Anticipation and First Impressions
343 industries made what I first thought was a foolhardy decision taking on a world renowned franchise and breathing new life into it. Bungie’s Halo was largely responsible for booming xbox and xbox 360 console sales however since Halo 3 my enthusiasm has dissipated, especially when Halo Reach and ODST didn’t shake things up enough. The antagonistic covenant and parasitic flood no longer inspired much excitement or fear in me so when Halo 4 promised a new set of enemies in the form of AI promethians, my interest was spiked. Halo 4 was 343’s first step in shaking things up, dipping their toe in the water with the introduction of a sprint button. However Halo 5 Guardians looked to be a completely revised version of Halo, a nod to the old with a generous fist full of exciting new concepts, abilities and gamemodes which would add some well needed seasoning to an old approved recipe. My anticipation for the game surprised me, and I lacked the trepidation I’d felt pre-ordering Destiny last year. This was helped partly by the huge amount of advertising with the explosive trailers blasting out sci-fi sounding rock music by Muse, but also by friends and gamers within the community as a whole, posting pre-release gameplay which looked incredible.
The 4 player co-op was something I was interested to find out about. The seamless drop in drop out was faultless; although I was initially kicked out of a couple of sessions (probably my internet!) I was able to join back at the same point in the mission as I left off with my friends and carry on. I enjoyed playing with others but I definitely think its worth playing solo first to really engage with the story and explore the open spaces. I spent longer than I care to admit looking for intel even though intel famously gets you nothing in FPS games, the levels were just so detailed and amazing. The 1080p 60fps trade off for the eradication of couch co-op is an issue for me. The game may run more smoothly this way, but I would still like the option to sacrifice some fps and visual clarity to play with friends at home. Altogether though my first impressions of the game were very good.
The campaign introduced a roster of new main characters, each of which are playable in co-op and have unique loadouts. The story was slightly confusing in some ways because there were so many new characters and so much new lore, including the ‘mantle of responsibility’ which I only understood toward the end (spoiler) when the Warden Eternal monologues at you Gravemind style (play Halo 3). The concepts however were simpler and interesting despite my lack of Halo lore knowledge. The I-Robot saving humanity from itself idea was reproduced well and the changing dynamics of relationships, especially that of chief and Cortana really made me connect with the story. The switching around of roles pits chief as a danger to the UNSC as he goes rogue looking for Cortana who leaves breadcrumbs for him and his team. The main spotlight shifts to Locke and red team to hunt him down. Having so many new characters and new plot lines directs the franchise ready for new iterations, however I get warning lights where I find it hard to invest myself in 7 new main Spartans, even if the voice acting is good. Maybe Halo 6 will change this, but right now I feel a little stifled by the overcrowded cast. It has to be said that the action cutscenes are the most epic they’ve ever been. I disagree with those who criticise cutscenes, as long as they do not detract from the gameplay itself. The boss (and I say boss because the Warden Eternal is regrettably ‘Eternal’) is a bit of a let down for me, especially after the name on the box suuuurely suggests I can face a behemoth like Guardian at the end! The reuse of the Warden Eternal was upsetting because you learn his moveset in 10 seconds and adding more Wardens doesn’t ramp up the difficulty in a constructive way, the Warden becomes more like just another generic enemy. I’m used to dark souls where each boss is perfectly designed and Even Destiny did a better job with the bosses in my opinion, so this was one of the few negative points for me.
I did, however, love the new enemy types as well as the tweaks they made to returning enemies. Of course grunts didn’t need much tweaking, but I did notice they now have more intelligible dialogue, even if they still lack intelligence! I enjoyed hiding behind cover listening to their ridiculous conversations almost as much as I enjoyed landing a perfect ground pound right in the centre of them. Jackals and Hunters seemed more lethal which was great, the Hunters went into rage mode when their partner was killed which got me killed many times when they unexpectedly charged me, or changed their shooting patterns. The Promethians have been greatly improved, they felt a little like an orange covenant in Halo 4 but the changes made to their ranks and their armoury makes them stand out as a dangerous faction in their own rite. The soldier replaced the knight as the standard medium armoured enemy, their ability to teleport makes combat faster and more unpredictable calling for the new abilities. The knight has been completely changed to become more dangerous and more interesting to kill, if the weak spots are not targeted they are practically invulnerable on Heroic, which is what I played it on. The difficulty seemed fair and well balanced, I died lots, but not in unfair ways and the generosity of respawns hasn’t deterred me from the idea of trying Legendary difficulty. Halo 5 has catered for a decent range of ages and abilities.
The gameplay in the campaign is refreshingly smooth and fast paced. The criticised sprint button from Halo 4 has made a return but now makes me sense with the added abilities and more mobile enemy types. The boost helps you dive behind cover or just away from a hazard such as a charging hunter, this is my most used ability and has saved me in a number of gung-ho foolish moments. The Spartan charge adds an extra punch to your melee attack while making you slightly more exposed, a bit like the assassinations from Halo 4 (which are also back) but they actually have a positive function. The most exciting by far is the ground pound where you can jump from height and dive into the thick of things with a strong AOE attack which, on a high difficulty, is risky but ridiculously fun.
