There are a lot of changes in Guardians, mechanically and otherwise, most of which are for the better. While the campaign's narrative does have some major shortcomings, it still created some amazing Halo moments that I'll remember forever. The multiplayer has also been updated and refined also adding a completely new Warzone mode that is incredibly fun and will be for quite some time.
+Legendary mode is quite challenging
+Warzone is fantastic and a great addition
+Some memorable set pieces
-Squad AI is shoddy, at best
-Campaign heavily focuses on Osiris Team
-Short campaign with an unclimactic ending
As a massive Halo fan, I always become increasingly excited the closer the launch of a new Halo game nears. Halo 5: Guardians was no different. It's been 3 years since Halo 4, and we'll finally get to continue on with Master Chief's story and face a new world-ending threat that must be stopped. Being the first Halo on the Xbox One, Guardians has a lot to prove and 343 Industries has taken a lot of measures to ensure that this Halo is different in many ways. 343 is constantly evolving the tried and true Halo gameplay while also still staying true to its roots as well. If I had to categorize which Halo it most feels like it would be somewhere right between ODST and 4 in terms of gameplay.
As for the narrative of Guardians, I will say this: If you're new to Halo, or at least not caught up to this point, you're going to be completely lost from the get-go. Guardians assumes you're a massive Halo fan and know all of the characters and their relationships in relation to one another. Massive fans like myself who've read all the novels as well as playing the games will comfortably slide right into the story but if you don't even remember the conclusion to Halo 4 you're going to be left scratching your head at what's going on and more importantly: why.
Taking place almost directly after the events of Halo 4, Master Chief has gone missing which subsequently questions his loyalty to the UNSC. Spartan Locke is tasked with leading Fireteam Osiris to track down the legendary hero and bring him in for questioning. All of the pre-release trailers are heavily showcasing this angle and, while it's a portion of the narrative, there's a much larger mysterious force that threatens the whole galaxy that plays a much larger role.
I'm going to avoid any other story spoilers as best as possible, though there's good reason to why Chief's Blue Team is off on their own disregarding any orders. All of this plays out in a dramatic story big in narrative though short on gameplay. My first playthrough, on normal difficulty, took 6 hours on the dot to complete. Granted, I wasn't hunting for any skulls or collectibles and simply progressing the story from point A to B. Legendary difficulty will be sure to probably double that, as it's quite challenging, and I highly suggest gathering 3 other friends to do so as the AI for your squad mates is a hard thing to put your faith into.
As you play through the campaign, you'll swap between Chief's Blue Team and Locke's Fireteam Osiris, much like the Chief and Arbiter level swapping in Halo 2. Doing so gives you completely different perspectives on the surrounding events and allows for an interesting dynamic between the two teams. Now, I don't want to call it a bait and switch a la Metal Gear Solid 2 but Guardians campaign very heavily focuses on Fireteam Osiris, to the point where only 3 of the 15 missions is you controlling Spartan 117.
It's a bold move that I'm sure some fans will be slightly disappointed in, the reality is that both teams' leaders (and groups) play exactly the same. They have the exact move sets and gameplay wise, there's nothing unique to differentiate the two. Given the short campaign I was hoping for a huge climactic finale. Unfortunately, that fell quite short of my expectations as it was full of constant build up without the big payoff.
The entire campaign can be played with up to 4 players, though some will be surprised to discover that it's only playable online and requires an Xbox Live Gold membership. Split screen is gone for campaign and multiplayer. Each member of the squad starts with their own unique loadout but one player is always forced to control Chief or Locke in their respective missions. Interestingly, only the team leaders can also utilize the squad commands (which I'll delve into shortly) and if the player controlling Chief or Locke drops out the game will auto force a swap to control them instead.
Following suit of Halo 4, your main foes will be Promethians, though there will be many Covenant to fight along the way as well. At its core it's still Halo in gameplay but it's definitely been taken in new directions to keep up with other modern games in numerous ways. Halo 4 started this change in a small way but many new features and changes have been built into Halo 5 that some purists may dislike. However, the more I played the more I realized it was needed to have changes to continue evolving the gameplay. These changes also play a large part into not only the gameplay mechanics but also your combat strategy once you remember they are there.
So let's start going over a bunch of these new additions and changes to the gameplay Guardians contains.
The first and most drastic is the new aiming system, labeled as "Smart Link." This allows you to aim down the sights of any weapon - commonplace for almost any shooter these days - though completely new for Halo. Some weapons in Halo before had this, like snipers and rifles, but now all have the ability. If you get shot while looking down the sight, you'll get knocked out of it. You'll also need to rely on it more than you'd expect, especially on the harder difficulty levels as you can't take nearly as much damage as before. You will need to try and pick enemies from afar, the majority of the time.
Mobility as a whole has also been revamped and takes some getting used to. You're now able to burst into a basic sprint given your thruster pack, allowing you to do a shoulder charge melee hit against enemies or breakable walls. You're also able to clamber up onto ledges that would previously be unexplorable, make a quick dash in any direction to make quick retreats (or advances), hover in air for a short period by way of Smart Link while jumping, and charge for a massive ground pound midair to take out any enemies below.
