I might sound like a heretic, but I never used to play Halo for the campaign. For the first few installments, I was in it almost exclusively for the multiplayer – and it was glorious! However, things changed for me around the time of Halo Reach. Slowly, I found myself gravitating toward the campaigns and away from the competitive side. I’ll address why that was in my Halo 5 multiplayer review, but I was naturally drawn to the doomed character drama of Reach and the Forerunner origin story of Halo 4. I’m a big sci-fi nerd, and while I’ll agree that Halo 4 had many fundamental flaws in its design, I got so engrossed in the narrative that I fully versed myself in the lore. This means that Halo 5: Guardians is the first campaign I’ve ever anticipated, although I have completed every game on Legendary; so I’m no scrub either.
Halo 5: Guardians picks up after the defeat of the Didact and the tragic death of Cortana. Since the events of Halo 4, Master Chief has reunited with his long-time Spartan-II unit, Blue Team, and has been keeping busy by relentlessly accepting mission after mission to try and drown out the pain of his recent loss. However, all is still not well within the universe. Not only are the Sanghelios (Elites) caught in a civil war with Jul ‘Mdama’s splinter of The Covenant, an unknown threat has devastated five colonies in 72 hours. Forerunner in origin. If things couldn’t get worse, the Chief has just gone AWOL without warning; taking Blue Team with him, and forcing the UNSC to question his loyalty. This is where ex-ONI, Spartan Locke, and Fireteam Osiris enter the picture; having been tasked with bringing the Chief home.
While I don’t agree with the PR campaign, as there isn’t nearly as much mystery as #HuntTheTruth would have you believe, it’s still one of the more personal narratives in the series. Imagine taking Halo 3: ODST to the next level – that is the foundation for Halo 5: Guardians. As a word of advice, however; if you didn’t play Spartan Ops in Halo 4, watch the cutscenes on YouTube otherwise you’ll be a little confused with a few plot points. Don’t worry about Halo Nightfall. While I have a few bones to pick with the characterisation and story direction, I do want to clarify up front that this is one of the best, if not best, campaigns to date. From the glassed, desolate landscapes of Meridian to the blazing civil war on the Elite homeworld, and even a Forerunner planet; Halo fans will be going on their most diverse adventure yet.
Before I gush all over the excellent components of Halo 5’s campaign, let me first air out some dirty laundry – and boy, there are some doozies! Let’s start out with the advertising campaign that implies that the Chief has gone rogue, that players should expect ‘the greatest hunt in gaming history,’ and that someone might not make it out alive. I’m sorry, but I’m not even going to entertain that notion – it’s not a spoiler, that entire PR campaign was BS. Let me just set a realistic tone instead: you’ll know exactly why the Chief went AWOL, and you won’t ever question his integrity. Not just that, but what was supposed to be a great hunt is mostly just one team of Spartans a step behind the other. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying it’s bad at all; it was just advertised wrong and longtime fans should be aware of that.
Reflecting back on the narrative itself, I think most fans are going to be satisfied. It’s got all the bells and whistles of a typical sci-fi adventure and works to move the series in a compelling direction. There is a solid overarching plot, which also serves to take players to new and exciting locations. However, there are still major niggling issues; most of which tie back to Spartan Locke. I’ll say it outright: Locke has the personality of a doorknob, and is characterised about as well as one. I’m actually annoyed I invested time into Halo: Nightfall to try and learn more about him. Spartan Buck (formerly Halo 3: ODST, played by Nathan Fillion), on the other hand, is a shining light for that side of the story; saving Fireteam Osiris from falling into total mediocrity. Good thing too, as they’re the lead for three-quarters of the campaign.
Putting the narrative aside for a moment, I do want to say that longtime fans should be very excited for the campaign itself. Halo: Combat Evolved was renowned for its big open battlefields, and the various ways you could tackle each scenario; whether playing solo or with co-op companions. Halo 5 embraces this design philosophy better than any game in the series while subsequently pulling the franchise out of the genre fatigue bin. Let’s be honest: Halo 4 took inspiration from Call of Duty in all the wrong ways, and while it was okay; it also felt a little wrong. Halo 5 is not only the longest campaign in the series, it’s also the biggest; providing the replay value fans have been crying for. The type of missions where you want to revisit to try different tactics or clamber beyond the battlefield to discover a hidden skull.
