Master Chief just isn’t himself in Halo 5: Guardians. And now that I’ve played the whole single-player campaign, I’m not really sure I like that. The chief has always been a bit of a rogue and a loner. But in the story of Halo 5, Master Chief goes absent without leave (AWOL), and his United Nations Space Command superiors accuse him of outright treason. This leads to a plot that gets over-complicated and unbelievable.
That’s a shame, as Halo 5 is the biggest game that Microsoft has coming this fall and it’s part of a series that has sold more than 65 million copies and generated $4.6 billion in revenue. This exclusive Microsoft game is going to be the main reason why gamers will choose the Xbox One over the Sony PlayStation 4 (see our interview with Xbox chief Phil Spencer about that).
343 Industries has been a very good custodian of the Halo series since it took over from series creator Bungie, which went on to create Destiny. And 343 and Microsoft have a chance to sell a lot more copies with Halo 5: Guardians, a first-person shooter which debuts on October 27 on the Xbox One game console. Halo fans have been waiting for a new Master Chief game since Halo 4 came out in 2012 on the Xbox 360. 343 Industries has tried very hard to deliver something different.
But there is such a thing as trying too hard to make it seem original, and that results in a flawed single-player campaign like with Halo 2. While the story seems absurd, Halo 5 has the familiar, challenging first-person shooter gameplay that fans have come to know and love. That, as well as new multiplayer twists, could be its saving grace.
Master Chief is back, but he’s sharing the stage with Jameson Locke, the hero of the online video series Halo: Nightfall. Since that story, Locke (formerly an agent in the Office of Naval Intelligence) has become a Spartan IV supersoldier with the accompanying strength augmentations. Spartan Locke leads the mission to find Master Chief and discover why his fellow Spartan has disobeyed his orders. During that mission, Locke has to come to terms with the fact that he is hunting down humanity’s greatest hero.
In its own trailers, Microsoft set up an exaggerated confrontation between Locke and the chief. In two of the final pre-launch TV commercials, 343 revealed that humanity’s leaders would rather allow the masses to believe that Master Chief has died rather than reveal his treachery. This is pretty severe, as the chief always goes his own way, but he never strays this far off the reservation.
You start out playing as Locke, who leads a squad of his own Spartans. The opening cinematic is quite spectacular, though the gameplay that it leads to is a fairly routine mission, only with four Spartans instead of just the usual one. Locke leads Team Osiris to find one of humanity’s great scientists, Catherine Halsey, creator of the Spartan program. She is being held by the Covenant, and even appears to be collaborating with them.
In the second mission, you play as Master Chief, the leader of a squad called Blue Team. Each team can consist of four human players in co-op mode, or with one human player and three artificial intelligence (A.I.) characters who help you out in each mission. That means that the combat with the enemies is a lot harder than it used to be, so that the game will still be challenging for up to four human players. You will, for instance, routinely run into Hunters, the most difficult enemies to defeat. When you are wounded, the battle doesn’t end. Your team members can revive you, allowing for a quick resumption of the action.
The story alternates between the different points of view of Locke and Master Chief, until the inevitable clash comes about. The challenge for the storytellers is that they really have to convince you that this betrayal is real and that somebody that you have really liked in the past has become evil or misguided. We’re led to believe that the Master Chief has been led astray by someone he encounters from his past.
What you’ll like
The familiar gameplay isn’t broken
The problems in the single-player story may not matter. Many players have come to accept the quirky plot twists of past games, and some never crack open the campaign and go straight to multiplayer. Those players aren’t going to be disappointed, since the multiplayer combat has some new features that make it a first-rate experience.
I’ve always liked how everything comes together in a Halo experience. Every game has great pulse-pounding music that gets you into the spirit of the combat. It usually has a compelling story about the Master Chief and Cortana (the A.I. character who died at the end of Halo 4’s single-player campaign story) and the esports-like multiplayer, where pro gamers can thrive.
You still have to switch things up moment to moment, shooting out your opponent’s armor and then closing in for a melee strike in order to save precious ammo. You have to switch between sticky or bouncy grenades, depending on the target. And you have to jump, dash, and flank as your enemy returns fire from multiple directions. That kind of fast-action, demanding gameplay is what keeps me coming back.
The gameplay is accompanied by awesome cinematics, like in the beginning of the game as Locke lands among a ton of Covenant enemies. Add to that the new gameplay features with the Spartan Abilities (see below) and you get something innovative too.
Multiplayer is more challenging and fun than past games
Halo 5: Guardians has a completely revamped multiplayer system. You can fight in vast matches against both A.I. and other human players in a 12-versus-12 Warzone matches. This mode is my favorite addition to the game, as it makes you feel like you’re in the midst of massive battles. Even if you are not extremely skillful, you can contribute to the fight. That’s because the mode has a requisition system. With this system, you earn points as you progress in the combat. You can use those points to acquire better weapons and vehicles, such as a Scorpion Tank. And with a tank like that, even a “noob,” or new player, can contribute to the battle in a big way.
