Halo 5: Guardians (Xbox One) Review

Halo 5 Cover

A spouse (343 Industries) tries incredibly hard to please their partner (gamers and critics) by preparing their favorite dish (Halo), a dish that the spouse’s parent (Bungie) has served them for as long as they could recall in perfect tasting fashion. The spouse, lovingly tries as hard as they can, following the proper recipe, and utilizing the right ingredients. However, while their final dish is good, it never quite reaches the perfection of their parent’s version of the same dish. There is just something that the loving half of the couple just can’t get right. — Samuel Rivera

As a longtime fan of the Halo franchise – long time enough to have played Halo 1 in 2002 – it pained me for awhile, to have bypassed the latest entry in the series, as I wanted to continue Master Chief’s story. Halo’s lore has always fascinated me.

Playing 343’s Halo 5 on Xbox One X was somewhat a nostalgic – though ironically at times – alien experience. The series that built the Xbox brand is no longer at the peak of its popularity. Bungie leaving the series, and Microsoft’s troubles in moving Xbox One units have left the series with a considerably smaller fan base in contrast to its Xbox 360 days.

Critical reception has also taken a notable hit. Bungie’s Halo games were, at top of the critical score pyramid. Halo 1-Reach had secured a Mario/Zelda like level of critical reverence towards the series. Halo was a true console seller, and power shifter in the industry.  An amazing 91-97 Metacritic range of scores accompanied Bungie’s Four Halo entries. By contrast 343’s 84-87 Metacritic range for its two entries have officially demoted the once elite juggernaut into the “merely a good game” territory.

Passion is Not Always a Good Thing

Halo 5 Cut scene
Halo 5: Guardians uses cutscenes to tell its story,

No one can accuse 343 Industries of not trying, in fact, their passion for the series is evident from the moment that the game boots up. The company loves Halo, they love its lore, and this is present in every facet of Halo 5: Guardians’ campaign.

The problem is, that unless Halo: Infinity proves me wrong, it just feels like they don’t have that special touch in areas that are difficult to explain. The best analogy I can make for their situation with this series is this:

A spouse (343 Industries) tries incredibly hard to please their partner (gamers and critics) by preparing their favorite dish (Halo), a dish that the spouse’s parent (Bungie) has served them for as long as they could recall in perfect tasting fashion. The spouse, lovingly tries as hard as they can, following the proper recipe, and utilizing the right ingredients. However, while their final dish is good, it never quite reaches the perfection of their parent’s version of the same dish. There is just something that the loving half of the couple just can’t get right.

That is exactly how playing 343’s Halo 5’s campaign feels. It is good, but it never reaches Bungie’s heights with this franchise.

Good Looking

Halo 5 Screen
The graphics are definitely a big step up from even Halo 4’s, albeit on a much more powerful console.

Halo 5, looks like Halo, and it is pleasing to the eyes at 4k/60fps on the Xbox One X. The game has issues keeping a stable 900p-1080p resolution on the Xbox One S. There are issues on the premium console though.

Keeping in mind, that at its core, Halo 5 is a 2015 game, I won’t be that harsh on the judgement of its visuals, but the game received a major upgrade for the Xbox One X in terms of resolution, so perhaps I expected a bit more from 343.

While Halo 5 manages to look incredibly clean, and sharp at 4k, the game is missing an HDR implementation, which is surprising. Human facial animation is quite stiff, and world materials are not up to the stuff seen, in admittedly, more recent games in the first-person genre such as Doom (2016), Doom Eternal, and Metro Exodus.

One thing that the game manages to do exceptionally well, is keeping its framer rate at a buttery smooth 60 fps. Some of the base console issues, however, persist. The 4K resolution cleans up the game, and allows for higher resolution textures, and more importantly larger draw distances.

The Larger draw distances make an issue with the distant enemy movements a much more noticeable one. Distant enemies get their refresh movement cut by a half, and perhaps at times more. This means that while yourself, and your party of Spartans fight nearby enemies at 60 fps, if you look towards the distance you will spot enemies “stuttering” around at slow frame rates.

