Halo 5: Guardians review

This might not be the game you expect

Don’t expect Halo 5: Guardians to be the same game that Microsoft has been trying to sell over the past couple of years. That idea of Halo 5, detailed in moody trailers and previewed in a spinoff TV show, is a dramatic tale that sees iconic protagonist Master Chief take a shocking rogue turn and face off against new hero Jameson Locke. The marketing says it's your job to “hunt the truth,” to learn what eats the soul of a faceless hero.

The finished plot, as it turns out, is much more pedestrian. And, as it turns out, that doesn’t matter at all.

When the controller is in your hand, the overwrought plot and sci-fi silliness is forgiven. Halo 5 feels just as good — often better — than its predecessors, making it a welcome refresh of the series. Developer 343 Industries has made a ton of smart tweaks and decisions to bring Halo up to date while preserving the core that always set it apart.

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Halo 4, 343’s first full title after assuming control of the franchise, took some awkward, tentative steps into altering the series’s trademark brand of action. Halo 5, on the other hand, makes far more dramatic changes that end up feeling more natural.

More than ever, movement is the most important element of first-person shooters. Games like Titanfall and Destiny have made maintaining momentum just as crucial and enjoyable as firing a weapon. And Halo 5 is full of fun new ways to propel yourself around the arenas, from short jetpack boosts to parkour-style maneuvers. The level design is as good as it’s ever been, with huge, sprawling maps that rely on verticality more than prior games.

Melee attacks have also been expanded upon. Halo 5 adds new abilities like a rush attack and a ground pound that are hugely satisfying to pull off. Again, these additions are all in service of moving you around the expansive stages, since they require you either to propel yourself into the air or charge at enemies head-on. One boss fight saw me bouncing between jump pads and propelling myself into the ground like a guided missile, before boosting past the sword-wielding enemy to target a weak point on his back. It's moments like these, in which Halo 5 comes together in a chaotic clash of systems and mechanics, that make it stand apart from the competition.

Another change that may prove controversial is the addition of iron sights for every weapon, or in other words, the ability to aim by looking down the barrel of your gun. In games like Call of Duty, the method is essential to success, but Halo has long adopted a more old-school control style that sees you shoot from the hip most of the time. In Halo 5, however, the feature is largely cosmetic; you won’t get any kind of statistical bonus, gaining only a meager amount of magnification on your target. Most of the guns have neat visual flourishes when you activate the mode, and overall the feature helps make combat feel more engaging without drastically altering its flow.

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Everything about Halo 5 has been designed to preserve the unwavering 60-frames-per-second presentation that lends the combat its fluidity and verve.

The decision required some technical compromises, chief among them being the look. The game just doesn’t look all that stunning at first glance. Although Halo’s worlds are as sweeping and colorful as ever, the environments aren’t particularly complex or detailed — if you’re expecting Far Cry levels of foliage, for instance, you’ll be disappointed. It’s the first game I’ve played in a while where the glossy cutscenes look leagues better than the actual action.

Everything about Halo 5 is designed to preserve 60FPS

What Halo 5 does have going for it, however, is scale. Encounters often include dozens of enemies at once in huge arenas with full-scale battles kicking off in the background, and the game never visually struggles under the chaos. You’re unlikely to notice the occasional blurry texture when you’re making enemies explode in showers of gorgeous particle effects every few seconds.

Beyond the efficient graphical style, 343 has implemented a couple of other techniques to ensure Halo 5’s smoothness. The game doesn’t run at a constant 1080p resolution, unfortunately, and sometimes you’ll notice fewer pixels being rendered on your screen — often in larger environments. Perhaps more jarring is the way that enemies themselves sometimes don’t run at 60fps, giving them a jerky, glitchy appearance in an otherwise liquid-smooth world.

But if I could have a shinier, 1080p Halo 5 with graceful enemies in smaller environments at 30fps, I wouldn’t take it. While some of the visual niggles are annoying, 343 should be commended overall for its decision to pursue large-scale 60fps with Halo 5, because it’s a huge part of why the game feels like nothing else.

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If only the story had been approached with similar clarity and focus. On one level, Halo 5 has the tightest and easiest to follow plot of any Halo game since the original: one guy and his buddies are trying to catch up with another guy and his buddies. And you only play as Master Chief for a small portion of the game, which at least lends a fresh perspective to the series.

But I still often found myself without a clue what any of the sci-fi decoration meant, or who the characters I was supposed to care about were, or why I couldn’t, say, just download an AI from the future internet instead of finding it in physical space. Halo 5 is easier to follow than its predecessor, but the sense remains that you’re missing out on much of the story if you don’t catch up with the litany of spinoff novels, comic books, and TV series. And the central conflict between Locke and Master Chief, highlighted so heavily in the game’s marketing, turns out to be a serious letdown.

Halo 5 does, however, contain a major twist and ends on a big cliffhanger, leaving me at least somewhat interested in the inevitable Halo 6. Writing in a universe this convoluted can’t be easy, and even if Halo 5 isn’t altogether successful, I do feel like 343 is moving in the right direction.

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And if 343 is moving in the right direction with the story, it’s already at the exact right place with Halo’s action. Halo 5 is a beautifully constructed, expertly designed shooter that puts the series right back at the top of its genre.

Don’t play Halo 5 for its story, then. Play Halo 5 because of its technique, its invention, and because it's an absolute masterclass in how to craft a first-person shooter. It's the best reason yet to own an Xbox One. For all its technical quirks and plot deficiencies, Halo is once again the best time you can have shooting aliens in the face.

Halo 5: Guardians launches October 27th on Xbox One