Release Date: October 27, 2015
Rated: T for Teen
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: 343 Industries
Platform: Xbox One
Sometimes it feels like developers lose sight of the story they’re telling for the sake of a franchise’s longevity. Oftentimes the story loses clarity and focus, becoming a convoluted, drawn out affair that can feel stretched thin or heavy. Side stories, Prequel-Sequels, or time skips further add to the confusion and offer little to no explanation or purpose. Inevitably, the narrative and lore that shaped the franchise is no longer the driver: gameplay is. No longer does the integrity of the original concept exist, the franchise now becoming the cash cow for a console until it’s milked dry.
Even worse is a franchise being aware of its fading relevance and attempting something new, a la “passing of the torch” that shows how much in a flux it’s in. These particular narratives try coddling the line of old and new, finding an imbalance that neither pleases longtime fans or excite new ones. Inevitably, these games become symbolic of the franchise’s waning breath and lose confidence in how to proceed forward.
Halo 5: Guardians (Guardians for short) may or may not be that severe, but it gets close. 343 Industries feels like it’s aware the franchise needs something new to improve Halo’s now waning relevance. If anything, Guardians tries desperately to please fans with another story between Cortana and Master Chief, but also attempts to introduce who might become the next face of the franchise, Spartan Jameson Locke. Guardians tells the two stories at once; the main story being Locke’s adventure to look for Master Chief, and Cortana’s story being secondary. Problem is, Guardians’ overall story arc is weak, and the focus on Locke’s hunt for Chief is nowhere near compelling to be majority of a campaign. Inevitably, Guardians doesn’t do Master Chief or Locke justice, and has one of the weakest endings since Halo 2. Most of the characters feel flat and one dimensional in personality and dialogue, and wastes the almost interesting setup of Cortana as the antagonist. If Guardians is anything to go by, Halo feels stuck and uncertain how to transition smoothly into its next stage, with Guardians being the weakest entry in the franchise.
In Order to Find the Truth, You Must…Nevermind Forget It
*Before I even begin to review the story, I have to say this first: Microsoft and 343 did fans of the franchise injustice through false advertising. A lot of the advertising emphasized a completely different story than what is actually experienced in Guardians. This blatant deception is disrespectful, wrong, and sets up false expectations for the game. Bungie barely got away with it in Halo 2, and that alone should’ve served as a lesson for what not to do. I’m sure I’m not the only fan angry at the misleading advertising, certainly because the concept looked so much better than the experience was.*
Set eight months after the end of Halo 4, Spartan Fire Team Osiris is sent out on a mission to retrieve rogue Dr. Catherine Elizabeth Halsey from the Covenant controlled planet of Kamchatka. Osiris, comprised of Spartans Jameson Locke, Edward Buck (from ODST), Holly Tanaka and Olympia Vale land on Kamchatka, fight off waves of Promethean and Covenant, and take out major Covenant Leader Jul ‘Mdama. Upon extracting Dr. Halsey, she informs both Osiris and Captain Lasky of a new threat emerging that has already attacked several human places
Meanwhile Blue Team, comprised of Spartan-IIs Master Chief and longtime squad mates from before Halo: Combat Evolved Linda-058, Kelly-087 and Federic-104, are sent to check out a derelict ONI station named Argent Moon. However, upon investigating the station, the Covenant arrive, forcing Blue Team instead to destroy the station. Between firefights, Master Chief receives a cryptic message from Cortana to come to Meridian. Problem is, Cortana was supposed to have died eight months ago. Seeing this message, Master Chief is convinced he must go with Blue Team following.
Because of Master Chief disobeying the Infinity’s orders to return, Blue Team is considered to have gone AWOL. Fire Team Osiris is sent to retrieve Blue Team and to bring them back to Osiris. However, upon running into each other on Meridian, it becomes far more obvious something far more sinister is happening. Dr, Halsey informs them of the Guardians; giant Promethean behemoths that serve to guard galaxies/universes. With the eventual aid of longtime ally Arbiter, it’s up to Osiris and Blue Team to stop Cortana from her plan of using the Guardians for installing Martial Law to bring peace to the galaxy; follow her will, or die.
