Halo 5: Guardians has been out for a few weeks now, which has given us plenty of time to check out its sizable suite of campaign missions and online multiplayer offerings. This latest installment in the storied first-person shooter franchise is arguably the Xbox One’s most important game yet, leading an impressive holiday lineup for the console as Microsoft tries to catch Sony’s dominant PlayStation 4. While the Halo series isn’t as release-happy as some of its competitors, only coming out with a new installment every two to three years, the series has been around for almost 15 years now, and any series with that kind of staying power also runs into danger of losing its luster. So how does Halo 5: Guardians compare to other entries in the series? Well…that’s a bit hard to answer. 343 Industries has undoubtedly made up for their mishandling of last year’s disastrous compilation package Halo: The Master Chief Collection by offering a beautiful, polished experience, but they’ve also made some very questionable design decisions that hold the game back.
Consider the following our review of Halo 5: Guardians, which is almost simultaneously the best and worst game in the series. Yeah, we told you it was complicated.
10. Pro: Multiplayer Is A Great Mix Of New And Old
Halo 4 suffered from trying to be too much like Call of Duty, with 343 seemingly forgetting that people play Halo multiplayer because it’s Halo; if they wanted to play Call of Duty, they would just go do that. Luckily, the developer definitely listened to fan feedback this time out, as Halo 5 brings back the classic Halo multiplayer experience while adding in enough new elements to keep things fresh. Multiplayer is split up into two distinct categories: Arena and Warzone. This was a genius decision on 343’s part, as it separates Halo into its two most basic forms of online competition: small on-foot skirmishes with Arena and all-out vehicular mayhem in Warzone. Gone are the COD-style load outs; each player starts with the same weapons and either pick up new ones in Arena maps or call in the brand new Requisition power-ups in Warzone (more on those later). If everything keeps running as smoothly as it has so far, this could easily be the Halo game that you’ll want to keep coming back to for years.
9. Con: The Maps Are Pretty Weak
While Halo 5‘s multiplayer offerings are deeper and more compelling than ever, the actual arenas in which everything takes place leave a lot to be desired. As a series, Halo has some of the best maps of any shooter, with many of them being so popular and cherished by the community that they have been been brought back in other games. Unfortunately, none of the initial batch of maps in Halo 5 feel like they will resonate anywhere near as strongly as Halo 2‘s Zanzibar or Halo 3‘s Valhala. Admittedly, none of the maps are outright terrible and most of them are solid and inoffensive, but not a single one stands out in any meaningful way. Luckily, 343 has already stated that any new maps they add to the game will be free and there is already a fresh batch of content coming in next week’s “Battle of Shadow and Light” pack, which includes four maps that are recreations of some old Halo favorites, so if you’re finding yourself unimpressed with the current crop, things will get better.
8. Pro: New Abilities Are Flashy And Useful
The ability to sprint has been present in the last few Halo titles, but with the latest Call of Duty games introducing all sorts of crazy mobility maneuvers as of late, 343 has recognized that Halo needs to keep pace with the faster pace of today’s shooters. Thankfully, they found a way to balance out the need for increased mobility while maintaining the unique feel of Halo’s base gameplay, as the various new evasive maneuvers and combat abilities are both flashy and really useful. The most significant addition is the quick dodge, which allows you to quickly burst away in any direction, giving you a chance to escape particularly hairy combat situations. The other tweaks to the gameplay include some things we never even knew we needed, such as the ability to hover in midair while aiming, a hard to pull off but tremendously rewarding ground pound, and a charging melee attack. Now that we have them, we never want to go without!
7. Con: Too Little Master Chief
It’s no secret that Halo 5‘s campaign is split between two Spartan fireteams: series hero Master Chief’s Blue Team and new protagonist Jameson Locke’ s Team Osiris. The story switches back and forth between the two teams but unfortunately, Halo 5 repeats the sins of Halo 2 by severely limiting your playtime with Master Chief. To be fair, Osiris is arguably the team that’s easier to connect with, primarily because we actually get to see their faces (and having Nathan Fillion around never hurt), but this is Halo; we want to play as the Master Chief and learn more about the mystery that is John 117. Chief is as stoic and adverse to talking as usual, but a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that you only get to play three whole missions as Blue Team. Locke and Chief may get equal billing on the game’s cover, but the game itself is heavily balanced in Locke’s favor and that’s not necessarily for the better.
6. Pro: The Cast is Refreshingly Varied
While it’s a bummer that we don’t get to see more of Master Chief, one thing about Halo 5 that’s received surprisingly little attention so far is the fact that it has one of the most racially and gender diverse casts we’ve seen in a AAA game. Both Blue and Osiris Teams are evenly split between men and women, and some of those men and women aren’t even white! (we don’t get to see the faces of Blue team, but we like to think that at least one of them isn’t Caucasian). The best part about this is that the game doesn’t draw attention to itself or make a big deal about its inclusiveness; it’s simply there. More games would do well to replicate Halo 5′s effortless gender and racial equality.
