From it’s revolutionary gameplay (whose echoes are still being felt in the modern FPS) to its cinematic score, from “tank beats everything” to “wort wort wort”, the Halo franchise is, simply put, a cornerstone of the video game medium. This is the series that saved the Xbox, creating the three horse console race that persists to this day. This is the series whose synonymy with gaming is perhaps only rivalled by Nintendo’s first party offerings. This is the series that I grew up on, split-screen with my brothers.
As Halo approached its sweet sixteen, my brother Alex suggested we take off the nostalgia goggles for a second and critique every level of every main entry to the franchise, in release order, Combat Evolved to Guardians. Alongside our eldest brother John, we have ranked and reviewed each mission for your reading pleasure. Awarding marks for quality of gameplay (fun), execution of atmosphere (style), as well as narrative coherence (substance), we each assigned a personal mark out of 10 to every level, which we then compiled into a final shared score out of 30. Note that Halo 3:ODST has been omitted from the running on the grounds that it is a standalone expansion for Halo 3 and not a main series entry. This is part one of two.
Editor-in-Chief's Note: ODST and New Mombasa are a strange beast in the Halo canon, but ultimately had some of the best storytelling and gameplay of the series in this humble writer's opinion that rivaled the high points of both Reach and Halo 3. ODST is sidestory to that of main series but it was an avenue I was glad to go down. It is my unofficial addition to this top 40.
0 / 30
Heather: If 343 isn't going to do their job then neither will I. This is the third interactive cutscene level and it is as devoid of soul and meaning as its elders. Except this time Halsey waves her arm at you to get your attention in a most excited, un-Halsey like way that's not half as funny as it is stupid.
0 / 30
John: What just happened.
If you somehow forgot this unforgettable "mission" and don't know what I'm reacting to, it's because it's not actually a mission at all. It's the first of three levels in Guardians where you just sort of walk around and talk to people... in a Halo game. Oh and you can also find one or two collectibles or audiologs or some shit if you obsessively crave achievements (as I bitterly do). Don't worry, somebody on Osiris will prompt you to activate your fancy new scanner, "the Artemis". Ugh. Stop trying to make Artemis a thing.
"Meridian Station" is out of place and boring. This kind of concept does not work if your characters suck (Governor Sloan), your voice acting sucks (GOVERNOR SLOAN) and your dialogue sucks (Everyone who's not Buck). But even in a good Halo game this would have felt jarring and contrived. This ain't no Dragon Age: Origins! There are no "hubs" in Halo! I mean what, am I supposed to be intrigued that your governor is an AI? Because it just seems aggressively stupid, especially since he's visibly rampant. And why has his speech processor only started malfunctioning now that I can see he's a degraded AI? Seconds ago when I was supposed to believe he was human, he delivered many lines of dialogue perfectly.
What was 343 thinking? Were they trying to artificially inflate the mission count to fifteen for marketing purposes? That just feels sleazy, and transparently so. But it's more believable than the proposition that anyone thought this shlock constituted enjoyable gameplay.
"Boarding the Pelican!" Yes, Locke, we're all boarding the Pelican. Hush now.
2.5 / 30
Alex: You know when you're stuck in a waiting room and your phone is dead and you didn't bring a book or anything to do and everyone's trying really hard not to look each other in the eye or strike up a conversation so you start reading pamphlets and posters on the wall? And you can't exactly remove yourself from the situation cause you have this appointment and they're going to call you in anytime now. Alliance is basically that but you have to talk to people and the reading material is more boring and can't save your life. But hey, at least it's pretty to look at, right? Thank goodness this is the only non-combat level in Halo 5. Oh shit, it isn't. Do better.
5 / 30
John: Fear not, unspoken computer-girl soulmate. I did it. I came for you. I crossed the stars and vanquished the Prophets’ armies, and I’m here. Now nothing stands between us and––wait have I seen that sphincter before? Or is this a new sphincter? Jesus, it’s sphincter city up in here, isn’t it? Ok so I just… drop through here and… oh no that’s a dead end… ok which way did I come from? Corty, if you could just shut up one second about that sweet nonsense; I’m sure it feels important right now that you paralyze my body and make references to stuff that only shows up in the novels but… Sorry, I know you’ve been through a lot of… whatever the hell is happening here––OH MY GOD, if you fucking… “FLOOD TURRETS???” could stop shooting me for ONE second!!! OK, you know what Gravemind? Your poetry sucks. It all sucks. The rhyme scheme is juvenile and it really comes off like you’re just trying to sound really dark and mysterious without actually having anything to SAY as a writer. Why do you even communicate with words let alone a rigidly structured bastardization of the English language, you goddamn xeno-parasitic hive-mind telepath??? There! I said it. God, that feels good. Oh hey, Cortana, you’re totally rampant and extra screwy from hanging with this grandiose butthole-fetishist? No you’re not. Chin up, babe; you’re good. Such is the efficacy of Chief’s seldom-utilized Charisma attribute. (And then she actually IS good until Halo 4!!! Halo 4… where everything stops being good.)
