Each new Halo game since 2007’s Halo 3 gets some praise, then fades, and then is pointed to as a sign that the Xbox’s once-unstoppable franchise is hitting a wall. Halo 5, released in 2015, deserves a different reputation.
The first new Halo game on Xbox One got the accolades three years ago, then faded as it was second-guessed. It also got expansions and a community and, by 2018, has evolved into a game worth praising.
Halo 5, which was developed by Microsoft-owned 343 Industries, was a soft but a definitive reset of the series that launched on the original Xbox in 2001. It excavates the simple machinery that animated the earlier games: clean, satisfying cycles of shooting, grenade-throwing, and melee, all set amid voluminous environments and unadorned multiplayer maps. Where necessary, it replaces worn-out parts: sprint cooldowns, stiff controls, and a lack of iron sights. It plays well, especially in combat involving other players, away from the main campaign. While the single-player (and co-op) struggles like a smoking Pelican, the multiplayer owns like a Warthog chewing through colony ruins as three Spartans haul ass and light the way with machine gun fire.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Halo 5 is two hopelessly uneven games smooshed clumsily together. On the one hand, Halo 5’s multiplayer, however, is the best in the series in a long time. Thanks to the often inconsistent but forward-facing march of technological progress, it’s the best Halo multiplayer that exists. Maybe when the Master Chief Collection finally drags itself from the lazarus pit of post-release betas this will no longer be the case, but for now, in 2018, there is no contest.
(Note: It’s impossible to break down the good and the bad of Halo 5 without touching on late game spoilers, so if you haven’t played through the full game yet consider yourself warned.)
No other sci-fi shooter out there combines such a diverse array of weapons, vehicles, and modes with such a finely tuned, no-frills balance between how you run, jump and shoot. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of modern Call of Duty, Destiny 2, and Fortnite, but none of those multiplayer shootouts feel as unadulterated yet still multifaceted as Halo 5’s. What’s paramount in a Halo 5 match isn’t a rat-race of emote-collecting or loot upgrades but the simple satisfaction of having managed to shoot first and accurately and with the right weapon. Halo 5 is an impeccably designed shooting experience. It’s welcoming without being needy, and it feels like the game couldn’t care less how often I log back in. That’s a very good thing.
Too bad the single-player campaign is mostly forgettable. Despite a few glimmers of potentially interesting narrative departures for the series, Halo 5’s story unfolds more like something shoved through a shredder that the writers then tried to frantically sew back together. UNSC command sends Fireteam Osiris to go after Master Chief’s Blue Team for unclear reasons, a task that proves difficult because a rogue Forerunner AI called the Warden keeps getting in their way. Two-thirds of the way through the game, the Warden decides that Master Chief’s mission to retrieve his longtime AI pal Cortana is actually a threat. When Locke and Chief first meet, they come to blows in a non-interactive cutscene. Locke cracks the glass in Chief’s helmet, while Chief immobilizes Locke using the latter’s own armor-locking device. Then he leaves so the game of cat and mouse can continue all over again. The next time they meet, Locke and Chief finally use their words, and the former decides the latter’s goals actually make sense. Just when everyone gets on the same page, Cortana snaps her holographic fingers and whisks Blue Team away. Almost every scene in the game ends in a bait-and-switch, which is made partially bearable by the fantastic sci-fi backdrops but hard to forgive when it all ends in a giant “to be continued.”
Hovering around eight hours, average for the series, Halo 5’s campaign still feels like it goes on for an eternity. Locke’s hunt for Chief showed a lot of promise when it was marketed prior to release. As it exists in the game, it’s a bust. The hunt for Chief is unexciting. By the last act I struggled to remember why Locke and Chief ever traded blows. I couldn’t discern why the game wasted so much time trying to build up the narrative significance of bad, recurring boss battles against the Warden, nor did I find the discovery that Cortana wants to use ancient alien technology to remake the galaxy convincing and earned.
As liberating as Halo 5’s interplanetary globe-trotting can be, the locations come off as pit stops along the way to an awkward family reunion. The most interesting revelations and set pieces are held until the final destination, by which point I was mostly gassed and ready for a nap rather than yet more boss fights. When the game ended with one character asking “What took you so long?” I groaned in despair.
I actually like the game’s twist on who you control. For most of the game you play as Locke, not Master Chief. That helped me appreciate Chief’s role in the Halo mythology from a distance. And I can sympathize with Locke, an ordinary person for whom hunting down humanity’s savior should be a death sentence. As someone who has always looked upon the games’ embrace of patriotic bravado with deep suspicion, I found it a relief to watch Chief set aside the wishes of the military bureaucracy that created him to finally pursue an intimate, personal quest to hook back up with the most humanizing force in his life, a computer program. Most of this requires reading in between the lines of otherwise meaningless and stilted dialogue.