It is a bit jarring, the technique is commonly used in open world games in order to conserve CPU processing power, but in a game as fast and as action packed as Halo 5, the result is a bit staggering, especially at 4K.

That said, I was genuinely pleased with the experience, the game does look like Halo. There are some grand moments here and there, but just like the rest of the single player package, there is something missing, Halo 5 is not a cutting-edge game in terms of visuals.

The Halo Saga Lives On

Halo 5 screen 2
Your trusty battle rifle feels the same as it did in Halo 4, and the Halo 2 battle rifle actually makes a return in multiplayer.

I enjoyed the story that 343 presented here, even if I was a bit disturbed that I was not playing as the Master Chief the entire time. I guess Locke makes a fine secondary character in comparison to the Chief, and I could live with that throughout the campaign’s run time. It was a story-centric game, and it was strange to find myself opposing the Chief and Cortana at times.

As long time Halo fan, I will not go on a rant as to why Locke can never be a better Spartan than the Chief, but I will say that 343 did take a huge risk giving Fireteam Osiris such a prominent role in the game’s story. The risk did not pay off as there was fan backlash over it.

That said, I found no issues with the story telling here, it perfectly sets up a sequel, and keeps the Covenant, Humanity, Forerunner and sentient AI conflict at the forefront. There is only so much that 343 could do in the scenario that Halo 5 takes place in.

I do not remember the last Halo game that used so many cutscenes, and that might actually work against Halo 5 here. It sounds contradictory that I feel that “cinematic’ cutscenes hurt the story telling here when said cutscenes usually elevate the story telling in games. But this is a first person shooter; the great thing about Halo games used to be that Bungie put you in the eyes of the Master Chief, and some of the more dramatic moments would unfold in real time, and in first person view for the players to experience.

That sense of being in the game world during the most dramatic, and awe-inspiring moments, is for the most part; missing here.

It is here where you can see that 343 is truly passionate about the Halo universe, but yet still manage to miss some of the magic that made Bungie’s 4 Halo entries not just good games, but great pieces of software entertainment.

Infinite Warfare

The one other area where 343 Industries can not seem to find its stride is on Halo’s gameplay. Mechanically speaking there does not seem to be a reason for this. As Editor Mont Cessna will testify, Halo 5: Guardians manages to pull off the greatest Multiplayer Mode that the series has seen to this point.

The guns feel as they should on a Halo game. New Forerunner Promethean weapons feel like they always belonged in the Halo universe, and vehicles control just as they always did since Bungie held the reigns of the series. So, what is wrong? It is hard to explain.

I liked the new additions to the series such as the Spartan “Stomp,” and the ability to get a bit of a jet pack boost during leaps. The issue with Halo 5 is that for the most part battles and exploration feel constricted to a linear pathway. The campaign reminded me more of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare than it did of any of the great Bungie Halo’s and that is bad thing. Though I must admit that CoD: IW came out a year after Halo 5 did, both games play too similarly.

It seems like on its quest to deliver a more “cohesive” narrative experience 343 followed the CoD blueprint and the game just does not feel like Halo should feel.

Gone are the open spaces, and the strategic gun fights that took place in such areas. While there is plenty of vehicle combat, those areas are miniature versions of any of Bungie’s levels in any of their four Classic Halo games.

343 just doesn’t seem to nail that part right, and they have changed the identity of Halo as single player campaign as a result of this. It is strange that they can get so many technical elements right, and yet, still end up with a product that feels vastly different from what Bungie had established nearly a decade and a half before.

Halo 5 was somewhat fun to play, a good FPS single player experience, but a far cry from Halo’s glorious Xbox and Xbox 360 days.

