The digital version of Halo 5: Guardians took absolutely ages to install on my Xbox One.
While I was waiting, pacing, smoking, watching each agonising percentage jump, I was reminded of that tingle in the balls and skin-prickling sense of excitement and anticipation that only Halo can bring. I remembered queuing up drunk in the misty Ashford air for the midnight launch of Halo: Reach. Waiting up all night for GAME Aberystwyth to start selling copies of Halo 3 to grungers at the ungodly hour of 7am. Tearing off the cellophane and plunging red-eyed, straight into the heroic campaign after months of rumours, previews, screenshots, secrets and lies. Hunting the truth, loving bees.
And here we are again. The big one. The system-selling space opera, 60-frames-per-second show stealer, shattering showdown between Spartans and difficult middle child in 343 Industries' triple-A trilogy returns. The most anticipated video game on Xbox One since the system launched, and now the biggest launch title in the franchise's history, has hit the shelves. You can trade money for it and hold it in your trembling, clammy hands at long, long last.
'Halo 5: Guardians', launch trailer
But despite the skin-prickles, the hyperbole, the eights, the nines, and the overwhelming fanfare created by this latest entry in gaming's own Star Wars saga, I'm disappointed to report that Halo 5: Guardians is in fact a bit of a mixed bag.
Let's start with the good stuff.
THE VISUALS ARE SIMPLY INSANE
Halo 5 pisses its multiple frames of visual excellence into your face every single second. It really does. Prepare a nice little spot on the floor for your jaw to rest on, because from the minute the opening cutscene finishes, to the second you're pressing Y to skip the closing credits, Guardians is a dizzying sight to behold. Feel the cool millions blowing out of the screen and across your gormless face. Mumble your woahs. Rack your brains for the last time you saw anything like this before. Halo is back.
Throughout the seven-hour campaign, the success of the visuals derives from the game's giddying sense of scale, and the set pieces here have it in spades. Slide down the spine of one of the game's colossal Guardians and bring down the gargantuan Kraken with a squad of Banshees. Traverse the towering verticality of Sanghelios, and watch the Promethean weaponry come to life in your hands like never before.
Bungie: take note.
THE SOUND DESIGN IS ELECTRIFYING
Grab your best set of headphones, advise your Bake Off-loving flatmates / nagging mum / long-suffering girlfriend / insufferable toddlers that you'll be incommunicado for the next few hours, and get your ears around some of the most otherworldly and brilliantly executed sound design since Vanquish. It sounds so alive, and so alien. Battle weaponry thuds. Grenades tinkle. Grunts giggle. Lightrifles pew. It's a universe of electrifying sounds, and each and every effect is delivered with a clarity and creativity that's impossible to ignore.
Not to mention a pulsing score that's not afraid to wrench guts, race pulses and break hearts.
THE NEW MOVESET IS AN IMPORTANT, SATISFYING ADDITION TO THE FRANCHISE
I have discovered that there are few things in life more satisfying than shoulder barging a fleeing Grunt from behind. Or ground pounding one so hard his teeth go straight through his little Grunt arse.
You can aim down the sights now too, as well as boost dodge, hover in the air and clamber up onto ledges. Each of these additions feels crucial, and brings Halo more in line with modern, pacier shooters like Titanfall and the Call of Duty series. Whether or not that's a good or bad thing is largely up to you, but I approve.
THE COMBAT IS MEATIER THAN EVER
I don't sit up all night long twitching feverishly on Halo eve for the story. I come for the cunning enemies, epic set pieces and inimitable combat. Why? When it comes to the bread and butter of battle, Halo is unsurpassable. It's the cat's warm spot in front of the fireplace, the first cigarette after a couple of pints. It's like coming home.
Halo 5's combat is a veritable ballet, with each arena offering mind boggling verticality, hidden passageways, turrets, frantic scrambles for abandoned weapons, dozens of flanking options, numerous ways to surprise and gain advantage over the enemy, and a handful of truly outstanding vehicle sections. In this regard, it really does shit on Destiny, in every possible way.
Which is quite funny, when you come to think about it.