Halo 5 initially flirts with recasting Chief as some sort of escaped science experiment being hunted by the people who created him, despite all he’s done to save countless lives, including their own. In this context, Locke is the government lackey tasked with retrieving an expensive prototype, making the player into the villain. But the game fails to explore where this conflict may lead. Both Locke’s and Chief’s character arcs remain bridges to nowhere that the game abandons midway through, when the two unexpectedly and unconvincingly put aside their differences and desires to be Good Guys and stop a revolt by humanity’s AI systems.
It’s a sharp pivot that feels out of left field, given how much Halo 5 is preoccupied with the usual hoo-rah running and gunning and space bros earning each other’s respect. It gives little spotlight to questions of global politics and human rights. The game’s story and twist ending might have hit harder if it had spent less time trying to convince me that everyone else thought Locke was a real noble badass and more time showing me why humanity’s militarized future was or wasn’t failing to take care of and protect the people at the bottom of its hierarchy. It only does the latter if you really dig.
Halo 5’s campaign has two positive qualities. It is beautiful, and it tells good stories in its margins. Its beauty is stretched out across numerous planets, spaceships, and other exotic celestial bodies. Its side tales are tucked into the game’s many areas designed for quiest exploration. Large firefights across alien worlds are punctuated by calm periods, which are best spent scavenging for audio logs that hint at a world that is much more interesting than the one Halo 5’s cutscenes and set pieces attempt to highlight. These datapads, hidden away behind blast doors on a ship or computer terminals on a side street in a colony road, tell the stories of the people who actually have to live in the Halo universe rather than just kill things in it.
Datapads aren’t new for the series, but Halo 5 has more than most, spread out across its winding ship hallways and sweeping surface colonies. Logs aboard the research station Argent Moon tell of how its crew died as result of experiments on a nearby asteroid. “Difficult to record this,” begins one of them made by the ship’s AI, Rooker, which can be retrieved from a flickering computer terminal near the beginning of the second level beside a decomposed corpse. “We now have 100% fatality rate from the Asteroidea accident. Those near the accident site died almost instantly. Liquidized from the inside out. They were the lucky ones.” The first-person accounts relayed in these collectibles open up the game to a world of possibilities beyond the normal “gotta go get the job done” mentality that encapsulates most Halo narratives.
Audio logs scattered across the mining outpost of Meridian tell the story of one particular worker, Evelyn Collins, who fled during the war and returned to try to recreate her original home. Before she left, Meridian was a prosperous colony on a verdant world, an example of what humanity reaching out across the stars and building new lives elsewhere could lead to. The world she returned to was a barren wasteland made of glass after being torched by alien forces during the Human-Covenant War. “I’m starting to wonder if I can do this,” she says in one of her logs. “Most of the folks here are signed up for the profit. I’m the only one that’s here trying to take something back!”
A character like Collins helps explain why people in the Halo universe might be seduced by the pitch offered at the end of the game by a rogue Cortana. As effective as Collins’ logs are, most of the game’s players probably never found them, nor heard of Collins. Narrative undercurrents like these don’t make Halo 5’s clumsy campaign forgivable, but they do make the case for a future Halo game that eschews heavy-handed storytelling in favor of a more open-ended series of shooting galleries punctuated by vignettes drawn from the series’ numerous worlds and characters.
While Halo 5’s surface-level melodrama is forced and unconvincing, the stakes facing human colonies throughout the galaxy that are gleaned through the game’s collectibles help make up much of that ground. A lot of them are more likely to be found on repeat playthroughs, since all of these collectibles are optional and easily missed. Greek tragedy Halo 5 is not, but it has some of the series’ most fascinating individual landscapes and background scenes to explore outside of the inert struggle between Master Chief, the Warden, and Cortana.
Halo 5’s multiplayer has been radically changed and expanded from what was available when the game launched and was reviewed. Between November 18, 2015, and November 2, 2017, the game grew substantially, with 343 refining the balance each time until it had honed in on something that has outlasted the game’s initial critical appraisal. Warzone, a transformative new mode introduced at launch, was followed by months of post-release updates that added everything from new maps and guns to the most robust incarnation of the series’ Forge map editor.