The Future Could Be Bright

The story did enough to keep interested in playing Halo Infinite, and to be honest the foundations are there for 343 to do something grand with this series. Let us hope that the 3rd time is the charm, and 343 can deliver a must own game in Halo Infinite, which is something that series hasn’t delivered on a mainstream scale since Bungie’s Halo Reach.

Gameplay: 8.5

Nothing mechanically wrong with the game. The linearity, and consequent blandness of the campaign’s battles hurt the score. Halo is all about being in the middle of epic, larger than life gun and laser battles. Instead we got a linear, Call of Duty styled corridor First Person Shooting Experience.

Graphics: 8.5

It looks like Halo. It does not really impress, but on the Xbox One X the presentation is super clean at 4k and it runs at a consistent 60fps. Games like Doom, Doom Eternal, Metro Exodus, and Far Cry 5 manage to look better, in the case of Doom Eternal; almost a generation better. But Bungie was looking to keep a steady 60 fps experience and it accomplishes that.

Sound: 9.0

Halo’s music is some of the best in the business, and the I liked the voice acting. Playing with headphones, even budget ones, is a feast for the ears.

Story: 8.5

I didn’t really get to ‘live out’ the story, in the same way that I did during my run on Bungie’s entries for the franchise. But I enjoyed what was here, and I am eager to continue Master Chief’s story on the next entry, so kudos to 343 for keeping me interested in Halo’s vast and incredible lore.

Multiplayer/Replayability (By Halo Multiplayer Expert Mont Cessna)

Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer boss screenshot
Promethean Soldiers in the Warzone Firefight mode can pack some serious firepower.

I’ve been playing Halo since the original CE on the OG Xbox. I played Halo 2 online (even for free, via the system link hack into a computer), got Halo 3 at midnight on launch and still play hundreds of hours of Halo online a year. Halo 5 is the best Halo multiplayer yet, though I do have some gripes.

Probably the biggest gripe is also an advantage, depending on how you look at it: loot boxes. Yes, loot boxes have come to Halo now, if you didn’t know. However, all the proceeds from the loot boxes go to making all the maps free–no more paying for new maps over the lifetime of the game. The items loot boxes (apart from XP and RP boosts) also can’t be used for Slayer game modes, only Warzone, which I’ll get to in a minute.

For full disclosure, yes, I have purchased two things in Halo 5 since I got the game at launch: A “req” or requisition pack to donate to COVID-19 relief and an in-game purchase DLC to unlock four additional announcers in the game’s online multiplayer. For how many hours I’ve gotten out of the game’s multiplayer, I thought the voices were well worth it.

Also, if you’re not aware, the second two largest gripes are that you can sprint everywhere (though normal movement speed is decreased and the maps distance balanced) and that while the Call of Duty loadout type equipment like jet packs and Promethean Vision are gone, an improved boost jet makes a return and are on in all game modes except MLG by default.

I find them very useful, as it still takes 4 shots to kill with the pistol, DMR and battle rifle, so if you run around a corner, it gives you a chance to get behind cover if you meet a barrage of fire. The boost jets and sprinting is quite balanced and you can now clamber up objects and powerup your boost jets and “ground pound” attack in most game modes. This adds a lot of three-dimensionality to Halo 5: Guardians that I think is refreshing and works well.

Finally, I think Halo 5 had the weakest campaign yet in Halo franchise history. but the multiplayer more than makes up for it.

So now onto the good:

Greatly Improved Graphics

Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer vista screenshot
Halo 5’s multiplayer is gorgeous and 60fps.

Halo 5: Guardians is the first Halo multiplayer experience at 60fps. That alone sets it apart. Going back to previous Halo titles for multiplayer like Halo 3 is difficult once you’re used to the 60fps and 1080p+ graphics. The newest updates to the Master Chief Collection do bring 60fps to Xbox Series X and up to 120fps on PC, but Halo 5 still looks sharper and plays better.