Your growing headache–over whether Cortana is communicating with you telepathically (???) and what she's trying to tell you about sin-monuments (???), over what the hell a Gravemind is and why does it talk like a second-rate English teacher and look like the plant from Little Shop of Horrors, over trying to decide which sphincter to take- makes it virtually impossible to enjoy "Cortana".
6.5 / 30
Heather: Where do you even begin with "The Oracle"? It's a Flood level and that's almost never a good sign, but there is something to be said for the tensely claustrophobic battles against an unrelenting horde that characterize the missions against this faction.
Oh wait, unless by unrelenting horde you meant one or two combat forms halfheartedly attacking you at fifteen second intervals. Thus, "The Oracle" doesn't seem to even get why they're called the Flood. The elevator segment in particular is especially tedious, an almost uninterrupted, featureless haul where your only solace is how the Flood dramatically (and kind of hilariously) fall to pieces if you even touch them with the energy sword.
"The Oracle" has lots of other great features too:
- Completely unintuitive level design. Do you get back on the elevator after the cutting the station loose? I honestly wouldn't know what to tell you because no aspect of the experience even subtly recommends the path forward. If getting lost wasn't bad enough, the weirdly spaced checkpoints mean that on the off chance the Flood do manage to do you in, you're set back quite a ways.
- Sometimes there actually is no way forward, because you have to wait for the aforementioned trickle of flood to assault you one at a time over the course of literal minutes of your actual life in an uninteresting room with no soundtrack before the door can finally find the common decency to open. This happens more than once.
- The boss is a joke that can't even take a full carbine clip on normal, and he should be ashamed of himself.
The only reason to play this level is the really cool wind effect on the-
They got rid of it in the remaster?
Never mind then.
9 / 30
Alex: An unforgivably bland and frustrating mission that serves no real purpose other than to artificially bloat the mission count. It's a shame because the cutscene prior to the mission depicting the changing of the guard from Elites to Brutes is excellent storytelling and really helps the player understand that there may be cracks in the Covenant's seemingly invincible façade. Sounds interesting, right? You'd like to explore this more, yes? Too bad! You're about to get a Master Class in letting players down.
Gaze upon the recipe for a bad Halo level:
- Mission title that doesn't really describe the level
- Prolonged elevator or gondola Flood sequence
- Flood as main antagonist
- Trap doors and switches that don't consistently work
- Not even a hint as to where you should be heading
- Boring fights that you will want to and can skip
"Sacred Icon" has all of these ingredients in spades. Seriously, the entire level is just the Arbiter making his way through Flood infested elevators, hallways and chutes to get another McGuffin... but then not getting the McGuffin.
The best part about "Sacred Icon" is the conclusion of the mission – partly because you defend a snow capped hill with Elites from the Flood but mostly because it's finally over.
9 / 30
John: You go from a really confusing and opaque rainforest to a really confusing underground labyrinth of near identical chambers, each of which frequently branch off in four compass directions. Redeemed only by very cool found footage storytelling and the dramatic initial reveal of the Flood, who themselves contribute to a more complex narrative and a plethora of new combat scenarios. Plus there are shotguns now. But ultimately just an unacceptably confusing level design resulting in too much wasted time that is both tedious and stressful due to the relentless Flood. Not a good combo.
Oh, and then you go back to the really confusing rainforest. The remastered detail of the anniversary edition helps a lot with navigation, but we’re striving to grade these levels as initially shipped.
9.5 / 30
Alex: Although the game that starts off on somewhat promising notes of discovery and bewilderment, "Reclaimer" commits the unforgivable sin of shoving the player off the narrative deep end. It takes A LOT for a game to make me think "What the f***?" let alone say it out loud several times during a cutscene. If this were any other series I'd be able to ignore the deeply silly sci-fi nonsense and deluge of capitalized common nouns that we are hearing for the first time on display in this level. But this isn't any other series.
Buckle up cause we're taking a deep dive into what I believe to be the moment 343 Industries drove the Warthog off a cliff with the utterance of one word: "Genesong". Or “Geas” apparently, in Forerunner language.
