Reviews

Halo 5: Guardians Review – Buy It For The Multiplayer

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Platforms: Xbox One
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

It can’t be easy taking custody of a series made famous by another studio, and then trying to tip-toe the line between staying faithful to what the fans have grown to love and actually making changes in order to ensure its continued survival. 343 Industries first attempt in Halo 4 at forging their own path going forward was praised for its competitive multiplayer and co-op gameplay, but the story was considerably less well received, the emotional bond between the hulking Master Chief and Cortana proving popular while the writing in general was regarded as quite poor. More constrictive levels were also a negative, often cited as being a limitation of the last generation of consoles that was partially self-imposed because the developers focused more on making it look pretty. So what Halo 5? What has 343 learned? Well, not much it seems.

It’s a brave move by 343 to place players into the hefty armor of Locke for twelve out of the fifteen campaign missions, leaving series lead Master Chief to take the stage in just three of them. It’s an idea with so many possibilities, namely getting to see the fabled hero through different eyes as we chase him across the galaxy. It was an equally brave move to cast Chief as the villain in the marketing campaigns, a legendary hero having seemingly gone rogue, and the way Locke is written and acted it’s almost as though he was created to be a replacement of sorts. The stage was set for something big, something grand, something unexpected from the Halo series that may well have rocked the hardcore fans but also proven that 343 are willing to really do something with the series that have inherited. For a brief moment the unthinkable seems possible; Master Chief the bad guy, Locke the new hero, and Halo changed forever.

And then it doesn’t deliver on any of that.

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It’s hard to explain why Halo 5’s narrative struggles because to do so would mean spoiling a lot of it, and so an entirely separate article may be warranted. But suffice to say all that marketing build-up was bullshit, and the long wait for an epic battle between Locke and Chief never happens outside of a small cutscene with no player interactivity.  The problems begin with a simple lack of characters to get interested in. The majority of the game is spent with Locke and his Osiris squad as they chase Master Chief across three different planets, including a nice stop-off at the Elite’s home planet, but they lack anything resembling personality outside of just following their orders. They have no arc to speak of, maintaining their dullness from beginning to end. It’s a waste of the great voice work, especially that of Nathan Fillion who reprises his role as Buck, and the amazing visuals of the cutscenes. Locke is far guiltier of this crime, although presumably his stoic attitude and hollow personality are meant to replicate Master Chief. Speaking of which Master Chief is as awesome as always, but now he’s supported by Blue Squad who, unless you’ve read the various books and things, are just suddenly there with no explanation. Like Osiris Blue squad have absolutely no discernible personalities, and merely follow Chief around like lost puppies, with some loose reasoning given far too late in the narrative. They and Osiris are nothing more than armored drones, only occasionally speaking and even less rarely saying anything of note.

Meanwhile the blunt reality of the situation is that plot would likely have fared far better if Chief had not been playable at all, as Halo 5 is far too keen on lifting the lid on its few mysteries too early, ruining the surprises. The setup itself is fascinating; Master Chief has seemingly gone AWOL, and wherever he goes destruction follows, hence Osiris squad being sent to retrieve the hero who has been responsible for saving Earth more times than I can count. With a gaming icon cast as the potential villain the stage is set for a great mystery story told throughout a prolonged chase where Osiris constantly catches glimpses of the retreating Chief while also witnessing carnage that they can only attritube to him, but 343’s clearly lackluster writers delivers the weakest plot the series has seen, failing to utilise its own premise properly. Most importantly the script commits a cardinal sin; even if you removed Master Chief, Blue squad, Locke and Osiris the narrative would still play out exactly the same, albeit with some minor differences. None of the characters ultimately make any difference, making the entire thing feel more than a little pointless in the end. Speaking of ends the singleplayer wraps all this disappointment up with a cliff-hanger ending that leaves everything dangling and no satisfying or fitting conclusion to the story being told. There’s nothing wrong with a good cliff-hanger ending to get people interested, but as all good movies, books and games with one can testify there still needs to be a satisfying finale to wrap up this part of the story, otherwise the audience will be left feeling annoyed.

It’s hard to describe the crushing sense of defeat I felt when the campaign wrapped up a mere six hours after it began. I’ve always maintained that quality is preferable over quantity, but in this instance the gameplay as so enjoyable that I could have happily gone for another six hours, while the story felt rushed and would benefited from the extra time. When the credits rolled all I could say was, “What? That was it?”. It’s a poor ending to a poorly told story with a great premise. Had Master Chief never been playable and had the mystery been maintained the crappy dialogue and lack of characters would have been irritating, for sure, but at least it would have been interesting.

