Halo 5: Guardians

The flashy television commercials for Halo 5: Guardians would have you believe that Master Chief, hero of Earth and the scourge to the Covenant, has “gone rogue” giving cause for the UNSC to send out a squad of new SPARTAN-IVs to track him down. In truth, the afternoon-long campaign is not nearly dramatic nor interesting as suggested. Without spoiling anything, the story in Halo 5: Guardians is a drab, paint by numbers piece of fiction that fails to leave a memorable impression. John Locke, ONI officer turned SPARTAN, is ordered by the UNSC to locate an AWOL Master Chief after receiving a signal thought to be from Cortana, whose fate was left uncertain in Halo 4. The idea of Locke going up against a loose cannon is a cool one and yet, the truth is that 343 and Microsoft advertised an encounter that has no bearing on what’s inside the box. There is no context for the circumstances behind the dramatic shots of Locke standing before a seemingly broken Master Chief on the TV ads. One wonders if the deceit was intentional (marketing is the name of the game these days) or if Halo 5: Guardians went through the same alleged late game story change ups like affected Bungie’s Destiny.

Guardians is the middle chapter of a new trilogy, and as such, it has to pull double duty by addressing the story beats from the previous game while setting up the denouement. Guardians doesn’t do well with either. The Prometheans have spread out across the galaxy and serve as Locke’s and Chief’s primary antagonists. The Covenant are still around, because of course they are, and there’s very little to suggest what role they play beyond cannon fodder. It’s the same with the Prometheans. Halo 4’s story feels like ancient history to me now and I can’t remember if they managed to get off Requiem after Master Chief put an end to the Didact’s plans. Their presence continues to muddy the narrative because there’s no clear cut reason for their existence other than to be shot at. There’s a larger story that involves a series of massive sentinels called Guardians that are being activated and sent to a far away planet. Cool as these things look and act, their existence does very little to convey danger and urgency. It’d be great to see them in action, to understand what sort of threat they pose to the universe and why they must be stopped. Instead, Halo 5’s campaign comes off as a cacophony of all-too-familiar explosions, yelling, grunting, and more explosions. Locke and Master Chief are set up to be foils and yet there’s nothing to really distinguish them from each other. Master Chief isn’t a slave to his ideals and Locke is far from being the UNSC lapdog. Furthermore, with the exception of Nathan Fillion’s portrayal of Edward Buck, the people who make up both Osiris and Blue Team bring no personality to the table.

If judged strictly by its campaign, Halo 5: Guardians is a regrettable adventure that fails to stand out from its predecessors. Once again, multiplayer is here to pick up the slack. Guardians shakes up its online pedigree in a way that left me pleasantly surprised. Multiplayer is split between two modes: Arena and Warzone. Arena represents “classic” Halo online. Game modes like Slayer, Free For All, Team Slayer, SWAT (no radar, no shields) and weekly gameplay variants like (Snipers and Shotguns) pit eight players against each other in small, tight maps punctuated by respawning power weapons. Playing Arena is like living in a bubble, albeit a fun bubble, because it doesn’t come with the advancements and gameplay twists that define the star of the show: Warzone.   

In a series as hallowed as this, change can be scary. At first, I was put off by the idea of a card-based big team battle with MOBA trappings. After spending a lot of time playing it with a friend, it quickly became our favorite way to play. Warzone, and its sister mode Warzone Assault, is set within large maps that accommodate twenty-four players in a type of base defense game. In Warzone Assault, teams take turns defending and capturing landmarks with the overall goal of destroying a team’s power reactor. Warzone operates on the same principle, except that landmarks can be retaken and AI controlled mobs and bosses made up of Covenant and Promethean warriors spawn in random locations. Killing these enemies adds point boosts to a team’s score, giving the losing side a chance to turn the tide of battle.

You won’t find advanced weapons and vehicles lying around in Warzone maps. Instead, kits like Battle Rifles, Spartan Lasers, Warthogs, Ghosts, Banshees and the like are treated as consumables through the brand new REQ system. Requisitions are essentially packs of virtual cards that let you call in weapons and gear during Warzone battles. Every card, with the exception of cosmetic items, has a point value that must be spent in order to be put in play. Requisition points are earned in the field by killing the other team, hunting down AI mobs, and capturing bases. While most of the available REQ cards are burned after a single use, there are those that offer unlimited use of certain weapons. If Battle Rifles are your thing, once you get the special REQ card, you’ll always have one to call on.

REQ cards range in value, from Common to Legendary, which means there’s a chance you’ll acquire high end equipment and even weapon variations. The card packs themselves come in three flavors, Bronze, Silver, and Gold, with Gold offering the highest chance of valuable cards. Packs can be purchased using points acquired in-game (earned by winning matches, killing other players, and playing to the objective) or with money. Paying with your wallet is an option, however the game grants a lot of free REQ packs when you rank up or complete performance based objectives (headshots, grenade kills, base defense, etc). To diffuse arguments that the REQ system turns Halo 5 into a “pay to win” scenario, the whole system feels tightly controlled thanks to the Requisition points. It guarantees that no one on the opposite team will start the match with a fleet of Scorpion tanks and Spartan Lasers. The arms race has a nice progression, and it's cool to see everyone start out with assault rifles and pistols and only to escalate to the point where the map is littered with destroyed vehicles and dropped power weapons.

I like Warzone. And I like REQs. It’s a nice spin on the classic design that makes for some really interesting engagements and to me, they never felt like an egregious attempt to take your money. Hell, with as many Mongoose cards you’ll get in every single REQ pack, you’ll make enough points to buy new packs after selling them all off. Arena is still fun and a nice break from the epicly long tug-of-war battles that define Warzone Assault. Regardless of whatever mode you find yourself in, the action is as fast, furious, and thrilling as it ever was. The multiplayer does well as a palate cleanser to the bland, forgettable campaign. And 343’s commitment to expanding the online side of things for the next eight months will make Locke’s story all the more irrelevant over time. Halo 5: Guardians obviously isn’t meant to be played for its by the numbers campaign. If your love for Halo falls strictly within the realm of multiplayer, then prepare yourself for a grand old time.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.