I love video games, but it’s rare for me to play them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me a somewhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game. I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that I’ve been meaning to play and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve had the time to start chipping away at the list. With that in mind, I’ve created a new series of posts called Late to the Party, wherein I discuss the games that came out in the preceding years that I’m finally getting around to experiencing. Today’s entry in the series is Halo 5: Guardians. Like with Call of Duty, I don’t care about Halo’s multiplayer, so this commentary is strictly limited to the singleplayer campaign.
Halo 5’s singleplayer campaign is a great game with a major shortfall at the center of it. Actually, there are two major shortfalls. There is an overriding need to address these two failures, and as such, today’s edition of Late to the Party will eschew the format I normally use so that I can give them the space they need. But before getting to either of those problems, let me quickly talk about the parts of the game which Halo 5 does extremely well, which comprise the majority of it.
Halo 5 is a fun game to play. The gameplay is fantastic overall and most of the adjustments that were made to the Halo formula are for the better. You can now crash through certain walls, opening up new paths to assault and flank the enemy, as well as boost mid-air and mantle up to higher ground, adding more verticality to the levels. All weapons now have aim-down-sights (ADS) functionality, which I know not everyone is going to like because it makes Halo more like a traditional shooter, but I’m personally all-for this. I don’t know whether it actually affected the accuracy of guns that previously lacked ADS, but mentally it made me feel like my shots were more accurate. Dual-wielding of guns is gone and once again the weapons have been rebalanced. For me the most notable tweaks were that the Boltshot and the Suppressor, guns that I was not a fan of in Halo 4, seem to be much better in Halo 5, and also the DMR is now a beast of a gun. The only major gameplay mechanic that I was not a fan of in Halo 5 was that if you are in ADS and get hit by any amount of enemy fire, you are taken out of ADS. I found this to be annoying, but thankfully it was the only real problem I had with how the game played. Halo 5’s graphics and audio are as strong as its gameplay, with gorgeous visuals and great sound effects and music from start to finish. Alien worlds, spaceship interiors, and the various beings that inhabit them are all rendered in great detail and serve as a testament to the game’s strong art direction.
Given all the things Halo 5 does right, you might be wondering what exactly I think it does wrong. Like I said, there are two major shortfalls. Let me start with the one which lies in the fundamental design of the singleplayer campaign. Halo 5 has no split-screen co-op. Although you can play through the campaign by yourself like I did, (or rather, as I was forced to) it is clear to me that the campaign was meant to be played cooperatively with other people. I would have loved to have played Halo 5 cooperatively—it’s how I had played every single Halo game up until this one—however the method of cooperative play that I prefer and had always used, split-screen co-op, was removed from this iteration of Halo. The announcement of split-screen co-op’s non-presence in Halo 5 was made prior to the game’s launch and it was stated that it was removed in order to fulfill a number of technical goals, such as maintaining a framerate of 60 frames per second and high visual fidelity. Since I’m not a game developer and have little knowledge of the intricacies of making a game like Halo 5, I have to the game’s developers at their word. That said, however, I would have gladly accepted a visual downgrade and even a framerate reduction (from 60 frames per second down to 30) if it meant I could play Halo 5 in split-screen coop. Great visuals are a nice thing to have in a game, but I’ll sacrifice them in an instant to improve the game experience. For me, split-screen coop is THE definitive way to play a Halo campaign, and its removal was a great disappointment.
With the lack of split-screen co-op now finished, we now come to the shortfall that I want to spend the most time on: Halo 5’s story. I know this is a bold claim, but I would go so far as to say Halo 5 has the weakest story in all the mainline Halo games. To properly discuss the issues surrounding Halo 5’s story, I need to first give a summary of it, and then in the paragraphs that follow I’ll go through my thoughts on where it goes wrong. Suffice to say, spoilers are incoming.