It’s all the more frustrating simply because there are genuinely terrific moments during the campaign, including numerous times when its worth stopping just to soak in the epic views, be it an alien planet’s vistas or a towering Guardian or a raging aerial battle. This is one gorgeous game with smooth animations and a great art style that makes ever level a pleasure to play, even those set primarily in corridors, and it’s all the more impressive considering it’s holding a stable 60fps that helps the gunplay feel so damn good. Some of the set-piece moments are among the series best, even if they never do manage to hit the heights of Halo 3’s Scarab sequence and there’s a lack of truly great vehicle sections,  and the classic Halo gameplay continues to thrill with some of the smoothest, most enjoyable shooting around. At one point I was battling on the ground while trying to watch a battle between a huge Kraken machine and a bunch of flying units taking place just beside me, and it was pretty damn epic. Halo 5 also boasts some incredibly beautiful cutscenes that provide some movie-quality moments of action bolstered by terrific audio work as well, but even those can’t stop all but a few of the emotional moments falling completely flat.

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Sections where the campaign slows to a halt to let you idly wander around an open environment, chatting to some of the local inhabitants, is an interesting concept, but sadly this too fails. These moments only serve to bring an otherwise fast, hectic shooter to a screeching halt at the wrong times during the story, attempting to get the player invested in the inhabitants of these areas in order to make the stakes feel bigger, but never managing to do that thanks to your incredibly limited interaction. You can only listen in and never participate past pressing X to get an inhabitant to utter a quick sentence. There’s nothing much else to do, except perhaps hunt for the audio recording strewn through Halo 5’s levels that aren’t really worth discovering for the meagre back story they provide.

But let’s get onto that gunplay which remains classic Halo, retaining the design philosophy and that golden triangle of guns, grenades and melee, while also introducing a couple of new mechanics. At this point it feels a little pointless to explain how the Halo works because almost everyone is familiar with its compelling gameplay loops, but for the sake of those Xbox One owners who have perhaps picked up a console for the first time and have never experienced Halo, let’s run through it all quickly. Movement is fast with hefty shields and relatively substantial health granted to the player, meaning it’s entirely possibly to run out into enemy fire for a daring assault and duck back into cover before dying, unlike most military shooters where just a few bullets spells death. On harder difficulties taking cover and being damn careful are still important, but there’s still breathing room.  This gives Halo a fast, fluid feeling that’s only enhanced by the enemy you face. Lowly Grunts act as cannon fodder while larger Elites stride around with chunky health and shields, too, meaning firefights aren’t about who shoots first but rather who is more accurate and flanking. Meanwhile Jackals wield shields, massive Hunters need to be carefully flanked and the Forerunners all boast their own unique skills and abilities, too. The A.I. powering the series has changed very much over the years, but it remains superb. Elites will leap out of the way of grenades, enemies will attempt to flank you and dodge incoming fire, and they’ll all work together. It’s this A.I. along with the mixing of enemy types and relatively open combat areas that make Halo work. Environments aren’t massive, but they are big enough to give you breathing room, and there’s little hidden areas that can provide extra flanking opportunities or new, powerful weapons. Speaking of which the weapons are generally a joy to use and all feel like they serve a purpose and are unique. The Forerunner guns still sound a little weak, but tweaks have made a couple of previously useless weapons, like the Suppressor, feel much more useful.

Supporting the gameplay are some new tricks, starting with the Spartan Charge which is exactly what it sounds like, a devastating shoulder tackle that can be unleashed while sprinting. It’s a solid addition to the arsenal that can be used to immediately wreck a foe’s shielding, throwing him away in the process and giving you room to unlock a few bullets. The ability to briefly hover in mid-air by aiming down the sights opens up some new angles of attack and the quick dash left, right, back and forward are perfect for quickly getting into cover, throwing off an attacker’s aim or for surprising an enemy by popping out of cover.. On top of that you can now clamber up the edges of obstacles by tapping A just as the edge comes into reach, making getting around so much easier, and perform a running slide that’s handy for getting into cover quickly or just surprising the hell out of enemies, a bit like the dodge. All of these add up to a quicker pace and more options during combat to outflank the enemy. The least useful of the bunch is a new ground pound move executed by  holding down the melee button in mid-air, but it leaves you hanging in the sky for a good few seconds before being fully charged, thus making it tricky to pull off in most situations. However, its difficulty also makes it an incredibly satisfying move to use in multiplayer. But by far the biggest change is the inclusion of the ability to aim down the sights of weapons, a standard in most shooter but a first for Halo, bringing with it more accurate gunplay. It slots nicely into the formula and comes with a great twist; if you get hit then you’ll be immediately tossed out of the ADS view. It’s a vital concept in the multiplayer, where it helps players combat long distance snipers by delivering suppressing fire that stops them from getting a bead on you.  The end result is the most enjoyable Halo game I’ve played to date in terms of its core gameplay mechanics. Battling against the mixed forces of the Covenant and the Forerunners is a joy. The campaign’s plot may leave a sour taste in your mouth, but it’s worth playing simply for the fun you’ll have shooting everything that moves.

