The Xbox One X does wonders for Halo 3. Splashed onto a big 4K telly by Microsoft's ultra-powerful new console, Bungie's decade-old first-person shooter looks better than most shooters released today. I dipped back into Halo 3 while waiting for bigger, well, massive modern games to download onto the Xbox One X's 1TB hard-drive, and Master Chief did a merry dance to my plucked nostalgia-coated heartstrings.
The original Halo Wars ends by putting itself in stasis, with the human warship Spirit of Fire coasting through void - its crew forced into cryosleep, its ultimate relation to the rest of the saga left open for debate. The in-game explanation for this uncertain denouement is the loss of the vessel's Faster Than Light drive. The creative rationale was perhaps Bungie's intense ambivalence about handing the keys to its universe over to Ensemble, developer of the Age of Empires games. Packed with all the floaty jeeps and energy swords a Halo fan could wish for, the plot of Halo Wars nonetheless sits at a careful remove from the numbered Halos, offering a separate cast and events that, for all their dizzying import, never quite overlap with the antics of Master Chief and co. Fast-forward to 2017, and even as the robust-looking Halo Wars 2 approaches release, there's the sense that the Spirit of Fire's fate has become that of Halo as a whole - a mass of trailing story threads and lost souls, waiting for somebody to give it a heading.
In the run up to the release of Halo 5, I thought a lot about the state of the series in 2015, how my feelings about Master Chief and Cortana and the endless fight to save the universe had changed over the years, and Destiny.
It took my Xbox One more than a day to download Halo 5 on an extremely fast connection: the power of the cloud, eh? It felt like I was back on the Dreamcast. But let's be honest, slow downloads are the least of Xbox One's problems: last week I read an article headlined 'The Xbox One is Garbage and the Future is Bulls***.' While I don't agree, it was hard to read about mandatory installs, updates, and other tiresome minutiae without some empathy. We've all been there and, in the grip of frustration, many of us react by letting rip like this.
When it comes to Microsoft's presence in the console space, there is no franchise more synonymous with the Xbox brand than Halo. The original Halo: Combat Evolved redefined the first-person shooter for the console space and helped to make the Xbox brand a success. However, when Bungie, the creators of Halo, stepped away from the franchise in 2010, Microsoft was left with no choice but to build a studio capable of taking Halo forward. That studio is 343 Industries and with Halo 5: Guardians, we get our first taste of the genre-defining shooter running on the latest generation of console hardware.
Playing Halo 5's campaign, you get the feeling developer 343 is being pulled in two opposing directions: one direction heads towards the tried and trusted Halo gameplay perfected by Bungie before Microsoft took over development duties after the release of Halo: Reach, the other direction heads towards a need to grow the Halo franchise while establishing new characters.
There's a moment during Halo 5's story campaign when developer 343 teases us. Master Chief, grizzled super soldier and veteran of countless battles, prepares to lead yet another crucial mission on yet another mysterious spaceship full of even more dangerous aliens. He sits in the cockpit of his dropship, iconic dark green space marine helmet in his hands, and stares. As he moves to put the helmet on, the camera pans in such a way as to ensure part of the dropship obscures his face. Then the helmet is on, the tease complete. Almost, but no cigar.
It's almost time once again to don the helmet of Sierra 117 - the Master Chief. 343 Industries returns for its second shot at the Halo franchise with Halo 5: Guardians. After recently attending a preview event for the game, we walked away with hundreds of gigs of direct feed lossless video, giving us one last chance to examine the title before it ships this October. While this isn't the final build we're looking at here, it's likely very close - and in this case, that's a good thing as the game is shaping up to be something very impressive.
During the Enemy Lines level from Halo 5's campaign, which takes place around halfway through the game, Spartan Locke leads Fireteam Osiris into a huge goldfish bowl of an arena set on Sanghelios, homeworld of the Elites. Arbiter has formed a new alliance called the Swords of Sanghelios, and Osiris lends Master Chief's alien mate a hand in putting down the Covenant. It's all kicking off.