The whole idea that your existence as a genetically modified super soldier in power armour is, to a large extent, part of a game of cat and mouse between the Didact and the Librarian deeply undercuts the themes of human agency and succeeding despite impossible odds that the series is built-on. This is the Master Chief’s story, not some convoluted tale about estranged Forerunner lovers laying traps for one another on a galactic scale. Seriously, get a load of this “Geas” bullshit lovingly compiled by the scholars at Halopedia (https://www.halopedia.org/Geas):
On the Genesong: “Geas (pronounced gesh), also called genesong, was a Forerunner term that referred to a genetic command imposed on an organism or species. Under the influence of a geas, an organism could be given a set of subconscious orders that would either be specific to that organism, or passed on to their children, in some cases lasting several generations…”
On the Librarian’s plan: “The Librarian also said that the Master Chief’s evolution through this genesong was the result of “thousands of lifetimes of planning,” but never got to tell him exactly what she was planning for.”
Apparently, all the following is explained by OR is a direct result of a "genetic command" placed on humans long before the current story takes place:
- Familiarity with Forerunner tech and control interfaces (ever wonder how Chief just knows which buttons to press?)
- Subconscious instructions on how to gradually achieve more sophisticated technology (eg. Artificial intelligence, MJOLNIR armour).
- Master Chief’s immunity to the Composer (the device the Didact wanted to enslave humanity with).
- And, I shit you not: “the basic image of what humans view as an ideal female is based upon the Librarian.” Yes, the Librarian programmed herself into human genes as the ideal female. Who comes up with this stuff? And why?
You would think an idea – even one this stupid and lore-destroying – that is so central to the narrative would be mentioned or explained prior to or after this mission but nope. That is not the case. You need to go down a massive rabbit-hole of Halopedia entries or thousands of pages of the Halo Extended Universe to understand exactly what the hell is going on. Do yourself a favour: don’t bother. This is the precise moment where the Reclaimer trilogy lost its sense of narrative, departed spiritually from its beloved predecessors, and unfortunately became a story not worth engaging in, even to the rare few who can parse it.
9.5 / 30
Alex: "Evacuation" is tiring, overlong, and unnecessary. Why are we still on Meridian AKA boring, non-descript, mining planet? Why isn't this a continuation of the cutscene that ends "Unconfirmed"? I'm not sure anyone has *good* answers to these questions. To top it all off, we get exactly what you've been craving since you decided to revisit this turd: a long-ass elevator wave battle sequence.
9.5 / 30
John: Does Guilty Spark deliver some intriguing, albeit difficult to hear lore? Yes. Do these "Sentinels" perform a pleasing ballet of lasers upon parasites? Sure. But that doesn't make up for the fact that this level repeats the same monotonous five-minute sequence about six times. The Flood do deliver some of their most intense pressure in the series in "The Library", but the resultant accidental deaths from random Carriers make an egregiously over-long level even longer and it's still just shotgun one-shots ad nauseum. Decent atmosphere but boring, exhausting and fundamentally unfun after a brief moment of novelty. You can also randomly fall into almost invisible bottomless pits. Inexcusable!
11 / 30
John: Problems. We're accessing Meridian via space elevator because it's "polite" but we haven't sent word that we're coming and have commandeered said space elevator without permission. There is now a low-voice swinging contest between Spartan Locke and Governor Sloan to see who can best emulate a ten-year-old's idea of what a tough awesome guy sounds like, and also the coolest monosyllabic name game is officially afoot, folks. The security officer who pleads with us to rescue his unarmed family from a Forerunner assault is caught seconds earlier nonchalantly doing the robot when our elevators open. But everybody loves THE ROBOT, right 343!? classic! His dead family probably loved these antics.
Enough fun and games! Open the blast doors! Let's light this candle!
Problems. Failure to reveal an enemy force that is remotely frightening or threatening when the blast doors open––just some cowering Crawlers. Governor Sloan calls on his forces to take up arms against the Forerunner aggressors––but Sloan and the Forerunner both work for Cortana now and Sloan genuinely cares about his people so... why the fracas? The level is premised on the idea that a series of gates cannot be opened until the Forerunner outside of them are quelled––Forerunner who possess powers of teleportation and flight... except against gates. Sloan will sometimes open these gates with plenty of Forerunner remaining. Warthogs no are no longer encumbered by this old-fashioned concept called "momentum". Spartans stunned that utterly humanoid and oh so creatively named Forerunner "Soldiers" can... drive cars. Amazing how boring a tank section can be with no enemy vehicles, almost no music, and enemies that can neither catapult into the air nor scream hilariously (I'm looking at you, Grunts and Brutes!) when you explode their surroundings. Huh. At about 15 minutes, this level was somehow lazily short and tediously long at the same time.