Joining the fray are the other Spartans that make up Osiris and Blue squad. Basic orders to attack a specific target or move to a certain location can be barked at these Spartans using the D-pad, but most of the time it’s best to just leave them to it, their added firepower greatly appreciated in Legendary mode, as is their ability to pick you up when your down. Yup, you can now be “downed”, which somewhat damages the challenge.  A couple of glitches do hold the AI back from greatness, such as standing still right next to you when your down and screaming for help, or idiotic runs through enemies that inevitably get them killed. They can be an inconsistent set of allies.  They can be replaced with real players, however, which is unsurprisingly much more fun. With some friends involved it becomes fantastic. It’s a shame, then, that for reasons only known to themselves 343 opted to not included split-screen play anywhere in the title, a staple of the series since the very first Halo. What the hell, guys?

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The campaign is a real mixed bag, then, delivering on the gameplay with what I’m going to boldly proclaim is the best core Halo mechanics to date. The new additions work extremely well, refreshing the classic formula without diluting what has made Halo one of the most influential shooters of all time. But the writing is just underwhelming, managing to mess up its own mysteries and trip over every possible emotional beat before falling flat on its face attempting a cliff-hanger ending it never earned.

Let’s move onto something more positive. Warzone is the headlining new multiplayer mode, and it’s a blast. Just like the new movement options we were just talking about Warzone builds on the foundations of previous Halo games with some new ideas while retaining a powerful sense of familiarity. Two teams of twelve are pitted against each other with the goal of either earning 1000 victory points or destroying the opposing team’s core. Killing enemies and capturing the three bases on the map all earn points toward victory, while capturing and holding all three bases opens up the enemy core for direct attack. However, there’s a catch; AI bosses will be dropped into the game and destroying them can earn bonus victory points. A small boss might be worth a mere 25, but a a harder foe to kill can be worth a staggering 150 points and can thus turn the entire game around for a struggling team, or end the match quickly for a dominant one. It brings an exciting extra element to matches with teams trying to decide whether to switch tactics and go for the boss or perhaps launch an assault on the enemy bases while they may be undefended or weak. Objectives can shift mid-match because of this, and it’s always fun to see who will chase the boss or who might try to take advantage of the situation by either going for the bases or using the distraction to sneak around and earn some extra kills.  The downside is that it’s the team who gets the killing blow that capture the points, and so it’s not uncommon for one team to slowly whittle down a big baddie’s health only for an enemy soldier to get in one lucky shot and claim massive points for his or her team. Still, this is offset by the incredible feeling when you land the killing blow in a difficult boss and bring your team back from the brink of defeat or even win the match. These AI controller enemies frequently created see-saw matches that had me getting really invested into the action.

A second variation of Warzone is included that Battlefield fans will find very familiar in which one team has to defend a series of points while the opposing team attempts to capture it. If the defenders manage to hold off the enemy in just one of three points they win, while the attackers must successfully decimate all three positions.  This is far more hectic than standard Warzone as the enemy team spawn extremely close to the objective, thus combat is constant and intense. It’s good for some close-quarters action, but some maps have balance issues at the moment, favoring either team a little too much.

