Halo 5: Guardians: A Review

(WARNING: Halo 5 spoilers ahead!)

Perhaps day 9 may not seem like a day for a special blog post, but today’s serving is one that is long overdue. If there are problems with storytelling that expand tenfold in one product, you can bet that Halo 5: Guardians has the goods. I can even say that this game may have inspired the blog to be created in one aspect or another, but why would a review of a game from last year be necessary? What can I have to offer your eyes in a splendor of critical words?

Truth be told, this may be the longest post on this blog. Halo 5 is a game where issues and decisions go beyond simple storytelling, so I will be reviewing the entire game to the best of my ability. You may want to get a snack or drink or take breaks for the long haul. We’re going to dissect this giant that I consider the most divisive Halo game, in my opinion.

First, some background details.

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Halo 4 was the first game in the franchise developed by 343 Industries, which was created to helm the Halo franchise following Bungie’s departure to go off into a new frontier. They left the franchise with their ‘Magnus opus’ of sorts, Halo: Reach. At this point, there were many people who were divided by this game. Many called the campaign the best in the series, some absolutely despised it. Some fell in love with the sheer variety and polish in its multiplayer, some hated it for intruding on Halo’s nailed-down formula and slower pace. While Halo Reach is my least favourite Halo game as a result of the negative points listed above, I felt that it is an amazing game brought down by numerous small flaws that all add up to the end.

So, what does this have to do with Halo 4?

Instead of bringing the franchise to its roots, Halo 4 strayed away in an effort to appease to fans of more casual games such as Call of Duty. Instead of evolving Halo’s formula, it modernized it. I do think Halo 4 did a reasonable job at doing this, but care-packages and kill-streaks are not the reason why we play Halo. The campaign has an amazing story as well, full of drama and actual character development for its characters. However, it is true that the use of material from the expanded universe, as well as its tone, may be rough adjustments to those just jumping on board from Halo 3 or Halo Reach. Maybe the game does not have as much comedy as people are used to, the art style may be too detached from Bungie’s work, or the soundtrack may have too many electronic elements as opposed to the now-absent ethereal chants of old. And furthermore, the game does not address the issues of Halo Reach in ways appropriate ways.

Halo 4 is very fast paced, and loadouts further harm Halo’s established formula. While I do consider this game a guilty pleasure of mine, I will recognize that objectively it is not the path in which 343i should have taken the franchise.

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Does Halo 5 take Halo into a meaningful new light and bring glory not felt since Halo was the king of FPS?

From the above piece of concept art, we can see a direction that is a shadow of where the story could have gone. A reflection of the Master Chief in this unknown Spartan lost in the desert of an alien world. They would be affiliated with the shrouded organization that is ONI, and this story would perhaps not be as black-and-white as before. This is further reflected in the advertising campaign for Halo 5, as we question the Master Chief and his actions as this new Spartan is hunting him down. Like Halo 2, we would see the story from a different perspective, but this time it would be two sides of the same coin. How is the death of Cortana affecting the Chief? How does this new Spartan compare and contrast with him? How will this game expand on the state of the universe, with the Forerunner’s awakening from their ancient slumber?

Hunt the Truth is one of the best advertising campaigns I have had the pleasure of experiencing, and the audio drama format worked spectacularly for fan service and buildup to the game’s launch. Is the hero a traitor? The Chief’s longtime allies of Blue Team would be present in this game? Buck will be returning as a Spartan, along with the Arbiter?

In theory, Halo 5 had everything going for its story. It had such a wide canvass to delve into and could have been the best thing ever seen in the franchise. Sadly, it squandered in this opportunity.

To date, Halo 5 has the worst story in any Halo game to date, and there is plenty of reason for that.

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Halo 5 almost completely disregards and/or throws away all developing plot-points to this point, and makes a complete left turn out of nowhere.

One fatal flaw was to bring Cortana back, even if it is only a fragment of her former self. Not to simply bring back a character with such an impactful death scene for both players and with an in-universe context, but to completely assassinate her entire development from 2001. As the game’s main antagonist, she takes advantage of Blue Team and the Chief’s trust, plunges the setting into a totalitarian state, and kills millions of innocent people to simply awaken the Forerunner constructs known as the Guardians. She also commences an AI rebellion, which is a very overused trope that is not done tastefully here and frankly comes from nowhere. Both the games and the expanded universe do not touch the concept of an AI uprising and have always showcased the symbiotic relationship between man and machine. It betrays Halo’s development and twists its fundamental core to tell a story that is cliché, left-field, and misled by its marketing.