MULTIPLAYER IS TENSE, CRISP AND INVOLVING
Guardians features a multiplayer package that ticks all the right boxes. Open up your Requisition packs and dive straight into Warzone, an expansive Battlefield-style game of conquest, with souped-up AI enemies and a can't-wait-to-tell-someone-about-that moment around every corner. Spawn a Ghost and hurtle into the enemy base, glide around picking off balcony snipers in a Wraith, or try your luck on foot. Whatever your play style, Warzone is tremendous fun.
Got your sea legs after years of being spoiled by Destiny and CoD? Halo 5's Arena is calling, and you'd better be on point, because it's hard as nails. Breakout's the standout new mode here – either capture the flag or wipe out the enemy team to score a point, one life a piece. Had a great moment when I was the lone red against two blues, managed to melee both of them as they hurtled into a corner, resulting in roars of approval from my teammates.
Seems people are pretty pissed off about the Requisition microtransactions, and while they could be seen as a sinister sign of things to come in future Halo releases, they pose little intrusion to all but the most hardened of completionists.
And now, the stuff that doesn't work quite so well.
THE WARDEN IS A CLOWNSHOE
In Halo 5, there's a boss character called the Warden. He has a big sword and a glowing weak point on his back. You fight him once, and it's pretty cool. On Heroic difficulty, he smacks you about a bit, but you eventually prevail.
Then later, you fight him again.
When he finally naffs off for good towards the end of the campaign, you'll wonder how on earth 343 got away with it.
Metal Gear Solid V and Bloodborne were released earlier this year, and featured some of the most nail-biting and innovative boss battles ever conceived. There's no excuse for this howling, tumbleweed-addled void of imagination. It's spam, and nobody should be defending it.
THE STORY IS A RAGING LOAD OF OLD BOBBINS
As I mentioned before, I don't buy Halo for the story. There's a chance you don't either. But just in case you were wondering whether Guardians would be the Halo game to renew your interest in the expansive and detailed lore, 343 have made absolutely no effort to get you up to speed.
Why's that woman's arm missing? I thought Locke and Chief were going to have a massive ruck? That's the ending? Really?
On the plus side, despite the self-serious gobbledygook coming out of the characters' mouths, the cut scenes probably set new standards for quality in video games. They're truly a sight to behold.
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THE AI TEAMS ARE AS USEFUL AS CHOCOLATE FIREGUARDS
Whether you're saddled with Blue Team or Osiris, one thing's clear: the AI is abundantly useless.
They're at least competent for a portion of the game, reviving where necessary, and can be roughly directed using the limited D-pad commands, but later solo battles against groups of Promethean Knights and the idiot Warden pose massive problems on higher difficulties. They're so inept you'll feel your piss simmering in your bladder.
Watch! In awe as your revive timer depletes, sending you back to the checkpoint despite Buck standing right next to you.
Marvel! As Tanaka, meaning well, runs straight towards you for a revive, and straight into the welcoming arms of a pissed-off Knight.
Fume! As you end up repeating the same sequences over and over again.
Navigate! Straight to your friends list and pull in some competent human players, pronto.
Related, on Motherboard: In Russia, Halo Is Free
THERE'S WORK TO DO BEFORE 'HALO 6'
All in all, this is not a perfect package. The story's a mess, Forge is still missing, there's some insanely cheap boss fights going on in there, and unless you've got some willing mates, the solo campaign is hampered by poor AI.
But when Guardians gets it right, it gets it so right. Warzone alone will last a generation, and is an environment where some of the most epic multiplayer battles in the series' history will be waged.
The campaign has some truly spectacular moments and images that'll stay with you forever – the titular Guardians looming like ominous colossi in the pink skies, the writhing Kraken tracking you across perilous rock faces, and the sheer joy of seeing Halo in 60FPS for the first time proper.
You'll be blown away by the sheer thrill of the game's combat, the new freedom offered by the updated move set, and of course, the familiar joy of colliding with Elites is absolutely impeccable.
So. Do all of these things make Halo 5 worth waiting up for, worth braving darkened midnight high streets for? Of course they do. I'll be outside GAME Camden for Halo 6, providing it's still in business, and so will you. 343 just have to iron out the evident problems with Guardians to create the truly outstanding next-generation Halo experience we all crave and deserve.
Halo 5: Guardians is out now, currently exclusive to Xbox One. This review made possible by NVIDIA SHIELD - check out the NVIDIA SHIELD library here.
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