These new Spartan abilities take some time to get used to, more importantly though it takes time to remember you actually have them and how useful they can be in certain situations, especially in multiplayer. The campaign's level design is created in a way where it's still linear in its main pathways but also allows for some slight deviations and hidden pathways given your new abilities. There's a bigger emphasis on verticality which plays into your new strengths and your new abilities really compliment these traversal options.
Guardians no longer places you as the lone protagonist without any real backup. Regardless if you're playing as Chief or Locke, you have 3 of your squad mates continually with you helping you along the way (well, usually helping you). Overall, your health and shields are much weaker in this game most likely due to the fact that you have help along the way and because you're able to be revived by your teammates should you get defeated by gunfire (you're completely dead if you fall off the map or with rockets though).
Now relying on your AI teammates to actually do this would be a grave mistake. It's odd, at times the AI can be fantastic and will save you in a bad spot, and others they'll stand literally beside you refusing to revive you, causing you to die and restarting the last checkpoint. This flawed AI became the norm, especially on Legendary difficulty where you'll become downed many times and need the revive. To say that it's infuriating to see Buck standing beside you unwilling to revive is an understatement. The AI can be great in spurts though the majority of the time will completely fail you in every way miserably.
Also new to Guardians comes some fancy new weaponry and vehicles that are awesome additions. My personal favorite is the new Hydra Rocket Launcher which is essentially a much weaker rocket launcher with a lock-on and a lot of ammo to make up for the weakness in power. In multiplayer, this weapon can be a game changer if used properly. There are also hidden special versions of weapons throughout the campaign that have either a special property or is simply an extra powerful version of the regular firearm.
Even on the first mission you're going to quickly realize that ammo starts to become an ongoing issue, and it doesn't let up, all the way through to the closing credits. This is where it's very reminiscent of Halo ODST, as you're constantly scrounging for ammo or weapons to swap with. You're never far from a basic Scattershot or Plasma Pistol but don't get attached to the UNSC pistol or DMR as ammo caches for human weapons aren't nearly as plentiful.
Visually, especially the foliage and skyboxes, the game looks fantastic. Most of the environments you'll visit are bright and colorful and I'm a fan of how the HUD is displayed. It is as if you're actually looking out of Chief's or Locke's visor, minor blind spots where helmet meets visor included. There are some very memorable and massive set pieces included within the campaign which truly give you an idea of scale when compared to previously large things like a Scarab. The frame rate was constant throughout my multiple campaign playthroughs save for one instance in a massive battle, however repeating the same battle again later on didn't present the same issue luckily.
So let's delve into Halo 5's multiplayer, the other half of the beast, also boasting some very new additions and changes. First and foremost is the new inclusion of the REQ system, short for Requisition. This is basically a mechanic that rewards you for playing multiplayer, netting you REQ points which can then be spent on REQ packs containing cards such as Spartan customization piece, weapons, vehicles, XP boosts, and more. I know! A card system in a Halo game? It's actually a great system that I'm enjoying aside from a standard leveling treadmill (which is also included).
There's a lot to this new REQ system, so let's break it down a bit further:
There are different types of cards you can randomly earn from purchasing REQ packs: cosmetic, weapons, vehicles, power-ups, XP boosts, and more. Vehicle, weapon, and ability cards can only be used in the new Warzone mode, which I'll delve into in details shortly. This is important to note, as your standard competitive Halo modes and gameplay is not affected by this new REQ system in terms of affecting gameplay outcomes.
REQ cards vary in rarity all the way from common to Legendary and is completely randomized. The best and cooler cards are obviously much harder to obtain and most likely only come from the highest costing REQ packs. There are numerous ways to earn REQ packs as you play Halo 5 multiplayer. Simply leveling your Spartan Rank as you normally would will net you a free pack (as well as the points for completing a match and your performance).
Working on and completing commendations will earn you a REQ Pack as well. There are many types of commendation, including headshots to grenade kills, and many more. Completing a stage of commendation gets you a pack, which will naturally occur over time.
Purchasing the newest and coolest Halo toys now include a special code for a REQ pack and I foresee this being commonplace in the future. Custom games don't allow you to earn REQ points for obvious reasons but the points come pretty quickly as long as you're not absolutely terrible in a match. It's said that you'll also be able to purchase REQ packs with real world money microtransactions, though this wasn't live during the pre-launch. It's important to note also that these are the same packs and don't offer any higher chance for better cards.
Bronze Packs are 1250 REQ points and contains 12 cards. Silver Packs cost 5000 and have 15 cards. Gold are 10000 and also contain 15 cards, the better the pack the higher chances for Rare or Legendary cards. To add more complexity there are also usable and permanent cards that can be found randomly in packs. Cosmetic cards are permanent and allows you to change the armor, helmet, or visor color of your Spartan that will show in Warzone and Arena multiplayer modes as there's no statistical benefit to any of these items.
