The new 'Halo' won't change the world, but it is the best 'Halo' in years

MicrosoftThe ‘Halo’ franchise isn’t quite as hot as it used to be.

“Halo” isn’t in a great place.

Not so long ago, Microsoft was thinking of canning the long-running video game franchise.

“People felt like, Let’s get another ‘Halo’ or two out, and it’s the end of the franchise,” franchise lead Bonnie Ross told Bloomberg Businessweek in a recent interview.

Ross is the George Lucas of the “Halo” universe, and she’s tasked with keeping the blockbuster series alive after nearly 20 years of “Halo” games, a split with the series’ original developer (Bungie Studios), and a rocky launch for Microsoft’s newest game console, the Xbox One.

For Ross and her studio at 343 Industries, the pressure to succeed has never been greater.

So, does “Halo 5” succeed?

In many ways, “Halo 5: Guardians” — this year’s big “Halo” game, and the first major “Halo” release on the Xbox One — does indeed succeed.

It’s got gorgeous visuals running at a breakneck 60-frames-per-second (technical jargon for “the animations look really smooth”). It’s just as fun on a minute-to-minute basis as any previous “Halo” game. It’s also got a brand new multiplayer mode that dramatically changes the scope of playing “Halo” online. 

And in many ways, “Halo 5: Guardians” fails as spectacularly as it succeeds. 

The game’s story is convoluted and poorly-told through comically earnest dialog — dialog flooded with references that only the most loyal of “Halo” lore nerds will understand (I should know, I’m of their ilk).

The game’s main boss is no fun at all and shows up over and over and over. “Halo 5’s” greatest moments are often in the form of cutscenes — unplayable moments of cinematic video — rather than played by you, the player. 

“Halo 5: Guardians” is a game of highs and lows not unlike the rollercoaster of highs and lows that is the Xbox One game console. Are you willing to put up with the unfortunate low points in “Halo 5” for some delightful high points? 

The Peaks

The good news is that the highs are very high.

I was immediately struck by how much prettier the world of “Halo” looked this time around. It’s a more fully realised universe than ever, with vegetation and animals and ancient structures and all sorts of other pretty stuff to gawk at.

The “Halo” series has always been one to impress with the places its main story campaign takes players, and “Halo 5” beyond keeps up the tradition. As ever, I found myself straying from the objective at hand to simply walk around and take the atmosphere in. 

Sometimes it’s a barely hanging on human colony on a planet far from Earth:

Sometimes it’s an intricate alien cavern full of secrets and angry enemies:

And sometimes it’s an ancient alien monastery, replete with sculpted reliefs:

It’s usually alien. In case it weren’t already clear, “Halo” is primarily about killing aliens on alien planets.

And it’s not just setpieces like those seen above. The action of “Halo 5: Guardians” is just as fast as it is gorgeous.

It’s also quite varied — maybe more than ever before.

You’re just as likely to be shooting aliens on foot as you are to be driving an SUV with a gatling gun on the back, to say nothing of the many aircrafts strewn throughout “Halo 5.”

Though it may not always be clear why you’re shooting this bad guy or that bad guy, it’s almost always a good time.

Main story aside, “Halo 5: Guardians” has a robust multiplayer component as well. All the usual game modes are there: deathmatch (dubbed “Slayer”), capture the flag, king of the hill, etc. And all of that stuff is just as good as it’s been in previous games, but let’s get to the real meat of the “Halo 5” multiplayer experience.

There’s a major new addition to the usual online multiplayer in “Halo 5”: it’s called “Warzone.” 

“Warzone” is basically “Halo” mashed up with “League of Legends,” and it’s a lot better than that may sound to you.

MicrosoftOne of the massive ‘Warzone’ multiplayer maps.

Like in “League of Legends,” two teams are tasked with destroying the other team’s “core” — essentially a large cylinder in the enemy team’s base that will take a beating before being destroyed — and there are a wide variety of things your team can do to sway the overall match in your team’s favour. Your team can capture various bases, for instance, which enables you and your teammates to restart after death much closer to your objective. 

In practice, this plays out over relatively long stretches of time (15 minutes or more), with a whole variety of variables playing in to who eventually wins. Will your team defeat a certain enemy first, which grants you a massive point advantage over the other guys? Barring one of the two teams taking out the others’ “core,” reaching 1,000 points is another win condition. But maybe while your team is focusing on taking out that enemy, the opposing team is stealing one of your bases, granting them a strategic location for respawing. It’s a lot to grasp, and I’ve just barely scratched the surface, but that’s truly exciting in this case.

MicrosoftSometimes you’re shooting an enemy who’s shooting you who’s shooting a giant mech vehicle.

The new Warzone game mode plays into the enormously popular eSports world in smart ways: It’s easy to imagine an arena full of people watching massive Warzone battles play out, with two teams of highly organised players carefully trying to outsmart the other. 

Warzone is a delightful mix of strategy and teamwork and action, and it helps to freshen up an otherwise unchanged, yet still very solid, multiplayer component. It’s one of the highlights of the “Halo 5” experience, if not its greatest strength.

The Valleys

As hinted at earlier, the game’s story is nigh incomprehensible.

“Halo 5’s” story has been marketed as “the longtime series protagonist, a supersoldier named ‘Master Chief,’ has gone rogue, and your squad of supersoldiers has to find him and uncover ‘the truth.'”

That’s sort of what happens? I guess? 

Early on in the game, the main character learns that his AI partner — thought dead, named “Cortana” — is still alive and “living” in some far flung part of the galaxy. For some reason that’s never made clear, Master Chief is ordered by humanity’s leadership to return instead of going after her. He disobeys that order and goes off to find Cortana. This causes the human leadership to send a crew of other soldiers after him. In the process, everyone kills a ton of aliens. Like, thousands.

MicrosoftOne of the many aliens you’re going to kill if you play ‘Halo 5: Guardians.’

That’s basically the whole story of “Halo 5: Guardians.” Spoilers! Joking aside, there’s some other hints at potentially interesting characters and plot points that largely fall off. Everything is in service of “keep moving forward and shooting things.” Which is fine, because shooting things is kind of the raison d’être of “Halo.” I just wish the overwrought, ultra-self serious dialog would offer the slightest bit of levity every now and again. 

A large portion of this not-so-great dialog is spent during cutscenes — the non-playable films full of exposition that games so often use to deliver major plot points you might miss during gameplay. And while the cutscenes were always very impressive to look at, more often than not they were frustrating stand-ins for what could’ve been exciting game moments — moments I could have been playing instead of watching, in so many words.

There’s one cutscene early in the game that has the game’s main team of supersoldiers (known as “spartans”) running full speed down a snow-covered mountain after dropping to the planet from space, blasting aliens and punching aliens and just generally messing up aliens in the process. It’s thrilling, and totally unplayable.

The game literally starts with a massive tease. That’s cold, “Halo 5!”

Should You Play It?

Maybe! Yes! No! Not so helpful, I know.

It’s genuinely hard to say with “Halo 5,” and a lot is going to come down to how much you’re willing to forgive. Are you ok with relatively mindless dialog that serves to drive relatively fun, if somewhat repetitive gameplay? Are you willing to invest the serious time that the new “Warzone” multiplayer mode will no doubt require of players who want to be competitive? Are you ok buying this game at full price knowing that multiplayer may have major functional issues at launch (the last “Halo” game had broken multiplayer for months)?

“Halo 5: Guardians” doesn’t feel as revelatory as the original “Halo” and its sequel did, but it’s certainly the best looking, best playing “Halo” game I’ve played in years. And for me, that’s enough.

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