Reading that story, it sounds like a solid base for creating a pretty good sci-fi story that feels consistent in exploring new themes like Halo 4 had. The Orwellian themes of Freedom is Slavery, War is Peace, and Ignorance is Strength are themes that seem to be explored in Cortana’s goal, and both Blue Team and Osiris’ goal to stop it. There’s also the exploration of Creator vs. Created, of God (Humans) vs. Man (AI) and whether or not man can truly ascend to god-like status. All of it has the making for something spectacular…
…and then 343 squanders it with a thin, very-stretched out plot that feels like a generic first person shooter experience.
Halo, for what it’s worth and in my opinion, has always been a series that’s had strong lore but weak storytelling. Whether or not that’s because of how each game is conceptualized or because of the priority of aspects in development, the games have rarely ever felt like a narrative-heavy story (aside from Reach, probably my favorite Halo of the franchise). That said, Halo 5: Guardians feels like it starts off strong and ends with a whimper. After the 5th mission or so, the cracks from stretching the story thin begin to show. Narrative development really begins slowing down, with major story events feeling like they should take half the time (1 mission instead of 2) to develop. The narrative shift of focus between the two story arcs of Locke looking for Master Chief, and Master Chief finding Cortana don’t carry the same investment or intrigue and seems to lack focus.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the weak script; characters come off feeling one-dimensional and flat, their voice acting feel phoned in and false. An example would be in the case of Dr. Halsey, whose history in the series is both poignant, interesting and necessary. Halsey’s character is heavily imbued of moral complexity since she was the one who helped develop the Spartan-II program. Which, for all those who might not know about Halo’s lore, involved kidnapping kids and augmenting their bodies to become super soldiers. Some lived, some died, but for humanity these Spartans became necessary. For Halsey, the kids who survived and trained in the Spartan-II program became like her family, which is consistently emphasized in her dialogue for Halo: Reach. That said, the moral ambiguity that made her so fascinating feels lost in Guardians: she’s so dead set on one path that feels too altruistic in concept to her characterization. The one dimensional approach to characterization takes away from the strength of morally complex moments. Any power examples I could use would be spoiler-ridden, which I’m going to avoid.
It really baffles me that a character like Master Chief is the most complex character in the game…who has little to no dialogue throughout the campaign and little screen time.
In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems I have with this game; Master Chief is relegated to a secondary protagonist role and only the focus for about 25% of the game. Ironically enough, his story is far more interesting than Locke’s and receives the least amount of screen time.
Only one thing really gave me joy in this category, and that is the covenant dialogue, particularly the grunts. However, being able to listen to that is few, far between, and not anything to write home about.
I could go on about all the issues I have a narrative perspective like the game ending on a terrible cliffhanger, or a lot of the pacing being off and uneven. The truth is, Halo 5: Guardians is a terrible, bland, mediocre title that isn’t worthy to be part of the franchise nor should be deemed a “console seller”.
OH HAI GUYZ, WHO LIKES NEEDLES?
*Please note I played this on legendary, so my view of gameplay is slightly skewed*
Halo 5 has all the typical stoppings of what anyone can expect from the Halo franchise: fun weapons and intense battle sequences. Many fights result in taking on a high level of enemies that can do a ton of damage to you with very little shots. Enemies are aggressive and relentless in their approach to killing you. Most of the time I came out of battles feeling like I’d barely survived, and a few times I even ran to avoid battle. Halo has always been good at this, and 343 has been really good at consistently throwing players into harrowing situations.
Yet, the problem I have with these fights is that they’re only real difficulty is handling numbers of enemies. Players are given plenty of ammos or weapons to pick up on the field, and there are exploits they can use to improve their chances on the battlefield (certain distance, for example, could make the enemy stay back and stand there soaking in bullets). The fact that the challenge is less in how to approach the battle and more of how to take on a high-number of enemies detracts from the experience.
