As I cradled my assault rifle from side to side sprinting down the hill, I kept my eye on the Promethean Soldier peppering me with shots from his Light Rifle. My intent was to kill, but not with my gun. Once I got within striking distance, I broke out into a full-on shoulder charge, ramming myself into the enemy with full force and vaporising him into nothingness.
More shots came my way, but this time from the three Promethean Crawlers jumping about, making it difficult to hone my sights on a single one. I boosted sideways to avoid the oncoming fire and made my way towards an elevated rock formation before mantling my way to the top. As I spotted the Crawlers, still relentless in their attempts to gun me down, I leapt right into the hail of fire and suspended myself in midair, lining up the cursor right into the centre of them… Thud! My Spartan came crashing down with the impact of a mini halo jump, eradicating the threats instantly.
Agile, nimble, lethal, and impactful, this… is Halo 5.
When 343 took over the Halo franchise with Halo 4, though it was a fantastic Halo game in its own right, it suffered from an identity crisis. It tried to fit into the mould of modern shooters while retaining the classic Halo formula. While it succeeded at the latter, their efforts to make it “relevant” were only a half-step, therefore angering the most dedicated of their fanbase. Halo 5, on the other hand, knows exactly what it wants to be. It’s an angry, aggressive, and highly competitive thing that has successfully evolved into exactly what this old franchise should look like in 2015.
343 has given Halo a complete mechanical overhaul from top to bottom. No longer are you the slow, dawdling space marine that only recently gained the ability to break out into a run without a power up. For the first time ever in the Halo series, you’ll feel like a super soldier among men, an enhanced killing machine that’s faster, stronger, and deadlier than ever before.
For starters, Spartans now have unlimited sprint. Though it comes at the cost of shield regeneration, it allows you to cover wide ground in a short space of time. If you keep your forward-momentum going towards an enemy, you can fire your Spartan like a missile into their chest with the Spartan Charge, dealing massive amounts of damage if it doesn’t kill them instantly. When looking for an immediate escape away from a grenade or a sniper’s sights, you can boost your Spartan in any direction, offering greater evasive manoeuvres than base sprinting. Getting to high ground is quicker than ever before thanks the new mantling mechanic. And if you want to deal death from above, you can either pull the left trigger to aim down your sights (new-school style) which keeps your Spartan in mid-air for a brief period, or remain suspended in mid-air, readying yourself for a Spartan Ground Pound.
There’s so much force and adrenaline pumped into the way that Halo 5 moves that it feels like hitting the gas in a sports car for the first time. It’s jerky, jarring, and unrecognisable to Halos past, but it all works in the best way possible. Just like what Sledgehammer did with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, here, 343 instantly dates past instalments and has marked a point of no return.
Halo 5’s campaign is deliberately structured to ease you into this new class of Spartan abilities, but perhaps it’s too deliberate. The first half of the game largely fits within two frameworks: tight linear pathways and wide open battlegrounds. While the former focuses the fight in more directed missions, wider levels leave room for the full suite of Spartan abilities which enables you use its mobility to the fullest. The two do a great job in offering multiple approaches to a firefight, both at any range or any point of elevation. There’s a particular emphasis on verticality with the new mantle system, which, when coupled with the Spartan’s speed, opens up room even higher entry ways to access, and even floating platforms this time around.
While on paper this sounds like a traditional Halo format, the levels feel like they’re put together with less dynamic structuring and more rigid signposting. In a franchise that has built its reputation on unmatched level design, the often obvious layout is almost insulting to Halo enthusiasts. Thankfully, the second half is packed with incredibly strong stages that feel denser, more elaborate, and, more importantly, more like the Halo that we remember.
But even with the fundamentals of the Halo formula, Halo 5 fails to deliver those pinnacle Halo “moments”. These moments are usually reserved for the series’ warzones where all vehicles and enemies are present on the battlefield. But save for one or two levels, most feel entirely too formulaic and symmetrical for the franchise, all in which lack that spontaneity that so easily facilitated Halo war stories.
The campaign’s weakest points, however, are encounters with Halo 5’s new enemy, the Promethean Wardens. These large dominant figures are painfully frustrating to fight and show up far too many times throughout the story. Unlike 99 percent of Halo’s enemies, defeating a Warden is less about tactics than it is about waiting for when they happen to turn their backs towards you revealing their weak spot. In the meantime, you’re left with little else to do but run away as he’ll chase you down with his massive one-shot-kill sword; you’ll feel less like a heroic Spartan and more like a desperate opportunist. Even now, I can’t remember a time that I least enjoyed playing Halo than facing up against the Wardens.
This new class of Promethean threat feels like it more serves a story purpose rather than a campaign one. Thankfully, out of all the narrative mistakes Halo 5: Guardians has committed, it’s the only story element that has contaminated the gameplay itself; because if anything else from the story affected the way Halo 5 played, the campaign would have been a lot worse.
Coming off the heels of Halo 4’s surprisingly effective human story, Halo 5 feels more impersonal and disillusioned in comparison. Cortana, Master Chief’s longtime AI companion who was at the centre of Halo 4, makes a return in Halo 5. She plays a much bigger role this time around, however after battling rampancy from the previous game, what she becomes within the context of the story is borderline ridiculous and makes the narrative far less relatable.
