Monday, October 26, 2015

Review - Halo 5: Guardians

It's been a few years since Halo 4 became the first Halo entry on the Xbox One. Despite calling the new console its home, many aspects of the game felt stuck in the Xbox 360 console era. Graphics were impressive, but felt a little lacking. The gameplay felt familiar, but nothing was really groundbreaking in terms of gameplay. 343 Industries spent a lot of time working to remedy that, offering up players Halo 5: Guardians as the first truly next-generation Halo game. And boy, is it a lot of fun.

Halo 5: Guardians was reviewed using a retail download code provided by Microsoft.

In contrast to Halo games past, Halo 5: Guardians opens up with two Spartan teams in the familiar Red and Blue colors. Blue Team is comprised of Master Chief and three other Spartan IIs--Linda, Kelly and Frederic. Meanwhile, Fireteam Osiris (Red Team) is led by Jameson Locke and boasts Edward Buck, Olympia Vale and Holly Tanaka. Osiris is tasked with rescuing Dr. Halsey, while Blue Team is sent to investigate an abandoned research vessel. From there, Blue Team starts chasing ghosts, while Fireteam Osiris is tasked with reigning in Blue Team. Much of the marketing for Halo 5: Guardians surrounds a teased confrontation between Master Chief and Locke. Locke has been tasked with hunting down and bringing back Master Chief, while Master Chief is on a mission to find and save Cortana.

With this game of cat and mouse as the central theme Halo 5: Guardians, players are given more insights into the relationship between the two squad leaders, the Spartan program in general and the relevance of the Forerunners within the grander Halo universe. It's definitely useful to go back beforehand and brush up on your Halo lore if you're not already a savant when it comes to the story. There are events in Halo 5: Guardians that reach all the way back through the earlier entries in the series and make more sense when taken in context with those earlier events. And the ending of Halo 5: Guardians positions the entry in the series as a set-up for what will inevitably be Halo 6, offering a pretty bold cliffhanger that takes the series in a rather interesting direction.

The missions in Halo 5: Guardians have players alternating between Master Chief and Locke, with Locke's team getting the edge in playability. It's not so disparate that you feel slighted in missing out on Master Chief missions, but it is noticeable. This will probably be one of the biggest complaints for the game (and for many a big drawback in playing Halo 2), in that you're spending time playing someone other than Master Chief. Locke is a member of the Spartan-IV program, created to be nearly as capable as those in the earlier Spartan programs and it shows. Locke displays a rigid respect for authority, but it's not so unflinching that he won't make on-the-spot calls when necessary. This is similar to the operating style of Master Chief and it's easy to say that Locke is almost a protege of Master Chief in many ways.

The thing about Locke though is that the similarities in his personality to that of Master Chief's manages to give the game a continuity, despite missions where you play one or the other. Playing the missions as one or the other isn't as erratic as one would think thanks to the aforementioned continuity. Having said that, there are some missions that almost feel like throwaways. For instance, there was one mission that was comprised entirely of talk to person X, talk to person Y, get item Z and then talk to person X again. There are a few missions like this and it's a little jarring to play them, especially since there's not combat in them at all. Halo has always been pretty solid about pacing levels and giving the player a break from the firefighting when necessary, but these missions seemed a little too quiet.

Unfortunately, the narrative of Halo 5: Guardians feels a little muddy at times. Everything comes into focus about 3/4 of the way through the game, but at that point there's barely any game left. There are certain missions throughout the campaign that feel a little out of place within the scope of the grander story itself. These missions feel almost shoehorned in and take away from what could possibly have been a slightly more streamlined narrative tale. Again, by the end of the game things come into focus, but you have to wonder if there are certain facets of the story that would have been better off left out in exchange for other bits that might have been more contextually relevant.

Regardless of which mission you're actually playing, Halo 5: Guardians sports a squad-based approach in terms of the gameplay. Each mission features teams of four and Halo 5: Guardians is clearly meant to be played with friends. Because of this new approach, dying isn't so much of an issue as it was in earlier entries in the series, primarily because you can now be down but not necessarily out. When your shield and health are depleted, you basically have a grace period for others to come over and attempt to bring you back up; this makes the higher difficulties (like Legendary) much more forgivable than previous Halo games. Mix in the pretty competent AI on the part of your squadmates and you'll find yourself surviving many more battles on the higher difficulties with fewer obscenities. There are still moments though where the AI acts up (such as making it a habit to run in front of your firing and then blame you for not distinguishing friendlies).

