You might have thought that in the three years they’ve had since taking over the franchise, 343 Industries would have gotten the hang of this whole ‘Halo’ thing by now. But in attempting to evolve the series, the team have neglected some of the design elements that made the original games great, and produced something that ultimately feels a little disappointing.
Guardians’ campaign kicks off with a beautifully cinematic introduction to Fireteam Osiris; following them as they slide, boost and ground-pound their way through hordes of hapless Covenant troops in a glorious, single-shot sequence. It’s a stunningly well-choreographed cutscene, and serves as an ample reminder of just how badass a team of coordinated Spartans can be.
The team itself consists of squad leader, Jameson Locke (from the Anniversary Edition of Halo 2), fan-favourite ODST-turned Spartan, Edward Buck, and series newbies Holly Tanaka and Olympia Vale. Following the group’s introductory rescue mission of a familiar face, the action cuts to Guardians’ second task force, Blue Team, led by none other than The Master Chief himself. For a number of players out there, the significance of Blue Team’s reformation will be completely lost, and Guardians does nothing to explain the group’s sudden reappearance since The Fall of Reach. The actual reasons for the band getting back together can be found in the Halo novelisations, but the absence of even a brief explanation or recap feels like a significant oversight on 343’s part.
Each of the eight core characters is unique (at least aesthetically) with individual touches to their arms and armour to help set them all apart. Unfortunately, unlike their visual design, their personalities suffer from some significant underdevelopment. The Chief gets something of a free pass, having had four games to develop his character already. But of the remaining seven, the only real standout is Osiris’ Buck, whose charismatically delivered dialogue provides a much-needed ‘human’ character for players to empathise with.
Otherwise, there’s little personality to go round, and both groups are a far cry from the likes of Halo: Reach’s Noble Team. Credit where it’s due, there’s one character (who we won’t name to avoid spoilers) who shines in a very different way from what we’ve come to expect of them. But even they get a disappointingly small amount of screen time compared to some less deserving cast members.
A frustratingly uninspired ensemble isn’t the only one of Halo 5’s major issues, as the story sees the two teams meander from one mediocre set-piece to another, with only a few memorable sequences towards the game’s climax. At the point where the narrative finally gains some traction, it all comes to an abrupt end, leaving some significant plot points deliberately open for Halo 6.
The world itself is at least a pretty one to explore, and the Xbox One does an admirable job of rendering Guardians’ gorgeous locales. The fifteen levels offer some great diversity, with real standouts like the Elite home world of Sanghellios; and there’s the usual volume of impressive, sci-fi vistas that we’ve come to expect of the series. Some compromises have been made to maintain graphic fidelity, most noticeably the frame rate drop on enemies more than a certain distance away. But ultimately it feels like a fair trade off for a polished experience, without being too distracting.
To keep up-to-date with other, modern shooters, Guardians now features iron sights, ledge climbing, and sprinting without specific loadouts. The new ground-pound attack and melee charge offer some fun ways to mix up tactics in both campaign and PvP; plus you can now hover in the air by aiming down the sights after a jump. Which while having some advantages, also turns you into a rather obvious floating target.
There’s now a Gears of War style ‘down but not out’ recovery system, where having your shields and life depleted in the campaign floors your character, but doesn’t kill them. This allows your teammates a few seconds to pick you up again and get you straight back in the action. It makes gameplay a little more forgiving, and those playing in co-op will breeze through Guardians’ tougher encounters as long as everyone’s hot on their revives.
Single player is a very different story however, since whether or not the AI will pick you up in time, is something of a crapshoot. Sometimes they’ll get stuck on geometry, sometimes they’ll get distracted by enemies, or sometimes they’ll run over to within a few feet of you and simply stop; watching the revive timer run down as your character breathes their last and you’re left staring at the screen in disbelief. The AI is desperately in need of some work, and it’s inability to prioritise recovering the player, makes higher difficulty levels in single player a horribly frustrating experience.
Halo 5’s multiplayer makes up the other half of Guardians, and after various issues with the Chief Collection’s online component, it was important for 343 to get this one right. The usual game types (Slayer, SWAT, etc.) all make welcome reappearances alongside a few brand new modes. Those of you who played the Beta will have already seen Breakout – a small-scale CTF game with an added ‘single-life’ component. It makes for a tense experience, encouraging a bit more thought and cooperation than the traditional arena variants, and is likely where the hardcore will enjoy spending their time.
The other big new addition is Warzone – a 12 v 12 large-scale battle in which players score points by eliminating NPCs and capturing strongholds. It’s obvious this is where 343 have invested their multiplayer development time, as the massive Warzone maps are far more detailed and varied than those designed for smaller skirmishes. In fact, it feels like the Arena maps have been sorely neglected, as there’s not a single standout amongst them. Where previous titles had iconic locales to brawl in like Blood Gulch, Lockout, Zanzibar and Guardian; Halo 5’s Arena maps look like they’ve been knocked together by fans in Forge mode rather than designed by professionals. They’re dull, generic and ultimately forgettable.
The highlight of Guardian’s multiplayer is undoubtedly it’s Spartan customisation, boasting one of the most extensive collections of armour types, colour variants and emblems the series has ever seen. This impressive selection does come with its own caveat however, which is where the new ‘Requisition Packs’ come in.
Completing multiplayer games earns you ‘REQ Points’, which can be exchanged for three different types of ‘REQ Pack.’ Each pack contains a randomised selection of cards, featuring single-use weapons and vehicles for use in Warzone, as well as XP boosts and bonuses for other game types. There’s also a chance of them containing ‘permanent unlocks’ – meaning armour and weapon skins. So rather than new gear being purchasable, or being unlocked through ranking up your Spartan, cosmetic upgrades are now determined by dumb luck. Don’t worry though! REQ Packs can also be purchased through microtransactions; so feel free to keep throwing your hard-earned cash at the screen with fingers crossed until you find the drops you want.
The whole system comes across as another cynical attempt to squeeze more money out of players. Yes, the microtransactions are optional, but the knock on effect of the design is that you can no longer work towards a cosmetic reward, knowing that eventually you’re guaranteed to get it. You just have to keep playing (or paying) and hope for the best.
Overall, Guardians is a competent first person shooter, but one which fails to meet expectations. As a ‘Halo’ game and a flagship title for Microsoft, it simply isn’t good enough. The campaign is uninspiring and clichéd, with recycled bosses and an anticlimactic finale. The lack of character development is a sorely wasted opportunity, and poor AI makes single player on higher difficulties hugely frustrating. The competitive multiplayer will be adequate for most, but fans of the series are likely to be disappointed by the generic Arena maps and an unlock system designed around random drops.
Technically, Halo 5 is very impressive, featuring some great visuals and gorgeous cutscenes at sixty FPS. Its fifteen levels will take most players around eight hours to complete on Normal/Heroic difficulty, and the usual selection of skulls and Easter eggs offers some replayability. Ultimately though, it’s a disappointingly mediocre entry into an otherwise brilliant franchise.