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There’s a lot riding on Halo 5: Guardians. With Xbox One’s sales trailing Playstation 4’s significantly after nearly two years on the market, Microsoft’s flagship series needs to make a powerful case for why gamers should choose the Xbox this holiday season. And after last year’s disastrous release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which took many months to finally get multiplayer running properly, developer 343 Industries has to prove that they can successfully launch the game. So the weight of the world is once again on Master Chief’s heavily armored shoulders. Fortunately, he’s proven time and again his ability to save the world. And although we’re reserving final judgment to see how the game’s multiplayer servers hold up once the game releases on Tuesday, the campaign makes a strong case that Chief is yet again up to the task.
Guardians is 343’s second entry since taking over the franchise from series creator Bungie, who parted ways with Microsoft to find its own Destiny. Halo 4 took the series in interesting new directions, with a stronger emphasis on the relationship between Chief and his A.I. companion Cortana, and the followup is arguably the series’ most ambitious story yet. Set eight months after the end of Halo 4, which saw Cortana sacrifice herself to save Chief, Guardians starts off with the player in control of a new playable character. Spartan Locke, (who was first introduced in the live-action Xbox original series Halo: Nightfall) and his Fireteam Osiris have been sent to retrieve the AWOL Master Chief, and the game alternates between the two teams of Spartans as they hashtag hunt the truth.
This narrative device isn’t new for the series. Halo 2 shocked gamers in 2004 by having them split their time between Chief and the Covenant Elite character the Arbiter (voiced by Keith David, who makes a welcome non-playable return here). And although the series has often had players fighting alongside fellow Marines, this is the first time that you lead a four-person squad of Spartans, and it positively impacts playing through the game alone. You can command your team to attack enemies, man turrets or drive vehicles, and their ability to revive you when downed proves invaluable for survival, especially on the tougher difficulty levels. Even though there were times when I was frustrated by the friendly A.I. (they’re definitely not the best drivers around), they add a sense of camaraderie and teamwork that make playing solo a less solitary affair.
Fortunately, the enemy A.I. is just as cunning and challenging as ever. The Covenant have been formidable opponents since the very first Halo in 2001, and the addition of the Prometheans in Halo 4 mixed things up considerably. Both enemies return in Halo 5, and they require different tactics to defeat, which constantly keeps you on your toes. The game also introduces several challenging boss fights, and there’s even a level that plays out like a first-person platformer. It’s no Mirror’s Edge, but it’s a welcome change of pace.
Guardians is the first Halo game developed exclusively for Xbox One, and the graphics are absolutely stunning. The series has always featured great art direction, but seeing it run at a silky-smooth 60 FPS framerate for the first time, and never chugging or struggling even in the most intense of battles, is an impressive feat. To remind yourself of what a difference a console generation can make, compare how Nathan Fillion’s character Buck looked in 2009’s Halo 3: ODST to his new-gen Halo 5 model, which is “slightly more handsome” than even real-life Nathan Fillion.
But as good as the game looks, I wish that 343 pushed the tried-and-true gameplay even further. It’s understandable that they need to give Halo fans what they want, but there’s nothing spectacularly new in this installment. Halo 4 jettisoned the tiresome zombie-like Flood — a staple of nearly every game in the series — and introduced an entire new race of characters, but there’s nothing that drastic here. And as much as they’re pushing the narrative of the game, the story still feels confusing and convoluted, as if 343 assumes that everyone has watched Halo: Nightfall, read the prequel novels and listened to the companion podcast.
But that said, there’s nothing quite like a Halo campaign, even 14 years after its debut. At a time when games like Titanfall and Star Wars Battlefront are eschewing single-player campaigns entirely and the next Call of Duty lets you play its missions in any order, Halo 5 delivers an experience unlike any other first-person shooter. Its large-scale playgrounds are still the most dynamic, chaotic battlefields in the business, offering players a seemingly endless number of ways to approach each encounter. Whether it’s driving a Warthog, taking to the skies in a Banshee, or sprinting into an intense fray on foot, Halo 5 is a strong reminder of what makes the franchise so unique and special. There’s a lot of pressure on Master Chief this holiday season, and though he may not be able to single-handedly win the console wars, he continues to make saving the world a singularly entertaining experience.
Stay tuned to EW for further thoughts on Halo 5 Guardians’ multiplayer modes and a full review to come. Halo 5 is part of EW’s Fall Games Preview. For more, check out the full look at this fall’s slate of games.