This mode wasn’t possible on the Xbox 360, and it is where the Xbox One shines. Microsoft brings its Compute Cloud into play by enhancing the available processing power in your Xbox One by doing more of the A.I. processing in the cloud. That’s why the mode can support a lot more characters in the battle at once.
The Arena mode is something altogether different. Designed for the esports pro gamers, you can fight four-on-four tournament-style matches where the object is to capture a flag or take out the enemy team. This is where you see the experts shine. Skilled players can use new Spartan abilities in a way that gives them an advantage over weaker players. I can see how this will go over well with esports fans, but I think it’s also fun for players who like quick and dirty matches.
In an arena match, you can be catapulted toward the middle, and then you can stalk your enemies. You can make a lot of noise shooting from afar or sneak around in stealth. There’s usually a hidden weapon on the level, such as a battle rifle. The first team to kill off the other four enemies wins. Arena mode is all about highly skilled, precision combat. Both the Warzone and Arena make you feel like you are contributing to something bigger than your own survival.
Enhanced Spartan abilities
343 has also spiced up the gameplay with better Spartan abilities. Rather than choose your armor or assault profiles, now you can pull off new tricks. You can do a Spartan Charge that allows you to crash through barriers or kill enemies. If you mistime it, you are vulnerable to enemy attacks. But if you hit a Spartan in the back, you can kill the soldier with one blow.
You can also climb up walls for the first time, giving you more vertical options for attacks with an ability called “clamber.” And you can drop down on enemies from above, assassinating them in a very satisfying way using “ground pound.”
These new abilities make for very different kinds of combat options. In multiplayer, the abilities give skilled players another way to differentiate themselves from those of us who can barely get any kills in a multiplayer match. And in single player, you can use the abilities to score kills with more style, livening up the challenge of beating A.I. characters.
And with “stabilizers,” you can jump into the air and then thrust in any direction (after pressing the left trigger) to extend your jump distances or stay in the air longer. You can hang in the air for a couple of seconds, allowing you to avoid grenade explosioins, sort of like a player doing a delayed jump shot in basketball.
The new Spartan Abilities include “Spartan Charge,” which you can initiate why running at full speed. If you press the melee button (right stick click), you’ll use your thrusters to move at a high speed in a certain direction, ramming any enemies in front of you. It’s simple to learn, and it will severely wound or kill any enemy in your way. But if you mistime it, you’ll make yourself vulnerable to fire and counter maneuvers. If you hit a Spartan from the back, you’ll kill the Spartan with one blow. If you hit from the front or side, you’ll take down the Spartan’s shields.
Overall, the Spartan abilities accomplish two things. They bring something new. And they reward the skillful player.
Other games have moved to four-player co-op in campaigns, and here it serves the same purpose. You can play with your friends and come away with a very different experience. It becomes a lot easier to deal with challenging levels and dispatch tough enemies via flanking. To make life difficult for co-op players, enemy characters such as the Hunters have been redesigned to be smarter and more nimble. So it takes multiple players to take the enemies down.
On the flip side, sometimes your comrades will take the tough enemies out for you, leaving you with nothing to do. If you sum it up, co-op brings a new kind of experience that was much needed in the single-player campaign.
A single, satisfying Scorpion tank mission
The Scorpion tank is a powerful vehicle, and that’s why 343 is always reluctant to over-use it. But when you get to drive the big tank around and take out powerful enemies with a shot or two, it”s very satisfying. The mission comes late enough in the game where you can dish back at powerful enemies who have been making your life difficult in the earlier missions. Exacting revenge with the Scorpion on a landscape where you can take some very long shots gives you that happy feeling of shooting fish in a barrel. But the level is difficult, as the enemies throw every kind of vehicle at you, from mortar tanks to Ghosts.
Driving the tank around makes you too powerful. That’s why there’s usually just one tank mission in a campaign. But I’m happy they included it. The Scorpion tank is really part of the power fantasy that you are a supersoldier who can wreak havoc across the video game’s landscape.
Some very difficult boss battles
I had a tough time with some of the big firefights in Halo 5. In one, you had no choice but to stage a frontal assault against a well-entrenched Covenant position. It took me a number of tries to get through it, and I wouldn’t have survived without the help of A.I. squad mates. This was a pleasant surprise for a Halo game. After playing so many Halo games over the years, I need new challenges to keep from getting bored.
The presence of these boss characters makes the fighting more difficult in the later levels. And it gets exceedingly difficult when you find there are multiple boss characters in the same battle arena. That means you can no longer take on the bosses in an aggressive way. You have to attack, run away, and then close in for another opportunity. You also have to spend more time reviving wounded co-op Spartans, or being revived yourself.
