, ex­tends and un­folds into self-par­ody.

While Halo 5 some­times feels too Halo, 343 is also nudg­ing its aes­thetic in an­other di­rec­tion. The stu­dio’s big con­tri­bu­tion to the se­ries are the Prometheans, a robot-and-light race of digi­tised an­cient hu­mans who serve as a sort of flash­mob army for the now not-so mys­te­ri­ous Fore­run­ners. While the Prometheans’ ex­pand­ing, float­ing metal­lic style was a refreshing ad­di­tion to Halo 4, the Flood be­ing the Pla­tonic ideal of a de­mon ex in this re­gard, an­other game in their com­pany stretches their wel­come.

There’s some­thing in­sub­stan­tial about them and their weapons. There’s a lack of feed­back in the fir­ing, with light ri­fles that feel as ef­fec­tive as turn­ing a torch on en­e­mies, and a lack of feed­back in be­ing fired upon, with the sol­dier class in par­tic­u­lar in­sub­stan­tial to the point where it’s not al­ways clear if a shot has reg­is­tered. Per­haps worst of all, the Promethean grunt class are es­sen­tially robot dogs. Some en­coun­ters in­volve dozens of th­ese en­e­mies ap­pear­ing and rush­ing at once; what­ever your vi­sion of the ex­pe­ri­ences that Xbox’s flag­ship sys­tem-shifter might de­liver this time, joy­lessly ex­ter­mi­nat­ing a pack of me­chan­i­cal ca­nines was prob­a­bly not high on the list. But Halo 5 is new in dif­fer­ent ways. Af­ter ten­ta­tive tin­ker­ing with the game’s move­ment sys­tem – Halo, more than the vast ma­jor­ity of shoot­ers, is char­ac­terised by a glo­ri­ously steady feel – Halo 5 has set­tled on some­thing new but sub­stan­tial. Sprint­ing is un­lim­ited, and low-level walls can be grabbed and clam­bered over. There’s no wall-run­ning, but there is a short boost that can shunt your Spar­tan side­ways, for­ward or back, chain with melee at­tacks, and keep Spar­tans hov­er­ing for a short time while smart-link aim­ing (read: aim­ing down sights). Put to­gether it makes for a mus­cu­lar, sat­is­fy­ing cy­cle of op­tions offering var­ied pace and power that recog­nises the tra­jec­tory of the first­per­son shooter but doesn’t aban­don the Chief’s steady stride.

The in­clu­sion of Fireteams along­side our two pro­tag­o­nists also changes the game’s shape and feel. Rather than plucky bands of NPC grunts rid­ing shot­gun and prov­ing their ex­pend­abil­ity dur­ing what be­came un­of­fi­cial es­cort mis­sions (tiny heart­breaks with each avoid­able death), Halo 5’ s Fireteams – Chief has Blue, Locke has Osiris – act like AI co-op com­pan­ions rather than glo­ri­fied hood ornaments.

It’s a shift­ing of pri­or­ity, in that Halo has al­ways felt like a sin­gle­player block­buster it was pos­si­ble to play with friends, clum­sily stitch­ing in an­other Mas­ter Chief. But Halo 5, as though feel­ing the press of Des­tiny’s per­sis­tent co-op Strik­ing and Raid­ing, gives char­ac­ter and space to your friends even when they’re not play­ing. The cam­paign en­vi­ron­ments are de­signed ac­cord­ingly – filled with fre­quent open spa­ces that lack a sin­gle nar­row path – but more­over this is a root-and­branch re­ac­tion to the way we play shoot­ers now: so­cially, re­peat­edly, there to see each other as much as the game it­self. It’s an ap­proach which has also found its way into Halo 5’ s com­pet­i­tive mul­ti­player.

