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Halo 5: Guardians

Score: 95%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: 343 Industries
Media: Download/1
Players: 1 - 4; 2 - 24 (Online)
Genre: Action/ First Person Shooter/ Online


Graphics & Sound:

Halo 5: Guardians is the best Halo game ever made. It looks the best. It sounds the best. It has the best campaign. It has the best level design. It has the best gunplay, and the best arsenal of weapons. It has the best multiplayer suite. Yes, Halo 5 outclasses its predecessors and most of its contemporaries in every conceivable way. These superlatives need some context, however. It is a departure from previous installments, in ways that are both subtle and not-so-subtle. But nearly every change is for the better, resulting in one of the very best science fiction action shooters to come around in a good while.

I remember being extremely unimpressed with Halo 3 when it first came out. My first thought was that it probably could have been done on the original Xbox. But hey, the gameplay was great, so there wasnít too much to complain about. It didnít take very much time with Halo 5 for me to sit back and say to myself "Wow, this looks next-gen." Seriously, what a stone cold stunner. Itís gorgeous from a technical perspective, but where it really shines is in the art design. This is an intergalactic adventure that has you visiting multiple alien worlds, and it would be a disservice to see much of the same well-tread landscapes and skyboxes that the series used to be content with showing us. What you see in Halo 5 is a galaxy that feels lived in. Very little space is wasted, and the attention to detail is mesmerizing. It also looks amazing when you're in the heat of battle; Forerunner soldiers teleport around like wisps of electricity, personal shields crackle with energy as they absorb punishment, and ruptured methane tank/backpacks send grunts flying haplessly through the air. And every time you score that perfect headshot on a Promethean, you'll be tempted to just sit back and watch them break apart and slowly burn away.

The absence of longtime Halo composer Martin OíDonnell is certainly felt, but to be perfectly honest, I much prefer the newer soundtracks. While my favorite soundtrack in the series is still that of Halo 3: ODST (by a long shot), Halo 5ís electronic symphony blend cuts a confident second for me. I donít know, Iíve always thought this kind of stuff fit science fiction action more than the Gaelic rhythms and melodies of the originals. Of course, everything else is on point, from the vastly improved and varied selection of sound effects to the voice acting, which is best in series. The chatter between Spartans and their UNSC handlers or Sangheili allies is believable, but it doesnít hold a candle to the battle cries and random nonsense you hear from your enemies.


Gameplay:

For years, Iíve tried to figure out what everyone loved so much about Haloís story. And I failed, despite going all out; I even bought four of the books, from The Fall of Reach to Ghosts of Onyx. But it never clicked for me. All I saw was a Ringworld knockoff that followed a bland, faceless supersoldier around as he blasted away at the minions of a theocratic collective of various alien warrior species. It got the job done, but when you put it alongside the likes of Mass Effect and BioShock, it was a total joke. In fact, a good friend and I recently revisited the rest of the series and spent much of it laughing at its half-baked hodgepodge of space opera clichťs and dishwater dull melodrama. So if you're looking to this review to tell you whether or not the story in Halo 5: Guardians is any good, you've come to the wrong place. It's certainly not Philip K. Dick, but it isn't Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The galaxy is still in turmoil. The Covenant is in open civil war with the Arbiter-led Swords of Sanghelios, and with the Prometheans now in play, itís a perfect recipe for interstellar warfare. When Spartan John-117 (also known as the Master Chief) hears a familiar voice, he takes his squad, Blue Team, and drops off the radar. The UNSC worries that their prized asset might have gone rogue, declares him AWOL, and tasks Spartan Jameson Locke and his Fireteam Osiris to bring him in. Most of the campaign follows Locke and his fellow Spartans, which is a nice change of pace from just the Master Chief and Cortana. The members of Fireteam Osiris are actually far more interesting than the seriesí two mainstay heroes. This is largely thanks to the performances of Nathan Fillion and Laura Bailey, whose Spartans Buck and Vale have more personality in their pinkie toes than the Master Chief ever did in the last four numbered Halo games.

So the story doesn't do the campaign any favors, but the level design and pacing most certainly do. Both play to the strengths of what Halo used to be and also to what it is clearly aspiring to be, and the result is an excellent string of diverse enemy encounters in a series of fascinating environments, each with their own tactical exploits.

Halo 5's arsenal is massive and almost universally comprised of weapons that are extremely fun to use. Fan favorites like the Battle Rifle and the Covenant Carbine return, and it's always fun to get your hands on a rocket launcher or a Hydra. But my personal favorite is the new Plasma Caster, a futuristic crossbow that slings plasma cluster bombs at whoever's unlucky enough to be on the receiving end. The weapon diversity, coupled with the diverse cast of enemy soldiers, each of whom has their own series of dynamic death animations, keeps Halo 5's gameplay fresh.