When you fight these characters, it becomes a lot easier if you have the right weapon and access to ammo. If you don’t have the right weapon, you may have to repeat the difficult missions over and over again. This makes the game more challenging and satisfying when you finally beat it. And that makes the game fresh.
What you won’t like
There’s no really good Warthog mission
With the addition of co-op play, it makes sense to add two-player vehicles. But the Warthog — which can fit three characters in a single vehicle in the form of a driver, a side passenger, and a gunner — is the perfect vehicle for this campaing. But there aren’t enough chances to use the Warthog to the fullest, and that’s a mistake. I did enjoy the addition of a big Mech vehicle that enables you to become very powerful, so long as the enemy doesn’t wear down your armor.
But the Warthog is faster and gives you much more of a sense of freedom. When you fight with the Warthog, you feel like you’re in a larger open world. That’s a feeling I really missed. I drove a Warthog for a short time, but it wasn’t a critical piece of the game, as it was back in the original Halo game.
It needs more variety
The game designers have a lot to work with. They have a wide variety of enemy types, including Covenant, the Forerunners, and new kind of bosses. You also have different combat styles when switching from Master Chief to Spartan Locke. The levels have more vertical combat than they have had in the past. But across the dozen or so hours of fighting in the single-player campaign, you get a lot of shampoo, rinse, and repeat. The boss battles and the artificially-built arenas of the final chapters of the game are extremely repetitive. And that could make you feel like you’re playing a video game, not immersed in a fictional world. Even veteran players might be tempted to drop the controller in the final chapters.
The team characters don’t add to the story
On another front, the game’s four-person co-op structure introduces more characters. But these characters aren’t fleshed out. Locke’s Team Osiris consists of Buck, Vale, and Tanaka. And while these characters are pulled from the fiction of the Halo universe, they might as well not have any names. They aren’t used to the fullest, and it’s easy to confuse them, as they’re all just wearing Spartan armor. There’s a moment in the showdown between Master Chief and Spartan Locke where the team members could come into the story in a bigger way. They don’t.
A story that is hard to follow and hard to buy
I counted the times I either didn’t understand what was happening or when I didn’t buy what was happening because it was so unbelievable. It was pretty high. As noted, Master Chief becomes a bad guy, and it’s up to Spartan Locke to hunt the hero down. Because you play Spartan Locke for some missions and Master Chief for others, you gain knowledge about each character’s intentions. So you realize that what these two really need to do is get together and have a nice talk. They are not getting along because they’re not talking to each other, or their leaders are not talking to each other.
The emergence of a new kind of enemy also had me confused. I won’t spoil that part, but it’s another part of the story that just didn’t make sense. The bad part? The story ends as a cliffhanger, and that means we’re going to get a lot more of it in future Halo games. You don’t really get a resolution or explanation of the whole Locke-versus-Chief story, and that’s pretty annoying.
This version of co-op play is a lot more fun with four players fighting. But they’re all connected via Xbox Live, and have their own dedicated TVs with unique points of view for the different Spartans. No longer can you play in the same room with another player on a split-screen on a single TV. Some players are going to miss that.
The enemy has the best weapons
As much as I know the weapons of the Spartans well, I pretty much had to fire them until I ran out of ammo and then ditched them for the enemy’s weapons. Since there always a lot of dead enemies, finding enough ammo for commandeered weapons was never a problem. But the Forerunner in particular had some of the best weapons, like the Scattershot shotgun, the giant sniper gun, and the trusty plasma cannon. You would think that humanity would have learned. But it means that you face tough enemies, steal their weapons, find lots of ammo, and then repeat. It gets a little old.
In Arena mode, it’s easy to blame the loser
While I liked the new Arena mode’s breakout sessions, there was one aspect I didn’t like. If you are the weakest player on a team, that fact can become painfully evident. In the single-death matches, where you can’t be revived, a team depends on every player for victory. If one player is weak and gets killed all of the time, that’s going to become pretty obvious. And it will be easy to get mad at the loser.
The Halo narrative is at its best when it brings home the supreme sacrifice of the soldiers who fight to save humanity. In Halo: Reach, the story didn’t involve Master Chief, but we did see Spartans sacrificing themselves for the greater good. In Halo 4, Cortana made the choice of giving herself up in order to save the universe. You had this growing feeling of tragedy as the human race loses its battle with vastly superior enemies.
That’s the kind of story about Master Chief that I like. He knows what the odds are, and he keeps attacking anyway, taking the fight to enemy. Instead, we get a story about betrayal and an ultimate showdown. But that showdown isn’t that satisfying, and it’s not even what Microsoft promised in some of its earlier commercials. I was disappointed because I expected something really significant to happen in the ending, and all I got was a cliffhanger.
The saving grace of this game is multiplayer. I love the Warzone combat and hope to work my way up to Arena, where the pros play.