In fact, that com­pet­i­tive mul­ti­player is a sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment. Given an im­pos­si­ble brief – make com­bat feel fast and fresh like newer shoot­ers while re­tain­ing that in­tan­gi­ble clas­sic Halo feel – it de­liv­ers, with

Given an im­pos­si­ble brief – make com­bat feel fast and fresh while re­tain­ing that in­tan­gi­ble Halo feel – it de­liv­ers

what’s clearly a care­fully con­sid­ered two-way ap­proach. Arena is a stripped-down set of playlists and houses the purists’ version of Halo mul­ti­player. There are no load­outs and no ar­mour or ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity powerups, just two sets of Spar­tans com­pet­ing for con­trol of a map and its power weapons us­ing strat­egy and adept move­ment. It’s a re­sponse to a creep­ing sense of drift, the feel­ing that as Halo mod­ernised with ar­mour abil­i­ties, sprint­ing and kill­streaks from Reach on­wards, it was los­ing some­thing es­sen­tial to it­self. Here the de­ci­sion’s been made that Halo can’t be two things at once, but it can be them at sep­a­rate times. So Arena has stan­dard start­ing weapons and skill-ranked matches and it feels, even with the new move­ment sys­tem, like an old version of Halo that never really ex­isted, leav­ing Halo 5’ s other mul­ti­player pil­lar, War­zone, to be as new and un- Halo as it likes.

While Arena is clean and bal­anced, it does still count to­wards your over­all pro­gres­sion, earn­ing you req­ui­si­tion packs that can be opened and de­ployed in War­zone. This req­ui­si­tion sys­tem is an ad­vanced version of the small tac­ti­cal de­ci­sions per­mit­ted in

Halo 4, now an en­tire mi­cro­trans­ac­tion econ­omy, with sim­i­lar­i­ties to Ad­vanced War­fare’s Sup­ply Drops. It gives play­ers the abil­ity to re­deem cards (col­lected by open­ing ran­domised packs) for power weapons, ar­mour powerups, XP boosts and even ve­hi­cles.

The rea­son this doesn’t turn into a pay-to-win freefor-all is that War­zone is a care­fully man­aged Big Team mode, a max­i­mum of 24 play­ers fight­ing for con­trol of ter­ri­to­ries and bases. Req­ui­si­tions be­come avail­able in stages, with more pow­er­ful cards only playable as the bat­tle pro­gresses to stop an open­ing surge of re­sources sway­ing matches im­me­di­ately. But the bal­ance is also in­nate, be­cause the size of the match pop­u­la­tion means even pow­er­ful cards have to be used skil­fully to make an im­pres­sion. The econ­omy of cards and strate­gies will only set­tle post-release, but it seems more com­mon cards – ba­sic and even heavy weapons – drop reg­u­larly enough that all play­ers will have a ready sup­ply, so it will take co­or­di­na­tion and abil­ity, not merely spend­ing power, to fre­quently shift the odds in your favour.

War­zone is also re­mark­able for its mix of PVP and PVE com­po­nents. The huge scale of its maps give it room to de­ploy enemy cham­pi­ons of vary­ing tough­ness that sit as op­tional tar­gets avail­able for both Spar­tan teams. Th­ese cham­pi­ons of­fer po­ten­tially game-turn­ing points and so en­gi­neer the kind of en­counter Des­tiny seemed to once prom­ise but never quite de­liv­ered – enemy hu­man teams in loose and treach­er­ous coali­tion at the site of a sig­nif­i­cant AI threat. The fights that hap­pen un­der and around th­ese cham­pi­ons as they near death, each side wait­ing for the mo­ment to fo­cus fully on the NPC prize, are new and ex­cel­lent.

But they also pose the ques­tion of whether this is enough. Leav­ing the cam­paign aside – it is, in the tra­di­tion of the se­ries, a frac­tured an­ti­cli­max – Halo 5’ s mul­ti­player is both faith­ful and re-en­er­gised. But it also rep­re­sents a par­tial im­ple­men­ta­tion of the kind of per­sis­tent play and com­pul­sive de­sign Des­tiny, af­ter a year of its own tin­ker­ing, now has a firm han­dle on. Halo 5 is full of good de­ci­sions and fan­tas­tic mul­ti­player ex­pe­ri­ences, but in try­ing to catch up, it might have shown how far be­hind it really is.

Big Team mul­ti­player mode War­zone fea­tures mul­ti­stage maps with bases sur­round­ing a con­testable struc­ture. De­stroy­ing the enemy core is one of the ways of rack­ing up a win, or your team of 12 can shoot for 1,000 points

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