Halo 5’s multiplayer started with SWAT, Free-for-All, Breakout, Slayer, Team Arena, Warzone, and Warzone Assault. Later additions included Strongholds, Infection, Capture the Flag, and Big Team Battle, along with Warzone Firefight, a strictly cooperative horde-style mode. A smattering of rare and powerful new weapons such as the gravity hammer and M6D Pistol from the first game were also added. The arsenal of weapons is almost matched by the dozens of vehicles you can use to cause short-lived mayhem across a handful of modes and maps. It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the game’s multiplayer content, but promoted playlists help steer large swathes of what remains of the player base into one or another of these multiplayer silos. 343 Industries has never said how many people are still playing the game, but I’ve rarely had to wait more than a minute to find a match.
Warzone, Halo 5’s defining new mode, gracefully straddles the divide between chaos and player precision. In it, two sides of 12 players each battle across huge maps filled with AI-controlled grunts and bosses that will attack both sides. The bosses can be killed for Requisition points, which let teams deploy better weapons and support vehicles. Whichever team gets 1,000 victory points first, or destroys the core sitting in their opponent’s home base, wins. It’s basically Halo the MOBA, providing a more complex layer of objectives underneath the solid shooting. Being the twitchiest player with pinpoint accuracy isn’t always what gets you a win in this mode. Warzone can be deeply strategic, with teams switching objectives during a match. For example, a team might be trying to amass the most points by executing mobs of neutral AI enemies. If the other team is too far ahead, the first team can decide to change course and try to invade and destroy the enemy’s base instead. Salvaging a match with a switch like that feels great.
Halo 5’s Requisition system is where it deviates most from its heritage. Consumable Requisition cards determine what kind of gear players can deploy in Warzone as they earn points during a match, while permanent Requisition cards can be used to unlock special skins to customize your appearance in Arena modes. Consumable equipment like shield boosts, vehicles, and weapons outside the standard issue assault rifle are acquired in loot boxes and then deployed during Warzone matches, providing a handy but not overpowering toolset with which to augment strategy and try to counter your opponents. It’s a way of RPG-ifying the core Halo multiplayer loop without watering it down. If you don’t have a rat’s chance in hell of beating your opponent across the way in a DMG snipe-off, you can run to the other side of the map and help take down Promethean Knight to gain Requisition points and empower your other teammates. By adding a resource-gathering element on top of territorial objectives, Warzone provides three paths to victory that allow for more interesting encounters beyond a brute force shootout.
When I play Warzone and am cowering for cover behind a crusty embankment on the Attack on Sanctum map, I feel like a super-soldier, but I can feel the tension. I’m either about to be killed or survive long enough to get to a control point. Maybe a computer-controlled Covenant Elite will show up, and I can put off facing my often much more skilled opponents by taking him down and boosting my requisition level. Maybe I’ll just get shot in the back of the head as soon as I move from my hiding spot. More likely, an enemy player will drop out of the sky in a Banshee and blow me up where I stand. Each of these distinct possibilities will play out in its own weighty way, taking just long enough to make it feel conclusive rather than haphazard, thanks to recharging shields and a maze of terrain. There’s a method to Warzone’s chaos that elevates it beyond the twitchy meat-grinders that inhabit many other multiplayer shooter matches.
There’s an admirable lack of tricks in the Halo 5 feature bag. The heads-up display isn’t clogged with numbers bouncing off enemies or meters filling up. There aren’t alternative classes to juggle or loadouts to continually swap between. Nearly all encounters still come down to who sees who first and is able to instinctually line up the killshot in response. Many developers of other games try to obscure or design out this truth. Some include killstreaks or super attacks to occasionally give the weaker side an upper hand, or they lay out levels in such a way that the crossfire turns choke points into a free-for-all. Even with these distractions, many of which can be fun and pleasant when employed thoughtfully, the bare truth is that one player is going to die and one player isn’t. That fundamental contest of one player firing off a well-aimed shot before the other is hard-coded into the design of having two people with virtual guns duel each other. Halo 5 manages to exalt in the purity of this brutal setup better than most. Partly it’s the snug feel of the reticle as you maneuver it around the screen, the way almost imperceptible differences in recoil between different guns give them a tactile personality beyond whatever ornate skin is equipped. And some of it, as macabre as this sounds, is due to the way that recently-deceased Spartan enemies jitter around.
