One of my fondest memories of playing a pre-release game was the Halo: Reach Beta that ran for about two weeks some months before the game’s release. The changes beyond the visuals were subtle at best. But what made it so great was the feeling of familiarity that came with the game. You could give someone a controller, tell them “This is a Halo game,” and, assuming they’ve played one before, they instantly understand how the game should be played. Every change that was made to Reach was enhanced off of the typical Halo design; things like assassinations, jetpacks, and armor lock all fit with how Halo had been designed for years beforehand. So it makes sense that when I played the beta for Halo 5: Guardians, I wasn’t impressed by it’s first impression.
Before I continue, let me preface with this: Halo 5 is not shaping up to be a bad game. Anyone expecting confirmation for any kind of vitriol directed towards the series will not find it in this article. It’s Microsoft. This is Halo. It will be fine. (Y’know, probably)
While most of the time my notes don’t make it close to the ABOGJ servers, my first impression of Guardians was so violent – and in hindsight, hyperbolic – that I wrote a single line to start this article:
This isn’t Halo. Not even close. Whether that’s for better or for worse remains to be seen.
Again, in hindsight, this is quite a silly thing to say, but I think the point it highlights is interesting. This game handed me a controller, told me “This is Halo,” and then proceeded to give me…well, decidedly not what I was expecting. The control scheme is more akin to a game like Call of Duty than to that of Halo. For instance, pressing LT does not throw a grenade like every other Halo game; instead, it activates a kind of iron sight, called “Smart-Link,” which if you’re a Halo fan, should set off some alarm bells. This is the first time a Halo game has had iron sights for all weapons. And while the developers, 343 Industries, have come out and said that Smart-Link does not provide an accuracy bonus, it…well, it does. Of course it does. Why have it if it didn’t provide some sort of bonus?
Movement has also gotten another major addition in Guardians. Sprint is always equipped and mapped to the stick, as it was in Halo 4 before it. But Guardians adds a “Thruster Pack” that allows you to dash in any direction, both on the ground and in midair. And by “any direction,” I mean any direction on the X and Y axis at your current Z – in other words, you cannot use your jet power to gain any altitude, which seems like an absolutely glaring oversight.
Though the Booster Pack does have one cool feature. When you use the Smart-Link in mid-air, you hover for a short time, allowing for some pretty interesting combat scenarios. Of course, forgetting this feature is easy, which means that sometimes you’ll accidentally arrest your own descent.
There is some hope, at least in terms of control schemes, though. There are still the multitude of Halo control schemes, including “Bumper Jumper” and “Halo 4,” which gives you a more traditional Halo control layout. But I should note, I played this game with the default controls. I wanted to write this article on how 343 wants to present this game, hence my griping.
The one other thing of note is the change of presentation for multiplayer modes, namely Slayer. Slayer has always been a euphemism for Deathmatch, plain and simple. Kill the enemy 50 times before they kill you 50 times. That’s it. The meta-game in Slayer, though, is controlling power weapons. Part of the fun of a new Halo game was learning and memorizing where weapons spawned on the map. It’s what separated a good player from a great player. That element, or at least the fun of it, is actively removed in Guardians. Not only does it flat-out tell you as a match starts to “control power weapons,” the power weapon spawn points are all clearly labelled, and the levels are built around those spawn point in the most obvious ways possible. Hell, the spawn points even have timers for when the weapons respawn, removing almost any strategy, frenzy, or luck in what has been Halo’s marquee mulitplayer game mode. It changes the encounters from being so much “I need to win so my team can win,” to “I need to win because I want that goddamn rocket launcher.”
Despite all of these flaws, I still found myself having fun with Halo 5. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been a fan of the execution in Halo games, and the moment-to-moment gameplay has not changed significantly. Honestly, Guardians really scratched the competitive itch I have for Halo. I found myself constantly striving to be the top scorer in matches, because that’s what I find fun in Halo, as do many other players. Still, I cannot guarantee that fans of previous Halo games will love or even like this one. In fact, the only thing I can guarantee is that there will be people who absolutely hate this game. But the worst thing anyone can do is to write this one off before giving it a shot.
Halo 5: Guardians is slated for release on Xbox One sometime late this year.
Ethics Disclosure: Access to this Beta was included with Halo: The Master Chief Collection. This author has no affiliation with Microsoft, 343 Industries, or their respective partners.