Halo 5’s story picks up some time after the end of Halo 4. We are introduced to a new protagonist named Locke and his team, who are collectively referred to as Fireteam Osiris, and the game’s first chapter has them capturing a rogue human scientist named Catherine Halsey from an alien religious cult known as the Covenant. The narrative then switches over to that of Halo’s original protagonist, Master Chief, who, along with his squad, known as Blue Team, are retaking a derelict space station from the Covenant. During the mission, Master Chief sees a vision of Cortana, his former AI assistant that appeared to have been lost at the end of Halo 4, and she directs him to go to the planet Meridian. Against orders, Master Chief and Blue Team set out for Meridian, and Locke’s Fireteam Osiris is sent to pursue and capture them. Fireteam Osiris catches up with Blue Team on Meridian, but Blue Team escapes on a giant Forerunner construct known as a Guardian. The Guardian takes Blue Team to a planet called Genesis, where Master Chief is contacted again by Cortana and learns that not only is she (I guess technically Cortana is not female since she’s an AI, but whatever) still operational, but her rampancy—the degenerative condition all AIs eventually succumb to—has been cured. Meanwhile, Fireteam Osiris is trying to find a way to pursue Blue Team, and hatches a plan to find the Guardian on the planet Sanghelios and then hitchhike on it. On Sanghelios they meet up with the Arbiter, an alien general who is in the process of kicking the Covenant off his planet. A deal is struck with the Arbiter whereby the humans help him defeat the Covenant and in return he helps them get to the Guardian. The plan works, and Fireteam Osiris catches a ride on the Guardian to Genesis. On Genesis, Fireteam Osris meets the planet’s caretaker AI, who informs them that Cortana has gone crazy and is planning on using all the Guardians she has collected to enforce galactic peace via subjugation. Master Chief tries to talk Cortana out of this but he and Blue Team are imprisoned by her. Fireteam Osiris rescues Blue Team but Cortana’s plans are already in motion. She has been speaking with the other AIs across the galaxy and nearly all of them swear allegiance to her and disable all the systems they are connected to. Fireteam Osiris and Blue Team go back to Sanghelios for a reunion with several of the other characters but the threat of Cortana now hangs over everyone. The last scene from the game, unlocked by beating Halo 5 on Legendary difficulty, shows Cortana powering up a Halo ring, which you might remember from the earlier games is an ancient Forerunner superweapon, and then the screens dramatically cuts to black.
The overall plot of Halo 5 that I detailed above is decent in concept, but full of problems in its actual execution. Let’s begin with the new lead character, Locke, and returning lead character Master Chief, as well as their teams. Bringing in a new lead character is always a risky thing to do in a franchise, but I was willing to give Locke a chance because I have never really understood the popularity of Master Chief as a character. Master Chief did lots of cool and heroic things in the Halo games that he starred in, but he didn’t say much of anything significant and I never felt like I knew much about him. Locke, sadly, is much the same, and I don’t know why I should care about him as a character. Like Master Chief, Locke is an emotionless wall without a shred of charisma who never says anything to endear himself to the person playing the game. He seems to have no personal investment in the story and no motivation for doing what he does, other than just following orders. Throughout the game Locke is repeatedly outshined by the other three members of Fireteam Osris – Vale, Buck, and Tanaka – who are all far more developed characters that actually have personalities and interesting things to say. Buck, in particular, is my favorite of the group, and he is masterfully voiced by Nathan Fillion. Regarding Master Chief, you only play a few missions as him, and I don’t totally understand why he does what he does. While I can see that any possibility of getting Cortana back would have his priority, it’s odd that he either didn’t notice or purposely ignored the signs that pointed towards Cortana having gone nuts. For their part, Blue Team strangely never questions how Master Chief knows Cortana is alive and where to find her. Their conversations are also not as interesting as that of Fireteam Osiris, and I can’t say I learned much of anything about them. From playing the mainline Halo games I had thought that Master Chief was the last surviving member of the supersoldier program that had created him, but I guess that’s not the case as the rest of Blue Team were part of it too and had some sort of past experience with him. I’m told that the other members of Blue Team are fleshed out in the Halo expanded universe books, but I’ve never read those, and I suspect that most of the people who play Halo 5 haven’t read them either. It would have been much better if we had gotten in Halo 5 a more thorough explanation of who the other members of Blue Team are, as well as a bit of character development, rather than the game’s approach which is to assume the player is familiar with characters that up to this point had not made appearances in the mainline entries of the Halo game series.
