Players typically have only one question when it comes to Halo: Is the multiplayer fun? That’s a question easily answered, and always has been: Yes. A lot of work has clearly gone into giving Halo’s famous multiplayer a gentle learning curve, and a near-infinite number of reasons to keep coming back. REQ packs, much like Call of Duty’s loadouts, make it so that virtually no two players will develop the same character over time. The game’s Arena mode is just as accessible as ever, and the new Warzone mode is exactly that: a field of pure chaos comprised of players using any and every tool at their disposal toward a common goal of taking over new stretches of turf.
If Halo 5: Guardians’s multiplayer is missing anything, it’s a new Spartan Ops mode (Halo 4’s episodic, co-op, Halo 3: ODST-style side missions), which was able to marry Warzone’s specific type of open-battleground-shooter gameplay with a surprisingly worthwhile storyline. Still, for folks just looking to get some space-marine killing done in the years to come, if the sheer joy of the kill for XP, new guns, and glory is all you want or expect out of a Halo game, then Halo 5 provides, joyfully, a great bounty of options.
Those players are almost enviable, as they’re likely to continue ignoring this series’s single-player campaign, and thus will never know how frustrating it is to watch 343 Industries expand Halo’s narrative and ideological boundaries in fascinating ways while making utterly infuriating character decisions in the process. Blame Halo 4 for the heightened expectations. Though Halo: Reach certainly gave the series a long-overdue shot in the arm with its campaign, telling a story with more harrowing fatalism than anyone expected from the series, Halo 4 managed to do what should have been impossible for a game centered around a faceless marine and his inexplicably naked A.I. companion: The tale of Cortana’s rampancy turned a fertile, but somewhat clumsily handled, tale of humanity’s evolutionary forebears coming to reclaim the universe into an allegory for a loved one coping with dementia, capped off with one of gaming’s most surprisingly poignant endings.
It takes about four stages for Halo 5 to undo much of what made Halo 4 remarkable, with one particular plot point completely rendering the most vital and effective narrative beats of its predecessor inert. If there were lessons learned by 343 Industries from Halo 4’s success, they were mostly about how to construct an action set piece. Halo 4’s Prometheans once again play heavily into the warfare here, and with a much higher resolution to play with, they come off less like disembodied Michael Bay-style Transformers than the shiny, scary, cybernetic terror race they were intended to be from the last game. Their weapons remain as fascinatingly varied as before, but this is also a game where you will have three A.I./human companions fighting with you at all times, and the scope of every firefight has been expanded accordingly.
Solely as an achievement of level design, Halo 5 is awe-inspiring in its scale. A single level may involve all-out war between three separate factions that might play out while an enemy hundreds of stories tall moves, attacks, and fends off an airborne strike in the background. There are no small battles in Halo 5. You’re either in a friendly camp, catching your breath, or you’re under siege against eldritch industrial horror.
Halo 4 had made the very conceit of the series interesting for the first time since Halo 2 delved into the Covenant as an unsubtle exploration of Taliban-like zealotry in action. Halo 5 eventually gets there, with its third act introducing its main villain’s motivations as nothing short of a technological theorist’s worst nightmare scenario. But much of its narrative is spent flitting back and forth between Spartan Locke and his team on a wild goose chase (looking for the AWOL Master Chief, fighting the same old Covenant forces we’ve always seen, being told to blow up one turret or radio array or another) or with Master Chief himself—stoic, unexpressive, and following a trail of breadcrumbs across the galaxy with a few of his old Spartan friends. That, in itself, might be an interesting thing to explore if the game weren’t so busy trying to milk the Xbox One’s graphical prowess for all its worth.
This spectacle is impressive on its own merits, but it spins the story’s wheels for way too long, and like Halo 2 before it, the game reaches an apex of sheer dread, and a minute later, the credits are rolling. There’s even a direct reference to Halo 2’s final, cliffhanging moments here in the name of an objective, which makes it sting even more. There’s something to be said for the fact that the final act of the game does indeed feel like the worthy successor to Halo 4, and married with the game’s consistently refined gameplay, that chunk of the story itself is better than most shooters’ entire campaigns. The damage is still done by that point, however, and much of the why of “why we fight” in Halo 5 is wafer-thin and inadequate in a way we’ve now seen as being beneath what the developer can consistently do.
Halo 5’s ultimate irony is that what gets our species in trouble in the campaign’s narrative is ultimately the kind of needless combat that the game excels at. For most games, that’d just be a failure of the writing to practice what it preaches, but this actually ends up being much of the point. We’re going to have to aggravatingly wait for Halo 6 before finding out if the series is smart enough to resolve that particular dilemma with a measure of grace, but for right now, it makes for a game that seems to recognize the need to become something so much more ambitious than what it is, but doesn’t make nearly as grand a gesture as its predecessor to move in that direction.