The best way to describe the jump up in graphics from Halo 4 (on a real Xbox 360, not the inferior, emulated version of Halo 4 on X1) to Halo 5 (with an Xbox Series X or even Xbox One X) is the jump from Halo 2 to Halo: Reach. Yes, it’s that dramatic. The framerates are so much smoother it’s like the jump from Halo 1 to Halo: Reach, and the vibrancy and lushness of the graphics are such that the jump is like from Halo 3 to Halo 4. After you play Halo 5 multiplayer, you won’t be satisfied with older Halo titles anymore except for some niche stuff like Invasion mode on Halo: Reach, though there is a slightly inferior Halo 5 version that brings a much larger scale to the mode.

I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase an Xbox Series X from Walmart this holiday season along with my first 4k, HDR10 television set and the difference between Halo 5 on a 1080p tv on a base Xbox One, to Halo 5 on an Xbox Series X on a 4k, HDR set is truly dramatic. It almost feels like a remaster of the game. And for competitive Halo players wondering, yes, you do have an advantage playing in 4k HDR on an Xbox Series X versus a base X1 on 1080p. The shooting when zoomed is much smoother and accurate.

Smoother Gameplay Online

The netcode has also been improved as well. And all the games are cloud hosted. It is very rare to experience lag in the game now, though that might be also due to faster Internet being the norm since the first few Halo games were released. Regardless, there’s no more host advantage, and it is very, very rare to experience any lag glitches now.

The multiplayer games themselves load faster than Halo 4 ones, even on a base X1 console. Unfortunately, despite the XSX’s SSD, you still have to wait for everyone to load the game for it to begin and the majority of players are still on base X1s and some X1Xs.

Overall, the multiplayer experience is a big step up, and until the Master Chief Collection was finally fixed, it was really the only way to play Halo online, unless you wanted to wait around to find a group playing Halo 4.

Weapons Rebalanced and Hundreds of Variations Added

Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer weapon selection screenshot
Your arsenal grows quite large in Warzone multiplayer modes, with hundreds of variations.

The weapons are balanced and behave exactly as you’d expect them to, though some have been changed, like the bolt shot, and there are now many, many variations of each weapon.

The bolt shot no longer charges and fires like a shotgun–it now fires a three-shot, headshot tracking burst. It fires slightly slower than the standard Halo 5 pistol (a pretty nice gun actually, that I’d describe as a cross between the Halo: Reach and and the Halo 4 pistol) however so it loses 1×1 even at close range, and has a much shorter maximum effective range.

As for the weapon (and vehicle) variations, you both unlock weapon variations you can use (after certain conditions are met) in Firefight Warzone multiplayer matches. Regular (Slayer, Oddball, Capture the Flag), etc.) multiplayer game types do sometimes have weapon and vehicle variations you can pickup on the map. They’re crazy plentiful in the always popular “Super Fiesta” game types.

How does this work out in Firefight Warzone? For example, after hundreds of hours of playing, I unlocked a “Legendary” DMR with an energy bayonet at the end. The energy bayonet gives it a more powerful and longer range melee. I can only use it as my spawn weapon or equip it at a resupply station once “level 9 requisitions” are unlocked in a match, meaning either it’s about midway through the game and I’ve done exceptionally well killing enemy Spartans and taking/defending bases on the map or it’s late in the game and everyone who has done decently can start using stuff like tanks or this, or both.

Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer vehicle selection screenshot
There are also numerous vehicle variations now. A Warthog with a needler turret and energy shields? Check.

Don’t worry though as everything is controlled by this REQ system in Firefight Warzone. At level 3 reqs (think of it tiered and based on your in-game score, with team points as well), you can start driving around ghosts and using things like a silenced pistol, provided you have spare ghosts in your collected REQ and have found the silenced pistol REQ. Some REQs are permanent unlocks and some single-use. There is a single-use pistol REQ that gives you the three-shot kill Magnum from Halo 1.