Online the gameplay really comes into its own. There are 2 types of online game mode: Arena and Warzone. Arena included is the more refined, typical skill based game modes. We’ve seen them before but with no where near as much balance and polish. Warzone is an all new game type which mixes PvP and PvE into a 12 v 12 objective mode which is underpinned by an all new REQ system.
Arena has made a return to Halo 5 with a new competitive ranking system where your rank is determined by your performance in 10 games. The ranks go from bronze to gold then on from platinum to onyx. It seems a good idea to keep teams balanced however your success as a team often overshadows individual achievement within a game. If you get stuck with a load of jokers in your qualifying matches you can say goodbye to a representative rank. For example I received gold rank in team slayer but got onyx in free for all. In all however I agree with the way it is run. The competitive nature may scare away new or social gamers, but as a person who never went near the competitive playlists in the master chief edition, it is a nice challenge facing more accomplished players. The fact that each game can determine your rank makes objective modes actually mean something, so instead of constantly monitoring my K/D I was dropping the sniper and capturing flags (sorry I meant trying to capture them), and fighting for strongholds. There are a decent amount of maps, and the lack of voting means the same map doesn’t keep getting repeated, although I did have a case of that in Big Team battle where there are only 4 maps. I’ll forgive it though because it is a very new addition (last week). The maps are easy to learn and have tactically placed power weapons which are often the choke points. The increased mobility means no enemy is far from your battle rifle, and you can be ground pounded from absolutely anywhere if you don’t watch your scanner!
The weapons are balanced well and are all completely unique offering different solutions to the same gun fight. The power weapons are completely OP but they have very limited ammo, they spawn at extended time intervals, and reaching them often makes you very exposed, however often matches are decided by those 4 rockets your mate died defending! Arena is at its best when you play with at least one friend. Communication as key as it is hilarious. Not many matches go by when I don’t hear the words ‘xbox record that’, and half the time we spend is watching each others hilarious clips back from the last game.
There are 5 game modes. The main ones I have played are team arena, slayer, breakout and big team battle. Added to these are weakend playlists such as shotty snipers. The concise list of modes differs from the MCC which at times was like ordering at an Indian restaurant, “Ahhhhhh I don’t know which one to choose! I guess I’ll go with Korma, I know what that is”. So Halo 5 sticks with your favourites and cuts out the less used game modes which make cameo appearances on occasion. Slayer doesn’t need much mentioning however within Team Arena there is capture the flag, breakout and team strongholds, 2 of which are new. Team strongholds is a COD 4 Headquarters mode after about 10 redbulls and one of those sherbet tubes. The catch is you can only score points from kills if you control 2 of 3 bases, so its basically a merry go round with people running to base B as soon as base A is captured, then to C then B, then A etc. Its more fun than I’m making it out though because it involves a lot of communication and hilarious confusion. Breakout cuts out the funny and also cuts out your shield and puts you in a tense 1 life 4 v 4 situation on purpose built maps. This mode is for the pros, I like to stay a healthy distance from it, but can’t deny it gets your blood pumping like nothing else on Halo.
Warzone is a completely different ball game where everything is bigger and if you ignore the rules and try play like you do Arena, you’ll lose for sure. Its worth quickly explaining the REQ system because this is how you get the tools for victory. Each game, be it an Arena game or Warzone game rewards you with REQ points. These can be spent on packs of virtual cards, much like in Fifa. Cards differ in rarity as well as in function. Some are aesthetic additions such as armour types, helmets, weapon skins and assassinations. The rest are useful, power weapon and vehicle certifications can be won which allow you can get cards which are activated within Warzone games. For example I quickly accessed the Sniper rifle certification and a number of sniper cards. I was able, after accessing the correct level to call in a sniper rifle in game to pop some heads. The better the weapon or vehicle the higher the REQ level needed to access them. REQ levels start at 1 at the beginning of a warzone game and increase according to how much xp you gain. I found the REQ system quite addictive, although I rarely play Warzone I look forward to earning enough points in Arena to open a new gold pack!
The aim of warzone is the reach 1000 points or destroy the other teams base. There are 3 bases inbetween which can be captured and which give a points bonus if claimed. At least one forward base is required to protect your main base from being attacked. On top of this, frequent boss battles are announced which give larger points pay outs (up to 150!). It is often best to target these over gaining bases, however you must contend with the other team as well the bosses themselves which are particularly tough without the correct weaponry. I found Warzone hard, and often frustrating to get used to. Although it wasn’t my cup of tea it is well made, even if my team often suffers horrendous defeats. It is not within my reviewing capability to put a finger on what I didn’t like about Warzone, but I think it stems from the fact that once a significant advantage has been established, and one team have a few scorpions on the battlefield, it is almost impossible to come back from it. At times the game was just too big for me, and I needed a return to the smooth familiar twitch reaction Arena magic.
343 have renewed the colossal hype surrounding the Halo franchise with its first true Xbox one iteration. The game is smooth and polished to perfection. The campaign is strong with refreshing enemy and weapon additions, but the story is as confusing as ever to non-literature readers. Online is the true hero here however, if the review was based on Arena it would get a 10. However the frustrating Warzone mode and campaign imperfections bring it down slightly.