In the 14 years since Halo debuted, Microsoft’s flagship franchise has retained its place in the Xbox owner’s essential collection, and for good reason, too. Airtight controls, arresting visuals, intelligent combat design, and sleep-supplanting multiplayer modes remain the pillars upon which the series’ success has been built, keeping droves of players coming back for more with each installment. Longtime fans will be relieved to hear that Halo 5: Guardians excels for all those same reasons, just don’t expect it to offer up a ton of new ones.
Without spoiling too much, Halo 5’s campaign follows Spartan Locke’s pursuit of the AWOL Master Chief, switching perspectives between the ever-voracious chaser and the eternally stoic chasee. Though you’ll spend 12 of the 15 missions inside Locke’s visor, the dual-narrative allows for a welcome variety of environments to explore during the inter-planetary hunt, even though you are, quite literally, chasing your own tail. Though this pursuit has been the major focus of the pre-release marketing campaign, it’s really just a framing device for the crux of the story, which is much more interested in exploring a different dual-relationship: The creator versus the created.
The series’ narrative has flirted with the ethics of AI ownership for a few games now, but Guardians is the first to pose some truly thought-provoking hypotheticals. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t going to attract the attention of many post-doctorate theses, but it’s unusually high-brow for a Halo game. The story is told through some stunningly rendered cutscenes, with extraneous tidbits disseminated through level-littered intel files, of which there are - yep, you guessed it - 117. What’s notable is that the archetypal meat-headed space marine, Master Chief, seems like an honest-to-god human being for the first time. I’ve always been compelled by the iconic Spartan’s mysterious allure, but 343 Studios seem to be intent on building a living, breathing character, and one with a complex relationship to his former-helmet-habitant Cortana. The prospect of uncovering Cortana’s true motives is enough to keep you happily blasting your way through the 10-or-so-hour campaign, though the ending leaves you with some frustratingly unresolved threads. It’s a sense of inconclusiveness that mirrors the middle act of Bungie’s original trilogy, and leaves plenty of room for a satisfying conclusion with the inevitable Halo 6.
Narrative nitpicking aside, the core Halo gameplay is as superb as ever. The franchise’s great triumph has always been, and still remains, the major draw here. However, a few smart additions to your move set - such as the endlessly satisfying ground-pound, vicious shoulder charge attack and zippy directional jet boosts - do well to freshen up the familiar formula. Add in an infinite sprint and the ability to climb up high ledges and you’ve got yourself the most mobile Spartan you’ve ever controlled. 343 Studios has intelligently built the levels with this in mind, with the increased verticality of the environments allowing you to get the jump on your unsuspecting enemies.
Speaking of the environments, they will take your breath away. Overwhelmingly hectic space battles dazzle in the background. The game’s cacophonous firefights light up cavernous, neon-lit hulls, expansive alien ruins and cosmic-sized Forerunner structures, often warranting occasion to stop for a moment just to take it all in. That’s something you can’t say about every FPS, but 343 clearly wants the player to slow down and take time to absorb their stunning surroundings, including non-combat areas of forced exploration that break up the game’s frenetic pace.
Accompanying it all is, of course, that hum-inducing soundtrack. The operatic space synth and Gregorian monk chants are still as spine-tinglingly effective as they were back in 2001. In fact, the sound design on a whole is superb, each gun with its own distinct - not to mention deafening - reverberation. The weapons also kick back with a satisfying bite felt in the controller’s trigger vibration, making those long-distance head shots that much more rewarding.
Of course, we can't talk about Halo without talking about the multiplayer. After the announcement of the left-trigger zoom function - an FPS staple which, up until this point, the franchise had rejected - many became concerned that the long-since-beloved online modes were being overly CODified. It’s a complaint that isn’t substantiated, with the multiplayer retaining that slower, more tactical feel that’s unique to the Halo series. The ability to aim down your sights with every gun doesn’t make it comparable to the micro-second reaction-contests popularized by (equally brilliant) franchises like Call of Duty, but rather serves to help the uninitiated feel more comfortable by providing a now ubiquitous feature of shooters. If it gets more people to give Halo a try, I'm all for this kind of change.
The narrative may have its shortcomings, but when you’re dashing about the battlefield, charging the wind out of grunts, rarely will you ever have the chance to scrutinize your character's motivations. Halo 5 doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s an impressive return to form that makes a few smart tweaks to the tried and trusted Halo formula.
Check out some tantalizing new gameplay for yourself:
... and now I know you're on your way to buying the new installment of Halo, available for purchase today, October 27th, 2015.