Last November, 343 Industries released “Halo: The Master Chief Collection,” which compiled the first four numerical games of the “Halo” series in one package. The compilation was released in abysmal shape, including an astronomical amount of bugs and a multiplayer suite that simply did not work.
This raised concerns about the potential stability of 343’s “Halo 5: Guardians,” which launched on Oct. 27. Fortunately, “Halo 5” works just fine, but the game seems to be missing much of what made the series so great in the past.
The campaign tells a much different story than “Halo 4,” which was a much quieter tale that focused on the intimate relationship between star protagonist Master Chief and Cortana, the handy AI that guided him through much of the sci-fi series’ battles.
“Guardians” ill-advisedly shifts the perspective away from Master Chief as he flees from his former military employers under suspicion of war crimes. Instead, you play most of the game’s campaign as Spartan Locke, who is tasked with chasing down Chief as the galaxy faces another significant threat. This leads to a consistently choppy narrative that fails to provide a satisfying conclusion, a problem that plagued “Halo 2” back in 2004.
The campaign also introduces a drastic change by building around two squads of four characters each, which are led by Chief and Locke, respectively. This allows “Halo 5” to design its gameplay sequences with cooperative play in mind, but the game fails to deliver any memorable moments. Even worse, the AI “support” that you receive from your teammates is non-existent; expect to do all of the heavy lifting.
The multiplayer package is much different than previous “Halo” offerings. It is broken down into “arena” mode, which is classic four-on-four competitive action, and “warzone” mode, which adds additional enemies and a card-playing twist.
The arena mode heavily incorporates the game’s new Spartan abilities, which allow the player to traverse the map with more speed and power. You can boost, you can slide, you can shoulder charge – it’s a far cry from the slower pace the series has traditionally hung its hat upon. The controls are excellent and feel great, but this change will not be for everyone.
Warzone mode introduces microtransactions into the “Halo” ecosystem through the new REQ system, which thankfully isn’t as disastrous as it sounds. This system allows players to use real world money or in-game currency to purchase packs of cards, which contain power weapons and vehicles to be used in the massive 12-on-12 warzone mode. A carefully designed energy system prevents players from abusing the REQ system to gain an unfair advantage, but it still feels like a questionable decision that could potentially unbalance online matches.
However, the REQ system has allowed 343 to offer all future downloadable maps and content updates for free, which is crucial to the future of “Halo 5.” Right now, the game is woefully deficient in the multiplayer area. The lobby system and game mode options are a huge step backward for the series, and strong maps are few and far between. Also, the map-editing “forge” mode isn’t coming until December.
Considering the standards of this series in the past, it’s fair to expect these features down the line. It’s also possible that 343 was on a tight deadline to ship “Halo 5” before the heavy hitters of the holiday season, in which case we can cut them some slack.
As of right now, however, “Guardians” is an underwhelming package. The graphics and the sound design are both top notch; we expected nothing less from this considerably talented studio with the financial might of Microsoft behind them.
The problem is the lack of polish, the lack of content and the lack of cohesion. Previous “Halo” developer Bungie had a clear vision, and consistently built upon it in a fearless balancing act of narrative lore and multiplayer freedom.
343 Industries clearly has a few interesting ideas up their sleeves, but seem unsure how to implement them all in a meaningful way. The post-release support for “Halo 5” will go a long way toward deciding its legacy.