Developers face a tough challenge when crafting a new entry for a beloved series. Fail to evolve, and the franchise feels too reiterative, but change too much and the game loses its identity. 343 Industries walks that tight rope with Halo 5: Guardians, offering a higher focus on speed and mobility, a story that takes characters off their established courses, and a multiplayer mode that veers dramatically from expectation. The balancing act is not without stumbles, but even when things feel a little off, Halo 5 is still fresh and surprising.

As established by a rollicking opening cinematic, Halo 5’s gameplay is all about motion and speed. New mantling, slamming, and dashing maneuvers make your Spartan feel like a superhero, flitting about the battlefield in a flurry of action. That sense of maneuverability shines on Normal and Heroic difficulties, and the inclusion of distinct A.I. teammates layers in an additional level of joyful chaos. Legendary difficulty doesn’t feel quite right, however. The sense of speed is neutered (since turtling up is often the only option), your allies make bad decisions about when to complete revives, and checkpoint placement feels archaic as the frequent deaths stack up. The absence of large gun magazines on lower difficulties leads to constant change-ups and a breathless pace, but the low ammo on Legendary is frustrating. 

Cooperative online play is a blast, especially because of some excellent challenge scaling based on number of players. However, I am disappointed by the absence of local co-op, which has long been my preferred playstyle for Halo campaigns.

For the first time, Halo is fully embracing the broader fiction established in other mediums, drawing in characters and concepts of greater complexity. As a result, the universe feels more nuanced, even if some less devoted players may get lost in the jargon. Beautiful cut scenes lend a cinematic vibe to the ongoing adventure, which sees Master Chief chasing the one thing that can make him turn away from his duty, and a new generation of Spartans ordered to bring him back.

Along the way,  the franchise maintains its reputation for varied settings and explosive situations. Snow-blanketed cliffs under bombardment give way to tank battles on a glassed colony planet and mysterious ancient alien ruins on the homeworld of the Elites. The bombastic window dressing hides a simple plot that recalls the cliffhanger quality of Halo 2; this is far from a standalone tale. I love the broader cast of characters, and the way their personalities play against one another. The constant banter between teammates enlivens the narrative, as do hidden audio logs, which double as secrets to track down.

Competitive Arena play harkens back to the best of previous entries, albeit with an increased focus on precision and speed. The game modes offer something for everyone, from classic Slayer and CTF matches to specialty fights like elimination-style Breakout or twitch-based SWAT. After an initial batch of randomized skill check matches, the matchmaking is excellent, with dedicated tiers that govern who you’re up against. With a tight radar radius, 15 complex maps, and a focus on headshots, Halo 5 is geared to reward high-skill players at the expense of a more beginner-friendly experience.

I have mixed feelings about Halo 5’s other major competitive mode. Warzone draws inspiration from MOBAs and Battlefield to take shape as a large-team battle for 24 players. It combines the capturing of bases with points garnered for A.I. alien kills. The concept often delivers impressive skirmishes, and the well-designed maps provide strategic sophistication. However, the majority of the matches I played ended in landslide victories or losses, where the team that took an early lead gained access to better-defended spots and higher-powered weapons, compounding their lead. I’m also frustrated by score distribution on A.I. kills; only the final kill shot scores points for your team, making it far too easy to steal points. Long respawn runs from one of your bases keeps you out of the action for too long, and you can’t spawn on teammates. The game also does a poor job of explaining the mode and its scoring, leading to confusing early matches. 

Warzone’s issues are accentuated by requisitions, a progression system that provides random, one-use items that can turn the tide of a fight, like a tank or fuel rod cannon. Requisition packs can be earned in-game, but also purchased with real money. As such, those who pour in a lot of cash have the potential to more frequently pull out the big guns late in each Warzone match to save the day. Even disregarding the microtransactions, I don’t like having to juggle my own inventory of supplies during every match, and the random nature of requisition drops often prevents you from playing with your favorite toys. At the same time, I enjoy the regular flow of cosmetic customization unlocks, which are plentiful and visually striking.

If the last major entry represented 343 taking possession of the Halo house, this new installment shows it is ready to move the furniture around and make it their own. Some aspects of the game feel different than what longtime players have come to expect, but I’m happy to see a willingness to innovate. Despite some missteps, Halo 5 is an easy recommendation for the predominant moments during which the game shines.