You can never have too many Spartans.
Halo 5: Guardians could be the most important Halo release since the original sparked a console shooter revolution. It comes at a time when the Xbox One -- though incredibly popular -- still trails behind the PlayStation 4 in terms of sales. John-117, better known as Master Chief, is the Xbox figure head, its champion and if humanity's greatest hero can help Microsoft close the gap on Sony he will also be their saviour.
This time however not all the pressure rests on Master Chief's shoulders. There's a new Spartan in town: Locke. Much has been made of the Chief's allegiance in Halo 5: Guardians and the once infallible hero has come under some scrutiny. Is he really a traitor? Has he, along with his former AI companion Cortana, gone AWOL? The UNSC seems to think so and that's where Locke and his Osiris team come in as they are tasked to find Master Chief and bring him under control.
The setup of a great hero being hunted by his own creed has all the makings of a powerful narrative. Long-time Halo fans have come to know and love Master Chief and the mere possibility that he could be a turncoat, or selfish, or anything other than the shining beacon of humanity is unthinkable. The potent rhetoric in the game's pre-release marketing had Locke label Chief a betrayer, while at the same time showing Chief as a doubtful, conflicted character questioning the decisions he'd made in the past. The exciting prospect of a Halo game that wasn't as simple as good vs. evil made it all the more disappointing that the in-game story decided to focus on the broader narrative of the Prometheans' return and the discovery of powerful Forerunner technology. There are still effective moments between Locke and Chief, but I would've preferred their conflict to be the main narrative thrust.
Though the story arc involving the two Spartans is disappointing, playing as them is anything but. Combat is remarkably fluid. The game compels you to keep moving, pushing you through insurmountable odds to emerging breathless from the other side with a mess of alien corpses and disintegrated robots in your wake. The new Spartan powers have been designed around this new focus on mobility. The charge attack -- a jet-boosted shoulder strike at the end of a sprint -- is powerful and rewards aggressive play, as does the ground pound -- easily my favourite new ability -- which turns your powered armoured super-solider into a guided missile smashing into the ground from on high, sending shockwaves that damage nearby enemies.
Less deadly but no less important is the ability to grab the edges of platforms and pull yourself up. This simple change means the frustratingly pathetic image of sliding down vertical surfaces you could almost reach is a thing of the past. You can sprint now too, and hitting the crouch button puts you into a slide, making it harder for enemies to shoot you during those desperate dives for cover. Having said that, I didn't find cover as vital as I did in Halo 4. My shields seemed to recharge faster ,and as a result, I was able to spend less time hiding and more time using my agile new skills to conquer the battlefield.
This is a game that venerates the Spartan."
Perhaps the most polarizing of the new gameplay features is the ability to aim down sights with any weapon. Previously reserved only for the battle rifle, pistol, sniper rifle and their Covenant equivalents, the decision to make each gun have a precise aiming feature does nothing to detract from Halo's tried and tested gameplay. Firing from the hip is still just as accurate as looking through a scope; a slight zoom is the only real benefit. What's more is if you are hit while aiming you are immediately de-scoped. This means those frantic close quarter firefights that Halo is known for are largely unchanged. Another area where developers 343 Industries have added balance to a potentially polarizing mechanic is with sprinting, in so much as your shield will not recharge while you are doing so. These subtle caveats ensure that Halo purists can still enjoy the core combat since the additions serve only to heighten the experience rather than fundamentally change it.
As well as adding some variety to the combat encounters, these new abilities serve another very important purpose: they make you feel empowered. Spartans are genetically engineered, super human soldiers, capable of astonishing feats of athletic expertise and now, finally, the gameplay reflects this. This is a game that venerates the Spartan. The cut-scenes in particular do a fantastic job of demonstrating the violent prowess of these armoured warriors and watching them obliterate squads of Covenant before taking control and using the exact same tools yourself is pure adrenaline.
The Spartans are powerful, but there are plenty of enemies that can match them; the nefarious alien federation, The Covenant and the ancient robotic Prometheans are as dangerous as ever. The enemies are never bullet sponges and their weapons are rarely powerful enough to down you in one hit. Instead the challenge comes from their intelligence and organization. The Covenant forces use cover to their advantage and their governing species, The Elites, will always use their lowly brethren for cover, sending grunts into the fight to soften you up with grenades and shield-depleting plasma pistols before marching in to finish the job. Prometheans, on the other hand, care less for self-preservation, favouring shock tactics with their dog-like attack robots that hunt you in packs and soldiers that teleport around the battlefield wreaking havoc.
Having such contrasting forces makes each encounter feel distinct, especially when the two appear at once, attacking each other as well as you. Who you fight is central to what makes Halo's combat so exciting, but it's also where you fight. Halo 5's fifteen chapters take in a multitude of planets and locations which favour open spaces with multiple approach points, many of which are hidden behind walls that can be flattened by a well-placed shoulder charge. The tactical freedom these arenas allow coupled with the new Spartan abilities makes each battle a mouth-watering prospect.
How you approach an encounter can vary wildly depending on what you're equipped with, but the size and variety of the battlefields means any combination of the game's many weapons can be viable in the hands of a skilled player. From the military sturdiness of the UNSC pistols, and rifles, to the exotic laser spitting fury of the Promethean and Covenant weapons, everything has a place and no weapon ever feels useless.