Her actions directly impact our now two leading characters: Master Chief, and newcomer Spartan Locke. Locke, along with his Fire team Osiris, is in pursuit of Chief and his Blue Team squad, who themselves are in search for Cortana. Halo 5 attempts to build a comradery amongst both squads, however it misses the mark in various ways. Though it is clear that Chief and Blue Team go way back, Halo 5 simply assumes you’re familiar with Halo’s expanded universe as neither of his team members are given any form of introduction. Osiris, on the other hand, is much better characterized, but suffers as a whole because of Locke himself. Not only is he completely devoid of personality and lacks any plausible interaction with the rest of his squad, but his motivations in pursuing the Chief are nearly nonexistent, earning no buy-in from you as the player. All of these character missteps amount to a story that’s not only uninteresting, but at times even offensively nonsensical and poorly delivered.
The Spartan teams’ foursomes are incorporated into the campaign, both when playing solo and co-operatively. When weathering the story alone, using the squad is only boiled down to basic collective positioning and target prioritisation: “Osiris, on my position”, or “Blue Team, focus attack on that Hunter”. Actually dying is a lot harder this time around as your Spartan will often be downed Gears of War style, leaving you waiting for one of your teammates to revive you and throw you back into battle. Reviving allies in co-op, however, makes Halo 5 one of the more enjoyable Halo co-operative experiences, fostering more teamwork than ever before. But when it comes to multiplayer, nothing beats Halo 5’s terrific competitive online play.
Even as we wait for Big Team Battle, Forge Mode, and a slew of free new maps, Halo 5’s multiplayer feels like a complete suite facilitating three core styles of play from classic, to highly competitive, to something that literally redefines the way you play Halo. Your Slayer, CTF, Stronghold (read: King of the Hill), and SWAT modes are all back. The maps you’ll play here may be taller and threaded with more vertical and elevated pathways to make up for the new Spartan abilities, but none of it loses the classic Bungie Halo feel that predates Halo Reach. Breakout and Halo 5’s premier mode Warzone, however, build new foundations that feel fundamental in a way that it’s hard to imagine the franchise’s future without them.
Breakout is 343’s unabashed swing at the e-sports market, offering a new form of high-end competitive play. Here, two teams of four Spartans must survive in ruthless round-based standoffs while they attempt to outsmart one another in wide symmetrical virtual battle arenas. The catch here is that you have one life and no shields. Though death isn’t as instantaneous as SWAT, carelessness is still quickly punished nonetheless.
Getting good at Breakout means mastering the new Spartan abilities. All of the mechanics introduced in Halo 5 feel like they are best put to use here as they each serve a very specific purpose. For instance, boosters become more vital to your survival when two well-placed shots can end your game early. And where in standard multiplayer the suspended ADS airtime offers some positional advantages, those who are skillful in using this technique will prove to be deadly against the competition.
Breakout is quite brutal and may even turn away more mainstream players, thus filtering in only the hardest of the hardcore; but finding success on Halo’s new e-sports driven mode offers some of the most rewarding experiences Halo 5 has to offer. In the end however, whether you’re playing Breakout, Free-for-All, or Team Slayer, everything you do in Halo 5’s multiplayer is in complete service of Warzone.
Warzone is, quite literally, the entire Halo 5 experience in one package. The full array of vehicles, the alien enemies, the weapons; they’re all here. It’s the biggest multiplayer in Halo history, and arguably, it’s the best. Those that have played Titanfall will see shocking similarities to how Warzone operates. The way in which all multiplayer activity syphons into Warzone is through Requisition Packs. Think of these as Titanfall’s Burn Cards in that they largely offer one-time access to power weapons, vehicles, and power ups, and disappear once you’ve exhausted their use or die. You’ll earn them through completing challenges and ranking up, and you can also purchase them with points rewarded when playing any of Halo 5’s multiplayer modes. I worried that when 343 decided to ditch the loadout customisation in Halo 4, this game would lose any and all sense of player agency. However with Requisition Packs, it balances both player agency and randomisation in a way that’s far better than any attempts to “Call of Dutify” the series would have accomplished.
The objectives in Warzones are dynamic and ever changing, keeping these two teams of 12 busy at all times. Players must reach 1000 points by either killing one another, killing enemy AI, or pull an instant win by capturing all bases around these vast maps to gain access to the opposing team’s core. Matches are incredibly large in scale both in the sheer amount of point opportunities and the physical battles themselves. One moment you’ll be fighting the enemy team while fighting over who’ll take out two lumbering Hunters, the next, you and your teammates will be piloting a Scorpion and a Banshee to shoot down an AI Phaeton (Halo 5’s new VTOL aircraft). If it weren’t for the often lengthy transits from one objective to another, Warzone would have been a complete sensory overload. Still, Warzone is a massive facelift for the franchise, making it by far the most robust multiplayer in Halo history.
Halo 5: Guardians will be criticised for its campaign. A lacklustre story and a by-the-books level design water down its single player to among the weakest in the Halo series, though it’s still a fun shooter nonetheless. But 343 more than makes up for its campaign by elevating Halo’s combat to the best that the franchise has ever seen with Spartan abilities, and offering the most full-bodied multiplayer in the series to date, mainly thanks to Warzone. Halo 5 is a multiplayer platform in its own right that will sustain itself until the Forerunner Saga continues.
Halo 5 is the biggest evolution of the franchise since Halo 2, and sets a new standard for console online shooters as a whole.