Update (verdict with final score below): Now Halo 5: Guardians is out we've been properly testing the multiplayer side of the game on public servers - which have thankfully held strong upon the game's release.
Halo 5's multiplayer consists of two modes. Arena is an eight player collection of various classic modes including Slayer, Capture The Flag, Free For All, Swat and round-based elimination mode Breakout - and Warzone is an inventive new Moba-esque PVP and PVE mode for up to 24 players.
The former reinforces just how good a shooter Guardians is, but focuses solely on that core aspect of the game - not featuring any of the vehicular warfare the series is known for. Big Team Battle will be added to Halo 5 eventually, but its absence is felt - as it would have neatly occupied the large space between Arena and Warzone.
Warzone is perhaps more interesting than it is successful, but with some post-launch fine-tuning it will prove an excellent addition to the franchise. In it teams of 12 capture points, defeat AI enemies and kill one another to gain points - the first to 1000 points wins, but capturing all three points and destroying the enemy's core is an instant-win.
There seems to be some balancing problems. Fighting legendary boss enemies can be frustrating if your team does all the work but an enemy gains the point for hitting the killing blow. It would work better if damage yielded points as well as the final kill. Microsotransactions will strike a sour note for some, and may initially seem to support a pay-to-win structure - but the game does its level best to keep things fair.
As you progress through each match (typically between 20 and 30 minutes in length) players will unlock levels - each offering up new weapons, vehicles and boosts to use. A stock of these boosts can be found in packs purchased with in-game points or real money - but to use them players will still need to have reached the appropriate level. Once someone does select a new load-out or vehicle, each level will slowly unlock again over team - meaning the system can't be abused and maintaining some balance.
There is also a separate Warzone Assault mode which casts one team as defenders and one as attackers - the former having two bases and then a core to defend over five minutes, a length of time that resets after each capture. Warzone is a unique, challenging and fun mode that shows a lot of promise, but it still needs work. It is certainly an idea 343 should build on with future updates and in future games.
Initial review: Halo 4 felt like Halo with its wings clipped. It was tempered, stuck in first gear, and not the ideal way for 343 to introduce themselves after taking the reins from Bungie. There were numerous problems the studio needed to address in Halo 5: Guardians, and the good news is that they have. Better still, they've made their first truly great Halo game; one worthy of the classics that made the sci-fi series what it is today.
The Prometheans – android foes introduced in Halo 4 – needed to be altered. They were a slog to fight, but in Guardians prove just as fun to scuffle with as classic series foes the Covenant, conforming to the same design principles that made them work: each requires a different tactic to take down.
Those infuriating dog-like enemies are now as easy to take out as Grunts, the shield-providing drones are infrequent and easier to tackle, and other enemies offer clear visual clues on how to take defeat them. The Promethean weaponry too has been improved greatly, and in some cases is even more fun to use than the Covenant or human arsenals. Disappointingly however there is a specific variety of Promethean which is no more than a bullet sponge, and is tiresome to fight – particularly when there is more than one to take down.
All the improvements above are obvious from the game's bombastic opening level, which immediately evokes the thrill of the series at its very best. As the game progresses the thrill comes from the level design, which thankfully – after the relatively confining Halo 4 – is much more open. Large battlefields are plentiful and the result is Halo at its very, very best – a chaotic medley of tactical possibilities, a diverse battalion of foes and vehicular warfare.
Halo has always been a good-looking series, and has always benefited from looking as good as it plays. In this regard Guardians excels. Bar a couple of drab early missions, Guardians is seriously stunning – particularly on Covenant home world Sanghelios. The adaptive frame-rate certainly helps. On occasion you may notice a lower frame-rate on individual enemies, but this is infrequent and justified by the wider benefits of near-constant 60fps.
Similarly a great Halo soundtrack will always elevate certain moments. Kazuma Jinnouchi's soundtrack is great – mixing classic elements with new sounds - which only makes one particular moment so bizarre. This is a very mild spoiler, but in preview footage players will have seen the Kraken – an enormous Covenant war machine. Eventually the player is tasked with bringing one down in a moment which deliberately evokes the classic Scarab fight from Halo 3. The problem is that when the player enters that fight there's no music – nothing to elevate the moment and make it feel special.
It could have been an epic moment, but falters because of this bizarre omission. Guardians has plenty of grand moments, but they're born out of the actions of players in those large open areas – not in orchestrated moments like the Kraken fight or a later boss-like encounter. This is the area in which 343 needs to improve come Halo 6. However, compared to the fundamental design improvements needed from 4 to 5, this is certainly a better problem to have.
I have yet to mention Halo 5's story because, really, the story in Halo doesn't matter much. Or rather, that used to be my belief. Like the visuals and soundtrack, a solid Halo story can also elevate its best moments – and here Guardians succeeds.
To put it as simply as I can: series protagonist Master Chief has gone rogue with Blue Team, three of his oldest friends and squad mates. In pursuit of them is Spartan Locke – the second playable character – and Fireteam Osiris. The set-up is to allow four-player co-op throughout, and is also the reason behind Halo 5's larger areas. Simple squad orders (go here, take out this enemy, use this vehicle or weapon) are all handled with up on the d-pad – and, to 343's credit, it is a feature I used throughout.
Osiris's pursuit of Blue Team leads to a grander story reminiscent of other recent science fiction games, but handled just as well – if not better. It's still fluff, and the characterisation is weak apart from some decent squad chatter (Chief was never a good character and Locke is barely any different – just a booming voice in a suit) but everything is relatively clear and moves forward at a good pace – carrying and informing the action.
Clearly 343 Industries has learned a lot from their years with the Halo series. Additions to the formula here are better implemented and add to the experience, which couldn't have been said for Halo 4. Adding ADS (aim down sights) feels tacked on, filling a void only felt because of the habit of other shooters, but it doesn't infringe on the game's enjoyment and is useful on higher difficulties. Also, the ground pound is immensely satisfying - adding to one of Halo's greatest assets - that feeling that your character is a tangible part of the game world with every action feeling impactful.
343 will always have their work compared to the very best of Halo, and the very best of Bungie. The campaign in Halo 5: Guardians is proof that they are more than capable of matching the very best that the series has to offer. It took them the damp squib of Halo 4 and messy launch of The Master Chief Collection to get there – but it was worth it.
You can certainly see a learning curve with 343 Industries. With Halo 5 their clear understanding of the series has yielded a great game, but not the classic they're capable of making.