From the outset, it's apparent that 343 Industries is going big in Halo 5: Guardians. Each mission sports a level design that feels massive and detailed, offering players glimpses of environments that range from lush jungles to arid deserts. These levels are designed with multiple paths in mind, giving a player the opportunity to pursue alternate courses for attack. Level design in past Halo games has sometimes felt bottlenecked at points, requiring the player to move down a very linear path. Halo 5: Guardians gives the player a bit more latitude in terms of approach and attack formations. In many missions, there are ridges and cliffs to the sides that the player can traverse to gain better vantage points. Such massive levels can get confusing sometimes, which is why 343 Industries also included a waypoint functionality--by pressing down on the D-Pad, an objective icon is shown on screen. It's a welcome addition that makes it easier to find your way through some of the more serpentine levels when you get completely turned around.

There are also destructible environments hidden along the way, providing even more of an opportunity for the player to ambush unsuspecting enemies. Those breakable areas are available thanks to a new action for the characters in the Spartan Charge. By sprinting and then hitting the melee button, players can charge through the destructible environments or even unsuspecting opponents. It's extremely satisfying to unload a clip into an Elite and then finish them off with a Spartan Charge. The assassinations are back as well, helping to beef up the melee game. There's an additional ground pound type attack that gives the player even more of an ambush mentality, as the player can hold down the Melee button to bring up a "blast radius" highlighted by a circle on the ground. Landing the attack deals a pretty devastating amount of damage to the target and adds in a bit of variety to the otherwise standard melee attack.

Graphically, Halo 5: Guardians looks gorgeous. Honestly, even Halo 2 in Halo: The Master Chief Collection look fabulous, but Halo 5: Guardians takes full advantage of the Xbox One processing power. 60 FPS has become the holy grail for developers and while both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have faced criticism on that front, games still look great on both consoles. In the case of Halo 5: Guardians the game delivers 60 FPS, but it does so somewhat at the expense of constant 1080p resolution.

343 Industries relied on a new progressive resolution system that offers resolution that's scaled dynamically, giving gamers full 1080p during the more quiet moments of the game. This means that other sections of the game will likely drop to 720p or 900p, but even at those resolutions the game still looks great. And there was a big todo about 343 Industries parting ways with Marty O'Donnell on the soundtrack front, but composer Kazuma Jinnouchi does an admirable job picking up the slack. The missions are scored in a way that effectively capitalizes on tempo to pace the action (and vice versa), providing players with an immersive experience. And when the recognizable Halo theme kicks in, you can be assured that things are about to get real.

One of the biggest draws of the Halo franchise (and any FPS in general) is the multiplayer and Halo 5: Guardians is making changes to improve that experience. Halo 5: Guardians doesn't disappoint in this regard, offering the familiar Arena multiplayer that pits players against one another in frenetic combat. Warzone is a new multiplayer match-up that pits two teams of 12 against one another. In a departure for the Halo series though, Warzone will pair human players with AI controlled players, simulating the squad-based action of the campaign to some extent. This mode encourages a slightly different playing style, as combatants will be tasked with achieving a mix of objectives for points.

The REQ system will definitely be a departure for players familiar with the franchise multiplayer, but recognizable to those aware of how other franchises handle multiplayer leveling. REQ cards are presented to the player in virtual packs which are redeemed by spending points earned from playing either Warzone or Arena multiplayer. Depending on the amount of points spent, you can get Bronze, Silver or Gold packs, each of which increases the likelihood that you'll get rarer cards. Some of the cards redeemed are strictly applicable to your player's look, while others give players weapons and in-game tools available before respawning. There are some unlockables that are temporary, but there are some that unlock vehicles and weapons in the match itself, giving members of the team a possibly tremendous advantage. All of the REQ items have been advertised as being available through playing multiplayer and it's likely the really committed will make it a challenge to themselves to get them all.

Halo 5: Guardians is an extremely ambitious game that positions itself as the second in a new trilogy set within the Halo universe. Master Chief and Locke are squaring off against one another in a game of cat and mouse, but who's in what role is constantly changing throughout the campaign. There are plenty of additions to the multiplayer modes to give familiar players something to interest them, the most notable of which is the massively chaotic and entertaining Warzone. It's entirely likely that the ending to the game will be as divisive among players as the ending of Halo 2 was, primarily because it's so vague and feels a little anti-climatic. Despite that, Halo 5: Guardians is a fantastic entry into the series that updates a few of the core gameplay mechanics and introduces players to a fantastic new multiplayer mode in Warzone.


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