Whatever goodwill 343 Industries earned from its work on Halo 4 didn't last for long. Frankly, the launch of The Master Chief Collection was calamitous enough to rain on any parade, even with a franchise as long-running and blockbusting as Halo. As Polygon rightly points out in its review of Halo 5: Guardians, the stakes have seldom been higher than right now. Bungie is fighting a new battle with Destiny, the Xbox One is a distant second in the console war, and 343's second Halo game arrives with, "trust in the franchise at what may be an all-time low."
For the most part, critics agree that Guardians does enough to restore that faith, in both the franchise and its native platform. Indeed, Polygon's 9 out of 10 review dwells on how "beautiful" Halo 5 looks, echoing compliments widely paid to 343's work on Halo 4.
"There are genuinely spectacular set-piece moments within the campaign that go far beyond the skybox fireworks that have defined previous Halo titles, and the sense of discovery and awe that 343 injected back into the series with Halo 4 is in effect. The new generation of console hardware is also used to aggressively push forward on some of the neat visual design sensibilities from the last time around.
"The sense of discovery and awe that 343 injected back into the series with Halo 4 is in effect"Polygon
"Sixty frames per second has been a steady talking point for 343, a drum beaten hard enough to be greeted with some skepticism. But it makes a pronounced difference in how Halo plays in a universally positive way. Halo 5 isn't the first Halo game to run at 60 fps - last year's Master Chief Collection boasted a similar performance target for all of its remastered titles. But where MCC often struggled to maintain that target, Halo 5 is unwavering.
"Movement in MCC felt slippery, a little like skating, but that's nowhere to be found in Halo 5. It's smoother than previous games, but it's also as satisfyingly tactile as the series has ever been."
Much has been made about the technical differences between Xbox One and PlayStation 4, so in that sense 343 scores an early point. If Microsoft needed an advert for the capabilities of the Xbox One, in Halo 5: Guardians it has found just that. The Telegraph reinforces this point, emphasising the size and intricacy of the environments compared to Halo 4. And that extra space provides a platform for new abilities, designed "to make you feel more like the seven-foot, bionic-armour-clad super-solider you are supposed to be." Add to that an ever-present squad of three allies - which can be either player or AI controlled - and Guardians offers a sense of scale not seen since, arguably, the original game.
"Arenas are wide and vertiginous, with plenty of vantage points and cover spots for your squad to take up. A great deal of Guardians takes place in the open-air and while levels are - to all intents and purposes - great big corridors, there is enough variety in the setting and topography to keep things interesting.
"Whoever you fight, there is a consistently intoxicating rhythm to Halo's shuddering ballet. Weapon ammo is quickly exhausted, but a selection of the game's arsenal - human, covenant and Promethean - always litters the battlefield. Each fight is a breathless scrap, running clips dry against an overwhelming force, making dashes under fire to scoop up fresh ammo, snap decisions on armament (shotgun? Sniper rifle? Energy sword?). Guardians' combat takes Halo's classic, compulsive loop and bolsters it, packing more variety into its core systems than any other shooter."
Nobody should be expecting a reinvented wheel so far into the series, but it's clear that 343's specific kind of progress involves a breadth of change rather than radical innovation in any specific area. The core appeal of Halo has been maintained, so the gameplay across both the campaign and multiplayer modes will almost certainly satisfy those with an established fondness for the formula, while the tweaks go some way towards making it feel modern.
"Guardians' combat packs more variety into its core systems than any other shooter"The Telegraph
Not every new idea works, however. Giant Bomb's 4-star review - not every available review carries a score, mostly down to The Master Chief Collection's technical woes - notes the absence of pre-existing multiplayer modes and features, speculating that it may be down to the development of Warzone, a show-piece 12-on-12 mode that plays out on larger maps.
"It's a thrilling upgrade to the standard style of Halo multiplayer, but also one that comes with a caveat or two of its own," the review says, drawing attention to a new "card-and-pack-based set of features" by the name of REQ. "For playing multiplayer, you'll earn REQ points. These points can be spent on card packs, which come in bronze, silver, and gold variants... You earn quite a few REQ points by simply playing the game, and additional card packs are granted to you when you level up, so it seems unlikely that you'll ever be completely out of things to deploy.
"The higher-end card packs, of course, can also be purchased with real money. This stinks up the joint a little bit and makes you feel like the opposing team could have just bought a bunch of gold packs to call in the best stuff at the end of a match, rather than relying solely on their skill. Does the idea of paid consumables destroy Warzone? No, absolutely not. But even when I was playing pre-release, a day or two prior to paid cards being available, the whole thing felt a bit... icky. By assigning a real-world value to these cards, the decision to use them starts to have ramifications beyond simply activating an in-game item. That additional 'layer of strategy', if you will, doesn't add to the experience."
Note the use of the term "of course" when introducing the idea that REQ packs will be available for real money. It's entirely appropriate. Indeed, it would be more surprising if a system like that hadn't found its way into a Halo game by 2015. When a franchise has been running for 15 years - and the 15 years are specifically those between 2000 and 2015 - there is bound to be tension between preservation and progress.
Eurogamer notes various manifestations of that tension, most obviously in Guardians' premise, which alternates between Master Chief and a second protagonist called Spartan Locke. The series has been here before in Halo 2, when a great many people griped at having to play as the Arbiter. However, while that was a narrative flourish, with Guardians it feels more calculated. "It's desperate to establish new characters within the Halo universe. If Halo is to grow with ever more spin-offs and books and animations and god knows what else, it can't be only about Master Chief."
"Throughout it all, I couldn't help but notice this nagging feeling that Halo 5 was old-fashioned"Eurogamer
But where is the line between too far and not far enough? Will 343 still be treading that same line when Halo's fans desert the franchise, distracted by new experiences even as they commend Halo 8 for staying true to its heritage? The conclusion to Eurogamer's impressions demonstrates this logical collision. Without naming any specific games, Guardians is both chided and praised for shirking the hooks and riffs that define this genre in 2015; the same hooks and riffs that have allowed Bungie's Destiny to maintain its grip over millions of players even a year after launch.
"Throughout it all, I couldn't help but notice this nagging feeling that Halo 5 was old-fashioned. In the age of open worlds, hub and spoke designs and persistent, experience point-powered shared-world shooters, Halo 5's linear, cut-scene-packed campaign just doesn't cut it. There's no levelling up here, nor are there materials to farm, public quests to soldier through, or talents to unlock. At first, I thought, Halo could do with all these things. I enjoy these things, and Halo doesn't have them.
"But perhaps the fact Halo 5 doesn't have these things is its strength. Perhaps because every triple-A game nowadays has the same underlying mechanics, those same soft-grind, RPG-lite bits and bobs designed to prey on the bit of our brain that demands the numbers always go up, Halo 5's eight hour long campaign stands out. 343 might have played it safe here in an attempt to get the Halo hardcore back onside, but the result is pure, unadulterated, old-fashioned Halo fun - and that's great."