“Find something to shoot!” bawls one of my computer-controlled squadmates in Halo 5: Guardians as I clamber onto a floodlit gangway. Enemies that look like molten lava fitted with armor swarm in front of me. Because I am playing as Master Chief, the strange, cyclopean hero of the series, who exists explicitly to shoot things, I do. In Halo, it’s easy to find a target.
Technically the 10th title in the franchise, Halo 5 ($60) is one of the most anticipated games of the fall. The series–first-person shooters that pit a 26th century supersoldier against theocratic aliens called the Covenant–has sold more than 65 million copies. This is also the first all-new Halo game for Microsoft’s Xbox One console, which launched two years ago but has struggled to keep pace with Sony’s PlayStation 4. Master Chief is basically Microsoft’s Mario, and Microsoft needs a hero now.
Though Halo’s setting is futuristic, its DNA lies in the past. Back in 2001, the original convinced players that first-person shooters could be fun on living-room consoles, helping mint a generation of Xbox diehards. But things have changed since then: there are dozens of shooters on the market, most updated annually. And the hardest of hardcore players are increasingly gravitating toward competitive online games, most of them free, that change over time rather than banking on the blockbuster action sequences that turned previous Halos into must-buys. Today’s shooters, in other words, need some fresh ideas.
Perhaps with this in mind, Halo 5 mixes things up by subtracting Master Chief from three-quarters of the game, playing coy with his motives and questioning his loyalties. For most of the game, you play as Spartan Locke, another supersoldier, tasked with hunting Chief down. But where past story lines have cleverly balanced space-opera themes with visual spectacle, the payoff this time lacks the subversive punch of the setup. In the end, the story feels disappointingly by the numbers, the mysteries not so mysterious after all, the archetypes ultimately shuffled back to their starting positions.
That’s not to say the game isn’t fun. Halo 5 handles brilliantly: game play is brisk, uncomplicated and joyfully fierce. The game’s locations are also beautifully rendered, putting you in the midst of ethereal alien worlds and battle-scarred space stations as you obliterate waves of attackers.
Halo 5’s saving grace may be its online multiplayer modes, which have been tuned by developer 343 Industries to appeal to the type of player liable to skip the story mode entirely. Multiplayer levels are replete with curling tunnels, climbable platforms and dead-end corners that result in topsy-turvy, tactically exuberant play. The game’s newest mode, Warzone, though unavailable to test as this review was under way, promises to let dozens of players brawl on mammoth maps. There are multiple ways to win in Warzone, which should keep things interesting in the long run.
If you are a Halo buff, Halo 5 will probably feel like coming home–a graphically souped-up take on the same approach that’s resonated with fans for 14 years. But for other gamers, that formula may finally be wearing thin.
This appears in the November 09, 2015 issue of TIME.
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