Halo 3 is widely considered the best Halo, or at least the last truly great one. Coincidentally, it’s also the last numbered installment in the series that original development team Bungie worked on before divorcing Microsoft. Several weeks after Halo 3’s release, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out and upended the genre. Halo multiplayer had been dominant before. It was methodical and oriented around memorizing maps. Modern Warfare’s was incredibly fast with a high body count. Halo encouraged you to get personal to kill people with a pistol or laser sword. Modern Warfare wanted you to gloat by dropping bombs on your foes from above. Its rewards came quicker and felt more potent, at the time making aspects of Halo seem punishing and like a buzzkill.
For all its successes and flaws, it’s difficult not to view 343’s Halo 4, the new studio’s first game in the series, in this context of chasing the shadow of Call of Duty. It carried over sprinting from Bungie’s Halo: Reach, the first release since after the Modern Warfare series blew up, leading to faster, more agile matches and faster kills. Points for assists and shorter respawns helped it feel more approachable to the uninitiated. Less survivability thanks to longer shield charging times also increased the body count. There was nothing inherently wrong with 343 Industries’ approximation of where the first-person shooter multiplayer market had gone, but in doing so it shed something of the old Halo. With more distance, it’s easier to see how Halo 5 helped regain part of what was lost by forging something new. It did this not only through Warzone but also by expanding the arsenal of its hulking Spartans with abilities like shoulder chargers and ground slides while slowing the overall action down across its simpler, symmetrically designed Arena maps.
Even when Halo 5 does adopt something common in other modern shooters, it does so with a twist. In the prototypical modern shooter, players can press a button to zoom in down the barrel of their gun and reduce the inaccuracy of their bullet spray. It’s pretty much mandatory in most games. In Halo 5 it’s an additional tool rather than a necessity. The game provides an iron sights option for every weapon—a first in the series—but using it doesn’t offer any accuracy advantage. While you can zoom down the sights of Halo 5’s guns, you can also fire them from the hip just as accurately. It’s an anachronism you won’t find in, say, Destiny 2, but it’s also a crucial part of the game’s feel and balance.
Halo 5 also notably swaps flinching when using iron sights for descoping. Instead of making aiming at enemies required but also making it more frustrating as incoming fire knocks you off balance, it turns it into another simple binary: Run or stand still, aim or don’t, throw a frag or get in close for a melee tackle. Each has consequences, but all of them remain straightforward choices. There’s nothing worse than dying in a multiplayer shooter because you tried to do the thing the game wanted (aimed down sights) but not well enough to deal with the penalties (flinching while getting hit).
These design ideas lead to a better flow that comes through especially well on Halo 5's smaller, more classic maps. Playing a few matches of Slayer on Coliseum where everyone’s breathing down each other’s necks is the kind of thing that makes you late for parties. You can see players long enough to get to know who just killed you without too much shielding to make for easy escapes. Movement feels more deliberate because everyone’s not constantly crouched trying to peek around corners or getting blown up in the middle of the map at a choke point.
The Breakout mode is one of Halo 5’s high points and one of its unique contributions to the series. Currently existing in several variations as part of the Elimination Playlist, the no-respawns, round-based 4v4 mode filters out even more of the noise. Players start with the same basic weapons and only one grenade. They can kill each other or capture flags in the event that some players just want to hide and camp. It’s the Halo version of Counter-Strike. It is focused and teamwork-oriented but on the level of an improvisational shootout at the O.K. Corral rather than a tactical anti-terrorist operation. The fictional Spartan has always had something more in common with cowboys than green berets, and the two ends of Halo 5’s multiplayer, Breakout and Warzone, does a commendable job of marrying the feel and thrill of the two warrior archetypes.
Halo 5 feels archaic, but in a good way. It feels like a lot of older computer programs and platforms that got you straight to what you wanted rather than getting you tangled in a clutter of distractions. Halo 5 is simply there when I need it, no matter how many times I rage-quit after getting stomped. When I inevitably do though, it delivers what I’m searching for—a few mind-bending shootouts or large-scale Warzone battles—without fail. There’s still nothing better than scraping through matchpoint in a round of Breakout by the grace of a well-timed grenade exploding and sending another Spartan decked out in custom skins flailing across the sky.
These are the moments that help make up for Halo 5’s stultifying campaign, replacing its sterile struggle between emotionless leads and an army of AI systems with the intimacy of a stranger shooting you in the face, ending with you dying just slowly enough to calculate what you did wrong and how you’ll return the favor the next time. Its best parts feel basic in all the best ways, both classic and modern at the same time. It never made good on the dream of seeing another more tragic, more complicated side of Master Chief, but years later, through endless updates and balance patches, it’s made good on the promise of its multiplayer. Even if that were all that Halo 5 was, at this point that would still make it a very good game.