The Master Chief talks to his squadmates in Halo 5: Guardians.

Halo used to be the series that would get me to buy a new console just to play the latest instalment. This time around… well, it still worked, but I’m nowhere near as positive about the whole experience. Here I delve into my video game backlog to play Halo 5: Guardians.

Halo 5: Guardians (Rated M)
For Xbox One
Copy purchased

Time Enough At Last logo
About time I played through and watched all this stuff I’ve been collecting. Work can wait, right? …Right?

Technically, this is the game that convinced me to buy an Xbox One. I had bought an original Xbox in 2001 to play Halo: Combat Evolved, and bought the Xbox 360 to play Crackdown (and thus, the Halo 3 multiplayer beta), so it was kind of a tradition.

Even with the lacklustre if technically impressive Halo 4, and the diabolically bad launch of the X-Bone, I was eventually persuaded; EB Games had an offer that halved the machine’s launch price, and threw in five Halo games. (Well, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which includes Halos 1 through 4.) So Halo 5 was me diving back into the Xbox ecosystem after a few years in Playstationland with the PS4.

And… eurgh. Even before booting up Halo 5 for the first time, the Bone did nothing to impress me. For a start, a brand-new Bone needs a mandatory 1Gb patch before the system will even work. I did know about this coming in, and 1Gb isn’t that stressful, but what I wasn’t impressed with was that it took five attempts to download the whole thing. And this is before you can do anything at all with the machine.

Next, installation. Again, the PS4 also requires games to be installed to the hard drive before play, so this was fine; what wasn’t fine was the 50Gb mandatory patch before you could play online. Luckily my internet provider at the time didn’t count Xbox Live downloads towards my cap.

From there I forgot about the game for a while; I played through the Master Chief Collection to relive the earlier Halos, and then other things came out and I went away for a while and life took over. Eventually, though, Halo 5 worked its way back into the disc drive, and… immediately demanded another 55Gb update. Again, thank Dobbs for unlimited NBN plans (although, again, this took two attempts to download before the game actually worked.)

Screenshot showing download of 55Gb patch for Halo 5.
So much for plug-and-play.

I generally play Halo for the campaigns; the Bungie-era games had an interesting storyline and some neat set-pieces. I did play enough multiplayer in Halo 3 to reach the rank of Captain, but quit after spending a round of Rocket Race being showered in homophobic slurs by my random American teammate. And we were winning. I mean, I have the internet; I could easily get abused by people for free, rather than spending $80 a year on Xbox Live. Also, he thought I was a Pom, which really hurt.

The story doesn’t really follow the Master Chief at all- for most of the game you play as Spartan Locke, the leader of a four-person fire team that is pursuing Master Chief. A handful of chapters have you play as the Chief as his squad searches for Cortana, the AI he had to leave behind at the end of Halo 4, but for most of the game you’re part of the team trying to find the team. The squad mechanic seems to be an excuse to get Nathan Fillion’s character back from Halo 3: ODST; there’s even a chapter named after a Firefly meme; but the banter between the characters doesn’t get annoying. (Although the game does commit the sin of having checkpoints before scripted conversations, so if you’re struggling with a particular battle, enjoy hearing the same lines over and over!)

Nathan Fillion as Edward Buck in Halo 5: Guardians.
We aim to misbehave.

As well as the Covenant enemies that are part of Halo canon, the Prometheans (unfun, teleporting bullet sponges) make a return from Halo 4. There are 15 missions in all, but two of those have no combat whatsoever and consist of ‘find dude, talk to dude, find computer terminal, listen to message, find exit’. It ends on a cliffhanger, much like Halo 2 did but not quite as abrupt- the story regarding our protagonists at least gets resolved, but the Big Bad gets away to prepare for the events of Halo 6.

The gameplay itself is… I hesitate to say that it doesn’t ‘feel like’ Halo, but it feels more like Gears of War in that H5 is squad-based, there’s a ‘down but not out’ mechanism where your squadmates have a window in which to revive you if you are downed, there seems to be more emphasis on cover-based tactics… and if you aren’t playing in co-operative mode in the campaign, your squadmates are as thick as two short planks.

Relying on the AI to provide any kind of assistance at all is a crapshoot at best. They will gleefully run headlong into situations where stealth (or at least, being quiet) would save a whole lot of heartache; the traditional Halo trope of ‘room full of sleeping bad guys’ is used a few times here but your team doesn’t understand the concept of silent melee attacks. They don’t seem to do a lot of damage, either; they can eventually kill things but it seems to take forever. Presumably this is to avoid the scenario in Halo: Reach where you could just give your invincible squadmates rocket launchers and hide while they clean up the opposition. (I beat Reach on Legendary difficulty this way.)

At other times, they won’t fire at all and will quite happily stand directly in the sights of a gun turret until they’re sliced to ribbons and begging for you to risk your own skin to revive them- rarely a useful tactic, given they respawn if you’re patient and can wait a minute or so.

A number of enemies require some teamwork, because they need to be shot in the back; you need someone to draw their fire so that you can get behind the enemy and plug them in their weak spots. But the AI won’t do that, preferring to hold its ground and plink away at heavily-armored foes, so it’s up to you to do the heavy lifting. And the enemy AI knows it- it seems to target the player character almost exclusively at times, ignoring your squadmates because they pose no significant threat. This becomes particularly problematic in the boss fights against the Wardens; the Wardens can spawn reinforcements, only take real damage if hit from behind, and have multiple attacks that are one-hit kills, and once you’re down you might as well reload a save because your team will either ignore you completely until you bleed out, or make a beeline for you through no man’s land and get cut down instantly by the one-hit-kill slaughter machine.

Gameplay from Halo 5: Guardians.
No spoilers here- this is the first campaign level.

Speaking of boss fights, fighting one Warden is bad enough given how dim your team is, but 343 Industries’ idea of ramping up the difficulty in the later campaign is “just add more dudes lol”. Three heavily-armoured guys that can’t be injured from the front, need active distraction from your squad otherwise they all converge on you, and have instakill attacks (including a ranged homing attack)? Swell.

Some of these problems can be solved by playing co-operatively with other people, rather than relying on the computer companions; but unlike previous Halo games, there is no option for splitscreen local co-op. You’re forced to use Xbox Live. And while the campaign is still doable, at least on Heroic, I shudder to think what Legendary would be like with only the AI to help you.

Is there loads of stuff to unlock? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are hundreds of customisation options for your character to use in multiplayer; helmets, armor, emblems, weapon skins, and the like. But you can’t ‘unlock’ them; H5 hides them behind a random loot-box mechanism that requires you to grind out the in-game currency, called Req, or (obviously Microsoft’s preferred option) that you just pony up more real money to buy Req packs. A handful of armor types are unlocked if you have a Master Chief Collection save, or if you preordered the game from certain retailers, but everything else is just blind luck and perseverance. There also seems to be a bit of a pay-to-win element as the Req unlockables include weapons and vehicles, but again, I haven’t dived into the multiplayer.

Screen showing lootbox purchase availability in Halo 5: Guardians.
$140 for virtual armour? I only paid $300 for the console and the game.

Overall? If you’re just buying the game for the campaign and can get it fairly cheaply, it’s… alright, but gets intensely frustrating at times. I might come back to it if I’m persuaded to re-up for Xbox Live again to see how the multiplayer works, but on the strength of the campaign Halo is no longer ‘the game I’d buy a new console to play’. And I’m a little saddened by that, even if it will save me some money down the line.