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'Halo 5: Guardians' is good fun, but it's better with friends

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I'm a pretty huge video game fan, but I've never played a minute of the Halo series in my life; I've never even owned an Xbox console. As such, it's somewhat appropriate that a preview of Halo 5: Guardians was my introduction to the series -- it's the first Halo game for the Xbox One, and it's undoubtedly a title that Microsoft is looking at as a system seller. The game shouldn't have a hard time getting long-time fans back into the fold, but what about someone like me?

As an outsider to the series, it doesn't feel particularly welcoming. There's a huge amount of story lore to know about Halo at this point -- and, perhaps more importantly, the fifth game in a series probably assumes some gameplay and story knowledge on the part of participants. As someone without that knowledge, I was hoping developer 343 Industries managed to make the latest entry welcoming for noobs and veterans alike.

Unfortunately, at this point, the verdict is still out. At a media-only event in San Francisco last week, I played through two single-player missions of Halo 5, but they weren't consecutive, nor were they the missions at the start of the game. I jumped right in with Master Chief and Blue Team in mission two, and then followed that up by getting my first look at Jameson Locke and his team in the game's tenth mission.

The Master Chief mission was set deep in a cold, dark, and generally unfriendly space station, complete with the obligatory (but beautiful) views out the windows of the desolation and emptiness of space. Your mission is to try and reclaim the station, but things go awry and instead you're forced to activate a nuclear reactor and blow the place to smithereens. The Locke mission takes place in an entirely different environment; the goal being to take out a massive spaceship called the Kraken that's laying siege to the rocky, sun-baked canyons and mountains of the planet you've landed on. But beyond each mission's immediate goals, I had no sense of how these events were of importance to the overall narrative. The Halo universe is complicated, almost byzantine, and I had no real sense of what each character's motivations were at any point aside from "don't die."

That said, it doesn't seem fair to judge a game's story elements when you're not playing from the beginning. Fortunately, the jumbled story didn't detract from Halo 5's other delights. Yes, it might be hard to jump right into the universe if you're new to the series, but from a gameplay perspective, Halo remains as tight a first-person shooter experience as you can get. It's an extremely polished affair, with controls that are easily grasped. If you've ever played any console-based FPS game before, you'll be right at home here. The game runs smoothly at 60fps, and exudes a level of polish that makes you confident about what you're getting into. It's the definition of a "AAA" title. Overall, though, the missions weren't exactly memorable -- even a day later, I had a hard time trying to remember exactly what I was trying to accomplish.

The gameplay was refreshingly varied, though: Both episodes featured plenty of first-person shooting, but there was also some fun (and challenging) vehicle-based sections that did a great job of breaking up wave after wave of enemies. The Locke mission had a particularly thrilling section where you needed to fly into the heart of Kraken, land on the ship after dispatching a number of turrets, and then fight your way into its depths to blow up the core. It's the kind of well-executed action set piece that could set the game apart from the many other titles like it.

Even the alien-killing didn't get tired due to continually-changing environments. In particular, each mission had a lot of depth. There's a lot of action happening above and below you, making it extra-challenging to know where to train your attention while clearing out a part of the map. But even though the majority of the missions involved mowing down hordes of Covenant Grunts, Elites, Jackals and Hunters, they felt significantly less repetitive than those in Destiny, which is perhaps the most obvious point of comparison.

Still, I wouldn't characterize the single-player experience as anything unexpected, nor was it particularly engaging or all that difficult. But that all changed when I got to try the co-op missions with three fellow human players. When you're playing by yourself, Halo 5's AI controls the other three members of your team; at no point did I ever really feel those companions were much of a help or a hinderance. They were just there.

In co-op, that's entirely different. The game ramps up the difficulty to account for your human-controlled companions. Fortunately, this made the whole experience a lot more fun. There were at least two sections where our team battled several massive Hunters as well as hordes of more standard enemies, and we had to be far more cautious and deliberate than in the single-player campaign. Case in point: If more than two of your teammates are down and waiting for assistance, chances are you're going to have to start over from scratch. The relief and feeling of success after getting past these tough sections was palpable -- something that didn't come across while playing solo.

Would Halo 5: Guardians be enough to get me to buy an Xbox One? Based on the what I saw of the single-player preview, probably not -- this title will most likely appeal to the (large) group of hardcore fans out there, and will probably sell a bunch of Xbox Ones to those who haven't come on board yet. As for a noob like me, playing with friends made me realize that multiplayer -- and in particular, this new co-op mode -- is the way to best enjoy Halo. It's been the series' strength since the very beginning, and Halo 5 seems poised to succeed again on the strength of that shared experience.

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