Ever since 343 Industries took over the heavy mantle of maintaining the Halo universe from series-creators, Bungie, they have had an uphill battle to keep up with fan expectations. Halo 4 was a stunning looking, but perhaps forumlaic debut, with Multiplayer that certainly divided the fans.
Rather than rehashing the exact same, very successful, formula for the Chief's first real outing on Xbox One 343 have decided to shake things up a little.
What's the Story?
Master Chief has long been the face of Microsoft's flagship game series on Xbox, battling almost single-handedly against the hordes of cannon fodder thrown at him by the Covenant, Flood and more recently by the Promethean foes introduced in Halo 4.
Introducing not just one new Spartan but two full fire-teams of Spartans to share the cannon fodder more evenly helps 343 to build out more characters for future games and entertainment. It adds an extra element of squad-based tactics to the Halo formula.
Joining the Chief on Blue team are his old team-mates from training days of the Spartan-II program: Frederic, Kelly and Linda. Introduced in the game without much history or explanation to those who are not close followers of the Halo universe outside of the game series, you would be forgiven for wondering where they have been for the last number of years as Chief shouldered the Covenant burden alone.
Early in the game, Master Chief and Blue team appear to have gone AWOL, directly contradicting an order to return to the UNSC Infinity, flagship of the human fleet. Fire-team Osiris are dispatched to track them down and bring them back home. But what made the Chief disobey a direct order, does he have another reason for mutinous actions?
The story is told from the point of view of both teams: Not that you play the same mission from both sides, rather you play a game of cat-and-mouse and your paths cross occasionally as your missions seem to be leading to a similar goal.
343 have been very open about the fact that you will play as Spartan Locke and his team Osiris for large portions of the game. This will help to head off any comparisons to Halo 2, where players were suddenly changed to play as the Arbiter without any prior warning. But anyone coming to the game expecting to play as the Chief as in previous titles will be disappointed to only play for perhaps three or four of the fifteen missions.
Knowingly taking this path, 343 are able to open up the game to more characters and personality. Fire-team Osiris show more personality than any of the members of Blue Team, in particular with Nathan Filion shining as Buck, the former ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Trooper) from earlier Halo games, with his occasional chatter and wise cracks over comms during missions and in cut scenes between missions.
How does it look?
343 set a high bar in Halo 4 for cut scenes and exceeded that in last year's Master Chief collection. In Halo 5 the cut scenes are outstanding, the facial representations for Locke, Buck and the other team members are amazing in their likeness and animation.
From the very start of the game, these cut scenes are action packed battle filled set piece sequences. In the opening cinematic you are dropped, literally, through an aerial battle chasing the leader of the new Covenant who has captured Dr. Halsey (scientist and creator of the Spartan program) who was searching for something that disappeared at the end of Halo 4.
When you Team Osiris reach the ground you are placed in control and can take in the beauty of the graphics engine 343 have produced for Halo 5. Targeting a locked frame rate of 60fps, your movements are smooth and everything looks beautiful even when there is a lot happening on-screen. Scenery is beautifully rendered and enemies, of which there can be many at times, are all animated and picked off at your leisure.
Much has been made in the first two years of this console generation, of the superior graphics ability of the PlayStation 4, and numerically speaking it is true that there is more horsepower available to Sony's console and multiplatform games will likely always look better on PS4. But 343 have proven that there is more to beauty than a few pixels here and a frame or two there. It's what you do on screen that is more important than those numbers
For pretty much all of the game, Halo 5 sticks to it's 60fps target even when there is a lot going on screen with Brutes, Promethean Knights and hosts of other baddies trying to kill you and your team while the world is falling apart around you.
Destructible environments, as we have seen in the Battlefield series, have not been added to Halo but certain parts of the environment can be broken through to find hidden shortcuts or Intelligence secrets.
The extra horsepower offered by the Xbox One is put to good use in Halo 5, not just for frame rate but for draw distances and the amount happening on-screen at any one time. Looking from a high vantage point you have a true sense of height and distance to see enemies patrolling or waiting to catch a bullet and you are often tempted to maybe try to pick them off from a distance.
How does it play?
This is without doubt a Halo game, and it's roots are firmly rooted in the game mechanics of the series: Large open are sprawling battles leading to enclosed running skirmishes in corridors and vehicles dotted around for you to drive, hover and fly around and explore.
