Halo 5 is beautiful, at times a lot of fun, and at times disappointing. It's also not yet officially released and is dependent on its multiplayer working well on a large scale. So we're holding off on a review until well after the game's October 27 launch. For now, some impressions of one of the Xbox One's big fall exclusives.
It's ok. It's not spectacular. It has no all-time great levels, and it doesn't break the mould. It spans 15 linear missions, largely involving shooting and the occasional riding of signature series vehicles. A few levels just involve milling around at bases, listening to characters talk.
You can play the whole thing in four-player co-op. If you're playing with fewer people or are playing solo, the computer will control the rest of the squad. Reviving each other is key and will keep the mission going.
You only play a few missions as Master Chief. Most of the game stars Spartan Jameson Locke, whose squad is going after a possibly rogue Master Chief. Locke is this guy, who, don't worry, pretty much plays the same as Chief:
Advertisements for the game have played up the drama of Locke hunting down a rogue Master Chief, but their rivalry is undercooked, their confrontation anticlimactic. The theme of a possibly rogue Master Chief was used far more effectively in the first season of the Halo 5 promotional podcast Hunt The Truth, which has a separate plot from the game.
I advise playing the campaign solo on Heroic difficulty. Heroic provided just the right challenge for me. It seemed tougher when we played co-op, and it required more coordination. (Mike Fahey, you can't just run ahead and be a hero!)
Playing the campaign in co-op is a little more fun than playing solo, though the pedestrian level design leaves both feeling lacklustre. There are lots of big rooms full of enemies, but few memorable challenges or set-pieces.
The coolest moments, like flying through space to assault a Covenant ship, are relegated to cutscenes.
Impressive as the cutscenes may be, the in-game graphics, running at what appears to be a smooth 60 frames per second, are ridiculously good (this clip was capped at 30 due to hardware capture limitations):
See the ground pound in that clip? It's one of Halo 5's signature moves.
The ending of the campaign -- which we won't spoil -- sets things up for a potentially way more interesting Halo 6.
The Competitive Multiplayer
Development studio 343's work on Halo's competitive multiplayer has been more successful, to the point that multiplayer seems like Halo 5's main attraction. There are two big modes, Arena and Warzone, both of which became available for reviewers late last week in very limited form, hence this not being a review.
Arena is traditional Halo competitive multiplayer and a good place to try out some of the game's new moves, including the one-button juke:
...and the ability to hover by going into iron sights while jumping:
The new Warzone mode is ambitious and really promising. Four of us played through a couple of Warzone sessions together and had a great time.
A Warzone match involves large-scale battles involving up to 24 players. One pre-launch mode was set on a large multi-base map and challenged both teams of players to try to score 1000 points. Like Titanfall before it, Halo 5 Warzone fights also involve computer controlled ally and enemy grunts. Players get points for killing grunts, more points for killing human-controlled enemies and heaps of points for killing third-party computer-controlled aliens that spawn into the map. Teams also gain points for capturing bases.
A shorter variation timed to just six minutes was cool but not as good due to its brevity Warzone matches are designed to become more interesting the longer they go thanks to the new and potentially controversial "Req" system, in which you call in power-ups like vehicles and advanced weapons based on how well you're doing in a given match -- and, crucially, based on which virtual cards you've collected.
The Req system assigns a bunch of various Halo gear/weapons/vehicles to cards that can be used by players for permanent or short-term effects. There are cards for cosmetic character alterations and for gameplay-centric stuff like vehicles you can spawn into multiplayer or single-use buffs to your shield or movement speed.
You get cards from packs that you can buy with in-game currency earned from playing the game, but you can also buy silver and gold packs for $US2 and $US3, respectively.
I opened a gold pack, and this is some of what I got:
Cards have rarity classifications, from common to mythic. Cosmetic cards, like helmets, are equipped outside of matches and are always in your collection, as are additions to one's options for basic weapon loadouts and any licenses to use more powerful weapons. Vehicle cards, boost cards and special weapon cards are single-use. Each card has an energy cost which comes into play during a Warzone match. For example, playing a Covenant Ghost card costs three energy.
At the start of a Warzone match, every player has just one hexagon of energy and can only use cards that have an energy cost of one. During the course of a match, all sorts of actions earn players a higher energy level. Get enough energy to play your best card and you can help tip the match's balance.
For example, in one of the Warzone matches I tried this past weekend, I played one of my 10 Ghost cards to spawn a Ghost and defend my base. That was fortunate, since an enemy player showed up in a Ghost, shortly thereafter. I guess they played a Ghost card, too!
Playing a three-energy card depletes a player's reserve of three energy nodes. That means you can't just spawn one Ghost and then run to the Req station to spawn another. You'll stay at level three in terms of having the right to play cards of that cost, but the player's three-hexagon energy meter first has to slowly refill. Players can earn up to nine nodes of energy during a match. I have some cards that would let me put a massive Scorpion tank into the battlefield, but I would need more energy points to do that.
If you've followed all of that, you've probably surmised that the Req system reeks of potential game imbalancing microtransaction disaster that would turn Warzone into a pay-to-win debacle. Microsoft seems to have designed against that by randomizing card distribution and metering the ability to play big cards in rapid succession. In theory, big spenders wouldn't be able to buy their way into having game-ruining advantages, but we'll only know for sure after the game has been poked, prodded and pushed by players for a while.
On pre-release dedicated servers, Guardians' multiplayer matchmaking ran smoothly, though the player population was far too limited to make any fair judgment about speed and quality of matchmaking. Last year's Halo release, The Master Chief Collection, worked for reviewers but was a technical mess that had broken multiplayer for many weeks after release. We're eager to see how this game holds up in the wild.
As you can probably tell, this is a tricky one. Halo 5: Guardians has some good parts, some bad and a lot of question marks that can't be answered until the game comes out and is played by hundreds of thousands of players. We'll have more about Halo 5 in the coming days, including a full review. For now, if you have any questions about the game, hit us up in the comments.