Halo 5: Guardians
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