Warzone also plays host to the brand new REQ system, short for requisition. The idea is that you can get vehicles, power weapons and more mid-match by spending REQ points on them, rather than stumbling across them on the map as per prior games in the series. A basic power weapon might cost a mere four or five points, while something like a Scorpion tank hits the bank balance a bit harder at nine points. REQ points slowly regenerate over time, and spending them activates a small cooldown window, stopping players from buying more than one thing in quick succession. The total amount of REQ points available is increased by killing enemies, capturing bases and defeating bosses, creating a natural progression where bigger, more devastating vehicles and weapons show up later in the match, with good players getting access to them quicker but never being able to simply overwhelm the enemy. This introduces a new layer of strategy as you really need to consider when to spend those hard-earned points, because a well-chosen weapon or vehicle can help turn the tide of battle. Of course there’s always the chance of spawning with an Energy Sword or a Rocket Launcher and immediately getting shot in the face, turning your brief moment of ecstasy into one of the saddest moments in your entire life. The system also ties in neatly with the boss AI system, changing the flow of a match in progress. Sometimes players will bring out big vehicles at the same time for a good ‘ol Halo tank battle, while at other times a player might requisition  something like a Wraith and send the entire enemy team scurrying to eliminate it before it can do too much damage. A Warthog rolling around the map with a skilled gunner might just encourage one of the enemy team to spend some REQ points on a rocket launcher rather than saving them for later, or someone might decide to spend some points earlier than planned to bring out a Saw machinegun in order to help capture a base before defeat becomes a reality. You have to constantly consider what you need to bring out and when.

But there is a catch; you can only requisition something if you have the appropriate REQ card. Yes, Halo 5 has burn cards, almost identical to the idea employed in Titanfall. Points earned in a match can be spent on buying Bronze, Silver and Gold REQ packs that contain an assortment of gear, graded by rarity from common to legendary. Some cards, like series staple Battle Rifles, are permanent unlocks, meaning you can equip them at any time for no cost, although you do have to achieve a certain in-game REQ level first, but power weapon and vehicle cards are one use only affairs. If you use it, it’s gone forever, so whatever you can requisition in a match is limited by the cards you own. Rarer cards also tend to have stat boosts, so a Legendary Scorpion tank will be more powerful than a regular one, providing an edge in combat. Helmets, armor and weapon skins are also unlocked by purchasing REQ packs so you can customise your Spartan.

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The entire REQ system sounds overly complicated on paper, but in-game it’s actually remarkably intuitive. I’m surprised by just how well the REQ system works in Warzone, bringing in an extra layer of strategy for players to consider and creating interesting scenarios that help mix up each match. REQ cards are a little less impressive, bringing in an element of randomization where none really feels needed. The REQ system naturally comes with some frustrations, too, like being unable to unlock the piece of armor you actually want, or getting lots of REQ cards for guns you don’t use anyway. These spare cards can be sold, but the amount of credits you get tends to be quite low, and it’s a time-consuming process since you have to sell each card individually. It also means that when you see an ally or enemy sporting some seriously cool armor they quite likely didn’t work very hard to get in, rather they just got lucky, unlike previous games where cool armor was something of a status symbol among players, proof of their skill and dedication. Or they just spent real money to get it.

Yes, microtransactions are sadly in Halo 5. The option to purchase REQ packs with real-life money is included. It’s not intrusive and the balancing currently seems relatively fair, so that a Gold REQ pack will probably take a good player perhaps 6-8 matches to earn, while a silver pack will take half that. However, it does raise the question of whether the REQ pack system was built solely to accommodate microtransactions, and what this might mean for the future of the series. A small update a month or two down the line could easily alter the balance so that earning REQ packs through regular play becomes harder, driving players toward taking out their wallet instead. It sets up a dangerous precedence for the next game in the series, too, Microsoft and 343 quietly introducing the system with minimal fuss before eventually moving to more intrusive methods. . There’s also a very mild advantage given to those willing to spend big money as rare versions of vehicles and guns boast better stats, and while the differences are huge they’re enough to offer an edge in combat. The simple truth of the matter is that microstransactions have no place here, and it’s shameful to see them included. What’s more baffling is the intense defensive stance that the Halo forums takes toward criticism of such an obviously inherently anti-consumer business model, crushing all debate with a barrage of insults rather than having a considered conversation. It’s truly amazing how well the game industry has managed to slowly but carefully brainwash people into accepting more and more terrible business practices. Even 343 Industries own marketing animation for the system did nothing more than belittle any legitimate questions about the system. Still, for the sake of this review I’ll try to minimise my own objections toward microtransactions for the sake of offering an opinion as to how the game feels right now, and instead leave you with this; at this moment in time they are not overly intrusive, nor will you find yourself at any major disadvantage by not spending money.

But at least free map packs are going to be released for the fan base, meaning no more splitting players up with every new chunk of DLC. Some have put forward the idea that the microstransactions essentially fund the free map packs, but whether that’s true is hard to say.