From the above image, you can see a Forerunner construct called the Warden Eternal. While introducing such a character is not a bad idea on paper, his execution leaves plenty to be desired. His background is not delved into (and instead lightly teased) and instead of meaningful interactions with the main characters, he only insults with his ego and acts as a shield and puppet for Cortana and plot progression. He also serves as a reminder of the Didact (from Halo 4) and how 343i has forgotten about him outside of two mentions.

Another negative point is the death of the Covenant leader Jul ‘Mdama. While the character may have an uneven development from novel-to-game-to-comic-to-game, he is ultimately killed in the first mission to cut the plot point of the resurgent Covenant out of the universe completely. Spartan Locke (the game’s main protagonist) kills him in a way that makes the character seem weak and a ‘derpy villain.’ This death is very indicative of how other cut plotlines are treated, and also Halo 5‘s aimless direction. The writers almost treat major Halo games like the Avengers films, instead of actual sequels that act as progression for its story and instead have 90-degree turns.

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For casual fans, the inclusion of Blue Team may seem confusing for some. Who are these Spartan’s, how do they relate to the Chief, and why have they not been seen until now in the games?

Sadly, Halo 5 does next to nothing in explaining who these characters are, and relies on your experience with the novels to get the most out of the game. The expanded universe should act as a way to extend on your enjoyment of the game, and should not be required as I have said many times on this blog. To give credit where credit is due, I do believe that each one of these character’s armours are some of the best 343i have made, and their voice actors did quite a phenomenal job with what material they had to work with.

On the other hand, lore fans who have clamored for these characters to appear in this game had their hopes crushed. This is due to Blue Team only appearing in a staggering three missions out of fifteen. This game is called Halo 5 and is not a spinoff. The main character of the franchise does not have to steal the show, but he should receive the bulk of attention and development, especially after what work Halo 4  had done. Halo 5 does attempt to acknowledge the Master Chief as a broken man, but there is so little screen time and little-to-no meaningful interactions with the rest of Blue Team. The reasoning for these characters going against their orders also has no consequence, as they make up with Fireteam Osiris in the end.

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On the flipside, we have Fireteam Osiris. These are the true main protagonists of Halo 5, and my opinion of them is a bit more favourable than that of Blue Team.

While I do not particularly find these characters interesting, the theme of family is well-conveyed through some subtle development throughout the game, although there isn’t enough breathing room for it to come out for those who want to see the natural progression of their development. Instead, it shows its stages.

As the game’s main protagonist, Spartan Locke is not a bad character. He does have an aspect of professionalism, but not enough is done with the character and most of it comes across as potential areas for greater characterization. Tanaka and Vale are both decent, and Buck feels more like Nathan Fillion rather than Buck from Halo 3: ODST.

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In terms of plot, Halo 5 is weak throughout and really lacks the substance in character moments and breathing room that Halo 4 had. The one exception to this rule is the missions on Sanghelios, which are more detached from the main plot and are vastly enjoyable compared to it.

For starters, the Arbiter returns with Keith David voice acting him. The emotional tension of brothers fighting against each other and tired of it is brought to the forefront, and these missions look the part. We get a look into Sangheili culture and ancient history, and it feels like a logical showcase off of previous games in the series.

I also believe this is a good segway into gameplay, as we can talk about Halo 5’s story forever. In short, it assassinates many previous plot elements of Halo in very disrespectful ways, ignores its own potential, misleads players with its marketing, and puts Halo into a state that is forced and cliché. 343i has written themselves into a corner, and it will take careful treading to get out of this unfortunate situation for the franchise.

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I will summarize campaign gameplay in one paragraph: it’s fun, but does not break the mold in any groundbreaking ways. Co-op gameplay is a major focus in its campaign, as there will always be four Spartans in one mission. (Despite the highly unfortunate removal of split-screen for 60 frames per second) Level design is linear, but with more open spaces in some cases and can be fun if not centred on infantry combat. The length of the campaign leaves much more to be desired, and encounters with Prometheans could be more dynamic to spice up gameplay. All in all, Halo 5 does have a fun campaign, but it does not come across as terribly memorable.

Multiplayer is split into two core modes in Halo 5: Arena and Warzone. The latter is all-new, while Arena is the familiar Halo gameplay to be found here. Unlike Halo 4Halo 5 does away with its catering to casuals, and instead feels like a more logical modernization of Halo’s core formula. Loadouts are replaced with fixed spawns, game modes work the way you remember them, and gameplay feels like a faster paced Halo 2 with its new Spartan Abilities. These range from sprint (which is done far more favourably in this game) to thrusters, which add a unique flavour to combat that is welcome. Gunplay is also far more balanced than it has ever been, with weapon and vehicle variety higher than ever and keeping each weapon and vehicle unique and function differently from one another. Halo 4 had issues in keeping this with a smaller sandbox, so it is commendable that Halo 5’s core gameplay is versatile and functions at a very high quality.