Two other characters worth bringing up here are Halsey and Cortana. At the end of Halo 4’s Spartan Ops storyline, Halsey believes she has been betrayed by the human governing authorities and defects to the Covenant, vowing revenge. When we meet Halsey near the start of Halo 5, all her animosity is somehow gone and she’s totally fine with joining back up with the people she turned on in Halo 4. There’s not even any hint of there being any issue when Halsey is with Commander Palmer, the soldier who shot Halsey in the arm at the end of Halo 4 Spartan Ops, resulting in its amputation. I would think there would be at least a slight bit of tension between Halsey and the character that tried to kill her, but I guess Halsey either had a sudden, unexpected change of heart and forgave Palmer but didn’t tell anyone, or maybe Halsey is suffering from a case of selective amnesia. As for Cortana, I wasn’t the least bit surprise by her return. In fact, I predicted it immediately after finishing Halo 4, as it struck me as a stupid move to permanently kill off a character so central and beloved to the Halo games. Predictable as it may have been, her return does cheapen her apparent death in Halo 4. How exactly she first contacts Master Chief is never explained, and it’s clear from the moment you see and hear Cortana that something’s wrong with her. Despite what should have resulted in a veritable storm of questions within Blue Team regarding Cortana’s return, they walk straight into her clutches. Cortana’s activation of a Halo ring at the end of the game also doesn’t make much sense to me, as Halo rings have only one purpose, to destroy life, while Cortana’s stated purpose in setting up an iron-fist galactic regime is to preserve and improve life. I guess we have to chalk that one up to her supposed cure for rampancy that has actually made her insane.
In addition to the issues with the characters are a myriad number of story moments that could have turned into interesting narrative threads but instead were left hanging. For example, when Locke meets the Arbiter, the Arbiter already knows who Locke is and how Locke used to be an operative of the shadowy Office of Naval Intelligence. The Arbiter even knows that years ago, when the Arbiter was part of the Covenant, Locke had been trying to find a way to assassinate him. This was a good setup for a potential scene where something substantial happens between Locke and the Arbiter, but the scene just ends. Another wasted moment is when Fireteam Osiris is getting ready to pursue Blue Team and Buck is talking with Locke. Buck supports Locke, but he’s not completely sure if they’re doing the right thing and tells Locke that everyone is going to hate them if they take down Master Chief. Again, another opportunity for a great character moment, but nothing substantial happens. Even the encounters between Locke and Master Chief amount to practically nothing important. I had assumed from Halo 5’s marketing campaign that Locke held some sort of grudge against Master Chief and when they met I expected it, or some sort of other insight into Locke’s thinking, to come out, but I was mistaken in this belief. The first time they meet Locke tries to arrest Master Chief, but only because he’s been ordered to, and the second time they meet up Locke is now willingly working with Master Chief. There was no real conflict, or anything even remotely interesting in the dynamic between the two of them. There are several more instances like the ones I just detailed, where a story scene builds to what looks like an important moment but it ends before anything big happens, however this rant has now overstayed its welcome so I’m going to take a cue from Halo 5 and stop it here.
Pulling back to the big picture as I close out this overlong Halo 5 ramble, I’m left wondering how the story will fit in the broader arc of the Halo narrative. Originally Halo 5 was to be the middle game of the second Halo trilogy, however the developers behind Halo stated a year or two ago that the current storyline would no longer be considered a trilogy, but rather a saga. This gives them wiggle room on how long they extend the current storyline, however if it continues like it did in Halo 5 then I’m not sure I want it to keep going much longer. While there are a number of interesting ideas from Halo 5’s story that could be used to set up something great going forward, most notably having Cortana as the new villain and Master Chief having to fight the only being he’s had a close relationship with, my usual confidence in Halo’s storytelling has been shaken. Let’s hope Halo 6 is a fun game to play like Halo 5, but also learns from Halo 5’s mistakes in the story department and brings us back to the stronger Halo narrative we love about the series (and split-screen co-op).