Fourteen years ago a game launched with the fledgling original Xbox that revolutionised the way first-person shooters were played on all consoles. Many gamers of the modern era will take for granted that twin-stick controlling is simply the way it’s always been; left stick for movement, right stick for looking around. However, until Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved burst on to the scene this simply wasn’t the case. Not only did the original Halo make FPS games infinitely better in terms of controls, it had mind-blowing physics, intelligent enemy AI and a deep universe that made it an unparalleled masterpiece. This is not to mention the dedicated online multiplayer experience that was successfully nurtured by Microsoft (the idea of console multiplayer originated with Sega consoles, sleep well sweet Prince) and transformed this game into a veritable phenomenon.
You might be cool, but you’ll never be Blue Team flying through space shooting guns cool
As epic as it looks
Fast forward fourteen years, two generations of consoles and four more entries in the series later and we have the highly-anticipated Xbox One exclusive, Halo 5: Guardians. After golden child developer Bungie finished its trilogy of Halo games and moved on to Destiny, the mantle of responsibility (nerdy reference intended) fell to 343 Industries (343i) to take the reins of Microsoft’s flagship franchise and preserve its formidable legacy. Xbox 360’s Halo 4 was proof that 343i could not only walk the path carved out by their forerunners (also intended), but blaze a path of their own and put their stamp on the series. On the strength of the fourth numbered entry in the legendary (stahp) series, 343i have continued the Halo legacy and given Xbox One owners something to truly crow about. A superb story is told through action-packed and clever gameplay coupled with beautiful cinematics that bring a cast of both old and new characters to life. 343i embraces the advances of a new generation and the fruits of their labour feels like a natural evolution of the games that have gone before it. While maintaining the signature Halo flavour but now running at a crisp 60fps at 1080p, Guardians is faster, fiercer and more visually striking than any other entry in the series. While the relatively short campaign and lack of split-screen or matchmade co-op dampens some of the enjoyment, the quality of what’s on offer in terms of story and production values manage to compensate.
Guardians’ campaign begins by introducing us to Osiris Team, a group of four Spartan-IIs lead by Jameson Locke. The team is tasked with extracting a high-value asset in the form of Dr Halsey, a brilliant (if occasionally unethical) scientist who has vital information on recent Forerunner attacks on several human colonies. Halsey is being held by Jul ‘Mdama, the Covenant leader who wishes to use Dr Halsey’s knowledge of Forerunner technology to suit his own purposes in his civil war against a force led by the False Arbiter. Lost yet? If not, you are likely a Halo fan and are familiar with the backstory of the characters who appear in the Haloverse. If this intro has you scratching your head, it is likely you will find a lot of the story to be a little esoteric. The game makes no apologies for the fact that it is both a direct continuation of Halo 4’s story and features a campaign that draws and relies deeply on the universe in which it is set. It is strongly advised for those wishing to glean maximum satisfaction from Halo 5’s tale that you seek a primer that will prepare you with some of the finer details as to what makes this expansive world tick.
While Osiris are extracting Halsey, Spartan John-117 (better known as Master Chief) is on a routine operation retaking an ONI research ship lost to the Covenant. During the restoration of the Argent Moon, Master Chief is contacted unexpectedly by a spectre from his past. Pursuing this spectre will see him directly defy UNSC directives and be declared officially AWOL, and Spartan Locke and his team are subsequently assigned to hunt down the iconic supersoldier and bring him back to the UNSC. The game has been openly sold on the premise of playing Locke and his team hunting down the decorated Big MC, but initially I thought the reasons for assigning an ex-ONI assassin to bring him in were a little tenuous. Surely humanity’s finest hero has earned the UNSC’s trust and deserves the benefit of the doubt. However, as the campaign continues the gravity of the situation and the part the Master Chief has to play in it becomes apparent and the UNSC’s drastic actions become plausible in the context. As a great threat emerges, friends will become foes, old enemies will become new allies, and the fight for the preservation of all will be placed in the hands of a chosen few.