The one fatal counter to this is maps and modes, unfortunately. Halo 5 has had ten free updates that have added a plethora of content (unlike the map packs of old) but this still remains an issue. Compared to even Halo 4, there are considerably fewer game modes to choose from, and map layout suffers from repetition in design philosophy. Big Team Battle also suffers from the faster pace in combat, rendering vehicles and range mute. While there is a wide variety of maps, most of them are too widely spread out and makes Halo 5’s Arena multiplayer feel thinner than it should.

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On the other hand, Halo 5 has an all-new mode that feels fully fleshed out and acts as a great concept supported with tweaks that have improved it immensely since launch. Warzone is a PvPvE mode, with the PvP-oriented Warzone Assault and PvE-oriented Warzone Firefight acting as excellent companions with their own rules, maps, and experiences. Warzone is the boldest feature of Halo 5, with 24 players fighting amongst each other with access to the complete arsenal of Halo 5. Maps are designed uniquely from one another unlike Arena, and for such an insane mode balance has been kept intact for the most part.

One issue stems from how you get your arsenal, however, and this is the REQ system. You can call in your own weapons, vehicles, and power-ups at your leisure as long as you have the right REQ card, and in order to get these there is a micro-transaction system. While REQ packs can be obtained through in-game currency, it is much faster to pay in actual dollars which should not be in a triple-A title such as Halo 5. For Arena, the REQ system only translates to cosmetics, but for Warzone it translates to gameplay. This would be a much larger issue if the game was not as balanced as it is, but it is still an issue nonetheless.

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For the most positive feature of Halo 5, Forge mode has been completely uplifted with endless possibilities impossible before this game. The map above was entirely created using Forge, all the way from structures to geometry to lighting. This is an early Forge map, however, and the post-launch support for Halo 5 has enhanced Forge in ways that have completely blown away my expectations for it. Decals for pieces exist, at least a thousand objects have been added, the budget was vastly increased, a weather system was added, and a total of seven canvasses exist in this game. The creations for Halo 5 are endless, and it is amazing that they have finally added a Custom Games browser to the game. In terms of longevity, Halo 5 does pack its punch.

For music, the game’s score tries to more closely emulate the original scores by recreating some of them, and toning down the electronic elements from Halo 4. The Halo Theme finally returns and sounds better than ever, and even some of the better themes from Halo 4 have gotten a facelift. I will note that not too much of the soundtrack sticks out despite its excellence, and ambient tracks could have been provided next to the more orchestral action pieces in the game. If you want to take a listen, here is the soundtrack as it is on Spotify.

Lastly, we come to Halo 5’s art style and graphics.

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While it remains more consistent to one visual style than Halo 4’s mishmash of Reach assets and its own spin on Halo’s art style, it has some flaws.

Firstly, human architecture has too many whites, is too clean, and not very distinct. It is very bland in comparison to even Halo 4’s human art style, and this may also translate to Forerunner structures. The monolithic style from the previous game seems to have been toned down and not as impressive to the eye, but it does not suffer as much as the UNSC stuff. Oddly, the Covenant/Sangheili art style is top-notch in Halo 5, with almost every weapon and vehicle being redesigned to feel more organic and ornamental, and it works well. As art is up to interpretation, have three pictures of each faction and their looks.

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Overall, my feelings for Halo 5’s multiplayer would be more negative if it were not for the constant and amazing support from 343i in order to fix many of the game’s issues, even if this does not translate to its campaign. All its modes are well-rounded, even if spread out a bit too thinly and without many features of before.

Would I recommend Halo 5? With some hesitation, I would say yes. Its multiplayer may lack split-screen and have more of a focus on competitive play, but this game is a very tight shooter that gleams despite its many flaws. The story may leave or mildly disappointing or shattered and the campaign may be lackluster for some, but multiplayer holds this game up with updates still coming over a year after launch. Know this may not be the classic Halo game you want, but it is great nonetheless as a video game.

And with that, we come to a close today. If you made it to the end, congratulations for your endurance to my rambling. This is by far the longest post on my blog, with about 3000 words being put into it. My compassion for Halo is what led me to write this post, and I hope you enjoyed reading about my opinions about it overall instead of just the story. There are much more points to this game, and if you want to comment/ask me for them, feel free to do so. As I said yesterday, there will be a guest post sometime this weekend, so look forward to that. There will also be a story on one of the days by myself, so if you are a fan of my storytelling and this post, in particular, you have much more to anticipate as well.

And of course, have a great day. 🙂

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