Monday, 7 December 2015

Halo 5 : Guardians - Review

Developer: 343 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Xbox One

Halo 4 marked the biggest creative turning point in the entire Halo series. It was the moment where Bungie handed the reins of their green-suited space marine to another developer and left. It’s for that reason that you can almost forgive Halo 4 for its safe approach, after Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach attempted to experiment with the core tone and formula of the series, Halo 4 stuck firmly to the original game’s roots. It’s a game that effectively shouts out “hey, look, we can do this too”, in an attempt to placate what could otherwise have been a nervous fan base.

So, with Halo 4 having laid out the groundwork of 343’s approach to the series, Halo 5: Guardians should be there shot at improving upon the formula. They’ve shown they can do Bungie, and emulate them fairly well, now’s the time to pull something new out of the hat.

Except, Halo 5 doesn’t do that. It’s perhaps the most safe and predictable instalment that the series has ever had. At least Halo 4 introduced the Prometheans and their weaponry, for better or worse. All we get here is the Prometheans all over again. 

That’s the major crux with Halo 5. Hardcore fans will no doubt be up in arms at anyone criticizing their gun-toting space man. After all, on the surface there’s seemingly nothing wrong with it: it looks great, sounds great and shooting that classic assault rifle still feels as satisfying as ever. All those little check boxes that the mainstream gaming press loves so much, well, Halo 5 pretty much checks all of them. Yet, dig around a little and you start asking for something more, something new and fresh. It’s a game that’s lacking and it’s not always entirely clear why that is. 

I once joked that Bungie got away with making the same game three times with the original Halo trilogy. The original game was so polished and unique for its time that they simply went and remade it twice over and hoped no one would notice. They even went as far as to practically reuse the same narrative beats in the story; introducing the Flood at the exact same point in both sequels and expecting the player to be just as shocked. In contrast to Halo 5, Halo 2 and Halo 3 feel like bold reinventions.

The most significant change this time round is that the single player campaign can played through with up to three other players. Should you play on your own those three spots are filled with A.I. companions. It informs a lot of the level design. There’s plenty of moments where it’s clear the game wants two players to act as an anvil, drawing the Covenant or Promethean’s fire, whilst the remaining two players wing around and flank from either side.

Halo 5’s campaign is serviceable but its beats all feel like weak copies of what the earlier games set out to do. There’s the same wide combat spaces to navigate, and there’s still some satisfaction to be had flanking enemies as you weave in and out of cover. There’s a fight with a Kraken at one point too, except this time, rather than taking place in a wide open battlefield like in Halo 3, it’s lodged in the middle of a cliff, making the whole thing less impressive because it feels that much more staged and controlled.

It’s a testament to the lasting quality of Halo’s core gameplay that, when it’s done right, it feels so fluid and has some genuine depth to it, and Halo 5 is no exception. Yet, for every engaging firefight that occurs they’ll be several battles that are lacklustre and have the game cramping you down bland, narrow hallways, rather than giving you the breadth and diversity that the best parts of the series are known for. 

The other major change this time around is the introduction of the jet pack. I say jet pack, it’s more of a speed boost, allowing you to zip left or right, preferably into cover. Likewise, if you’ve jumping in the air, looking down the iron-sights will slow your descent, allowing you to pull off that perfect headshot in mid-fall.

It explains why, even when the game forces you down those less interesting and narrow corridors, they typically remain much more vertical. There’s a real “height” to Halo 5’s gameplay and it’s perhaps the most significant change that the game does to the core level design. Sometimes it’s less Master Chief and more Mario as you clamber from ledge to ledge to get the drop on your enemies. Quite literally, I should say, as you now come equipped with a pretty satisfying ground pound. 

It’s something of a shame then, that those enemies remain disappointing. The Covenant comprise about half of the game’s enemies and still remain the most satisfying to fight. There’s an interesting dynamic going on as each enemy type requires different tactics. The Elites are more dangerous and require dedicated focus fire, but the little Grunts can be dangerous in numbers, especially if one decides to go suicidal and run at you with live grenades.

The Prometheans though, still remain the blandest of any Halo enemy. I grew tired of the original games continuing to rehash the same Flood monsters but I’d give anything to have them replace the dull, Tron-meets-Transformers aesthetic that the Prometheans have. It’s odd, but there’s little “weight” to the Promethean units, shooting at them lacks the visceral feedback that the Covenant possess and they likewise don’t have the same interesting hierarchy of Grunt-Jackal-Elite that’s been at the core of Halo’s combat design from the very beginning. 

There’s a similar like of inspiration when it comes to the boss encounters. Although, “encounters” is something of a misnomer. There’s one boss in Halo 5; singular, and you’ll encounter him god knows how many times throughout the course of the campaign. Sometimes he’ll multiply which means more of the same fight that feels less like Halo and more, ironically, like Destiny. It’s a dull grind as you wail on his health with the strongest weapon you have.

That’s one of the major problems with Halo 5’s campaign: its focus. It introduces four-player co-op but rather than enhance the gameplay it begins to morph it into a bland multiplayer off-shoot. Halo has never been a series heavy on story, but the focus on catering to a bunch of gun-happy players over the internet means that there’s a distinct loss of atmosphere and tension that was present in earlier instalments.

And while the “single” player takes the lion’s share of the flaws in Halo 5, the actual multiplayer is essentially more of the same. Granted, I’m not the kind of person to play endless amounts of online matches but the overwhelming feeling after several hours of play was a resounding “meh.” It suffers from an astonishing sense of playing it safe, and whilst the new Warzone mode makes for bigger battles with potentially greater scope, it’s still hard to imagine whether the overall online package is going to tempt diehards away from their Halo: The Master Chief Collection. 

Halo 5 is arguably the worst instalment in the core series. On the surface it looks perfectly good but dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s altogether hollow. It’s never horrendously bad, it’s just painfully average, afraid to do anything new or challenging for fear it’ll somehow upset someone.

In short, it’s like the video game equivalent of a politician; it tries to act like Halo, talk like Halo and have all the trappings of Halo, yet, in reality, it’s nothing but hollow promises. 


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