Vehicular combat makes a return, and really, why wouldn't it? While the requisite Warthogs, Ghosts, Scorpions, Banshees, and Wraiths make a return, there is a new one to mess around with: the VTOL-like Phaeton, a very cool-looking Promethean gunship that you'll want to use on your first playthrough and avoid on your second (if you want a certain achievement). And Mongooses have been fitted with special cannons, so you know, the whole four-wheelers with big guns on the front...totally cool.

From Halo 2 on, every core release has had some sort of multiplayer component to it. Halo 5's is its best yet, offering much of the same variety of modes with the enhanced gameplay to make it all feel fresh again. Arena is where all the classics are: from Capture the Flag to Slayer variants, this is where the comfort zone is. Combat is faster and more intense now, but maps are well-designed and allow you to make the most of your expanded options.

While the Arena and Custom Games offer a lot of what we've already seen (in the best possible way, of course), there are two new multiplayer modes: Breakout and Warzone.

Breakout pits two teams of four against each other and gives every player a single life. It's restrictive, to be sure, but it completely changes the pace and the feel of the core gameplay. However, it's Warzone that steals the show. This 24 player mode pits red against blue on an appropriately large map where there's much more to do than simply kill each other. Capture points litter the map, and both teams have bases that need defending. On top of that, A.I. characters are in the field and are very much in play. But what's interesting about this mode is that special objectives spring up from time to time, and completing them nets your team much more score than any other activity. But it requires a ton of communication and teamwork. Lone wolves do not thrive in Warzone.


Difficulty:

Halo 5: Guardians is by far the easiest Halo game to date, but thatís really only because itís less frustrating. There are a number of reasons behind this, but since earlier Halo games didnít really balance their difficulty levels all that well, it constitutes a pretty concrete improvement. Completing a solo playthrough on Legendary difficulty has never been more viable Ė or enjoyable, for that matter.

First and most importantly, having your shield and health dropped to zero does not result in an instant, permanent death state. Instead, taking a page from Gears of War, you go down but not out. If a squadmate is able to get to you in time, he/she can revive you.

Secondly, friendly artificial intelligence is just as smart as that of enemies, which is to say, rather bright. If you give orders, they will be followed. Whether itís your command to target a series of shade turrets or to commandeer vehicles for themselves, it works really well. And this not only opens up new tactical possibilities, but it gives you the ability to draw some of that persistent gunfire away from you as you work for a better position. Every now and then, they run out and get killed for no apparent reason, but they take care of their own, which allows you to keep doing your thing.

Finally, you will never get lost. My biggest gripe with earlier Halo games is that the level design is inconsistent at best and horrendous at worst. The Artemis Tracking System presents you with a waypoint at the press of a button. Granted, this would have been much more useful in those earlier games, but the option is nice.


Game Mechanics:

From that first green light, Halo 5: Guardians feels fundamentally different in a handful of very important, very welcome ways. And almost all of it has to do with player movement. No longer do you feel like a lumbering half-ton of mildly intoxicated gravity-defiant marine. All that floatiness has been replaced with precision, speed, agility, and future tech. This is a much faster, more freeform gaming experience than any Halo game that has come before, and as a result, itís far more rewarding than itís ever been. You can sprint, you can mantle, you can hover, and you can pull off a couple of really badass jetpack-assisted maneuvers. If youíre on the ground, you can shoulder charge through enemies and environmental anomalies with incredible force. If youíre in midair, you can designate a target and come crashing down like a meteor. None of this is revolutionary, but it is evolutionary.

The best Halo players rely on shooting from the hip; after all, there haven't ever been any serious accuracy penalties. But aiming down the sights is implemented and expanded upon in Halo 5 with the introduction of the smart-link, which not only maps the weapon's sights onto your heads-up display, but engages a short-term jetpack if you're airborne. It works if you know how to properly leverage it, but you can get through the whole game and be an efficient online combatant without ever using it.

Halo introduces the REQ (as in requisition) system, which is somewhat evocative of MOBA games like League of Legends. As your Spartan Rank increases, you earn currency and REQ card packs, which is where you get all of your unlocks from. In Warzone, the REQ system governs the kinds of weapons and vehicles your team has access to. The longer you wait and the better you perform, higher and higher tiers of REQs become available. It adds a level of strategy that most other Halo games don't really mess around with.

Singing the praises of a triple-A game whose budget was exorbitant might be kind of redundant; after all, expensive games that turn out poorly can be almost offensive. But Halo 5: Guardians deserves no less. The only criticism I can offer is that it's got a mildly dumb story that thinks it's way more clever and epic than it is. But when a game is this damned fun to play, none of that even matters. Embrace the changes and just go along with the ride; itís a very good time to be a Halo fan.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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