You may also get a special REQ Certification cards that are for a specific weapon or vehicle, making it much more likely for you to receive that card in the future packs. For example: if you got a Banshee certification card, you would be more likely to get more Banshee cards in future packs.
The majority of the cards you receive will most likely be the one time use (though you can have multiples) of weapons, vehicles, power-ups, and XP/REQ boost cards. These cards can only be used once and are consumed when you do so in Warzone matches.
Let's first delve into your standard Halo multiplayer that has no bearing on the REQ system aside from earning points after matches are complete. This is your 4 versus 4 standard multiplayer seen in previous Halo games, though there are some new welcome additions.
Breakout. This mode is quickly becoming my favorite, as each player only has one life and you need to either eliminate the other team or get the single flag to the enemy base to win. This mode is going to be heavily based on how well your team communication is, as matches can end very quickly if there's no coordination or strategy.
Slayer and Capture the Flag return and are your standard fare, though it's worth noting that currently SWAT has its own playlist. Lastly is Stronghold, which requires your team to reach 100 points to win but you'll only start to score when you control at least two of the three zones, so again, strategy and communication will be key in this game mode.
Let's get into Warzone, as this is a completely new mode and idea for Halo multiplayer and is its own beast to tackle and explain. Warzone is a 12 versus 12 multiplayer mode that not only pits you against the other players, but also the environment in interesting ways as well. These maps are absolutely massive, much bigger than previous Big Team Battle maps, and for good reason as you'll be fighting other players, friendly, and enemy AI, and need to capture bases to score points.
The goal is to score 1000 points and this can be done in many ways: killing enemy players or AI minions (a la Titanfall), capturing bases, or defeating AI bosses and events that will litter the playfield. You're also able to win if you can destroy the enemy team's core in their main base, but I've yet to see this happen yet in my games. A typical match usually is around 30 or so minutes to give you an idea how epic these battles can be.
There's nonstop action and almost endless strategies that can be implemented as you have no not only worry about the opposing players but on AI minions and bosses as well as multiple objectives. Juggling the focus of PvP or PvE is constant and such a welcome change, as simply focusing on killing other players won't net you many points overall, focusing on a Covenant boss that just dropped on the ground or is flying a banshee will gain you many points. Keep in mind the other team will most likely have the same idea as well. Or do you focus on taking over enemy bases while they are attempting to kill the random boss? Maybe let them get the boss to low health, then kill them and the boss off? There's a ton of options you can focus on and will constantly be shifting focus based on the ongoing chaos.
This is where the REQ system comes into play even more heavily and adds a whole new dynamic to gameplay. The first thing you need to know is that you need REQ levels to redeem your REQ cards in this mode. REQ levels are earned as a team, so even if you're not the greatest player on your team, you'll still be able to partake in using your highly valued cards if you desire. Killing enemies, AI, capturing bases, etc., all earn you contribution to your teams REQ points. The higher level of REQ card you want to use the more REQ levels you'll need to have before doing so, such as power weapons, Mantis's and more.
To keep things balanced, you also won't be able to constantly use your best REQ cards over and over. You 'spend' the REQ levels by using a card. If you're currently at REQ level 5 and use a REQ 4 card, you now only have REQ level 1 and have to wait for more REQ energy to replenish at a fixed rate. This is so that you can't use your best card, get more REQ levels, and use high tier REQ cards in succession. It's a great balance that rewards the team as a whole and not just the best player on the team.
To use your REQ cards you need to interact with a terminal at REQ stations (another reason to capture bases) and from here you can use any cards currently at your disposal given you have enough REQ levels to do so. Even using the REQ cards in a heated battle will become very strategic. Do you use your best cards to ensure a victory early on, or save them for when you're behind and need to make a comeback by taking out an AI boss? I'm really excited to see some of the pro strategies for Warzone, and I really see myself digging into this mode for quite some time, as it's still Halo. It's fresh and is incredibly fun to play in numerous ways.
At its core it still feels like Halo, simply with some added modern mechanics and now that I've played Halo with the thruster pack I'm not sure how I managed without it before. While I have some issues with the narrative, the gameplay is solid and the multiplayer is what's going to keep you coming back at least until the sequel eventually arrives. Warzone is amazingly entertaining and doing so with a group of friends is going to keep me hooked, as will the new Arena playlists like Breakout.
I'm glad that 343 took the risk in changing and adding so many new mechanics to the core gameplay. While some might not like the changes, it feels as if this really is the next step for Halo gameplay, especially once you realize you're using the new combat abilities instinctively and not simply relying on a dated recipe for a Halo. While I predict some fans being let down with the campaign for different reasons, including the ones I listed for myself above, there were some amazing moments that I'll remember as some of my favorites across all of the Halo franchise. Add the fact that the multiplayer is probably my favorite in the series and you have a winner overall even if Chief is the focal point this time around.