Microsoft will never admit it, but a lot was riding on this game. They have all but lost this console generation, and have repeatedly reminded fans over this year that they have the greatest holiday line-up in Xbox history. Timed exclusives like Tomb Raider are all well and good, but Halo is really the big draw for Xbox. Halo has been a staple to the Xbox lineup since the very first incarnation of the hardware, back in 2001. Halo 2 demonstrated the incredible power of Xbox Live Multiplayer, and is revered as one of the best multiplayer games ever.

Originally made by Bungie, and taken over by 343 Industries starting with Halo 4, fans are yet to be blown away by the adoptive designers. Halo 4 was certainly good looking, but the plot was a mess and it seemed to play it very safe, almost like 343 were worried of offending the fans. Will Halo 5 be any different?

What plot?

Remember how I said the plot of Halo 4 was a bit of a mess? Well don’t expect much more clarity here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was indecipherable, I’m saying it felt disjointed. A better word might be unsubstantial. The game will have you flitting between Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris, offering different perspectives as to the events that are taking place. On one hand, you have Master Chief, AWOL on a personal mission to find his AI companion Cortana, who he believed to have been destroyed. On the other, Jameson Locke, who has been ordered to bring the absconding Spartan team back.

That is the TL;DR version of the plot, but there are a multitude of subplots going on, including a civil war, a search and rescue operation, and plenty of traversing around a Forerunner planet called Genesis. Additionally, there is the feverish attempt to reach and subdue the game’s protagonist, but I won’t deprive you of that reveal.

It felt simultaneously sluggish and rushed. We spent a good two thirds of the game bumbling around, getting in lots of cool firefights, but not really progressing. Then, in the last act, the game suddenly remembered it had promised us a story, and threw everything at us at once, rapidly rushing towards…nothing. All too quickly the ending arrived, and we were no further forwards. I did find myself beginning to question whether the game would have time to finish everything it had started, and it turns out I was right.

Obviously this game was just laying the foundation for 343’s larger plans for the Halo Universe. With all of the hype I was expecting some huge explosive story, but it didn’t came.

Underlying mechanics are polished

343 have made some tweaks to the underlying gameplay that make for a satisfying experience, if not slightly jarring at first. Movement and turning speed has increased, and you can now climb up surfaces as well as aim down the sights on all weapons. This has annoyed some fans, who feel it is going down the route of CoD, but I have to say I found it to be a useful addition. Aiming down sights was cleverly dressed up as part of the Spartan suit abilities, which separated itself from other FPS games.

Speaking of the MJOLNIR spartan suits, they have also been upgraded with new abilities too. With a tap of the B button you initiate a small thrusters burst, which can give you extra distance in a jump, or move you out of harms way in a fight. Said thrusters can also keep you in the air for a short distance of time if you aim down sights, allowing you to jump from cover and have more time to squeeze off that satisfying headshot. The boosters also allow you to shoulder bash while sprinting, smashing through enemies and destructible walls.

Gameplay was incredibly smooth, and I’ve read that 343 have locked the game at 60fps. It really shows. Polygon report that this was done through clever engineering which allows dynamic resolution scaling. Basically, it isn’t constantly at 1080p, but that won’t bother you, and you’ll never see a dropped frame.

Given it’s dynamic resolution, it is incredible how beautiful the 343 folk have made this game. The worlds feel vast, expansive, and more open than the previous games, which could feel like nothing more than linear corridor set pieces. There is more height, and almost an invitation to explore the world. There appear to be multiple ways to approach an objective, and you will often get rewarded for exploring in the way of collectible audio logs.

Overall, I approve.

No room for growth!

Bouncing between Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris does offer different perspectives, but it doesn’t give either team much chance to breathe and develop. Given that unless you have read into the Halo Lore, you will know nothing about Blue team, some background information would have been appreciated, rather than just an offhand comment about how they know each other. Fireteam Osiris come off slightly better, but that is only because you seem to spend more of the game playing as Locke than Master Chief.

Missed opportunity

Now, I do not profess to have significant knowledge of game design, or indeed what the people at 343 have planned for the Halo franchise going down the line. However, I feel that, given their efforts to introduce a whole new spartan team to players, it is likely that they want to increase the amount of protagonists going forwards. Rather than mash two big characters into one game, I think 343 should have been braver, and released two separate games, or at least created two totally independent campaigns. To simplify, one campaign that is exclusively Blue team, and one that is totally Fireteam Osiris. The two could still cross paths via cutscenes, and even the same scenes with different perspectives and build up. It would have allowed Locke time to mature as a character, and felt less rushed and jarring.

Equally, there was a mission that lacked any combat. Instead, there was almost an RPG element to it, where we walked around a camp, speaking to people in search of information. Surprisingly, I didn’t find myself missing the gunfight, and I felt it added more depth to an otherwise beautiful but somewhat underpopulated skybox.

Worth your time?

Halo 5 is a solid attrition to the Halo franchise, and I think it will certainly please fans of the series. It is disappointing that you don’t spend as much time playing as Master Chief, but it isn’t like that matters when you are fighting off hordes of enemies.

The gameplay is solid, with smooth frame rates, familiar shooting mechanics and helpful additions that feel like the series is maturing and evolving.

The plot could have been better, and I question whether or not 343 really had a solid idea in mind when they were exploring what to do. There felt like a lot of missed potential; many threads that could have led to amazing plot twists, character developments and personal questions of ethics and morality. However, it seemed to be just beyond the grasp of the team.

Nonetheless, I was highly engrossed, and when compared to something like, for example, Destiny, I feel this is a no-brainer. Would I buy an Xbox exclusively for the game? Probably not, but if you are sitting on the fence, and are looking for a great shooter this season, Halo might push you over the edge.