Last week I spent some quality time with Halo 5: Guardians, playing two demo missions from the upcoming 343 Industries title. The timing was interesting, coming hot on the heels of me having spent the previous day playing through the early missions of The Taken King. It was a good reminder that while Destiny often feels a little like Halo, there's nothing like playing the real McCoy to really remember what Halo is all about.
Mind you, this time out, it's all about team play. In a story that jumps between two squads – Master Chief and his three teammates, who have mysteriously gone AWOL, and the four-man crew run by Jameson Locke, a freshly-minted Spartan IV who's trying to track them down – the player can either tackle the game solo with three AI characters, or as a co-operative assault with other players.
At the event, we played single-player only so we could all progress at our own pace. Although because both missions were taken from the latter stages of the campaign, that pace was pretty damn ferocious straight out of the gate – we were thrown in at the deep end, assaulting a derelict ship called the Argent Moon and searching for missing intelligence. Needless to say, the ship was overrun with enemy forces, and I had to fight pretty much every step of the way to reach the objective.
What was immediately apparent – apart from this looking and feeling very much like a classic Halo game – is that the gunplay is absolutely top-notch. Whether or not this is helped by the fact that Halo 5 runs at 1080p/60 fps I need more time with the game to truly attest, but aiming feels super-smooth and accurate – and the different guns available are really entertaining and generally quite powerful. Even picking up a pistol in a pinch when you're out of ammo can still save your butt in a tough situation. Enemy AI is also excellent, and they use cover and objects quite intelligently to stay out of line of fire - and if you let them, they'll attempt to flank and surround you.
Something that helps evolve Halo's gameplay is that it's now much easier to clamber over obstacles and hazards. It's not quite as dynamic as the movement in the likes of Titanfall and Advanced Warfare, but it's effective and helps make Halo's playability more progressive, while still maintaining its original feel. This essentially means you're not just using cover to shoot at enemies, but can also more freely assault by running and gunning at targets without getting hung up on objects. This sort of tactic is helped by thrust evades, which enable you – as long as you time your maneuvers right – to deftly step out of the way of incoming fire. Get it wrong, however, and you end up with a face full of hot plasma. This same mechanic also lets you do a ground pound – a highly effective drop-in move that smashes anything close by. Like evades, timing is everything and if you get it right, it can be a devastating move.
Another aspect of the demo I really enjoyed was the varied level design. The first mission aboard the Argent Moon started out with narrow corridors and bulkheads to break through using a shoulder charge move. It felt like a very early Halo game in some respects. However, as my team of AI friends and I progressed, the ship began to open up in all directions: there were large spaces with multiple levels to tackle, so you had to watch out for enemy fire potentially coming from above, below and from all sides. It helped dial up the intensity and make for firefights that felt exciting and action-packed. Indeed, one area was large enough to fly around in: I had to take control of a Banshee flying craft and take out a series of targets before returning to the firefight on foot.
I did get shot a few times, and when that happens you can call over a teammate to revive you. They're quite responsive, and while I did end up bleeding out before I could be rescued a few times, as long as you stick close to your allies, they're reasonably effective help. Sure, they're no replacement for human beings, but in terms of playing solo, they do an good enough job helping out shooting down enemies and providing covering fire so you can lead the charge.
The second of the two missions was set on a planet called Sanghelios, and again there was a great deal of variety to the combat. This was a largely open, multi-tiered space occupied by squads of enemies that had to be dealt with sequentially. There was a tank-like vehicle to destroy, as well as gun emplacements, and, of course, plenty of foot soldiers to deal with. But the star of this particular level was a huge Kraken vehicle – that was as tall as a skyscraper.
Taking it down involved fighting to a hangar that had a few Phaeton flying craft, which I then used to fly up to an observation deck on the Kraken. Once I'd landed, I then fought my way inside so that I could destroy its core – before running back to my ship so I could fly away before the giant machine crashed and burned. It was a pretty tough mission, and I failed several times before finally emerging victorious. But despite being difficult, it was extremely enjoyable.
The two hours I spent playing Halo 5: Guardians absolutely flew by. That's definitely a testament to how gripping and involving its combat is. It feels very finely crafted and thoughtfully designed. Weapons each have their own feel and effects, and the team-based combat works really well. I wish I'd had the chance to play with other players to see how different it really is with other humans versus AI teammates, but one thing's for sure – the game works very, very well as a single-player experience.
If the point of this demo was to make me feel excited about the upcoming release of the game, then job very well done. The gameplay of both levels I tried is top-tier, and graphically the game looks absolutely gorgeous, and pin sharp. It's filled with depth and detail that would have to be admired – if you weren't so busy dealing with Covenant threats the whole time. If truth be told, I've not been much of a Halo player in the past – I've not had an Xbox console at the right time, and missed certain entries in the series. But owning an Xbox One as I do, I just can't wait to get my teeth into this game!