Beginning with its first cutscene, Halo 5: Guardians makes spartans feel like badasses.
The super soldiers that have always been at the heart of the Halo series immediately make their presence felt on the battlefield by shooting, punching, jumping and sliding their way through swathes of enemies. And thanks to a list of smart gameplay additions and new abilities to experiment with, the act of playing the game can feel almost as cool.
In fact, great environments, enjoyable gunplay, a well-paced story and technical prowess (including a steady framerate of 60 frames per second) make Halo 5's campaign one of the best the series has ever had.
Note: While I've played (and enjoyed) a good chunk of Halo 5's multiplayer, I would rather wait to play the game in a live environment after the game's retail release before passing a final judgement on it. So far, so good, but things could go sideways when a larger number of players get their hands on the game. As such, this review focuses on Halo 5's campaign.
Halo 5: Guardians stars two playable protagonists that you switch between throughout the story. It introduces new, huge threats to the universe at large. Through the course of its story, unlikely alliances are formed. It ends with a big cliffhanger that teases potentially epic things for the story's next chapter.
As such, it can feel a bit like Halo 2. In a good way.
This isn't a surprise. When Microsoft announced Halo 4 (which, like Halo 5, was developed by their own studio 343 Industries rather than the original Halo developer Bungie) they were clear about it being the start of a new trilogy. Halo 5 feels like the dark middle chapter you expect from a sci-fi story told in three parts: This is the part where things tend to go bad for our heroes.
The part you probably know from all the game's marketing is that series protagonist Master Chief has been placed in the crosshairs of the human military forces, the UNSC. Some of the game is spent with him and a handful of spartans he grew up with (hardcore Halo fans who have read any of the novels, especially The Fall of Reach, will recognize them). The rest of the game is spent with a Spartan named Locke (star of the live-action series Halo: Nightfall), who, along with his own group, is hunting the Master Chief down.
What you might not know for sure (but have almost certainly guessed) is that the AI Cortana, despite seemingly "dying" at the end of Halo 4, is still out there ... somewhere. Maybe. And she might just be digging up a bunch of old Forerunner technology that may either save or destroy the galaxy as we know it.
Halo 5 tells its story much better than Halo 4 did. Yes, there are occasions where it seems to lean too heavily on the non-game fiction -- the books, the shows, etc. -- but you can still follow the big picture. Your mission is clear, as are its consequences.
It also helps that there are more than two people at the center of the plot. I love Master Chief and Cortana, but those two can only talk to each other so much before they run out of meaningful things to say. The game's bigger cast makes for more viewpoints and more dynamic dialog, including some entertaining quips from returning Halo: ODST character Buck (played by geeky fan favorite Nathan Fillion).
But hey, if you don't care about the story at all? Halo 5 still has some pretty awesome action to enjoy.
At its core, the action is pure Halo. The jumps are a bit floaty, melee attacks feel brutal, grenades can be devastating and shields recharge. You will feel very much at home if you've played any previous game in the series.
The guns, both classic and new, feel great, whether you're just pointing and shooting or you're aiming down the sights -- a new feature for all of Halo 5's weaponry. This was a controversial change when it was announced, as many players felt that it would make the game feel too similar to other shooters like Call of Duty and less like Halo. However, not only is the new feature largely optional (most guns are still perfectly usable without the need to hold in the left trigger button to aim), but aiming down sights actually feels really good. It's not just "Call of Duty but with sci-fi guns." You get a bit of a zoom and a bit more of a crosshair, but nothing too crazy.
You're also a bit more athletic than before. With an extra tap of the jump button you can clamber up ledges. With a tap of a different button you can get a thruster boost in different directions, quickly and easily getting out of dangerous situations. If you hit the melee button while sprinting you unleash a powerful shoulder charge that can hurt enemies or break through some areas of the environment. If you aim your gun while in midair you can hover, giving you time to take shots from above the ground.
Oh, and if you go down? You might not be out. Unless you've been blown to bits in particularly devastating fashion, your teammates can often revive you -- and you them -- when the going gets rough.
These and other skills (including a ground pound) help you feel like an impressively mobile killing machine. It's not the wall runs and double jumps of some other recent first-person shooters, but it feels nice.
These skills come at the cost of the last game's armor ability pickups, but I'm not sure anyone will miss them (I certainly won't).
Your new skills play into one of Halo 5's biggest strengths: Variety. At times Halo 4 could feel bland, repetitive and linear, forcing you to fight the same enemies in the same environments for too long. Halo 5 is really good at avoiding that problem. You explore a lot of visually distinct locales, the enemy encounters mix things up often enough and the environments often have enough size to them that you have some degree of choice as to how to approach any given scenario.
Even when you're running through relatively tight corridors you can often find a grate to bust your way through, an alternate path to take or a duct through which to sneak up behind an enemy. In larger areas, you typically have a fair selection of vehicles or at least weapons with which to take on the challenges that face you.
When playing alone, you can issue simple commands to your squad mates (mostly just "shoot that guy," "go here" and "hey come revive me please") if you want to strategist during more difficult encounters. If you'd rather play with friends? The game offers four-player cooperative play online. Unfortunately, Halo 5 has no split-screen support for local multiplayer -- a first for the series and a significant bummer.
While we lose split-screen, however, we gain performance. Halo 5 looks beautiful and runs at a steady 60 frames per second, making it a joy to look at throughout.
Halo 5 changes just enough of the Halo formula to feel fresh while not feeling like it's morphed into something else entirely. Its final moments may frustrate those who want to "finish the fight" immediately and see this story's conclusion, but the plot puts a lot of exciting pieces in motion, and it's a blast to play through from beginning to end.