As well as being great to fight in, the varied locations are also beautiful to look at. Halo 5: Guardians is not the best looking game of the generation, but the art direction is stellar. The design is a fantastic array of juxtapositions: the sandstone carvings and lush nature on planet Sanghelios interspersed with cold, angular Forerunner installations, or the combatants themselves, ever more futuristic, fighting across planets where anything advanced is buried or hidden amongst seemingly untouched, natural landscape. The graphical sacrifices, however small, have been made to ensure that Halo 5 runs at full 1080p HD resolution and at a consistent 60 frames per second, something the game comfortably achieves and is all the better for it. The aforementioned focus on movement and speed is reinforced by the frame cap, and controlling Master Chief and Locke is effortless.
The ease and grace of the movement translates well into the multiplayer, which is as nuanced as ever. The 4 v 4 arena modes will feel the most familiar to Halo fans and the compact multi-level maps do a great job of focusing the combat, while still giving enough breadth and variety of routes to allow for tactical team engagements. The arena matches come in four flavours: Slayer, Halo's take on the team deathmatch; Strongholds, which tasks players with capturing and controlling key points on the map; Breakout, a no respawn mode where your shield is noticeably weaker and the first team to win five rounds is the overall winner; and finally Capture the Flag is the same tried and true game mode that we are all familiar with... bring the enemy flag back to your base while simultaneously defending your own.
Much like in single player, the addition of the Spartan abilities adds depth to the combat. Rather than completely breaking the mould, they instead breathe new life into multiplayer shooting that has remained largely unchanged since the series' inception. One ability that is especially potent online is the boost pack attached to the armour of each Spartan. These rocket boosters allow players to make a short controlled dash in their chosen direction a skill that can be used both offensively and defensively by adding a layer of unpredictability to yours and your enemy's movement.
The fancy new powers make the multiplayer feel less familiar, but for something truly new you'll want to check out Warzone. Taking place on huge maps and featuring up to 24 players Warzone is a war of attrition as you desperately try to capture points and defend them against increasing enemy resistance. Once you have two zones under your control, you team will begin to accrue victory points. Control three and you'll be able attack the enemy base directly. Destroy that and you win! Maintaining control of three zones is hard enough let alone destroying the base itself, so more often than not you'll achieve victory by being the first team to amass 1,000 victory points.
There's a lot more to Warzone than capturing bases though. In a nod to Titanfall, the maps are occupied by allied and enemy marines who, unlike those found in Titanfall, are pretty dangerous and if you come across a group, they are more than capable of killing you. Then there are sub-objectives, which task you with taking down powerful Covenant or Promethean enemies, or slaughtering waves of weaker ones to gain a significant amount of points for your team. These bosses shouldn't be tackled alone and weighing up the potential risk of leaving a captured point undefended to pursue a grander prize is a tactical quandary that will separate good teams from great ones.
Warzone is completed by its requisition system which rewards players with packs of usable items and perks as they level up. These requisition packs can also be bought with experience points or real cash and contain a random selection of guns, boosts and vehicles which can be summoned or equipped within Warzone. Initially, your options will be limited to basic weapons and vehicles, but as the match continues more powerful equipment can be equipped such as rocket launchers and tanks. This means that you won't be facing off against Banshees and Spartan lasers as soon as you leave your base.
The combination of all these facets into one multiplayer extravaganza is huge fun to play and the varied objectives means that even those who aren't great at multiplayer shooters can contribute to overall victory. Having access to so much different equipment makes for unpredictable matches, and the requisition system means anyone can have a chance to pilot the game's most powerful vehicles.
The multiplayer isn't exclusively competitive in Halo 5 and the entire campaign can be tackled by four players online. Both Locke and Master Chief are accompanied by their respective teams -- Osiris and Blue -- and rather than being AI shells waiting for a human controller your teammates have personalities of their own, often providing believable dialogue in game as well as during cut-scenes. Your team can also revive you if you are downed in combat, which tempers the frustration of repeat deaths during harder sections. You can still fail, of course, and if your teammates don't reach you in time you'll need to restart at the last checkpoint.
The campaign itself, whether solo or with friends, is wonderfully paced with some fantastic vehicle sections, the mech suit being a particular stand out. The movement from the sombre moments to epic, bombastic battles is accompanied by a rousing score from Neil Davidge and Kazuma Jinnouchi, who are also accredited with the score in Halo 4. The music is at the forefront of the player's emotional state. The shifts from heroism and valour, to uncertainty and despair is captured beautifully and precisely by the score.
In some ways Halo 5: Guardians lives up to its promises and in others it doesn't. The addition of Spartan abilities to the gameplay grants a new layer to the combat, as do the more open arenas. Warzone is a towering achievement that feels more like an organic, real battle than any multiplayer I have played before. The precise, satisfying combat -- both online and in the campaign -- is accentuated by a slavish devotion to 60 frames per second ,the results of which can be felt in every flick of the analogue stick. On the other hand, the story is too quick to resolve the most exciting part of the pre-release marketing, but this seems like a minor criticism in the face of the overwhelming improvements 343 Industries have made to every other facet of the game. Clearly it's in developers like them that the Xbox has its saviour.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One with a digital pre-release copy provided by Microsoft
Images courtesy of Mictosoft Studios.