Words: Josh West
It’s easy to draw parallels with the past when it comes to Halo. In spite of 343’s intentions, it seems the sins of the franchise are doomed to be repeated. Halo 5: Guardians has emerged as the spiritual successor to Halo 2, and long-time fans will know that statement is something of a double-edged energy sword. 343 has struggled to deliver a well-rounded package with its sophomore effort, like Bungie a decade ago.
Major revisions and bold design decisions to multiplayer make Halo feel as revolutionary as it did back at the birth of Xbox Live, even if it does occasionally stumble over its own aspirations – sadly, the same can’t be said about the glossy campaign. Despite feeling more competent than Halo 4, it’s still a distressingly brief and resoundingly anti-climactic jaunt through soulless covenant corridors and forerunner fortifications.
Sadly, it always feels like you’re missing the action because you’re watching a cutscene with the other team
“You are pale imitations of my Spartans. John, the others, they saved the human race. What can you do? You are children playing dress-up.” These words, scathingly directed at Fireteam Osiris towards the end of the six-hour campaign, do a killer job of summarising the lingering feeling of discontent we have towards Guardians. By employing a split-narrative design, 343 successfully deprives players of time with the Master Chief, but it never takes the time to really establish Spartan Locke or his team; making the majority of the campaign feel like a hollow exercise in galactic warfare.
Guardians’ biggest sin, however, is that it also robs Halo of its sense of adventure. Halo has never been more compartmentalised; it leads you through beautiful corridors and small arenas before whisking you away to another location and restarting the cycle. There’s a constant sense of forboding that the campaign’s most exciting moments are taking place off-camera – either because you are inside the wrong lead character or because the epic action Halo is known for is unfolding in a cutscene.
Agent Locke and his team simple aren’t as interesting as Master Chief – we want more Chief, dammit!
It’s a shame, because no Halo game has so successfully made us feel like we were embodying a super-powered Spartan warrior. 343 has introduced alterations to the pace and flow of combat, with new mobility options highlighting your prowess – it feels like a natural evolution. But Guardians’ campaign lacks the ‘30 seconds of fun’ gameplay that made the franchise so successful, not to mention the classic sandbox design. The studio has failed to deliver on what made Halo so iconic. It might be technically proficient, it might be gorgeous, but it fails to create one standout setpiece or memorable moment across 15 levels. Halo used to be a trailblazer, now it feels like a re-skinned Star Wars: Republic Commando stuffed into the rotting design philosophy cultivated by Call Of Duty.
If the campaign is a competent misunderstanding of what makes Halo tick, then the multiplayer is a massive statement of intent towards the competitive shooter market. Arena Mode re-bottles the multiplayer magic Halo 2 and Halo 3 so effortlessly exuded; taking familiar modes, pairing them up with a varied array of well-designed maps, and reining battles in to tight 4v4 encounters. This is Guardians at its finest, the new movement and combat refinements working with the tense pacing.
Warzone is good fun, and much more complex, while Arena mode feels more tailored to pro gamers.
And then there’s Warzone. 24 players across two teams drop into huge, sprawling maps while AI soldiers and hostiles flood the map. You can attack other players, you can try to capture bases, or you can tackle computer-controlled bosses. Essentially everything you do in Warzone contributes points to your team’s total – it’s designed to allow for multiple ways to win and insane comebacks at any moment. But 343 occasionally stumbles over its own aspirations; games of Warzone have a tendency to grow tiresome during their 15- to 20-minute playtime.
There’s also the most controversial aspect of Warzone to be considered; drop-pods where you can cash in Requisition cards to get particular items, vehicles and weapons. These are accumulated in packs through in-game currency or purchased with real cash. Each card has an attached energy cost, meaning you’ll need to wait until a certain point in the game before some items can be deployed. It’s a natural balancing mechanic, though it doesn’t always work as intended. Still, this could shift over the next 12 months as players begin to settle into Warzone’s unfamiliar rhythm.
Despite a strong multiplayer showing, it’s hard to ignore that lingering feeling of discontent towards Halo 5: Guardians. It’s the sequel that had to prove whether 343 Industries is capable of carrying the Halo mantle into the future. Guardians might contain an incredible technical proficiency and a desire to innovate, but 343 forgot to give Halo its heart and soul, and we don’t know if we can forgive it for that.