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Halo 5: Guardians review: An old friend

Halo 5: Guardians is gorgeous and admirably refined, but it refuses to deviate from its well-established legacy.

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Jeff Bakalar
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Jeff Bakalar

Editor at Large

Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

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6 min read

Halo is a very big deal. It's pivotal to the success of Microsoft's Xbox One. It's the console's flagship series and the most prominent exclusive to hit the 2015 holiday season.

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Halo 5: Guardians

The Good

Halo 5: Guardians is a gorgeous Xbox One exclusive with a nonstop action-filled campaign, an epic storyline and a smattering of multiplayer modes including the new Warzone. The campaign alternates between two heroes and features a few new maneuvers and gameplay modes, such as four-player co-op.

The Bad

The relatively quick campaign may not leave much in terms of replay value. Some of the new gameplay abilities are underwhelming.

The Bottom Line

Halo 5: Guardians is an exceptional technical achievement with a solid campaign and a compelling set of multiplayer modes. At the same time it refuses to do anything else outside of its wheelhouse, which may disappoint some players.

For years the series has relied on larger-than-life campaigns, stunning visuals, compelling characters like Master Chief and Cortana and a fully featured set of multiplayer modes with a passionate, die-hard following.

With each proper sequel, the expectation from the game's loyal fanbase grows. They want to be wowed again and again. They're chasing the feeling they got the first time they dropped into combat as Master Chief. And who can blame them?

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343 Industries

The road to Halo 5: Guardians' release saw no shortage of hype and fanfare. It's been teased for years and the development team, 343 Industries, has made a calculated effort to strategically release tidbits of information about the game leading up to its October 27 debut.

If you're not familiar with the space saga that is Halo's narrative, get in line. It's complex and layered, but all you really need to know is that Master Chief (or John-117 as he's also known) is the game's hero and he shares a special connection with an AI named Cortana. Their relationship is the point of contention for most of the Halo games and things just get more intense in Guardians.

That's who's who. Now let's talk about what it's like to play Halo 5.

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343 Industries

New in Halo 5: Guardians is the ability to aim down the sights of any weapon and a suit boost that lets the player thrust in any direction. You can also shoot while sliding, perform a charge move and stomp down on enemies. Sure, the new gameplay maneuvers aren't exactly needle-movers, but the most notable additions arrive in the form of the campaign's structure.

You'll play as both Master Chief and Spartan Locke in alternating missions (Locke is tasked with reeling in Chief), both of whom are accompanied by three team members who stick with you the entire time. This also allows for four-player co-op throughout the campaign.

Setting the campaign aside for a moment, a new set of multiplayer modes debut with Halo 5 that are sure to whet the appetite of an already salivating online community.

Mainstays like Slayer (team deathmatch) and Capture the Flag remain, but now players will be treated to new modes like the 24-player Warzone in which battles can last up to 30 minutes. Testing these modes with an early final version of the game wasn't easy, but the few matches I did get to play were frenetic and exciting. Simply put, Warzone is bonkers.

It marks a significant evolutionary step for Halo's multiplayer arsenal and will likely stand out as Halo 5's legacy. At the same time, Warzone can feel a bit overwhelming, so I'm glad I really wound up liking the 4-on-4 Arena mode offerings in the game -- the Slayer and other classic styles I mentioned above. These are modes I'm definitely going to play and attempt to become competitive in when the game goes public. The maps feel good and the online experience was solid with no signs of lag or drop-off. Of course that could change when 100,000 players decide to jump on at once. There's a satisfying amount of player customization too, which has been par for the course in Halo multiplayer for a while.

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343 Industries

Halo's online presence doesn't end there. What's arguably the game's most ambitious online foray is Forge mode, which will arrive in December 2015. In Forge, players can design their own maps with in-game assets, making use of over 1,600 objects.

Guardians' multiplayer prowesses are well represented, but let's shift gears back to the game's campaign. To start, Halo 5 is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It's one of the best-looking Xbox One games I've played. Every direction you look in seems endless. The environments and distant planets are all breathtaking and evoke a sense of wonder. I kept thinking to myself, "Man, I wonder what happened in this place. How'd all this stuff get here?"

The cutscenes that break up the action are overflowing with production value too. Each movie is brimming with super-high-quality CG. You'll marvel at things like textures, facial renderings and lighting effects that litter every frame. It's really impressive stuff.

In fact, a lot of the best action happens during the mission-bridging cutscenes. Then the game just goes back to being a really fantastic looking shooter. It's actually pretty odd. At its core, Halo 5 barely colors outside the lines of the genre it helped redefine.

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343 Industries

The campaign is expertly molded and delivers the peaks and valleys an epic space action demands, but there's definitely a ceiling on gameplay. Locke and Chief are lethal acrobatic hand-to-hand killing machines, but you never get to perform the over-the-top awesomeness that happens during cutscenes.

You'll watch in awe as the protagonists tumble down a mountain, just barely outrunning a crashing warship, all while vaulting over enemies and performing intricate melee maneuvers -- just obliterating everything in their paths. But then the cutscene ends and you're stuck with the same set of basic principles Halo has touted for over a decade.

I'm not going to pretend I want Halo to evolve into some kind of action-adventure shooter, but it seems the game's most significant innovations have all occurred when you stop touching the buttons. The visuals are better, the controls refined, but it's still Halo.

I touched on the game's amazing environments and locales, but there's little incentive to explore these areas. Guardians is fairly linear and straightforward as far as modern first-person-shooters go. There are a handful of collectibles scattered throughout each mission, but they don't add up to much. Most players will get through the campaign in 8 to 10 hours, but I'm not sure they'll find much to go back and replay. Maybe try a harder difficulty? Or perhaps complete it in co-op mode?

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343 Industries

Make no mistake. The campaign is a nonstop thrill ride. It's quick and forces you to keep moving throughout. Rarely will you stop and camp out at a spot in a mission. Halo has never been about that. In Guardians, you'll use a seemingly endless amount of weapons, all varying in shapes, styles and stopping power. And before the end credits roll, you'll have driven and flown a handful of different vehicles and ships.

If you've already played a game or two in the series you're likely familiar with the various enemies in Guardians, and for me getting up close and confrontational with these creatures is what stayed with me after I completed the campaign. The heavier enemies like the Covenant Hunters and Promethean Knights are all beautifully rendered and create a genuine sense of dread for the player.

Whether it be Covenant or Promethean, I found Halo 5 to be fairly easy on normal difficulty. Interestingly enough, the introduction of a four-member team for both Locke and Master Chief made it possible to coast through the campaign. In fact, I died less than 10 times the entire game. Any of your other team members can heal you back to perfect health in about 4 seconds, which gave me a really disproportionate amount of confidence wherever I went. If you're looking for more of a challenge, try starting on a harder difficulty.

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343 Industries

Halo 5: Guardians is exceptional in its production value across the board and the story is able to come across as engrossing and important. When you strip it down to its core, Guardians is atypically conservative in a landscape of games that are taking chances and evolving beyond their tropes. There are small amount of elite franchises that get a free pass for just improving upon themselves, and with Guardians, Halo unashamedly admits it's among those select few.

Beyond Guardians, I want Halo to take more risks and evolve. I think the series can do that without sacrificing what its fans hold so near and dear. Does Halo 6 need to be an open-world MMORPG? Of course not, but the series needs to grow.

For more on Halo 5, visit GameSpot's coverage
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