Halo 5: Guardians Review: Tweaking the Formula for Another Great Fight

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(Photo: 343 Industries)

The Halo franchise is an interesting specimen. The idea of a company making these iconic characters and beginning to tell their stories, then passing it off to another developer is a unique one. As Bungie moved back into independence to fulfill their other Destiny, 343 Industries took the reins of Master Chief and company’s tale, continuing his adventures.

Their first try at it, Halo 4, garnered favorable reviews, and ended Master Chief’s run on the Xbox 360. 343 knew the formula, and while they broke free from it a bit with the story, generally, they simply made another Halo game, and that’s all they needed to do for success.

Now, they bring the franchise to the new generation with Xbox One’s Halo 5: Guardians. It once again follows the general Halo formula – if you’ve played and enjoyed a game in this franchise before, you know what to expect in general here, and you’ll have a lot of fun with it. The game isn’t without its innovations, and the story, while it feels slightly cut short, is another chapter that makes you feel like an unstoppable force.

First, despite all the marketing eschewing that way, this isn’t really about Master Chief vs Spartan Locke. Yes, that’s a part of this story, but just a part. The story centers, again, on Cortana. After she reaches out to Master Chief, it seems she has a new plan, and she’s using old technology and new allies to make it come to pass. The bad news is, that plan could be utterly devastating to humanity (and every other race in the galaxy, for that matter).

You control two teams, Locke and his squad, and Chief and his. Your squad is always with you, more like some of the side stories in the Halo series than the main chapters have typically been. That means a lot more dialogue as you traverse the terrain, and like in the RPGs it borrows that from, it means you gain a bit more understanding of your characters. You don’t just like Locke or Master Chief here, you start to know them in a deeper way, not to mention their companions. That’s a huge plus, and something that makes this a deeper, richer experience. Yes, you’re out there using the regular assortment of Halo weapons, shooting the regular assortment of Halo alien enemies (with a few newbies), but the background experience is brand new, and adds a lot to the game.

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(Photo: 343 Industries)

The squad also means the game is much easier than past installments. If you’re a seasoned Halo player, I’d highly recommend you play on a harder-than-normal difficulty. Your squad can and will revive you when you fall, provide covering fire, and can be assigned to enemies to make the harder ones go down a bit easier. While that support is great for those who want to play primarily for the story, it won’t exactly get you set for multiplayer action. Play at least on hard if you’re solo, and if you’re playing with other human players you might even want to start on insane.

As for the gameplay, it’s undeniably Halo, but there are some fun tweaks. The boost jets for helping you reach further distances and the ground pound move are awesome. Taking the high road (of which there are plenty), then diving down into a group of enemies with a powerful slam to start the fight is just plain fun, and for the run and gun crowd, it’s a great way to get in the thick of battle in a heartbeat.

There are those big budget moments, too, with a couple of missions piloting vehicles like the Scorpion tank and the mechanized armor. Yeah, you’re basically invincible in that mech suit, but as a limited-time-only part of a single mission, it works out wonderfully. You just get to cut loose and really mess up some aliens, and you get to use it just enough (and just infrequently enough) to keep it special and fun.

The presentation is gorgeous. If you have a big screen and surround sound at home, pump up the volume and marvel. My wife and I literally sat and just looked around for awhile several times during the game – while 4 was quite dark, Halo 5 explores beautiful terrains, with lush life, ancient technology of the forerunners, and expanses that you have to take in and appreciate. It’s interesting, but the best breathers in the game came from getting to a new location, taking a moment, then getting back into the fight. The signature themes are there in the soundtrack, and the pulse-pounding tension that’s built in the cutscenes is paid off instantly. The voice acting is top notch, and needs to be with the character building here. Jen Taylor’s Cortana is an amazing standout – she hits a new breadth of emotions after Halo 4’s craziness for the character, and her performance sells the entire story. A simple, mechanical voice or anyone but a highly trained actor would change the entire feel of the game. Thankfully, Taylor turns in her best performance yet, and the difference in Master Chief and Locke’s interactions with her is stunning.

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(Photo: 343 Industries)

As for multiplayer, I honestly didn’t get to play too much, as there’s only press and devs out there playing right now. I’ll update the review with more on multiplayer later if there’s anything unexpected, but from early experiences, it’s very much Halo MP – they’re not reinventing the wheel here, and that’s fine.

At this point in your gaming life, you probably know whether or not you like the Halo franchise. If you like it, you’re going to love this game. Following the formula and tweaking it to make the action even stronger was the right call by 343. The focus on story and character building, however, is what makes this game special. I want to go back and replay the older games now, just to see how it all got to this point. As things continue to escalate, and from the end of this game they most certainly do, I can’t wait to see what Halo 6 has in store for this tale. I’m amazed that the story is the thing most making me want even more of this franchise, and that’s a testament to what they’ve put together. It’s also incredibly accessible – my wife, who hasn’t really followed the series since the second installment, was completely pulled in, and asking me for updates whenever I had to play more of it while she wasn’t home. Halo 5: Guardians is a must-buy for fans, and will probably make a lot of new fans, too.

Grade: A