There are two major additions to Halo’s glorious open-battlefield design; the first being the clamber ability, the second being 4-player co-op. I know there are other new abilities such as the booster, Spartan charge, and ground pound; but none of these impact the core gameplay the same way as clambering. To clarify, clamber is the ability to climb almost any ledge you can reach, and why this is so important to Guardians is because it adds a meaningful layer of verticality. Now, I know some of you’ll be saying: ‘Titanfall and CoD did it first,’ but neither game facilitates explorative open-combat – or the floaty Spartan jump! I absolutely loved that during battle I could run, jump high (not jetpack!), and climb anywhere. Not just that, but that the levels were intelligently designed to support more vertical styles of play.
Co-op is a big deal for Halo 5; so much that the entire campaign is designed around it. Whether you’re playing as Locke or Chief, you’re going to have three comrades with you at all times (either AI or player-controlled). When playing with other human beings, it is arguably the best co-op shooter experience available to date. I think it’s going to be really enjoyed by fans, despite the controversy surrounding the removal of split-screen (which I’ll get to shortly). On the other hand, when playing on your own, you have to rely on the AI of three separate allies, and on any difficulty above normal, it is not great. You can control the AI very smoothly using the D-pad to tell them where to go or what weapons to pick up, and it’s empowering to a degree. However, on Heroic difficulty or higher, be prepared for a little frustration.
Ironically, the biggest areas the friendly AI struggle are two of the best components of Halo 5’s campaign. Specifically, the triumphant return of legit boss encounters and epic vehicle segments. One major boss battle, in particular, was a nightmare solo (on higher difficulties) as it required a specific tactic, and all my squad would do is die in the cross-fire. The fact it’s fine on normal, and that 343i provide dedicated servers for drop-in and out co-op is enough to make up for it, but the warning stands: don’t bother with legendary solo unless you want a reason to hate the game. Although, that being said, I can’t help but feel the all-out co-op didn’t always fit narratively; at least for the Chief. The potential for some duality of play between Fireteam Osiris and an evasive, more powerful, lone Master Chief could have been great.
The absolute strongest quality of Halo 5, however, is in the smoothness of the gameplay. I’d even go as far as to say that it is the best feeling shooter I’ve ever played, and I have played a lot of them. In combination with clamber and the other new abilities, along with the slick vehicle controls, the game never fights against you. Look, I know we could be cynical and boil a conventional shooter down to running, shooting, climbing ladders and pushing the occasional button, and on a bad day I could agree with you, but this isn’t Halo 5. 343i takes everything wonderful about how a modern shooter controls, and combines it harmoniously with what makes Halo unique. Don’t mistake the smart zoom on all weapons for ‘CoDification,’ this is absolutely not the case. I’d even say its the most Halo-feeling game in years.
Jumping back to the removal of split-screen; first, let me say, I too cherish my memories of couch co-op. However, I also acknowledge games were simpler back then and that I was a more ignorant; specifically, the difference 60FPS can make to a shooter. The scale alone is enough for it to play a bit rubbish when split, but the improved framerate is critical to the smoothness of the gameplay. Needless to say, I appreciate why they made the call, even if nostalgic fans would still compromise for it. On the topic of presentation, I can’t praise Halo 5 enough. It is colourful, vibrant and just so damn smooth. The CG is stunning, the voice acting is solid, and the soundtrack is amazing. My only gripe is the disjointed transitions between cutscenes and gameplay; it felt horribly dated in comparison with the rest of the game.
As a reviewer, there are just two types of games I play. Those which I can only digest in short bursts, and those which consume every moment I can spare. Don’t get me wrong, the latter is not indicative of quality, but they are the games which make an impact. Due to genre fatigue, I struggle to complete shooters, let alone play for long periods of time. I find them suffocating, and that’s why I’m so thrilled 343i finally stepped out of Bungie’s shadow. I’m not saying the story is excellent; especially given the poor characterisation. However, the campaign itself is big, open, expansive and fantastic to play with friends. Not to mention, driven by near-flawless mechanics that take the best of modern-day shooters and combine it with the heart of what makes Halo special. It’s damn fun, and it only gets better in multiplayer.