Bet They Can't Stick It
HIGH Hoarding Mantis requisitions and going mech-crazy in a random Warzone match.
LOW The Warden Eternal… and the Warden Eternal again… and again…
WTF Isn't living on a planet made of glass kind of hazardous?
I don't play Halo games for their stories. I need to make that clear because I'm about to rip extensively into Halo 5's plot. I'm not heartbroken; it's not like I hold this series' writing to the level of Heinlein or anything. It's just that Halo 5's story really is that bad. Take the biggest contrivance or the broadest caricature in the franchise so far, and I guarantee that the villain turn in this new entry is even less convincing.
This is the most disappointing campaign of the entire series, and it's disheartening after Halo 4 showcased a more mature approach to storytelling than we ever got from Bungie. After a decade of the franchise slowly collapsing under its own world-building weight, 343 Industries narrowed the scope and finally portrayed Master Chief and Cortana as a bit more than a formless player avatar and an exposition generator, respectively. This sequel undoes that goodwill with one of the year's most one-dimensional scripts, and it ends with the second-worst cliffhanger of the series.
Granted, it's still reasonably enjoyable in a gameplay sense. All of the usual characteristics of a successful Halo game are here, from the formidable AI to the spacious battlefields, and this is the first title in the series to natively run at 60fps, making it quite possibly the smoothest console shooter I've ever played. But whereas Halo 4 gave us a terrifying new enemy faction and a slew of fresh weapons to use on them, Halo 5 boasts frustratingly few surprises. Shoot some Covenant, shoot some Prometheans, drive a few vehicles, then go home. The only distinguishing feature is the plot, and that's something most will want to forget.
With Master Chief's arc apparently getting a bit too interesting, he's sidelined for most of the campaign while we focus on another Spartan named Locke who's tasked with hunting Chief down and bringing him in. The game jumps between the two perspectives, and since four-player co-op is here to stay, each hero is given three additional Spartan buddies. As dull as Locke is, he's a characterization gold mine compared to the rest of the interchangeable space marines. I mean, we're told that Chief's team remains loyal to him because they're close-knit like a family, but you'd never know it from the perfunctory interactions we see between them.
Another issue is that Halo stories tend to do better when they're straightforward, with their world details functioning more as window dressing than driving points. In Halo 5, there's too much going on.
The gist is that the central villain wants peace through war (as they all do) by using an army of towering robots to turn the galaxy into a police state. But on top of essentially having eight protagonists, the game is full of returning faces who are only present to complicate matters. A massive subplot involving a Covenant civil war seems to exist as an excuse to bring the Arbiter back, and Dr. Halsey is officially more trouble than she's worth, having switched sides twice, lost an arm, and constantly makes obnoxious efforts to sound like the most intelligent person in the room.
Also, the villain has a henchman called the Warden Eternal, and he is the worst thing to ever happen in the series – and yes, that includes the Library. He's dreadfully written; the sort of bad guy who refers to people as "insolent wretches." He also controls a bunch of Ultron-esque robot bodies, and the ensuing boss battles are full of instant deaths, damage sponging and seemingly endless trash mobs. This design flub alone (the nadir being a battle against three Wardens simultaneously) makes Halo 5 borderline-unplayable on higher difficulties, and woe be the Halo game in which I'm encouraging people to stay away from Legendary mode.
The campaign's got a couple of exciting set pieces, one in particular invoking memories of the Scarab takedowns in the original trilogy, but it tanks hard in its last handful of missions. Even putting aside the awful Warden fights, the whole endgame feels rushed, particularly the final sequence which has players fighting waves of enemies in a circular room while an NPC does a thing. Oh, and it all concludes with a cliffhanger that resolves nothing. I thought that the series learned its lesson after the last time it tried that.
To rub salt on the wound, Halo 5's final objective is to, and I quote, "finish the fight." I can hardly believe that 343 had the gall to say that and then end the campaign on the abrupt cliffhanger that they did.
So the single-player is a letdown, but plenty of people buy Halo games for the online component. So how is it? Well, I can certainly damn Halo 5 with faint praise by saying that the multiplayer works. I mean, I hate that I have to applaud a game for launching in a functional state, but after last year's Master Chief Collection debacle, it's a relief that I've had no trouble actually finding stable matches. Even so, this is still far from my favorite Halo multiplayer experience, and I think a lot of that has to do with the new ranking system.
The idea is that Halo 5 uses placement matches to pit players against others of the same skill level. Obviously, it makes sense in theory, but I have no idea how it works, or why I've been placed in Platinum tiers across the board despite my stats very clearly underlining how much I suck at Halo multiplayer. I don't want to make it sound like I'm blaming Halo 5 for me being awful, but the point of ranking is to pit me against players who are as awful as I am. I've been so consistently outclassed that I'd rather be taking my chances in unbiased, randomized matchmaking.
This disconnect in the matchmaking formula is already hurting the longevity of the game for me, though it does vary from mode to mode. Free-for-all is fine, but SWAT, usually one of my favorite game types, is largely off-limits since its focus on pure reflex feels infuriatingly unbalanced when the teams are even slightly stacked.
On top of that, two of the series' best features, split-screen multiplayer and cooperative matchmaking, have been dropped. The former is understandable, given 343's commitment to an unbroken 60fps (which also explains why a number of the maps are rather ugly), but not being able to play co-op with randoms is a huge blow. The campaign actually has a revival system now, but good luck depending on the AI squadmates to use it without tripping over something on the way.
While it's got issues, Halo 5's multiplayer does have a major upside in the form of the new Warzone mode, which combines the series' signature Big Team Battle with some PvE and a bit of card collection. Two teams of twelve compete on massive maps to outscore each other, either through point capture or by hunting down non-human enemies. What makes Warzone neat is its progression. Credits accumulated through matchmaking can be spent on requisitions that grant players one-time weapons, vehicles or stat boosts. Higher-ranking cards are made available over the course of a match, so battles that begin with pistols end with tanks, mechs and fuel rod cannons.
Warzone doesn't use the ranking system, and even if it did, there's so much going on in a single match that it's more about the group effort than the individual kills-per-death ratio. It's pretty fair, too, since requisitions are only acquired through booster packs, numbing the sting of microtransactions since getting rare cards is ultimately a matter of chance. Warzone is a terrific add, and a rousing success. Sadly, it's the only success in what is otherwise probably the worst mainline Halo to date.
Given how indifferent I am to the series' overarching plot, it's significant that Halo 5's story actually makes me less enthusiastic to pick up the next game. 343 Industries made a terrific impression with their first dip into the franchise, but with a lackluster campaign and multiplayer that still needs tuning, Halo 5: Guardians makes them look like one-hit wonders.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the Xbox One. Approximately 28 hours were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed twice (once on Legendary). 17 hours were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, mild language and violence. Halo has always been one of the tamest mainstream shooter franchises on the market, and now it's finally been given the "Teen" rating that it deserves. Obviously, it's still a game about shooting aliens, but the blood effects are barely noticeable and there's nothing particularly sleazy or objectionable about the way violence is depicted.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers: There is an option for subtitles, but an awful lot of exposition occurs during heavy in-game action, when players will likely be too engaged in shooting to read. Also, I've noticed that a surprising amount of dialog isn't subtitled, so those relying on them will be frequently disoriented anyway. For those unconcerned about the story, the HUD is full of visual feedback, but certain online modes drop some of these elements. (SWAT, for example, must be played without a motion detector.) All in all, not a very friendly game for hearing-impaired players.