For developer 343 Industries, the honeymoon period is over. It's been three years since Halo 4 came out for the Xbox 360. Halo 5, built for the more powerful Xbox One, is the studios' second shot at what was once the biggest franchise in gaming. Now, after all the marketing hype, after all the flashy television adverts, after all the fictional investigative audio files on Soundcloud, after all the promoted tweets and the carefully constructed hashtags, has 343 done enough to step out of Bungie's shadow and into the spotlight?
Halo 5 works in much the same way as previous games in the series. The "Golden Triangle" of shoot, grenade and melee is once again core to the gameplay. The "30 seconds of fun" design, where you're thrust into mammoth levels and expertly drip-fed frantic firefights, is present and correct. Your Spartan, a super soldier who wears tank-like armour, feels as powerful and weighty as you'd expect. You really do thunder around the virtual battlefield, smashing through walls, punching aliens and ripping turrets out of concrete.
But this time you're more mobile. The addition of sprint as a default Spartan ability upset some Halo fans when it was revealed, but I find it fits snugly into Halo 5. Your thruster pack powers air boosts, dodges, a shoulder charge and a ground pound move (nail someone with the tricky to pull off ground pound in PVP and you'll find it hard to resist cheering). There's also the addition of a clamber, which lets you climb up onto platforms. All these abilities combine to give Halo 5 impressively fluid movement that helps you quickly and efficiently climb up to the high ground or sniff out flanking positions. The fact Halo 5 whizzes along at 60 frames per second is a wonderful bonus.
A word on aim down sights. 343 has given every weapon in the game, including the iconic UNSC Assault Rifle, a zoom function. For Halo, a series that for years has favoured firing from the hip, this is big news. But, like the addition of sprint, the addition of ADS feels right for Halo 5. There's no noticeable damage difference between firing from the hip and firing from ADS, although of course your zoomed in headshots are easier to land. For balance, if you're shot while zooming in, you're booted out of ADS. It's one of many examples of 343 subtly modernising Halo's combat without upsetting the purity of The Golden Triangle.
You might have heard about Warzone, Halo's new 12 versus 12 mode. It's the most interesting thing to happen to Halo multiplayer in years. On huge maps you battle the opposing team as well as computer-controlled aliens who spawn in periodically. To win, your team must score 1000 points or destroy the enemy team's core, the latter of which only reveals itself once you've captured three bases.
Warzone gives you a real sense of being embroiled in a large-scale skirmish that escalates over time. In a neat touch, you begin the game sat in a dropship that spits you and your teammates out into a base overrun by Promethean soldiers. Defeat these computer-controlled enemies to claim your first base. Then it's on to the next base, via more Promethean soldiers. You probably won't encounter other enemy Spartans until a minute or two into the match.
There's more than a whiff of the multiplayer online battle arena about Warzone, and that's no bad thing. There's a real sense of an early game, a mid-game and a late game as players level up within the match and in the process open up ever more powerful weapons, vehicles and power ups. By end game you might have a Wraith shooting at a Scorpion tank that's shooting at a Spartan who's trying to down a Banshee with a Rocket Launcher.
Most of your time will be spent trying to capture enemy bases - that's where the bulk of points are won. But you'll find yourself distracted by the computer-controlled enemies who spawn in to the map. These can be tough mini-boss encounters way too difficult to tackle on your own, but they're often too tempting to resist: sometimes you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by scoring hundreds of points from nabbing the last hit on a Promethean bad guy.
Warzone is an absolute blast, but it's hard in the sense that success relies upon teamwork and, based on my time with Halo 5, teamwork is thin on the ground. You hear the occasional player mouth something incomprehensible into their headset, but, generally, players don't communicate, which is a shame, as Warzone really benefits from even the most cursory of coordination. If you can play with friends, do it. Your Warzone experience will be better for it.
Here's the tricky microtransactions bit. In an ideal world, Halo 5, a full price game, wouldn't have microtransactions at all. Alas, we do not live in an ideal world. But at least 343 has come up with a deft way of incorporating microtransactions into the game.
343, clearly inspired by the likes of FIFA Ultimate Team and Hearthstone, lets players buy Requisitions, which come in the form of virtual cards sold in packs. Loadout Requisitions (weapons, vehicles and boosts) are for use in Warzone only. Cosmetic Requisitions (helmets, visors, weapon skins and the like) can be used in both Warzone and the Arena modes. So, the first thing to say is, Warzone is where your Requisition inventory comes into play.
In Warzone, you level up as you play. With each level you gain more, powerful Requisitions are available for you to spawn into the map. Say, for example, you hit level three. That means you can spawn in a level three vehicle, such as a Ghost.
Here's where 343 has been smart: your level mid-match only unlocks the ability to spawn the equivalent Requisition. To actually spawn it in, you'll also need the appropriate amount of Energy. And once you've spent your Energy, say, three points of it, it's gone.
Your REQ level and Energy is driven by player and team performance, so you can't, for example, start a match in a Scorpion tank. You'll need to play for a decent amount of time and do well enough to be at the appropriate REQ Level and have enough Energy to call a tank in. And, of course, you'll need a Scorpion tank Requisition in your inventory.