5. Con: The Campaign Is A Letdown
Halo’s always been a bit unique among the first-person shooter crowd, in that its story and multiplayer modes are equally important components of the same whole, whereas not many people really care about the campaign offerings in Call of Duty. Unfortunately, Halo 5 doesn’t seem to treat its two halves with equal care, with the campaign coming up short in comparison to some of the past Halo games. It has a lot going for it: exciting cutscenes, a variety of locations, big epic setpieces, but it just isn’t as engaging as it should be. For one thing, there are way too many flat, lifeless hallways — a staple of the series, to be sure, but one that’s feeling pretty tired in 2015. The game also commits the cardinal sin of repeating the same annoying boss fight multiple times, which quickly grows repetitive. Plus, your A.I. teammates are largely ineffective and it takes way too long for them to revive you most of the time (God help you if you play the game solo on anything higher than Normal difficulty). Your mileage will vary depending on how many friends you can rope into co-op play, but as a solo adventure, Halo 5 is lacking.
4. Good: The New REQ System Is Compulsively Addictive
Halo 5 borrows a few ideas from other game genres when it comes to its online upgrade system. Rather than dole out rewards for complicated and/or arbitrary feats like in previous games, Halo 5 introduces the Requisition (or REQ) system, which is confusing at first but starts to make sense before long. Essentially, unlocks are split between new cosmetic options for you avatar and weapons, as well as power-ups for the Warzone mode and various boosts that you can apply before a match to increase the REQ currency you receive. There’s a whole bunch of random chance tied up in opening these REQ packs, but opening up each one to see what goodies are inside is super addictive and is a clever carrot and stick tactic on 343’s part to ensure you stick with the game’s multiplayer. As fun as it is to collect these REQ packs and work toward unlocking new things, they are subject to an ugly economic reality that may well compel you to spend even more money on a $60 game…
3. Bad: Microtransactions
Not even Halo is free from the rise of the dreaded microtransaction. Admittedly, Halo 5′s implementation of the feature is much less offensive than in most games, but it’s still not exactly something to be thrilled about. Here, they’re all tied up in the REQ system; there are three tiers of packs (Gold, Silver, and Bronze) priced out at $2.99, $1,99, and $0.99, respectively. You also have the option to purchase these with in-game currency earned from completing matches and ranking up in a variety of different categories, but the game is designed to push the idea of spending real money on these things. It’s understandable why 343 and Microsoft would put something like this into the game, but it does hurt the progressions system a bit, as players with extra money in their pocket can theoretically earn a bunch of rewards well before someone who just plays the game a lot could. It’s also important to remember that this isn’t a free-to-play game; players have already spent their hard-earned money on it and asking them to hand out some more just feels indecent.
2. Good: Halo has never looked so good
This is the element of Halo 5 that you’ll notice immediately upon booting it up for the first time, as it truly is a really gorgeous game. 343 made a big deal prior to release about this being the first Halo to run at 60 frames per second and upon experiencing it first hand, they were definitely justified in doing so. Even the cutscenes, which have never really been Halo’s strong suit, look noticeably better, with character models actually looking significantly less creepy this time out. Halo 5 is definitely a system seller and this time out, the graphics really help make that a reality (Halo titles have never been especially pretty in the graphics department) It’s just too bad that all of this visual fidelity comes at the cost of losing one of Halo’s most important features…
1. The Lack Of Split-Screen Is Unforgivable
While 343 seemed to think that removing the ability to play split-screen multiplayer in Halo 5 was an unfortunate, but necessary decision, it’s already come back to bite them and justifiably so. Local multiplayer is an ingrained feature of the series, with every title before this allowing you to play through the campaign with a buddy through couch co-op and frag each other in competitive multiplayer matches. Halo 5: Guardians strips that feature away and for a game that’s been selling the hell out of its focus on cooperative squad play in the campaign, it’s a tremendously lonely experience if you don’t have a dedicated group of friends. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to say that your decision to purchase Halo 5 could very well hinge on whether or not you can stomach the idea of not being able to play with your friends in the same room (unless you both have Xbox Ones but that’s an imperfect solution to a problem that shouldn’t even exist). Split-screen may have been sacrificed on the alter of achieving a higher frame rate, but if you polled most Halo fans, you’d probably find that most of them would gladly take the former over the latter.
Should you buy it?
If you can look past the removal of split-screen and plan on spending most of your time with the multiplayer, Halo 5: Guardians has a lot to offer. If you’re just playing to see more of the story however, you may want to pass on this Xbox One exclusive and wait for a price drop.