Halo 5 Guardians – Review Part 1 Campaign
Halo has always tried to build a huge, epic storyline around which it’s characters orbit but as with Halo 4 the latest game just falls short. Not by virtue of poor writing or missing story elements like Destiny but simply being too large and ambitious. Microsoft and Bungie always positioned Halo as the Video Game equivalent of Star Wars. A huge universe full of rich characters and epic Sci-Fi action tied together by The Chief & Cortana. Outside of the game I think that ambition has paid off especially within the books where the characters and stories can really take off.
Within the confines of your video game however Halo falls short of the Mark. Instead of an epic story driving the action forward Halo 5 often feels a bit confusing. Key plot elements are rarely explained sufficiently you’re just going from place to place, fight to fight with little or no explanation. Perhaps the biggest misstep is the Chief – Locke dynamic that beyond a couple of cut scenes is underwhelming in its limited usage. Locke was referred to as a “Hunter, a seeker of things” and a lethal one at that. The game rarely delves deeper than a few cut scenes showing Osiris chasing Blue Team culminating in a brief spot of fisticuffs’. That really is the extent of the story between Chief and Locke. Such a shame it was handled so poorly by 343 but not surprising when constrained by such a narrative limiting medium.
Even though I’ve read the lore and the books including those leading up to Halo 5 and followed the Hunt The Truth campaign I was still lost at parts and unsure of mission objective and backstory. The story revolves around Cortana assuming the Mantle of responsibility for all sentient life in the Galaxy a role that was supposed to go from the Forerunners to Humanity. Her plan involved using the enormously powerful Guardians as intergalactic police force, ensuring peace among all races but at a terrible cost. The Guardians are destroying entire human colonies seemingly at the command of Cortana and so begins the Chief and Blue Teams hunt for her all the while being pursued by Spartan Locke and his Fire team Osiris.
Blue Team is made up of The Chief, Linda, Kelly and Fred. They are just miraculously there, fighting alongside you from the first mission to the last without any backstory or explanation. To get any idea of who they are or where they have been you need to explore Halo’s rich Lore which 90% of Halo players never will & that is a big problem for Halo. For those without any grounding in the wider Halo universe Blue Team were part of the Spartan 2 project that ultimately saved humanity during the Human-Covenant war. Forced together as children after being selected for being special Blue Team were grouped together from the start and were reunited just after the events of Halo 4.
Each Spartan has a different loadout depending on their skillset with Fred being the CQB specialist and Linda as the Sniper with the Chief and Kelly playing the multi skilled roles within the Fireteam. Bringing them together makes perfect sense it prevents that creeping sense of isolation that became a problem with the absence of Cortana in Halo 4 and it also works well within the confines of the Cooperative campaign. 4 player coop in Halo 3 put your guests into the boots of Elites and Halo 4 was just 3 more Master Chiefs on the Battlefield so this approach is a real improvement.
On the other side is Fireteam Osiris led by ONI agent Spartan Lock who first entered the Halo universe in Halo Nightfall Series that launched with The Master Chief Collection. His team consists of Buck from Halo ODST voiced to perfection by Nathan Fillion, Spartan Vale and Spartan Tanaka. Little is revealed of their backstory within the game which was a little disappointing making them feel like empty vessels with nothing really to add outside the cut scenes. There were hints of depth in the interactions within Fireteam Osiris especially between Buck and Locke. Buck is a series favourite from Halo 3 and the Hunters in the Dark book and his role is at times comedic relief and at others a grim reminder of what is at stake. “Every soldier, every Spartan, when they hear about this they are going to hate us. You know that right?” he asks Spartan Locke. A dialogue piece that is all too rare.
It’s in the Combat that Halo succeeded best. Halo 5 is a fantastic first person shooter easily the best on this generation of consoles. The weapons are solid, varied and feel weighty, diverse and visually striking. The perfectly balanced run and gun gameplay is as perfect as ever and the introduction of new Spartan abilities add a sense of weight and impact to your Spartan. You feel like you’re in control of a 1 ton killing machine with real power behind every movement. You don’t glide over the ground and jumps no longer feel floaty and endless. The key is the new thruster pack that can be used to sprint, charge, dodge, hover and dive with devastating effect. The clamber ability has the biggest practical impact of all. As shooters have evolved they have looked for new spaces to take combat too and that has led them upwards. Titanfall did it best by making the sandbox feel like your playground. The same happens in Halo 5 by allowing Spartans to pull themselves onto ledges it opens up a huge new space to utilise. They don’t feel forced or out of place in Halo’s perfectly balanced sandbox, they add to the expertly crafted Halo experience.
Halo 5 never ventures far from the Halo template which consists of a mix of on foot vehicular sections all but where the older Halo games often took place in small areas with small scale battles Halo 5 takes us to some amazing spaces and fills them with the biggest, most epic battles in the series so far. Halo has always pushed the Hardware to it’s limits maybe not in terms of graphical fidelity but in sheer scale often throwing dozens of enemies together for huge climatic battles. Halo 5 as you would expect does this better than previous games and several of the larger battles were awe inspiring. Covenant troops battling Prometheans with tanks, ghosts and Phaetons in the air add a sense of scale to the game also a sense of chaos that is a revelation.
