Last year, Halo 5: Guardians turned out to be a most excellent birthday gift for a Halo fan such as myself. Hype for the game before launch was stalled after Halo 4 failed to capture the imagination of Halo's core fanbase, but there were signs of things to come. When all was said and done, Halo 5's campaign disappointed with its focus on tertiary side characters, and Warzone was a fine distraction that was held back by a focus on microtransactions and a lack of content at launch. Under the radar, Halo 5's real standout was its traditional Arena multiplayer mode. It too had a lack of content to start, but the team at 343 Industries has spent the past year infusing it with enough variety and new content to make me confident in saying that it is now the definitive Halo multiplayer experience.
In past games, Halo's multiplayer has been designed around pleasing many different audiences. At launch, 343 were targeting one very specific audience with Arena, and that was the core Halo fan that has been with the series since the Xbox LAN party days. Weapons were recast into distinct roles in Halo 5, and while your starting weapon wasn't always your best bet in combat à la Combat Evolved, there was a distinct focus on making sure that players were deadly at a distance. Maps were noticeably smaller, and subtle changes like automated AI callouts and power weapon timers gave novice players a hint at the type of game that Combat Evolved veterans have been playing for a decade and a half.
At launch, players were starved for both maps and modes, but the game now has upped the variety significantly. In Team Arena and Slayer, it's gotten to that perfect point where there are just enough maps that your chances of repeating a gametype twice in a row are slim. Modes have been expanded by adding in Infection, Big Team Battle, and Action Sack lists, each powered by user generated Forge maps that fit right in alongside 343's creations. This is especially the case since 343 isn't afraid to update maps over time, adding new features and weapons as updates are rolled out for the game, as well as allowing the map's creators to improve geometry and textures. We've come a long way from Team Banshees on Ascension ruling Halo 2's Team Slayer list for weeks on end.
Adding new modes and maps to Halo's sandbox is a longstanding tradition, but Halo 5 takes it a step further by adding weapons to the mix as well. 343 has catered extensively to their fanbase by adding in weapons from past games like the Gravity Hammer and Brute Plasma Rifle, as well as classic variants of existing weapons like the Halo 2 BR and SPNKR Rocket Launcher. Any complaints about weapons being redesigned by 343 were silenced quickly by these additions, and utilizing Spartan Abilities in conjunction with weapons I've been using for a decade is thrilling even now. Since all the DLC for Halo 5 has been free, none of these additions are siloed off into their own little universe, and this game is one of the first console games I can remember to feel just as vibrant months after launch as a PC shooter like Team Fortress 2.
In the last few months, there have been even more additions to Halo 5's weapon variety in Arena, as Warzone REQ weapons have quietly been popping up in map revisions. Despite these weapons often looking similar to their regular counterparts, almost every differently named gun in Halo 5 can be considered a completely different tool of destruction. It reminds me of the hidden unlockable characters in Soul Calibur 3 that doubled that game's roster size, or the sheer scope of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. Discovering that the White Scar is an effective mine layer, or that one of the Carbine variants is basically the Needle Rifle from Halo: Reach is extremely rewarding to do in the moment, and the game has never stopped surprising me. Add in the loadout variants, which add silencers and different scopes to your starting weapons, and there are easily over 100 guns to learn in Halo 5: Guardians. The number of firearms available in Arena will continue to grow as 343 expands the REQ system and offloads more of them into Forge.
What's truly impressive about all this is that none of these constant additions ever feel overwhelming. The game in Arena is still delicately balanced and focused on achieving that Combat Evolved feel. Much like that game, every weapon on every map seems to serve a purpose, and 343 has crafted a game that makes me use my Assault Rifle and my SMG just as much as precision weapons. Considering how resentful I am to this day of the SMG and its place as a starting weapon in Halo 2, that's quite an accomplishment.
I have never had quite as many 50-49 finishes in Slayer as I've had when playing Halo 5 online. I truly never get bored of what its combat has to offer, and it's the first game in the franchise since Combat Evolved that has captured my imagination in this way. Stripped of dual wielding, jetpacks, armor lock, and other such nonsense, this game truly feels like a lover letter to the oft-quoted "holy trinity" of Halo, and I have high hopes that future sequels will expand rather than try to once again improve on perfection.
What are your favorite memories of Halo 5: Guardians over the past year? What are your hopes for future sequels? Let us know in the comments below!