Widely misunderstood, Guardians really just want to give free hugs
The story is well told and is beautifully represented in detailed cutscenes peppered throughout the campaign. 343i obviously want to emphasise the sheer awesomeness of the Spartan IIs and have crafted long action sequences that are simply awe-inspiring. The very first scene in which Osiris Team land on the icy surface of Kamchatka and start laying waste to Covenant and Promethean hordes deserves an Academy Award for greatest action scene in a video game ever created. 343i have nailed a cinematic feel to these cutscenes and also the development of the Spartan’s particular personalities conveyed through well-scripted dialogue. While some characters shine brighter than others, like ex-ODST and larrikin Buck, each Spartan feels like their presence is important. Halo fans will recognise many familiar faces that anchor the story and this gives it a sense of continuity. Dr Halsey, Captain Laskey, Roland and the Arbiter are all integral players in the Halo story and each contributes to the unfolding drama in interesting ways.
However, a good story is useless without good gameplay to back it up, and Guardians does not disappoint in this regard. The action unfolds in much the same way as Halo 4, and one would not be mistaken for believing that 343i were determined to change very little in the established Halo gunplay department. Like in Halo 4, you’ll fight mixtures of Covenant and Promethean enemies with a vast array of weaponry of human, Covenant and Promethean origin. While the Covenant enemies are much the same as the last time you fought them, the Prometheans have acquired a bit of an upgrade. Many of their ranks have gained the ability to phase (read: teleport like Merlin on Angel Dust) making them much harder to hit and giving them a tactical advantage over you. Probably the greatest change is to the Promethean Knights, tough enemies that have only a couple of weak spots in their armour. Destroying one of the glowing weak spots naturally makes the Knights a little upset and at this point they’ll promptly screech at you, giving you a brief chance to shoot them directly in the face and score a cheap one-hit kill. Play your cards right and you can take a Knight down in three precise shots. Play them wrong and you’ll be frantically emptying multiple clips into them. The enemy AI is for the most part superb, coordinating their attacks and using the battlefield to their advantage. I did find however that Covenant Elites would sometimes uncharacteristically stand still while I shot them in the head. Elites normally are quite lithe and make smart use of cover, but more than a few amongst them seemed content to be motionless Battle Rifle fodder.
I recommend that any person who is familiar with Halo or the FPS genre in general tackles the story on Heroic difficulty, as Normal is more or less a walk in the park. The Legendary difficulty awaits for those seeking the highest (sort of) challenge, and at these difficulties the enemy AI truly shines and the concept of struggle and triumph against near-insurmountable odds takes form. The challenge is certainly softened by the presence of your Spartan teammates that can revive you if you go down within a certain time limit, but herein lies one of the game’s weaknesses. While your Fireteam are fairly proficient and are usually happy to resurrect your downed Spartan, they struggle to reach you if you’re on a slightly higher platform or casually walk to you when they should probably be sprinting to your rescue. At times I was reminded of The Witcher III’s motion-challenged horse Roach, and that is never a good thing.
Warden Eternal: Does not like the cut of your jib
The Traveler makes a cameo
The squad commands where you can command your fellow Spartans to hold a certain position, revive someone or focus fire on a particular enemy are actually quite useful. Your team is most efficient when you’re telling them exactly what to do and in the more difficult encounters you’ll probably be making liberal use of these commands to emerge victorious. Of course it’s better if you can get actual humans together to play the other Spartans in 4-player co-op, however oddly there is no matchmaking or split-screen functionality for this feature so you’re going to have to manually round up some friends who are willing to play with you online.
While its length and lack of matchmaking are sure to leave a few people crying into their beers, Halo 5: Guardians features a well-crafted and visually gorgeous campaign that is entertaining from the first bullet to the last. It is an excellent continuation and expansion of the Halo universe with a satisfying story arc that lays the groundwork for the sixth (and final?) numbered entry in the Halo series. I for one will be eagerly waiting to see how 343i’s trilogy concludes in the next few years.
Due to low player populations on pre-release Australian servers I was unable to get enough hands-on time with the multiplayer section to give a confident review. We apologise for the inconvenience but stay tuned for a full breakdown of the multiplayer in the very near future.