The Campaign takes place on numerous worlds from the Elite home world to abandoned ONI research stations deep in space. Many of the environments are simply sublime in design and detail with my favourite was the Elite home works Sanghelios an almost Egypt like world full of stunning ancient architecture all set within a harsh desert landscape. It’s a beautiful sight for sure and just begs to be explored. Luckily new abilities like Clamber make it easy to climb the structures in search of the numerous intel items and skulls that help flesh out the bones of the story line. Combat benefits from these environments as well in a more practical way. Halo 5 allows you to flank the enemy, find hidden routes behind them and if you use your AI team mates well that new sense of verticality is crucial especially on the higher difficulties.
As enjoyable as the campaign was there are a few major issues that surfaced early on centred around the AI companions. I understand the reason behind them being in the game I was often left scratching my head just now stupid they can be. During my Play through on Heroic the AI would frequently ignore enemies in front of them, get stuck on scenery or just freeze in place. Directing them largely worked but for Spartans they were terrible shots. Telling them to take out a Grunt would either be an Instant grunt death or a prolonged shoot out with a target a few feet away.
Route finding was just as problematics and equally frustrating. See a clever spot to take a good position and they would either make it no fuss or just ignore me and die. The revive mechanic was also a problem for the AI especially if more than 1 player was down which caused he AI to freeze. But the constant chatter, the regular updates and the general sense of teamwork that was missing from Halo was very welcome. Without Cortana i tended to feel a little isolated from the wider story cocooned in the suit with no outside contact. If the AI was better and more predictable the frustrations wouldn’t overshadow the positive impact of having them there.
The missions are another let down, rarely do they feel memorable and those that heavily feature the Warden Eternal often descend into a confusing, narrated slog through identical environments leading to annoying and dull boss encounters. There isn’t a single mission in Halo 5 that leaves a lasting impression like The Silent Cartographer from Halo CE. The missions largely pass in a bit of a blur bookended by a cut scene that fails adequately explain what you’re going to do and where you’re going too do it. The final few missions serve to highlight the narrative issues as the encounters with the Warden Eternal increase in frequency and menace
The Warden Eternal is a pretty fitting adversary and a symbol of the inherent problems with using Video Games as narrative vehicles like Halo has traditionally done. The Warden is a powerful, menacing adversary that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Hollywood movie but his appearance’s descend into a repetitive, dull encounter consisting of little more than running and shooting whilst attempting to keep your team mates alive. A real missed opportunity for Halo to build a worthy enemy for the Chief and Locke to face and ultimately defeat.
Throughout the later missions an interesting dynamic is all to briefly touched on between The Warden Eternal and Cortana that for a few moments threatens too elevate the story beyond it’s confines. The Warden is hell bent on destroying Blue team whilst Cortana is trying to protect them which leads to some of Halo’s best narrative moments. Cortana frequently thwarts the Wardens attempts to Kill Blue team as they advance closer to their objective and it all leads to a climatic battle that is both deeply frustrating yet oddly satisfying when you prevail.
The ending in Halo games has often been a sore point and whilst the ending in Halo 5 wasn’t a clean ending it was satisfying and set the scene nicely for Halo 6. Keeping this spoiler free the role Cortana plays was interesting and a genuine surprise. Her desperate desire to keep the Chief safe was touching and brought a sense of humanity to the game that was missing up till this point. The ending when it comes was fairly predictable almost like a safe bet setting the tone for the next instalment of Halo. Chief and Locke are united against a common foe in Cortana who has ascended to almost god like status within the Forerunners. Halo 6 will see the end of the Halo Reclaimer saga and possibly the culmination of The Master Chiefs long story but I doubt it will be the last time we’ll be playing a Halo game.
Halo is at a crossroads and a decision needs to be made between Spartan Locke and The Master Chief as to whom carries the series through the coming games. Locke lacks that sense of History that comes with The Master Chief but crucially Locke was never designed to be an empty vessel which the player pours their character into. Sure he is lacking a backstory beyond Nightfall but that can be added in the wider fiction if necessary but crucially he has a real voice more than just a few words. He could carry the Halo Universe forward if the Chief does decide to retire after Halo 5 and he could potentially lead the Halo Universe further into the Mainstream through movies and Television.
In conclusion Halo 5 was a mixed bag for me. The gameplay was good in places and damn right stellar in others but let down by poor AI and a badly progressed story. The changes made to the traditional Halo template work very well within the tightly balanced gameplay despite concerns that Halo 5 was trying too hard to be Titanfall. The new threats too the Galaxy are epic in scope and more than enough to carry the series forward to Halo 6 and possibly beyond. The chance for further spin off titles are clearly there if Microsoft and 343 wish to take them but the issue of Storytelling within Halo still needs to be perfected for it to truly fulfil it’s potential.
Halo is still without doubt the premier shooter for Microsoft and a key reason millions have kept faith with the Xbox one through all the negative press and problems. But it needs to change, it needs to grow the medium and really innovate to retake it’s crown from it’s competitors. How it does that is down to 343 industries and we as gamers will ultimately be the ones to benefit from continued Halo games.