While both salmon and tilapia are kinds of fish, they are distinctly different in both taste and texture. The same can be said about video games. There are genres of games that have simply defined themselves as a distinct place within it. While they are still first person shooters at heart, we often describe a game as like DOOM, like Call of Duty, or like Halo. There’s something distinct about these flavors of games, that when another game implements its formula, you get that distinct feel. Halo 5: Guardians continues to feel like a Halo game, and in fact, it may be the first Halo game that fulfills the promising of feeling like a Spartan. But it may be the furthest game from the core Halo experience yet that we’ve come to define what a Halo game is.
Halo 5: Guardians is a distinct change in a lot of ways from previous games, in a way it’s part Halo 3: ODST and part Halo Reach, a direct sequel in style not story. The game is built around its four player co-op missions, with either players or AI taking up the roles of the different Spartans. This time there are two sides of the story to tell, so you’ll drop into the shoes of Osiris Team led by Spartan Locke (a former Oni special agent); or you’ll play as Blue Team led by the indomitable Master Chief. Sadly if you are hoping to play as Master Chief for most of the game, that’s not the case, as about a quarter of the missions involve Blue Team. Instead players are left with a piece of the story of Blue Team which is unveiled unveiled from Osiris’s perspective as they pursue Master Chief.
Fundamentally the Spartans all behave and feel the same. In co-op you’ll start with different weapons depending on the character chosen, but the actual movement speed and everything else is identical. Every character does have a unique HUD, which is a nice touch, and each one is fully voiced. The dialogue and voice acting is definitely top notch here, with plenty of humor injected just to keep things light despite the possible demise of all humanity. Nathan Fillion reprising his role as Buck is mostly this comedic relief character, but there are other moments. The enemy dialog is also a highlight, with the grunts playing the jester role once again.
If you’ve followed the Halo franchise over the years, you know about the legendary Spartans. Bio-mechanical hybrids of men and women crafted by Dr. Halsey to complete the impossible. They are promised to be big, badass, and powerful but also fast and agile. If you played last year’s Halo: The Master Chief Collection you know how every Halo game felt different. It was jarring if you pieced together a playlist across different games. You’d jump higher in one game or run faster in another. You could dual wield in one game, but not the other. All along you never quite felt like what a Spartan was promised to be, that is, until Halo 5. The most obvious addition is the ability to grapple ledges quickly and pull yourself up, combined with quick thrusts, sprints and charges - you’ll feel like a 2 ton pickup capable of parkour.
It’s because of this change that level design has gotten a huge upgrade. Levels are just as much vertical as they are horizontal. There are alternate routes to discover, either left right up or down, that help you flank enemies and achieve combat success. When you combine that with the three other players it feels downright surgical at times - it’s definitely “Halo combat” evolved.
Not only are the levels more varied in their design, but they feel bigger and more alive. Huge battles between Covenant and Forerunners are taking place everywhere. Lumbering guardians tower in the background, and new gigantic ships that make the Covenant Scarab look like a toy car come to life. It’s truly impressive, especially considering the game is a silky smooth 60FPS the entire time.
Ok, so we’ve got more interesting levels, more characters to play as, tighter controls, more weapons, and an interesting story. By all accounts Halo 5: Guardians is a really damn good Halo game. But there’s a few problems you’ll need to get past that holds it back.
The new revival system is an interesting take on things, being able to revive a downed player for a certain time before the “old” timed based respawn system kicks in. The problem in single player is, the AI isn’t very good at it depending on where you are down. In co-op, it works a bit better and you get a short burst of overshield, but it usually led to more problems in the combat with both players being down - especially on Heroic and Legendary difficulty.
While the story is really interesting and has some unexpected twists and turns, I feel like there were several gaps. Like entire missions were missing to fill in exactly what happened. It’s difficult to mention these specific instances without spoiling anything, but the last third of the game feels a bit disjointed. Not only that but the entire campaign took me about 8 hours to complete (that includes death and restarts), less than 6 on the mission timer in the game. And this was on Heroic. There are also these bizarre missions that have no combat, but simply walking around and discovering hidden items and talking to a few characters - they feel a bit out of place. There’ some replayability here with the difficulty levels and the collectibles, but that doesn’t make up for story content.
For such a strong focus on co-op play, the lack of matchmaking for co-op is a huge oversight in my opinion. AI is no substitute for human players, and playing through on Legendary with four people is an absolute blast. But your friends might not always be available, or perhaps you just want to hunt for intel or skulls with randoms. Really bummed by having this missing, especially with the drop in and drop out play. It’s easy to bring friends in mid-mission, so matchmaking shouldn’t be a huge issue. Of course the biggest issue is for couch co-op players, who are simply left without an option this year. That said, the online play is so silkly smooth thanks to the dedicated servers, which was the reason given for lack of local, I’d gladly trade that functionality. But not everyone is in my position.
All of those nitpicks aside, Halo 5: Guardians is something I keep coming back to and playing. The feel of the game is absolute top notch, I really can’t commend 343 enough for absolutely nailing the movement and shooting mechanics. The sound design on the game is also something I feel is standout, the weapons sound so mechanical and menacing, and the music fits quite well too.
The multiplayer versus side of the fence is firmly split between two distinct modes. Arena is clearly designed with E-Sports in mind. It’s a fast paced 4 on 4 mode with various objective and gametypes across almost 15 maps. These are smaller scale matches that are fast paced and intense. And I absolutely love it. It’s incredibly addictive, despite the competitive nature. Combined with the new feel for the game it’s just overly satisfying.
The other mode of play is called Warzone, and frankly, I’m torn. The mode features 24 player (12 vs 12) with added AI enemies. The name is completely fitting as the matches are complete and utter chaos. This mode is where the concept of Req packs come into play, available with every respawn or at requisiton stations located throughout the maps. You earn coins towards buying packs of random “card” which give you requisitions to use in Warzone matches. Requisitions could be weapons, vehicles, temporary buffs or permanent unlocks for your character. That means the matches are never guaranteed to be balanced because players will always be able to dish out a card to try to turn the tide. In theory, your team might not have the “right” cards to play when needed - like, the lack of rocket launchers to destroy vehicles or something. That said, it’s hard to run out of Req cards, and the packs tend to give you an abundance of weapons. On the flip side, this adds some unique strategy elements because instead of everyone rushing for weapon drops or vehicle respawns, you simply use this on demand. This means player coordination is even more important.
I’ll be honest, I think I need to see how Warzone evolves. It’s too early too tell with the pre-launch population just how things will play out and balance out. Right now all of the matches I’ve been in have felt one sided, whether you are attacking or defending - it didn’t matter. Plus, without the season pass, 343 needs to earn money on something - so purchasing Req packs with real money is how it’s done. That means things are going to tilt SLIGHTLY in favor of purchasing over earning them in game.
Halo 5: Guardians is actually the 7th in the series - with ODST and Reach being the odd ones out numericaly. So in a way, it’s ironic it feels closest to these two games. Still after seven games there’s some intangible thing that ties the series together, that when you are playing it, you know you are playing Halo. Guardians seems to be the most fun from that perspective, the pure nature of being a Spartan and taking on these larger than life enemy forces with your friends by your side. I just wish there was more of it, it’s clear like Halo 2, this was the second game in a trilogy. It’s job is to make you want more, and it certainly does.