It's worth noting that Requisitions you'd think would give you a leg-up in Warzone are consumables that expire after use. I've got an ultra rare Mantic mech Requisition in my inventory, but I'm loath to use it, because once I do, it's gone. I'm more inclined to spawn in Ghosts and Power Weapons, for which I have plenty of Requisitions and are likely to get plenty more through normal play.
It's a deft act of balancing. The use of ultra powerful weapons and vehicles comes at a cost not just to your current Energy mid-match, but also your Requisition inventory. And you can't just buy individual REQs, handing over a tenner, say, for five Scorpion tanks. By doing the FIFA Ultimate and Hearthstone thing of selling packs of cards that only guarantee a certain number of a certain quality of card, you can't brute force your way to the vehicle or gun you want with wads of cash.
The question was always going to be how generously Halo 5 doled out REQ Points through normal play. You earn REQ Packs from levelling up your Spartan Rank and completing Commendations (multiplayer-specific achievements), and you earn REQ Points from playing Warzone and Arena.
343 reckons you earn around 2000RP for a game of Warzone and just under 1000RP for a game of Arena, which, based on my time with the game, is about right. A Gold REQ Pack costs 10,000RP. So, you need to play around five games of Warzone to gain enough RP to buy a Gold pack.
Halo 5 doesn't shower you with free packs or REQ Points, but it's hardly stingy with them either. I've already opened a handful of Gold packs with the in-game currency, and feel like I receive a steady stream of packs just through levelling up and completing Commendations. By sticking with Bronze REQ Packs, which cost 1250RP, I've been able to buy and open a pack after each Warzone match, or after two Arena matches. In short, I've not felt the need to fork out real world money in order to compete.
Halo 5 isn't pay-to-win, then. But it is pay-to-give-you-a-small-chance-of-having-access-to-toys-that-will-help-you-win-if-you-manage-to-unlock-them-in-a-match. Phew!
If you don't fancy any of this microtransaction guff, you can always stick to Arena, which offers traditional Halo competitive multiplayer modes such as Slayer, Capture the Flag, and Strongholds with, crucially, even starts. As someone who put hundreds of hours into the competitive side of Bungie's Halo games, playing Halo 5's main Arena playlist feels like coming home. After an hour or so of Warzone, Arena's old-school, Red versus Blue PVP welcomes you with open arms, a familiar embrace that rekindles memories of Halo 2's wonderful, groundbreaking multiplayer.
Buried within Arena is Breakout, Halo 5's new eSports-focused mode. Here, two teams of four face off in a single-life elimination game on a tight map with limited weapons. Breakout is rock hard - one, perhaps, for the better Halo players out there. It demands teamwork and coordination to an even higher degree than Warzone. Without teamwork, Breakout can be a frustrating mess. With teamwork, it can be immensely satisfying. (Expect it to pop up in the main Arena playlist every now and again.) I don't think Halo 5 will usurp the current eSports shooter darling Counter-Strike any time soon, but Breakout should attract the attention of the biggest eSports teams, especially with the gargantuan weight of support 343 is sure to throw behind tournaments.
Given how good Halo 5's competitive multiplayer feels to play, it's a shame a raft of modes once considered essential for any Halo game missed the cut. There's no Forge mode at launch, for example. That's coming later. There are no Snipers or Doubles, either. But it's the lack of Big Team Battle, one of Halo's best modes, that's most disappointing. I'm going to go out on a cynical limb here and say 343 held it back because it wants to encourage players to give Warzone a shot. But since Warzone is so good, I'll let the developer off.
I've gone into detail on the Halo 5 campaign elsewhere, but there are a couple of disappointments I'd like to highlight here. One: the conflict between Master Chief and Spartan Locke. Microsoft's marketing of Halo 5 had us believe we were set for some epic showdown between a legend-turned traitor and a Spartan who was faced with the prospect of killing his hero. This does not happen in the game, and the story suffers because of it. I'd have loved to have seen more made of the Master Chief versus Locke conflict, and more mystery over Master Chief's motives. What we have, here, at the end of the day, is a vaguely interesting plot that ends on a frustrating cliffhanger.
Here's the second disappointment: with its co-op focused campaign, Halo 5 has none of the quieter, creepier, more mysterious deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole moments Bungie's Halo games had. Whether you're playing as Master Chief or Spartan Locke, you're but one soldier in a fireteam of four. You're never alone. Oh, to encounter the Flood for the first time once again.
This design choice has its benefits, of course. Halo 5's campaign is packed with huge goldfish bowl arenas that are a joy to shoot to bits. This, coupled with the solid gunplay, means the campaign is always fun - even if the story is a letdown.
When it comes to campaign, 343 has much work to do. It's failed to establish Locke as a character capable of carrying a Halo game. The Prometheans are, still, more annoying than interesting. And 343's Halo trilogy, story wise, doesn't look like it's going anywhere particularly revelatory. The pressure is most definitely on to shine the spotlight back onto Master Chief with Halo 6's campaign. The quality of the gunplay and the commitment to sprawling combat spaces in Halo 5 suggest 343 has solid foundations upon which to build it.
Competitive multiplayer, clearly, is where Halo 5's at. And it's here, five years after Bungie waved goodbye to its billion dollar baby, that 343 finally stamps its authority on the Halo series. Warzone takes the formula Bungie concocted and drags it, kicking and screaming, into a new era.