Halo 5 is less than a week away, and we've been lucky enough to be given early access to the campaign.
Besides the official synopsis and what we've learned from Microsoft's #HuntTheTruth campaign, there are no spoilers in this article. Instead, I'll be offering some gameplay insights gleaned from the first three missions of the game - which, so far, seems like it could set the stage for the best Halo yet.
Cinematic and atmospheric storytelling
Halo 5 takes place after the events of Halo 4, which you can read up on here (spoiler warning). As we know from Halo 5's marketing campaign, the game features two protagonists, Spartan Locke, and the Master Chief. Locke, with Fireteam Osiris, are on orders to hunt down the missing Chief, but we'll leave the full story surrounding each party's motives for you to discover.
I feel that Halo 5, so far, represents a step-up when it comes to digital acting in games. Locke, Fireteam Osiris, and even the game's minor supporting cast have ridiculously expressive facial motion-capture that bolsters their Hollywood-level voice portrayals. Like the Chief, 343i could've opted to keep the Spartan character's helmets on to reduce their development workload. Thankfully, they didn't, and it elevates the connection you feel to the game's character driven story as a result.
So far, it seems that 343i have attempted to push Halo's storytelling to the next level. The camaraderie between Locke, Chief and their respective teams adds further context to the game's vast universe, which has been fleshed out in novels, comics and TV shows in recent years. Halo 5 adds additional commentary through audio Intel files found scattered around the game's levels, they provide insights into the current tasks at hand, the motivations of the various characters and factions, and indeed, hints about the nature of the newest galactic threat.
Atmospherically, Halo 5 is simply stunning. The game uses dynamic scaling to maintain a rock-solid 60 frames per second at (mostly) 1080p. Drops in either measure are unnoticeable. The weapons and abilities feel every bit as impactful as they sound, and Kazuma Jinnouchi's musical treatment is nothing short of majestic. The music itself ramps up dynamically based on the amount of action taking place on screen. I tested the audio by stepping between rooms, in and out of combat, and the effect is every bit as subtle as it is powerful. Jinnouchi sets the somber tone from the opening screen and portrays the Locke vs. Chief duality with grandeur.
Usually, games as visually rich as Halo 5 will trade either frame rate or resolution to achieve high levels of graphical quality, but 343i haven't compromised, for the most part. Given the vast amount of enemies that appear to satisfy the game's four-Spartan squad-based combat, Halo 5 will dynamically lower the frame rate of individual enemies that aren't in your immediate range. The effect can feel a tad jarring at times, given that animated environmental objects either in the same vicinity or further away in the background will remain at 60 frames per second. As of writing, Halo 5's servers haven't been engaged, so this is something that could see improvement with patches.
Besides the individual enemy models, I haven't been able to discern any dropped frames or resolution sliding with the naked eye. So far, 343i have poured a ton of effort into making Halo 5's combat scenarios feel cinematic. Typically, straight first person shooters emphasize what's in your immediate cross-hairs, but every inch of these early missions brim with deliberate detail. The first mission takes place during a sizable battle, as seen in the previously released opening cinematic. The atmosphere portrayed in the trailers is every bit as indicative of the gameplay itself. Dozens of Banshees soar overhead, fully rendered, blasting Promethean Phaetons out of the sky as you fight your way through legions of enemies on the ground. Halo 5's combat spaces enjoy similar detail, with crisp shadows and smooth edges. Even when the fighting is at its most intense, Halo 5's engine never falters.
Halo carries the burden of proving the Xbox One's technical capabilities, and so far it seems like 343i have delivered in abundance.
Refined, but familiar combat
Halo 5 brings some well-documented changes to combat, most of which center around the Spartan Mjolnir armor's built-in jet pack. You can press B to dash in any direction, allowing you to snap into cover more quickly than strafing. Aiming, now shifted to the left trigger, enables you to hover in the air for a brief moment while either falling or jumping, allowing you to take shots from a vantage point. Holding down the melee button while in the air brings up a target reticle, allowing you to perform a downwards "ground pound" attack, dealing damage to enemies caught in the blast. Additionally, reaching the height of your sprint speed allows you to perform a lengthy slide by hitting crouch, or a shoulder charge by hitting melee, which deals heavy damage. All of these new combat abilities add fresh layers to Halo 5's combat and complement its wide, vertical levels.
As mentioned, Halo 5 shifts its aiming from the joystick to the left trigger, creating a pseudo-iron sights aiming feel, complete with CoD-like hit markers. Being hit will immediately snap you out of aiming, like other Halo games, but the new additions give Halo 5's gunplay subtle, modernizing edge over its predecessors.
I found none of these new abilities to be terribly crucial in combat in the game's first three levels, particularly on the higher difficulties where an ill-placed ground-pound or Spartan charge could get you killed. Even so, being killed works a little differently in Halo 5.
Halo 5's campaign is squad-based, either with three A.I. or co-op partners over Xbox Live. You're able to control your squad using the D-pad. You can send them to specific locations on the map or have them interact with certain objects, such as vehicles or turrets. The A.I. is fairly good; your squad-mates will ascend ledges and leap across gaps to reach their destinations, all while shooting and taking cover. You can ask them to prioritize certain enemies, but, for the most part, it seems like they'll prioritize more immediate threats in their vicinity. If you get defeated in combat, the A.I. squad can be told to revive you by pressing X, providing they get there fast enough. It alters the feel of the campaign slightly over its predecessors as a result. Enemies will ignore you when you're downed, allowing your teammates to swoop in and get you back into the game fairly easily.
At least when it comes to missions 1 through 3, these new revival mechanics made these early levels feel a little too easy on Normal. Knowing you can be revived gives you a safety net that wasn't present in the previous games, but at the same time, it enhances the concept of squad-based play. Avoiding death so easily can make the early levels feel even more fast paced than previous titles, as you'll cut through enemies with little to halt your advance. If you're a veteran of the Halo series, cranking up the difficulty to Heroic or even Legendary injects some of that familiar challenge back into the game. Revivals aren't as easy to come by on these difficulties, as the A.I. characters get gunned down quite rapidly if you tell them to break cover to revive you. Even at the start of the game, Legendary difficulty is still the hard slog fans have come to expect - regardless of the having the backing of three well-programmed CPU squad-mates.
I think the new combat mechanics could have a greater impact on multiplayer than single player, but there's something intensely satisfying about Spartan charging a grunt across the map.
Halo 5 Guardians' first three missions set the tone and mystery for the rest of the game. If you find even the tiniest slither of enjoyment in the previous Halo games, from what I've seen so far, I think you'll find yourself firmly hooked.
A positive outlook
Halo has finally returned, and if the campaign's early missions are any indication, Xbox and 343i could have another blockbuster on their hands. So far, Halo 5's cinematic shift has been an exciting experience, and it fills me with equal amounts of optimism and intrigue for the future of the franchise.
The campaign mode is only one side of Halo 5's glistening coin. Multiplayer has yet to be opened for testing, but given what I've seen so far, I'm feeling pretty confident for 343i. Still, it's early days yet, and our final thoughts will come in the form of a full-blown review penned by Paul Acevedo on October 26th, so stay tuned!
If you want to check out the first few levels for yourself, Paul recently streamed them on Twitch. You can view that over here, but naturally, it contains spoilers!
Pre-order Halo 5: Guardians for the Xbox One at Amazon for $59.99 Pre-order Halo 5: Guardians Limited Edition for the Xbox One at Amazon for $99.99 Pre-order Halo 5: Guardians Limited Collector's Edition for the Xbox One at Amazon for $249.99