More than 18 months on from launch, we discover that Halo 5: Guardians never stopped evolving

Few weapons are as iconic as the battle rifle, the energy sword, or the SPNKr. There’s surely no digital sidearm that’s inspired such fierce debate as the Combat Evolved pistol. And I’d argue that the Needler packs more personality into its iridescent carapace than most games manage to wring out of their entire casts. The series may have changed, but Halo’s arsenal has always been magnificent.

So, when Halo 5’s multiplayer beta made its debut back in late 2014, my eyes were firmly fixed on the intricacies of that arsenal. But at some point, forensic analysis gave way to pure, dumb pleasure. The map was superb, offering a variety of engagement opportunities from the measured marksman to the manic melee enthusiast. And then there was the expanded moveset, which enabled Halo players to clamber over ledges, boost-dodge from danger and perform lethal ground pounds.

But when Halo 5 finally arrived in October 2015, my eager anticipation gave way to disappointment. The campaign was visually impressive but otherwise unexceptional – its intriguing narrative hampered by dreary new cast members and worthless new hub spaces. Worse still were 343’s attempts at multiplayer innovation. Warzone was once one of Halo 5’s flagship features, a 24-player gametype that took place on sprawling maps crawling with computer-controlled allies as well as rock ‘ard AI enemies. Expecting a new spin on the Big Team Battle, I eagerly hopped into a series of matches, and found only chaos.

"What if I spend a rare card and get picked off within seconds of spawning?"

Schlepping your way around these vast playspaces was a tedious chore, and all too often you’d find yourself blown to Spartan smithereens by some big spender with an elaborately bedazzled rocket launcher. And while it’s true that you could spend REQ cards to spawn with your own unique weapons or modified vehicles, the prospect filled me with anxiety. What if I spend a rare card and get picked off within seconds of spawning? How many kills do I need to score in order to justify burning through six REQ points on a Woodland Mantis?

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Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t much care for fastidious bean-counting in my first-person shooters. So, when I decided to reinstall Halo 5, it’s fair to say I harboured mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was looking forward to wading back into thrilling Free For Alls and tense Team Slayers. On the other, the thought of returning to Warzone made me preemptively tired. But after installing 51GB(!) of updates, I was in, and I soon discovered a smorgasbord of maps and modes to sample.

How have Halo 5's maps and modes evolved?

In fact, some of Halo 5’s finest Arena maps have been added – free of bloomin’ charge – in the year and a half since the game first launched. Take Overgrowth, for example: a grassy warren of narrow corridors and uneven city streets that I charge through reaping death and destruction with a Covenant Carbine. Molten is another standout freebie, beautifully suited to rip-roaring free-for-alls and panic-stricken Infection sessions (another newly-added mode!). And then there’s Mercy, a murky remake of Halo 4’s Haven map that swaps out sweeping Forerunner architecture for the more rounded contours of a Covenant holy site. Browsing through the new Custom Game interface, I count a total of 42 maps to choose from, none of which require a credit card to access.

But if the sheer wealth of content can’t tempt you to dust off your copy of Guardians, allow me to offer just one more juicy carrot to lure you back into the fold: Firefight is back, and it’s fantastic. Relaunched and rebranded as Warzone Firefight, this eight-player gametype pits players against waves of increasingly tricky alien foes: from swarms of cowardly Grunts to joyriding Prometheans in UNSC Warthogs. Here, at long last, is a mode I can gleefully burn REQ cards in – cashing in coveted cards for overpowered weaponry to turn on AI beasties. By the final wave, your team will likely be stomping around in mechs, raining down fire from the skies in Banshees, or rolling down the roads in Scorpion tanks. It’s big, it’s barmy and it’s beautiful.

As I begin my freefall into middle-aged obsolescence, it’s inevitable that I’ll begin to forget things here and there, but I still find myself shocked at just how good Halo 5’s multiplayer is. The maps are tiptop, fan-favourite modes have returned, and there’s a joy to player movement that surpasses any other Halo to date. And then there’s that arsenal, packed with weird, wonderful and pleasingly weighty weaponry to discharge.

Halo 5 has certainly changed over the months and years, but there’s arguably never been a better time to jump back into the fray.

This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.

James Nouch

James Nouch is a former staff writer of Official Xbox Magazine and has since left writing about video games behind to dive into the wonderful world of tabletop gaming. James is now a managing editor at Games Workshop, working directly with the Warhammer Community. James says his passions include playing games, chunky knitwear, pungent cheeses, and rewatching Columbo.