What a difference one man and 18 months can make. Before Phil Spencer took over at Xbox, the brand was in troubled waters. Questionable policy decisions had shook Xbox and mired the early days of its new console in acrimony, and even though Microsoft wisely chose to listen to concerned consumers it's been working hard to regain the momentum lost ever since. As it heads into a vital fourth quarter of 2015, the momentum has definitely returned: the broadening of the Xbox brand to PC was helped by the relatively smooth roll-out of Windows 10, the Xbox division just turned a neat profit and, while it still falls short in sales to Sony's PlayStation 4, its line-up for the remainder of the year looks significantly stronger than its opposition's.
After surviving the difficult months following the release of Halo: the Master Chief Collection, 343 Industries is just about ready to unleash Halo 5 - the first full-blooded new-gen outing for the franchise. In addition to a revamped multiplayer, the campaign's set to last twice as long as its predecessor, with missions spread across three worlds built on an entirely new graphics engine - so we could well be looking at the most dramatic change in series history. This is not the Halo you know and love, but this new creation still has a lot of potential, with 343i intent on winning over and expanding the series' dedicated fanbase. We were given a chance to check out the latest Halo 5 code behind closed doors this year at Gamescom and walked away impressed by what we saw.
Echoing the reveal of its predecessor three years ago, Microsoft kicked off its E3 media briefing this year with a first look at Halo 5: Guardians' single-player campaign. A new approach to mission design and a host of new characters combine with a fresh coat of paint to present something that feels both new and familiar. Last December's multiplayer beta already highlighted a number of changes to the core formula, but it's only with this new demo that we're able to fully appreciate this new direction and to get a real idea of the full scope of 343's vision for its first true 'next-gen' Halo.
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Ushering in the new year, the Halo 5: Guardians beta opens the gates to 343 Industries' rewritten Xbox One engine, its dedicated servers, and its strike out for full 60fps playback. The three-week sampler is very addictive as is, even with months of development left, showing a game that is recognisably still Halo at its core. But have the opportunities offered by the Xbox One hardware affected the gameplay balance from previous games at all - or is this all just about surface?
Map rotation is in its second phase now, leaving behind the industrial Empire and the covenant-themed Truth map (based on Halo 2's popular Midship) in favour of the arcade inspired Breakout, plus Regret and Eden. We've been playing the beta for a while now, so our focus for this piece is on the original two stages, but even with the new maps in play, it's clear that 343 Industries still has its laser-focus on 4v4 slayer games for the purposes of testing.
A close comparison with Halo 4 in its Master Chief Collection guise is illuminating. Although Halo 5's pace is improved by the addition of new moves, such as ledge-grabbing and mid-air boosts (bearing an uncanny similarity to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's agile controls), the technical advances behind the game are largely focused on the visual effects running over the top. On paper this is the least we can expect from an Xbox One rendition of Halo, but in practise it has a range of repercussions, both for better and worse.
Is Halo 5's competitive multiplayer a drastic departure or a return to the series' roots? For me, having played the game for a few hours, it's a bit of both. Fresh and familiar, Guardians' PVP walks a fine line between giving Halo the kick up the arse it perhaps needs on Xbox One, and staying true to what made Bungie's seminal first-person shooter series so special.
The first time I played Halo 5: Guardians' competitive multiplayer it felt odd because I could zoom in and fire the Assault Rifle.
Ah, the Assault Rifle - the Mario of Halo's arsenal. The default gun, the classic all-rounder: good at close range, big clip, wide spread. And, in every Halo game, fired from the hip.
But in Halo 5: Guardians, 343 Industries' second Halo game and its first for the Xbox One, firing the Assault Rifle from the hip is no longer the only option. In Halo 5: Guardians, you can zoom in and use a scope for precise damage. What's going on?
Let's get this one out of the way nice and early: we don't know much about Halo 5, or Halo for Xbox One, or Halo: whatever it ends up being called.
2014 is upon us, and it promises riches and glory unlike any year before it. With their launches under their belts, the next generation of consoles will, hopefully, show us what they're made of. Virtual reality headsets may make their mark on the mainstream. And with a raft of crowdfunded games due out over the next 12 months, 2014 should tell us whether all that money we pumped into promising projects on Kickstarter was worth it.