More than any other blockbuster video game campaign, Halo's story modes are a matter of the little versus the large: soaring themes and backdrops pitted against the moments of brilliance or absurdity that arise when players, AI and physics systems collide. This is, I'm thankful to report, as true of 343 Industries' Halo 5: Guardians on Xbox One as the Xbox and Xbox 360 shooters that preceded it under Bungie's watch.
On the one hand, Halo 5 is a sweeping yarn that's equal parts Interstellar and The Fugitive, alternating between the perspectives of new kid Jameson Locke, leading man of the mini-series-made-movie Halo: Nightfall, and his quarry, the series' iconic Master Chief, who has gone AWOL following an encounter with [REDACTED]. On the other: that bit in the hands-on when a co-op partner ground-pounded my target just as I lobbed a plasma grenade, which triumphantly affixed itself to my buddy's luckless posterior. On the one hand: battleships on fire off the shoulder of Sanghelios, homeworld of the Covenant Elites. On the other: getting all fucked up in a cave mouth care of Wraith artillery and Jackal snipers armed with Beam Rifles.
The presence of three other, fully voiced ally Spartans in every mission is Halo 5's headline innovation, but the consequences aren't massive in practice. Halo is already celebrated for its co-op, and during solo play your comrades are, by and large, just pleasantly chatty versions of the AI marines from previous games.
Rather than seizing opportunities as a lusty Spartan surely ought, they'll cluster behind you, engaging whatever strays within range, until directed towards a waypoint, weapon, object or foe with a tap of the D-pad. During my initial run of the demo I seldom bothered to issue orders: there are so many variables to consider in any given Halo firefight, and those variables shift so quickly that singling one out for the squad's attention feels futile. In any case, your allies won't always do your bidding if they're locked into a duel. They can generally be relied upon to revive you, though – there's now a bleed-out period when players succumb, during which you can hammer X button to call for aid.
If Halo 5's co-op isn't quite a paradigm shift, the new Spartan Abilities have a substantial, and welcome, impact on the old rhythms of blasting away until your shield crumbles, then scurrying for cover. Most, such as boost-dodging and sprinting, compare to the Armor Abilities from Halo 4 and Reach, but those were sporadic pick-ups or loadout options, rather than moves that are available throughout.
The keyword here is aggression. The sprint lets you perform bone-squelching melee attacks or knee-slide under shots, while mid-air boosting and the ledge grab allow players to improvise routes up the sides of buildings or across ceiling pipes, pouncing on enemies from all angles. You can also aim while hovering, trading safety for line of sight, or charge up the aforesaid ground-pound attack – delightful when it connects, a suicidal gambit should you miss.
These are, of course, tricks we've come to expect of shooters in recent times: spurred by the flamboyance on show at eSports tournaments, the creators of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Titanfall among others have switched the emphasis from gunplay per se to superhuman agility. If it's late to that particular party, however, Guardians may be the game that brings it all together in terms of the campaign, with appropriately gigantic, tiered environments and a highly aware and adaptable enemy cast.
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Halo 4's Promethean enemies are in their element here, teleporting all over the place like glitching Decepticons. Their weapons remain a joy to wield, too, clipping themselves together around your fist with a dollop of reverb. The Covenant are perhaps a little past their best, but the old tactic of nailing an Elite to break Grunt morale still gratifies, and you can't knock their taste for grandeur. A mission to reclaim Sanghelios from Elite rebels culminates with Locke's team bombarding, then boarding a towering tripod war machine, the Kraken, whose flanks bristle with Banshee hangar bays and turrets.
When first I heard about Halo 5's expanded campaign I feared it would be similarly heavy-footed, a case of chronic sequelitis that's all whiz-bang and no subtlety. What a relief it is to discover that this is as deft and surgical a shooter as it is bustling and spectacular.
Halo 5: Guardians is released for Xbox One on October 27th.
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