Editor Note: May is “Backlog Challenge” month and every staff member is tasked with tackling a game from their backlogs and writing about it. Look for other articles to be up soon featuring other games.
I’m a pretty huge fan of the Halo series, from Master Chief and Cortana’s humble beginnings in “Combat Evolved,” to the series moving outside of the Chief-tana narrative in Halo: Reach (2010). That’s about as far as I can go into the series, and still call myself a fan. After Reach, the keys to the Halo machine were handed off from Bungie to 343 Industries, leading to the release of the mediocre Halo 4 (2012). A lot of wrong was done in Halo 4: a stumbling narrative, a very bland new enemy type in the Prometheans, and a mad-because-bad-because-mad villain, the Didact.
343 Industries hasn’t done much to distance themselves from the failures within 4 via their release of Halo 5: Guardians (2015). In fact, they introduce brand new failures specific to 5. The Prometheans are back. These “New Transformers”-esque laser-blade energy beings’ design is too sci-fi-generic to fit in the Halo universe, where unique races of enemies have always been one of the series’ strong points. They share the stage with the Covenant who – since their reimagining at the hands of 343 – show up to the fight looking weirdly shitty compared to their past iterations, without that dynamic AI polish that was present in Bungie-era Halo games. This leaves every combat encounter feeling the same. You’re hiding behind whatever object you choose for cover (there are plenty), while you plink away with the same uninspired weapons you’ve grown to loathe from Halo 4. One thing I liked was the design of earlier levels to accommodate the new movement abilities available to the player. The enhanced moveset led to an increase in the verticality of the encounters early on in the game, but for some reason this dynamism is absent for the last third of it.
Speaking of dynamic, one of my biggest criticisms of Halo 5: Guardians is the cutscenes. They’re beautifully animated, action packed, and the voice acting is better this time around as well. Herein lies the problem, they contain by far the coolest moments of the game. In the opening cutscene as Fireteam Osiris is landing on the Covenant controlled planet of Kamchatka, we see the Spartans drop from orbit and tear down a mountain face at breakneck speed. Along the way, they’re decimating Covies left and right, flipping, punching and shooting their way to the rendezvous point. I was waiting the whole time in frenzied anticipation to be thrown from cutscene view, right into the first-person helmet of Spartan Locke (sharing the protagonist stage with Master Chief this time around). When it would switch, I could begin dishing out retributive human justice myself. Only, that moment never came, and I was forced to watch my character and fireteam take down the entire mountainside force of Covenant from a passive viewpoint. That sucked. The Halo games have always had a way to keep the cutscene action and player-driven action in perfect balance. They do this by letting you play out AND watch the coolest moments in the games. Awesome cutscenes continued throughout the 5, with comparatively lackluster gameplay interspersed between.
"Halo 5 omitted some of the strongest themes found at the core of the Halo experience."
On the topic of lackluster, another huge disappointment in Halo 5: Guardians was the Guardians themselves. These huge beings modeled after Promethean Knights the size of mountains, were revealed in a huge way. However, they failed to do anything worthy of that hugeness. They were gigantic floating plot devices for a lazy plot that has been done to death with better mediums and methods. AI made by humans goes rogue, and seeks to protect humanity from itself through the destruction of humanity. That’s it, sorry for the spoiler. Master Chief, Cortana, and the series as a whole should be better than a trope that tropey. To drag down one of gaming’s most enjoyed duos to that level is insulting. Halo 5 omitted some of the strongest themes found at the core of the Halo experience. Even though the opening cutscene described above was epic, part of the series’ charm is placing humanity’s vulnerability and scrappiness, in contrast to a stoic, unrelenting hero like Master Chief. To see every Spartan as completely and infallibly unkillable in the game’s opening cutscene was proof that 343 missed the point completely.
The only time this game gets it right is when you’re in multiplayer. Halo 5 proves that 343 know how to capture that online magic that Bungie conjured in days of yore. Gunplay and polish have never felt so good, and all the relatable classic maps are back for another round. The reliance on dedicated servers means that the crisp and fluid action is as stable as can be, and the nuances in sound quality this time around, make the multiplayer feel Halo-as-hell. Adding to the longevity of the multiplayer, is the breakout smash hit new game mode, “Warzone.” This points-based, long-form, domination-style mode has two 12-player teams building up points through kills and objectives and using those points to ‘requisition’ power weapons, vehicles, and character buffs. Longer and bigger maps in the “Warzone” mode act as a perfect setting for all the action. Every multiplayer game completed yields a currency called requisition points (or Req Points for short), which go toward the purchase of Req Packs. These packs contain a random assortment of the single-use power weapons and vehicles to be used in “Warzone.” The added element of chance helps to keep things interesting, because you never know what you’ll get in the REQ packs to help you in multiplayer.
As good as the multiplayer experience is in Halo 5: Guardians, the crimes committed on the design of its singleplayer mode are too heinous to overlook. This is one game where I wish I could have paid less, and only gotten the multiplayer component. If for no other reason than to save myself the trouble, pain, and some money – all wasted on this terrible, barely-Halo singleplayer experience. I choose to keep this game and Halo 4 out of my headcanon for the series, and make sure to never let my controller stray too far north in the main menu, anywhere near so-called “Campaign.” Suffice it to say, I’ll stick to multiplayer for this one.