I find this to be a problem with a lot of games in the modern era; what’s the traits of a challenging experience? For many, it feels like the focus is on reducing the player’s health, keeping enemies the same health and making them more aggressive, and increasing the body count. What happened to the challenge of taking on several enemies with little ammo and having to get creative in approaching the enemy? I would rather take on 10-12 enemies and have to think on toes in terms of taking them down than face 20 enemies and have enough ammo to just spray the screen with bullets. There’s a lack of depth in the challenge of Guardians.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some battles in this game that required me to rely heavily on strategizing. These battles were against the Warden Eternal, a mini boss that only shows up about 4-5 times in the game and required patience, timing and picking shots. At the same time, these battles also became boring because once players figured out the best strategy to beat Warden Eternal (hint: think camping), it makes the fights boring.
That’s the biggest problem with Guardians gameplay, it’s boring. It’s standard, derivative and feels uninspired. Moments that were probably meant to make me feel adrenaline from escaping with my life quickly dissipated. I hardly felt a desire to push through the campaign, only doing so for reviewing the game.
Multiplayer on Halo 5: Guardians could be a lot of fun…if it weren’t for how little was offered and for the micro-transactions. Guardians multiplayer is what you’d also come to expect from Halo…except that it’s coming out in doses. The biggest offense I have with Halo 5, and also with multiplayer gaming these days in general, is the model of micro-transactions = better multiplayer gameplay.
Aside from that, the gameplay formats that are being released have always been fun and exhilarating. The new and old map variations provide a lot of fun and a refreshing feeling that I haven’t felt in Halo multiplayer in a long time.
Guardians also has me worried that games are spiraling towards a trend that no one should get accustomed to; Season Passes creating the optimal experience. I understand that content can be created after a game is completed, and that distributing content over a period of time after the game is out. Halo 5: Guardians, as well as a lot of other games from this year (*ahem* Battlefront), there’s now a question that needs to be addressed; what amount of content qualifies a full release? What is the precedent for game releases? I’m not a fan of season passes or the concept of dropping $40 more for what feels like ⅓ of the content you’d get for the initial release.
Wait, No Splitscreen?
Probably the biggest offense to Guardians is the removal of something that helped make Halo the experience it is today; splitscreen. Like the many games out for this current generation of consoles, if anyone is going to play with a friend in co-op it has to be done via Xbox Live. This means that the other person has to want to buy an Xbox One and have their own copy of Halo 5: Guardians. One of the reasons I got into Halo was due to splitscreen co op campaigns. Disappointing that this feature was taken out and takes away a huge part of what makes Halo.
One thing I will give Halo 5: Guardians is that it looks amazing! From the color palettes per each stage, to the detail within the armor, and to the look of enemies, this game is a sight to behold. Environments look crisp, sharp and distinct in their appearance that players can appreciate when playing through the campaign. Kamchatka, Meridian, Sanghelios and Genesis all have their own look and atmosphere that stands apart from the others. Cutscenes, big battles in the background and everything provide the depth of how big the war is this time around.
Guardians does a great job showing off how good games on the Xbox One can look.
Halo 5: Guardians is a major disappointment in almost every facet. The story that is the weakest of the two being told is the one highlighted and the one most interesting relegated to the background. A lot of the characters feel flat, one dimensional and trapped into only being the role they’re meant to play. Moments that could bring about morally complex situations are often dissolved by the one-dimensional writing. The gameplay feels like it’s a challenge that is more about adding to your total body count versus a challenging fight, and a lot of battles end up feeling like their predictable. In fact, the gameplay feels very standard, derivative and shallow; there’s not a lot to go off of.
The other major aspect, while not truly affecting my overall experience, is the misleading marketing of the game. The narrative being told via commercials and ads was nonexistent when the game was released. Whether or not this was a miscommunication issue, or just false advertising, Microsoft and 343 Industries should have been more aware of what was going on.
As a fan of the series who has come to embrace that the franchise has been over, Halo 5: Guardians is a franchise that is on its last legs trying to regain relevance. If Locke is the character to inherit Master Chief’s mantle, I’m not sure how long he’ll last considering how dull of a protagonist he is. Overall Halo 5: Guardians was a major letdown and disappointment, easily being the weakest the franchise has offered.