Like I noted before however, none of this stuff shows up in your regular multiplayer matches, so it’s still a balanced experience in that. No pay or play to win for Slayer and the rest, only Warzone Firefight. Regular Warzone uses REQs as well, but is cooperative, and you earn REQs from playing, promotions and playing other game types as well.

Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer armor mod selection screenshot
Armor mods are only available in Warzone and Warzone Firefight multiplayer modes.

I’ve never felt pressured to spend any money on REQs, and as they just a bit better variations of existing weapons and vehicles, they don’t provide *that* much of an advantage but can tip the scales in a close Firefight Warzone match. Overall, I think the variations add a lot of spice to Super Fiesta and Warzone.

Halo 5 Multiplayer Game Modes

Halo 5: Guardians grunt Goblin screenshot
A boss-type completely unique to Warzone Firefight is the “Grunt Goblin” mechs. They make Hunters look like pansies.

The multiplayer game modes in Halo 5 are Multiplayer, Warzone and Warzone Firefight. Between the three, you can really think of Halo 5 as four games in one, as Call of Duty: Black Ops was three games in one (Campaign, Multiplayer and Nazi Zombies).

Multiplayer is the standard Halo multiplayer experience. There are two main playlists–Social and Ranked. Super Fiesta, Big Team Battle, Capture the Flag, Odball, casual Slayer and Infection are all in the Social playlist. The Ranked playlist has Slayer, Capture the Flag and such but in a more competitive environment and it is obviously ranked. Win matches and your rank goes up but if you lose matches your rank goes down. The ranking system seems fair and balances the teams pretty well between skill levels.

Warzone is basically Big Team Battle on steroids, with AI enemies and a base/points system similar to how Battlefield 4 Multiplayer works. AI enemies (Covenant and Promethean) initially hold the bases you need to capture and drop in, Firefight-style at certain strategic points during the battle between Red and Blue. Once a team controls all three capturable bases, of which, one is centralized and can spawn vehicles into the heat of battle, the shields protecting the enemy team’s core in their home base drop, allowing it to be destroyed in a barrage of fire and instantly ending the game.

Warzone Firefight is a new version of Halo: Reach’s firefight. The maps are much larger, as are the teams. Takes a little getting used to but it grows on you. On the “Mythic” difficulty level, beating the 5th wave isn’t guaranteed, even with a top-notch team. Still, beating three Warden Eternals at once with a team (the Firefight team size is eight now, because the maps are larger than Big Team Battle maps) in the last round on a large map is quite rewarding.

It does shift the combat more towards vehicles and power weapons by the last round, but that also encourages cooperation. By the time you’re playing on Mythic, strategy and teamwork is more important than the weapons. I’ve seen the Warden Eternal assassinated quite a few times.

Halo 5: Guardians Overall Score: 8.5

Halo used to be the holy grail of first person shooters, both in single and multiplayer modes. The shift to 343 has helped the one area but has put a damper on the single player campaign. As a player who mostly played the Halo series for its single-player campaign, Halo 5: Guardians manages to be a good game, but it doesn’t touch the greatness of Bungie’s single-player campaigns. There are better shooters available on Xbox One, but if you are a Halo fan that hasn’t played the game, it is definitely a worthy play and it is free with a game pass subscription.

Halo 5: Guardians Multiplayer Score: 9.5

I’m about 900 hours into the multiplayer and Halo: Infinite has been delayed until the Fall of 2021 so I’ll probably put a few more hundred hours into it. It’s simply the best multiplayer shooting experience available on consoles, in my opinion, and the boost jets, clamber and new multiplayer modes really improve upon the core gameplay of Halo 3, Halo: Reach and Halo 4 if you give them a chance. It’s on Game Pass right now, so you might as well brush up on your skills before Halo: Infinite comes out!

Metacritic rated Halo 5: Guardians an 84.

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By Samuel Rivera

An avid video game player and book reader, Samuel has been playing video games for the last 31 years. He has played nearly every PS1 JRPG known to man, and loves Ocarina of Time more than any other game.