One thing that developers had to be very careful with here was keeping the franchise's dedicated fans happy while still making it marketable to new players. "Halo 4" was criticized for being a bit too lore-heavy at times. Developers at 343 Industries — the in-house studio that took over the franchise once Microsoft split with "Halo" creator Bungie — have appeared to take that into consideration here. The story isn't hard to follow: You alternate playing on the side of the franchise's most famous character, the space marine Master Chief, or with the man tasked with hunting him down, Spartan Jameson Locke. There is enough exposition for someone to jump into the story lines with a shallow familiarity of the franchise's wide-ranging universe. But there are also moments when you undeniably feel like your understanding of the story line would be richer if you'd read some of the many "Halo" novels out there.
That seems to be something we expect to see more of under the "Halo" stewardship of Bonnie Ross, head of 343 Industries and a Microsoft corporate vice president. Bloomberg's recent profile of Ross included the tidbit that she was encouraged to just let "Halo" die, as many felt the franchise had run its course. Instead, the article said, she came in armed with full knowledge of the core and extended "Halo" universe and with the aim to revive it.
One thing can be said for the game: It's beautiful. If the aim is to show off what the Xbox One can do, it does that ably. The maps are rich, full of detail and action-packed. At times, it can almost feel too busy as you play, because there are so many things on screen, some of which you can interact with and some that you can't. Particularly early on, the campaign mode drops you into ongoing battles; you definitely get the sense that your adventure is only part of a much larger conflict and a much larger universe than you have the capability to explore.
The complexity of the action helps explain why developers rely a lot on cut-scenes to move the story along at key plot points, as well the decision to ditch the option for local cooperative play in split-screen. Though it is a bummer for fans, it's easy to see the technical challenges the co-op would present at that scale.
A new sense of scale also carries over to the online multiplayer experience. Multiplayer is arguably more important to "Halo" than the story line. That makes it difficult to fully review the game, given that the feel of any multiplayer-focused game can change once it's open to the general public. But given the limited experience I've had with it, I can say that it just feels bigger in every way — from the sheer size of the map to the expansiveness of a new 12-on-12 mode that pits you against other players and the environment.
So how will Microsoft (and the Xbox One) fare from the latest addition to their blockbuster game?
Loyalists should be happy, overall. "Halo 5: Guardians" retains the core DNA of "Halo." But it also handles the need to find new players in a smart way and sets up the possibility for the franchise to expand even further in the years to come.
That's critical for Microsoft, particularly given chief executive Satya Nadella's driving goal that people "love" Microsoft products going forward. That's a bit of challenge for the brand overall. Microsoft's done some focused marketing to engender that love and, honestly, Apple-like devotion. Just look at all those Windows 10 commercials with cute babies, or even the firm's decision to open a new Fifth Avenue store — a move that is arguably as much about marketing as it is about moving merchandise.
"Halo" doesn't have that problem; it already has plenty of people who love the franchise. Its challenge is to keep from messing that up.