Let’s get this out of the way: Halo 5: Guardians is Jameson Locke’s story. He and his band of Spartans, Fireteam Osiris, are featured in roughly two-thirds of the campaign’s missions with Master Chief and Blue Team’s exploits basically filling the gaps. It’s a bold move to put the Chief on the back burner, and one that isn’t handled as deftly as it could’ve been. The action, however, is first rate.
There have been some modifications to the traditional Halo setup, most notably that aiming down sight is now available with any weapon (called Smart-Link) via the left trigger — you’ll still drop out of that magnified view when taking damage. Right bumper now serves three functions: a basic melee strike, a Spartan charge that’s available when sprinting and a Ground Pound done in mid-air. A quick thrusting dash can be utilized with the “B” button.
During the campaign you can also issue basic commands to your squad by aiming at an enemy, item or space and pressing up on the d-pad. As Locke, pushing down sends a resonating pulse that highlights points of interest. As the Chief, it simply marks your objective. It may take a little while to get accustomed to the changes, but they should become second nature before long.
It was a given that Microsoft was going to pull out all the stops with Halo 5’s presentation. Cut scenes look great, even if there’s a bit of a plastic look to faces, and outside of an almost cartoonish looking opening scene where Osiris drops into the fray the action is slickly choreographed.
Level variety is very good as you’ll travel to a number of different locations and climates, all of which look different but still retain the Halo feel. Locations feel more alive than ever, too, with multiple paths and areas to explore. It creates some options for tackling encounters, which works especially well when playing co-operatively.
One of the true separators between Halo and other shooters is its score, and the music in Halo 5 is another notch in the series’ belt as it mixes its iconic elements with new material. There were times during the campaign where we just stopped and soaked it all in. It’s that good.
Voice acting doesn’t excel at the same level, however, with a couple of notable exceptions. Both Cortana and the Warden Eternal are tremendous in their roles, and Nathan Fillion (Buck) injects some much needed personality. Weapons, vehicles and explosions all pulsate through the speakers with ample force.
As the second act of the Reclaimer Saga, Halo 5: Guardians is a fairly dark story. The Covenant is broken and embroiled in Civil War, while Chief now leads Blue Team, a four-person squad dispatched to an ONI space station to investigate Covenant interest. While there, Chief has a “vision” where he speaks to Cortana, who was thought to have perished at the end of Halo 4.
Despite orders to the contrary, Blue Team decides to investigate, which causes the UNSC to send Locke and Fireteam Osiris to bring them back. From there you’ll pursue the Chief in an attempt to prevent him from making contact with Cortana. It’s a pretty good adventure on a macro scale, though the rapport between Locke and Chief isn’t nearly as adversarial as the game’s marketing suggest.
Where Halo 5 struggles is in character development. Blue Team’s back story, which is a major part of the extended fiction, is explained through a couple of lines of dialogue — basically we’re told they’re like family, but other than a willingness to follow Chief that relationship is never shown.
Osiris fares no better as, outside of Buck, whose personality took shape in ODST and is amplified here in an expanded role, there’s no emotional attachment. Locke is an ex-ONI assassin, but he comes across as more of a faceless by-the-books company man than a resourceful foil. Their positioning screams for a newer model/older model T2 dynamic. Unfortunately, it’s never developed.
So while much of the campaign’s run time is devoted to Locke’s tracking of the Chief, what makes the story work and provides much needed gravitas is the long-running pairing of Cortana and Master Chief. All those hours we’ve spent helping them save humanity has created an emotional investment, and the game smartly plays that to the hilt. While the gameplay side of Halo 5 revolves around Locke, the story itself is still largely about Chief and Cortana.
As for gameplay, what we’re given is classic Halo. You’ll again be wading through hundreds of Covenant and Prometheans, tossing grenades and swapping out weapons on the fly. The presence of teammates, whether human or A.I., leads to at least one notable change, as now having your health fully depleted puts you in a downed state where you can be healed by teammates.
It’s a lengthy and varied campaign, but as always the true longevity lies in the multiplayer, which is split into two distinct areas: Arena and Warzone. Put simply, Arena is the traditional online Halo experience with Slayer, SWAT, CTF and so on, where more powerful weapons spawn on the battlefield and must be collected for short-term use.
Warzone is the big newcomer, supporting 18-24 players in a large-scale conflict that not only features other Spartans but also A.I. soldiers and enemies. There are two modes, one that’s pure attack/defend and one that features a constant tug of war in a race to 1,000 points.
Of the two, the latter is the more interesting as high-value targets (Covenant generals, hunters, etc.) appear and whichever team takes them out earns a point bonus. Teams also score more based on how many of the three variable points they hold. Capture them all and the enemy’s core will be exposed. Destroy that and it’s game over.
As you play matches your requisition level will increase, allowing you to call in better weapons, vehicles and equipment based on what you have available. Decks are purchased with in-game currency earned by completing matches. It’s a fine system for in-match goodies, but the random nature makes collecting unique items like armour and helmets pretty slow going.
Matchmaking was simple and performance was good during pre-launch sessions, and the quality of games was generally high. We did have two observations to pass along. First, it currently seems far easier to defend than attack (we never saw the attacking team win a match). And second, the size of the Warzone maps makes it easy to camp and pick off people trying to reach action points. It’s an invitation to those that value K/D over actually playing to complete intended objectives.
Purists may bristle at certain aspects of Halo 5: Guardians — the focus on Locke, addition of Smart-Link and loss of local co-op at the forefront — but the game does a great job of drawing on its past for inspiration while still innovating. With an engaging campaign and addictive multiplayer, Halo 5 takes its place among the best games on Xbox One.