Platform: XBO | ★★★★☆
If you haven’t followed the intricacies of the Halo universe over the past 14 years, you’re never going to catch up now (if you have, I’ve got news for you: you’re old and your best days are behind you). Halo’s plot is labyrinthine and esoteric and, honestly, a bit silly. You’re not missing out.
The latest instalment in this multi-billion dollar franchise, Halo 5: Guardians, contains nothing in the way of exposition. Developer 343 plucks a rotating cast of dozens from across the Halo universe, including some from the non video-game spin-offs, and plonks them into the middle of some kind of intergalactic crisis. Here’s what I think is happening, but may not actually be happening: a digital personal assistant has gone rogue and is threatening to do something unspeakable, the details of which I’m still unclear about even having finished the game. Thankfully, you can close your ears to the garbled space-opera plot and still enjoy Guardians for the bright, bouncy shooter that it is.
For most of the game you play as Jameson Locke – aficionados may remember him from the Halo: Nightfall TV-series – who’s tasked with tracking down an AWOL Master Chief, the erstwhile hero of the piece. You lead a four-person squad, imaginatively called Blue Team, who follow basic orders (go there, shoot that), and help revive you if you lose all your health.
The pacing is fast and the action satisfyingly chunky; rare are the occasions when gunfire doesn’t fill the screen. As each chapter ends, cinematic cut-scenes show your character slaloming down snowy mountains, killing aliens with his feet and performing other impressive feats that are sadly unavailable in the game itself. There are, however, some new tricks you can actually use, such as a thruster that lets you quickly strafe away from danger, a flying fist-slam and a shoulder charge, which deals a lot of damage and can smash through certain (well signposted) walls.
The 15-mission campaign is relatively fleeting – on “normal” difficulty it shouldn’t take more than eight hours – and while I’ll probably slog through the “legendary” setting on co-op mode, there’s little motivation to go back and hoover up the various collectibles scattered about the place. It’s a shame, because there are occasional, tantalising glimpses of what a more thoughtful, less frantic Halo game might look like. One sequence allows you to free-roam around a war-torn mining community on a planet made of glass. I felt far more invested in the Halo world when I was eavesdropping on the conversations of weary locals than when I was shooting space dogs in the face, although I did enjoy that, too.
The real replay value comes through competitive multiplayer, of which there are two varieties. One will be familiar to Halo fans and includes Slayer, Capture the Flag and SWAT, all of which have been polished to near-perfection over the years. Beyond some neat level design there’s little new to report. The real innovation is the new Warzone mode, which drops two teams of 12 into a vast arena that combines elements of player vs player and player vs environment. These are long, involved battles that require teamwork rather than gung-ho individualism. You can capture three bases to open up the opposing side’s “core” for an instant victory, or gain points through kills, base captures and tasks that flash up from time to time, such as killing randomly spawning bosses. While the mechanics take a little getting used to, it’s actually more accessible than the regular player vs player battles, with more varied play and less reliance on reflex times.
Multiplayer “requisitions” are another new addition: a collection of boosts, weapons and aesthetic character upgrades that you can buy for in-game points or real-life pounds. Requisitions come in randomly generated packs (the more you spend, the more you get) and can be called upon at certain points in the game. The ability to unlock rare (and ultra-rare) new customisations for your character makes you more invested in the whole process and will no doubt increase the game’s longevity.
The developer’s obvious prioritising of multiplayer makes you think the story campaign exists largely because it must, and to progress the narrative of a universe that now spans games, TV, comics, novels and trading cards. Sure, it’s a welcome celebration of Halo’s crunchy, arcade-style gameplay but it won’t linger long in the collective memory. I suspect the multiplayer game, though, will continue to influence game design for many years to come.
Halo 5 Guardians in Brief:
Campaign mode: The 15 mission campaign will take around 8 hours to complete on “normal difficulty”. The plot is unfathomable unless you’re steeped in Halo lore but that’s largely forgivable thanks to the frenetic, arcade-style gameplay. It utilises a new squad-based gameplay mechanism that sees you lead a team of three AI players.
Player vs Player: Halo has always had a great competitive multiplayer experience, albeit one that can be singularly unforgiving for casual players. This time round it’s more of the same, with great level design and, alas, the same 14-year-old kids blasting you to smithereens 30 seconds after you spawn.
Warzone: Warzone marries PvP and PvE play in the style of Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (Moba) games, to impressive effect. Two teams of 12 battle it out to shoot each other, capture bases and kill randomly spawning bosses in a gloriously frenetic battlefield that’s as exciting as any new-gen multiplayer experience.
Customisation: The “Spartan Hub” allows you to spray your hero’s armour bright green, or yellow, or blue. Any of the main colours, really. You can also unlock cool new armour, either by being a good player and earning points, or by being a rich player and spending real money. My Spartan is bright pink.