Sure, sequels are hard, but they’re made even more difficult when you have to follow what was the dramatic climax and culmination of a then 11-year-old franchise. Halo 4, despite the nonsensical nature of the ending, managed to imbue genuine emotion into a relationship between what many originally thought was a robot and what mostly is a robot when she’s controlling machinery.
That challenge, though, is actually what makes Halo 5: Guardians all the better because rather than try clear to that high narrative bar, it instead chose to go around it. Or maybe it did try and just failed, resulting in a “baffling, meandering, predictable, somewhat dull story,” but the point is that the gameplay in Guardians is the best it has ever been.
And standing against some of the most fun and best shooting and driving in the industry, that’s saying a lot. Consider that Halo not only revolutionized the shooter space with its limited armaments and more intuitive stick-based driving but also introduced the idea of orchestrating large, strangely operatic battle sequences.
“Orchestrating.” “Operatic.” These are very deliberate word choices for describing the series because not only is Marty O’Donnell’s iconic musical score integral to the success of the games but there is a rhythm to the combat of Halo that is indelible to the minds of anyone who has played the games, owed in part to each encounter’s design but also the artificial intelligence, or AI. There’s a reason why there has been so much written about the game’s enemies.
But we already know about that flow, that cadence. We already know how battles are crafted around the idea of moving to a beat. Shoot a guy here, dump this gun for this other gun, spin around to toss a grenade, pick up a sword and dice a few fools, all before making it to the Wraith tank and blowing it up. That’s a done deal and surely you’re tired of hearing about it like how a college student is tired of hearing about their bank account being overdrawn.
What needs to be highlighted here is how many fresh ideas Guardians manages to inject into that formula and not only keep that nearly indescribable quality up but also improve on it. Of course, Halo has been expanding on Spartan abilities since forever. From dual wielding to armor abilities, Bungie and 343 Industries have slowly been taking Master Chief and his cohorts from extraordinarily tough jarheads to relative demigods.
Guardians, however, has had the most impactful expansion yet, partly in due to its brush-up against some more modern sensibilities; sprinting and iron sights are just there. But even these were smartly integrated, being that sprinting is also a gateway to more abilities and smart-linking—the idiomatic term for scoped aiming—doesn’t actually improve accuracy. (Well, it does, kind of, but only with unwieldy things like the SMG.)
While the indistinguishable difference in precision is vital for maintaining Halo‘s freedom of and impetus for mobility, the increased ability to get from place to place has opened up a whole new range of options when fighting. Sprint to shoulder charge and then thrust dodge off the edge to the right before hovering with smart-link to get a few headshots, all just to ground pound the fuck out of the clueless Grunts below.
Rather than becoming more like every other shooter (read: Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Titanfall) by integrating these commonalities, Guardians has actually made itself stand out even further. That rhythm has learned new meters and measures, offering not only more of the best but new facets of the best. It’s not just a new chapter. It’s a whole new god damn book.