For me the REQ packs were the weak link in the multiplayer. Sure, opening up packs received for commendations or ranking up or just ones you’ve bought does somewhat replicate that feeling of picking up a packet of Yu-Gi-Oh!/Magic/Pokemon cards and breaking them open in the hopes of getting something awesome, but ultimately it simply serves to limit a players options in combat, while someone willing to spend money will usually have a stronger variety of tools to bring to the fight. But it’s not terrible, and nor does it cancel out how much I like the REQ system itself and Warzone as a whole. Those new Spartan Moves and the fact that all players have access to unlimited sprint have made Halo 5 a faster game, and combat benefits massively from them, giving each encounter a lot more interesting variables while still keeping it primarily about who has the better aim and can use that movement over who shoots first. Headshots are still the name of the day.

But if you don’t want to deal with the REQ system then Arena might be a better option, home to more classical game modes like SWAT, where it’s no radar, no shields and all about those headshots. In  Arena there’s also the new Breakout mode where players get a single life, no shield, an SMG, Magnum and one grenade before being launched into an arena. Headshots aren’t instant kills in this mode, but the SMGs are deadly as are the grenades and each player is only granted one life per round. The first team to win five rounds wins the match. It’s fun, tense and encourages a lot of teamwork, making it a fast favorite, while also seemingly being designed with E-sports in mind. Meanwhile Slayer and Team Slayer offer up the standard Deathmatch  and Team Deathmatch experiences with four players per team. Strongholds is a basic mode where you fight over three control points, with the first team to 100 points winning.  There’s also going to be weekly featured modes, with Shotty Snipers being the currently featured match type where players engage on small maps with sniper rifles and shotguns. There are some notable absences, though, with no Big Team Battle for players looking for the scope of Warzone without all the REQ nonsense, plus modes like Oddball and King of the Hill are also missing. The good news is that while I was writing this 343 announced Big Team Battles will be arriving in just one week with four new maps to support it, bringing the total map count up to 24. Meanwhile Forge will also make a most welcome return, although not until December. With Big Team Battles returning it seems plausible that other missing modes will also be brought into the fold to hopefully make this a comprehensive Halo game.

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Speaking of the maps they’re….okay. There’s a few quite good ones, some just plain good ones, a few decent ones and there are pretty bad ones  as well, making the selection a rather mixed bag to say the least. Overall they’re mostly forgettable and I don’t see any becoming classics. There are more serious issues, however; firstly maps are divided amongst the modes and thus Warzone has a mere three maps. Secondly, the map cycling appears to be utterly crap, often asking players to engage on the same map three or four times in a row, making the already small Warzone selection feel even smaller. Warzone Assault, meanwhile, suffers not only from that problem but also from failing to cycle your role as defender or attacker problem. In about ten Warzone Assault matches I wound up defending eight times. The free map packs will eventually combat the map distribution and the cycle problem is an easy fix, but right now both things are an issue.

Ultimately Halo 5 comes with three massive disappointments; a weak story that delivers a sagging middle act to a trilogy which now desperately needs to wrap everything up in far more impressive fashion in order to save face; the inclusion of microtransactions that will undoubtedly be the source of continued debate among critics and fans,, and the loss of split-screen which will enrage fans. Meanwhile I forsee the REQ packs splitting opinion, too, some enjoying the slow acquisition of items through pure chance and others finding it annoying and limiting. These all serve to further mar the Halo reputation which took a small hit with the release of Halo 4. Yet, the multiplayer is sublime, a mixture of familiar and new that did nothing short of having me on the edge of my seat, gripping the controller and whooping in delight. I’ll doubtless be returning to it for months to come, something which I haven’t done with any other multplayer game in quite some time. And yet the Halo series has always been a game that players bought for the story and then kept playing for the multiplayer, making it all the harder to forgive that pitiful story.

In the end Halo 5 earns a recommendation from me, albeit with some important caveats. Buy it for the multiplayer, which is some of the best around. The campaign is fun to play thanks to the stellar combat that continues to impress, but if you’re looking for an engaging story don’t even bother with it, just leap straight into the multiplayer action, unless of course you’re not a competitive person, in which case I’d recommend skipping Halo 5 altogether – you’ll have fun with the campaign, but not enough to warrant anything except an on sale purchase.  You may be wondering why the game even earns a recommendation sticker with so many complaints, but as I’ve said before the recommendation is for games that provide either a brilliant package all around, or just one or two exceptional things that make them worth playing for, which in this case is the excellent multiplayer.

Reco

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