The pressure was surely on. After some missteps with Halo 4, and in the wake of the disastrous launch of last year’s series celebration The Master Chief Collection, 343 industries had quite a bit too prove. Seemingly against all odds, that’s exactly what they’ve done with Halo 5: Guardians.
The rebuilding is thorough. Here we have a campaign comprising eight playable characters across two four-person squads, that takes place across multiple planets playing host to expansive environments populated by dozens of enemies. Multiplayer showcases what was always great about Halo – tight arena gameplay, equal starts, on-map pick-ups, and balance, balance, balance! To that end, gone are Halo: Reach and 4‘s equippable Spartan Abilities, replaced by a suite of standard abilities that every player always has at their disposal, meaning you always know what your opponents are capable of.
The most visible of these is a directional dodge that you can use to quickly boost a few meters, even changing direction in mid-air, and coupled with a Titanfall-style clamber you can use to quickly climb over everything in the environment to get the drop on your foes. There’s also an incredibly powerful melee charge, a quick slide, and, most interestingly, stabiliser jets that will keep you in the air for a few seconds when you zoom your weapon, and with a bit of momentum behind you, can even be used to extend your jumps. If you’re feeling particularly gutsy, you can also aim a jet-powered ground pound at enemies below you, at the cost of hanging in the air for a few seconds while it charges up. Halo has always been a relatively mobile, vertical shooter, and these new abilities continue that tradition while adding a number of new wrinkles to the much-loved golden triangle of guns, grenades and melee.
All of this added mobility also informs the level design. Campaign spaces are the densest, most intricate environments the series has ever seen, with multiple paths through, over and under, with tons of hidden areas for you to wall-charge through to find an advantageous overlook to perch on. Wider levels also make use of your squad members, who can be ordered about with a single, contextual button press. Want them to pick up a specific weapon? Aim at it and press up on the d-pad. Want them to take up position on a gun emplacement, jump in a vehicle or focus fire on a certain enemy? Same deal. It’s simple, clean and elegant. Best of all, the AI won’t get in your way; while they’re competent enough, they aren’t going to complete the game for you, and if you’d rather not have to worry about them, those slots can always be filled by real human friends in four-player drop-in, drop-out co-op.
Then there’s Warzone, 343’s new 12v12 PvP plus PvE-ish mode. Taking place on huge maps with multiple objectives to capture, AI enemies and super-bosses to clear out, a typical Warzone match quickly descends into utter chaos as players get access to better weapons, vehicles and power-ups. This is where the Req system comes in, selectable cards that work much like Titanfall’s burn cards – use them once and they’re gone, die immediately after spawning with a shiny new power weapon, and yep, it’s gone too. This mode is certainly not balanced in any sense of the word, but then it’s not supposed to be. It’s gloriously insane Halo sandbox mayhem.
There are some chinks in the Mjolnir armour, of course. The narrative could certainly use some work, and while I’m planning on writing a more in-depth piece specifically about that, character motivations are the first casualty of the expanded cast. While there’s plenty of in-mission banter, there are no real character moments in the cutscenes, which exist solely to push the story on at the expense of giving players someone to latch on to, empathise with, and thus contextualise the story through. Enormous, galaxy-changing events happen in Halo 5, but the delivery sometimes falls flat.
In gameplay terms though, Halo 5 is utterly sublime. The new additions to character movement, the adherence to a strict 60 frames update, and the fantastic, intricate level design all come together to offer perhaps the tightest Halo gameplay we’ve seen in years – it just feels so damn good in the hands. When you’re jumping, boosting and clambering through huge environments scoring headshots left and right as you soar through the air, before dropping a ground pound on an unsuspecting foe, Halo 5: Guardians is a triumph.