OK. Confession time: I haven’t played a Halo game since 2001.
Yes, you read that right, the last time I hopped into the shoes of Master Chief was in Halo: Combat Evolved approximately fourteen years ago. Halo’s sluggish handling and flavourless sci-fi simply wasn’t my cup of tea.
After all this time, could Halo and I kiss and make up? I love first person shooters, I love space, I love exploding xenomorphs - Halo and I had to share some common ground.
As it turns out, some romances simply aren’t meant to be. Our differences are too great, and Halo doesn’t appear to have changed its ways after all this time. Multiplayer modes may introduce enough new features to satisfy the legions of faithful, but this game’s single player campaign is often woefully lacking.
And who are you exactly?
Guardians is so assured in your deep knowledge of Halo lore that it jumps right in without explaining a thing. This was my first annoyance, leaving me asking: What are the Prometheans? What exactly is The Reclamation? And what are these Guardian things anyway?
Events aren’t hard to follow as the plot of Guardians is unashamedly generic (ancient master race, domination of the galaxy etc) but the game isn’t interested in making friends who haven’t swallowed its predecessors whole.
Things you should know can be reduced to the following: Master Chief and Jameson Locke are both playable characters during the course of the campaign. They’re both expectedly po-faced, hyper-masculine and dedicated to saving the galaxy from an impending apocalyptic evil. These two ever so manly men are working are working against one another which results in a game of cat and mouse that is tiresomely predictable, and sadly, not the worst thing about the campaign.
What’s that? Repetition.
Guardians chooses to engage the same basic formula over and over, ad nauseum until its perfunctory campaign is finished. You enter open environment dotted with enemies, kill said enemies in no particular order, move on to next environment, rinse and repeat. Occasionally you may be asked to destroy a static weapons emplacement or lower a shield, but the basic tenets are the same. Enter, destroy, continue.
Before long the experience begins to feel like Intergalactic Groundhog Day. Guardians' series of sorties are nothing more than a collection of fixed arenas that have been stitched together. This is exactly the type of experience that Serious Sam, back in 2001, so joyfully lampooned. Here we are in 2015, and Halo still doesn’t seem to get the joke.
The game doesn’t do itself any favours pitting you against the same boss time after time, and when I say the same, I mean exactly the same. His health doesn’t increase with every encounter, his attack patterns don’t diversify, it’s just a single skirmish copied and pasted into different environments and it feels inexcusably lazy.
Oddly, Guardians also relegates much of the interesting action to cutscenes. I would often think ‘Why aren’t you letting me do that? That looks like fun!’ The moment when Blue Team must acrobatically maneuver over a series of platforms linked by teleporters avoiding the sea of lava beneath them is a good example. It looked like a lark, but I was forced to watch it from the sidelines.
Weapons and mechanics
It’s a terrible shame that campaign never gets its act together because in other ways it delivers.
You’ll encounter a relatively broad range of enemies, some more mobile than others, along with an arsenal of Covenant and Promethean weaponry, each with their own distinct feel. From open canyons to alien temple, the game’s surroundings have been designed to take into account height, cover, and your new special abilities such as the spartan charge which launches you forward into enemies, or the ground slam.
The few worlds you visit are visually stunning and more than once left me wanting to hang around to soak up the view. The all-new game engine excels at rendering enormous vistas that create an equally good impression when you scrutinise them up close. It also deftly handles some of the most impressive facial animation I’ve ever witnessed in a game, with characters in cutscenes expressing facial nuance that is typically out of reach.
On the whole vehicle handling is smooth and though the vehicular segments which punctuate the game are uninspired. You’ll hop inside tanks, hovercraft, glowy-space-wotsits and shoot away. it never amounts to much, but it’s competently executed.
Party of four
Chief and Locke aren’t alone, you’re always in a team with three AI controlled allies who all stay fairly inactive unless you command them to take down a specific unit or heal you up. Guardians doesn’t play out like a team-based shooter, but a single player shooter where some super-friendly people in armoured suits will come and revive you make a make a colossal cock-up.
Well, most of the time they will. As I discovered, collapsing and crying for help when in raised positions can sometimes cause the AI to act like you’re not there at all and casually fire a pistol into the distance whilst you’re breathing your last four feet away.
Split screen multiplayer, R.I.P.
Of course for most the campaign is the side salad to the more persistent experience of multiplayer.
You’d have to be living in the mountains to not know by now, but in case you missed the memo, Halo has ditched split screen. If you want to play against or with your mates, you’re going to have to venture online. Some sections of the community have kicked up one hell of a stink, but frankly, it’s a miracle that it lasted this long and it’s unlikely to be missed by most.
Online possibilities are twofold: Arena or Warzone. The former gives access to the usual suspects like team deathmatch, capture the flag, and stronghold which are totally by the numbers. In these modes very little has changed since the era of Quake. Power-ups consist of special weapons like the rocket launcher and sniper rifle and they take place in close quarters maps with plenty of cover.
Also part of this group is Breakout, a brand new mode that I never got to play due to the unnerving lobby system which doesn’t allow you to specify what I wanted to play beyond ‘Arena’. Breakout sees two teams of four fight over a flag that must be taken to the enemy’s base to secure a win. The twist? Each player only has one life.
Luckily I got my hands on Breakout at a preview event not too long ago. This pre-release version was a brutal affair, but probably provided the most tense moments of any Halo 5 multiplayer I’ve tried so far.
Welcome to the Warzone
Warzone is Guardians’ big sell. This mode is an attempted fusion of the unbelievably successful MOBA game model with more traditional FPS mechanics. Two teams of twelve face one another on a sprawling map and attempt to fulfill one of two victory conditions. The first, and more traditional way to win is to capture the enemy’s core, the other is to be the first team to score 1000 points.
As the battle rages, NPC bosses also spawn across the map. Killing these, capturing structures, and killing the enemy grants your team points to try and reach the 1000 limit first also securing the win. Of course, if your team puts all of its energy into achieving one kind of victory, it leaves the door open for the other team to push for the other.
It’s admirable that 343 Industries has tried something different here, but the result more chaotic than my experience of the Star Wars: Battlefront beta. There are often four or five goals worth pursuing at any one time and working together with the sea of unknowns you’ve been lumped with isn’t easy. Battlefront’s Walker Assault mode works so well because it’s tightly focused with only two active objectives at any time and a semi-linear map. Warzone is more complicated, possibly to its detriment.
Halo 5: Guardians Verdict
It’s nearly the end of 2015 and the next couple of months will see a slew of big gaming names fight it out for your precious time in front of the TV. Rise of the Tomb Raider and Fallout 4 are selling luxurious offline experiences, whilst Star Wars Battlefront and CoD BlOps 3 are look to fulfill their promises of exciting online fragging.
Halo 5 struggles to justify its existence over any of the above. Its campaign is as floppy as a baguette in bathwater and it’s multiplayer foray is starting to show its age. Granted, it’s good looking and has a couple of new toys up its sleeve, but reminds me of James Cameron’s Avatar: full of sumptuous eye-candy that’s cursed with an unfortunate lack of brains.