Having a fire team with you through the adventure certainly makes it easier to coordinate attacks on bigger enemies and work your way through a tricky patch. Your team can come to your rescue, too, in most cases when your shields and health have gone. A quick call for help will summon one of the team to come and revive you. Great if you don't want to have to go back to the last checkpoint, but if you've run on and left the team behind, there's a good chance that your revive timer may run out or the team member may get killed on the way to you before you expire.
Your character is much more agile in Halo 5 than in any previous Halo game, being able to climb up a ledge or grab a ledge when jumping gives the game an added sense of verticality without going in to the wall running acrobatics of Titanfall.
The campaign can be played solo, with three AI teammates accompanying you, or as a co-op experience. I played through the complete campaign solo and your squad a quite handy and team Osiris have some good back and forth banter. The AI is quite good and they are effective in dealing with most enemies, only sometimes giving backchat when you tell them to do something. On the final level I ran into an issue where my AI teammates killed me - twice. Once they pushed me off the side of the level with a Ghost, leaving me to fall to my doom into the abyss. Another, after working back to the same point I was unceremoniously squashed by Buck in his Mantis armour.
Despite getting momentarily annoyed at the AI for these heinous crimes, I realised that exactly the same thing could have happened playing co-op with human squad mates and my frustration dissipated.
To be honest, the same thing did happen when I tried out the co-op mode, but the difference being that we didn't have to go back to the last checkpoint because of it. I could respawn later when it was clear to do so.
Controlling your Spartan is easy and through the game you will be able to take breaks from the running and gunning to also fly and gun, to drive a tank and gun and to fly Promethian vessels and the new Gungoose - a modified mongoose that you can drive and shoot at the same time.
Exploring is a key new element to Halo 5. Every level has several pieces of a bigger puzzle dotted around, with a certain number of pieces of Intelligence to be located to give a better background to the universe in which the story takes place. Rather than just speed run through a level, you can go around and explore trying to find out what's really going on. Finding Intelligence rewards you with a snippet of audio, similar to the Hunt the Truth audio drama series that Microsoft released in the build up to Halo 5.
The Intelligence is a nice side quest and certainly fleshes out the Halo story, but I think most people outside of completionists will skip past this part of the game because finding all the items slows down the pace of the game a bit too much.
However, there are some gems to be discovered through the search for extra information in a level. At one stage you can eavesdrop on a conversation between a Grunt and a Jackal as they discuss various things about their existence from how dumb the Elites really are to the nature of change in life ("I remember being Purpler" being a favourite line). Listening to this conversation is entertaining and it goes on for a long time - we stood there for over five minutes without any repeated text as the Grunt waffled on about life, the universe and everything.
There is a level of detail in the environment never before seen in a Halo game
Halo 5 is a great first Halo game for the new Console generation, we'll exclude the Master Chief Collection as a remaster of existing games than a new game.
Once you get used to the squad mechanics and accept that you will not be working as Mast Chief a Lone Wolf running and gunning your way through the game on your own, then you can plan your attacks more before rushing headlong into the fight.
The move to 60fps and a dynamic scaling resolution means that you are in the thick of the action and it comes fast and furious towards you.
Halo 4 was launched as the first game in a new trilogy of Halo games, and the campaign in Halo 5 plays out like the second part of a three-part story. It builds out the Halo universe well for further adventures of different characters, planets and plot lines, while also remaining true to the aspects of Halo that made it so beloved by fans.
Some will still be disappointed by the relative lack of screen time offered to Master Chief, but Jameson Locke and his Osiris team offer plenty of entertainment and action to keep you going.
Some entertainment franchises move into a realm of their own, James Bond films are an example: They are not judged as whether they are a good or bad film, but whether they are a good or bad James Bond film. Likewise, Halo is moving into the same arena: Is Halo 5 a good or bad game, or is it just a good or bad Halo game.
In truth, Halo 5 is a good game and should not be pigeonholed into just a good/bad Halo game. 343 have implemented some impressive graphics and audio technology to immerse the player in a rich and detailed world. The campaign is a solid and challenging title, especially on higher difficulty settings. There is enough in the game to entertain the most ardent of Halo fans. While the story may expect the player to already know a lot of the background of the Halo universe, that won't stop the newcomer from jumping in and enjoying the fight.
Halo 5 is a game from a studio that is beginning to hit it's stride and step out from beneath the shadows left by Bungie. It is the second in a new trilogy of games and playing through to the finish you are left in no doubt that we will meet again in Halo 6: The Quest for More Money.