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Review: Halo 5: Guardians – Playing to Strengths (campaign only)

You can’t blame one game as the catalyst for turning the Halo story into a convoluted mess. Halo 4 introduces the Didact as the new antagonist, yet his inconsequential actions create a circular story. In Halo 3, the Flood army changes sides more times than the Italians during World War 2. Regardless of what happens, somewhere in the galaxy, Covenant and Prometheans forces await the Master Chief’s arrival. They wait for you to shoot them.

Halo 5: Guardians re-threatens the entire galaxy because we need a reason to shoot aliens. Not much motivates a faceless, robot-like character to risk his life to save everyone, again. To push Master Chief aside, 343 Industries brought in new characters – Spartan Locke and the rest of Fireteam Osiris. But even four new major characters can’t define urgency in Halo 5’s story. It doesn’t matter why Master Chief and Spartan Locke shoot the Prometheans and Covenant – it stopped mattering. Halo 5: Guardians adds long overdue adjustments to movement and weapons to renovate what matters most: gunplay. And the evolution of Halo’s core gameplay will last longer than any convoluted space opera about saving the galaxy.

Halo 5’sbest improvements are the ones you forget about. Instead of selecting one Armor Ability first introduced in Halo: Reach, all Spartans start with the same abilities. After just one mission, the ability to clamber to higher ground turns into muscle memory. If two grenades land at your feet, dash out of danger with the Thrusters. Both new abilities become as important as your weapons. You’ll wonder how you ever played Halo without them. The combination of sprint with Thrusters and clamber make each Spartan – for the first time in the series – feel quick and agile.

In addition to thrusters and clamber, 343 added Ground Pound – the least useful of the new abilities. Sort of like Super Mario’s ground pound, Spartans hover to charge a powerful ground pounding fist attack. Although simple to perform, it doesn’t feel natural. You need to look for Ground Pound opportunities or else it’ll kill you. Almost after every Ground Pound, the enemies either dodge before I land or I expose myself to easy gunfire. The same issues translate to the other new ability, Smart-Link hover. If you activate Smart-Link (scope) in mid-air, Spartans hover for a brief period. It proves useful for picking off enemies behind cover, but scoped jump shots across gaps killed me after accidental hovers. Since Master Chief and Spartan Locke work the same, expect a simple transition while jumping between their teams throughout the story.

The marketing for Halo 5 promoted a feud between the honorable Spartan Locke and the traitor Master Chief. None of the pre-release trailers or story from the Hunt the Truth campaign reflects the real plot. While you do jump between both Locke’s Team Osiris and Chief’s Blue Team, Chief never betrays humanity. He never becomes this selfish, civilian killing traitor, he just disobeys orders. And for a guy who saved the galaxy by himself, a little detour from his main mission doesn’t feel like disobedience.

I wish Chief killed civilians and became a traitor; it would interest me a lot more than the narrative driving Halo 5. Despite the focus on gameplay, it doesn’t excuse Halo 5 from story criticism. Too much effort went into dialogue, cut scenes and animations to say 343 didn’t care about the story. Halo 5: Guardians acts as a bridge to a new unresolved conflict threatening the galaxy. It’s a simple story and one not new to any Halo fan. As long as Halo 6 exists, you don’t get to finish the fight this time. You kill dozens of Covenant squads and Promethean enemies along the way to help you understand the breadth of the new conflict.

The story feels like a letdown at first, until you realize shooting a bunch of aliens makes up for it all. The familiar set of Covenant soldiers appear throughout the campaign alongside the new Promethean enemies. Crawlers and Knights make their return to join the new Promethean Soldiers. Soldiers use Light Rifles, snipers and other weapons to add the middle tier enemy missing from Halo 4. Unlike the Covenant, Promethean enemies die quicker from damaged weak points or severed limbs. Each encounter forces an approach other than unloading magazine after magazine.

The enemies needed change because almost every weapon functions better or different than before. Smart-Link alone changes each weapon as it allows aiming down the sights. The increased magnification enlarges view with no effect to accuracy. Accuracy and bullet spread from hip firing produces the same results. Smart-Link works on every weapon, including the new weapons hidden throughout each of the large campaign mission areas.

Aside from some weapons and intel scattered throughout each level, Halo 5’s large areas don’t reward exploration. Each area, both narrow and wide, includes a lot of unused, open space. Explore an ancient ruin, lush jungle or Promethean construct and expect nothing. No matter how open each exotic and alluring off beaten path seems, expect collectibles. Some mission areas feature branching paths – a unique concept to the franchise. These alternate routes may give higher ground or help you go under the barricade instead of going through. Those paths often branch from the main route – I’m referring to the empty spaces a little out of the way. Halo’s structure pushes players forward, yet the wide areas (designed to fit four players for co-op) encourages exploration. Of course, you can run ahead, but I never learned. I kept checking, thinking maybe something lay ahead.

Don’t let the story sour Halo 5: Guardians, the range of exotic weapons and enhancements to gunplay enhances strong gameplay. Halo, for so long, told a jumbled story stretched across way too many games. And still with every new Halo, unmet story expectations disappoint fans. Halo shifted to a gameplay focus long ago, and nothing 343 Industries, Master Chief or Spartan Locke can do to redirect it back to the story. What I remember most at the end is not what happens to Master Chiefand Cortana, it’s what I play the most.