From a lore point of view, I will admit it was cool to use a glassed planet locale as the setting. But it's difficult to contemplate the scars of the previous war when the voice acting of cooldude Governor Sloan is so perfectly appropriate for stereotypically male children's programming. Like... I assume every bad guy on that kiddie-version Avengers show where their heads and fists are all wayyyy disproportionately big sounds exactly like Governor Sloan.
11.5 / 30
Alex: A lot of players point to this level as being the moment they fell in love with the series. Large, open landscapes give way to varied, engrossing combat. A sense of scale that really hadn't been seen in a console first-person shooter before. And the first time you get behind the wheel of a Warthog. Juxtaposed with "The Pillar of Autumn"s claustrophobic corridor battles, you start to get the sense that this will be like nothing else you have ever played. That's how I like to remember Halo.
Going back after 16 years, it hasn't exactly aged well. Gone is the sense of wonder and scale and here to stay is an overly long, repetitive, and simple level by our current standard. Still though, I'll always appreciate the statement this level made at the time.
12 / 30
Heather: The gameplay of "Unconfirmed" isn't much to write home about. It's short. Weirdly short for a mission following an entire level wasted on, ahem, "exposition". What really hurts "Unconfirmed" is the ending cutscene. How is Locke holding his own in any way whatsoever in a fight with MASTER CHIEF? Why are the other team members just sort of twiddling their thumbs instead of you know, giving their leader a hand or fighting each other? The Warden Eternal looks cool enough, but the reveal of the Guardian in this level just feels a little overdesigned for any aesthetic in this game's universe. When it should be one of the narrative highlights of HALO FIVE: GUARDIANS, it literally just looks like a Final Fantasy boss with no business existing in Halo's reality. Dude's just a blue Vegnagun!
Oh and you have to hear Governor Sloan continue to exist. I don't understand how 343 got this performance out of Gideon Emery AKA Fenris AKA the cool sounding random British NPC in every other game to the Dragon Age uninitiated. I'm honestly impressed that they somehow found a way to make THIS MAN not sound like the epitome of a badass.
"Your men are dead". Classic Gideon!
What were we talking about again?
13 / 30
John: OK, you're flying an assault Pelican and in this universe that's actually kinda cool. Not only that, it's loaded with a very fun array of weapons for you to swap in and out as you land at each objective, and Lasky's winking presentation of this gift-horse as he subverts his superior's orders is indeed clever and cute. The Phantom explosions in this game lack spectacle however, so fighting in your Pelican becomes almost instantly less exciting.
Cortana's end-of-life reflections on the difference between knowledge and experience are well-drawn and flesh out the beloved character at the same time that they remind us she is after all a machine. There's even a parallel to the greater existential threat, since the Didact seems to want to turn us all into insensate robots.
It's immediately... odd though that we emerge from the Infinity to find the Didact right outside the window, especially given that both are supposed to be in retreat from one another and that Chief just said the Infinity had "tracked" the Didact's position as if it involved some sort of telemetry or scouting beyond cartoon binoculars. But whatever.
Speaking of the Didact: "You will relent human, or you will perish! All in life is choice. And your day to choose has come." God I hate it when writers say things just to sound cool, and its nowhere more transparent than when it directly conflicts with existing information about the character or lore. The Librarian just told us (as much as we wish she hadn't) that all of human history was fated by the Forerunner. That's you, doofus!
As for level design, 343 seems to have gravely overestimated my fascination with the colours grey and yellow. And when these enemies have so little personality or variety, fighting them for this long gets reaaaaal monotonous.
It is however reassuring to see Cortana's personality, ability and mood becoming more erratic. We should see the deteriorating effect of her rampancy and I have to admit it does lay some groundwork for her abrupt transformation between this game and the next. It also gives the Chief multiple opportunities to patiently reassure her and at times "handle" her episodes through de-escalating tactics or ask non-judgmental follow-up questions when she fails to provide information. This all works to shore up the relationship that shines brightest at the heart of this otherwise deeply flawed story.
On the other hand, continued evidence of his rather good people skills undercuts the bizarre attempts that the game intermittently makes through forgettable minor characters to suggest otherwise. Frankly, one wonders what 343 was trying to accomplish through manufacturing this conflict in the limited time they had to establish themselves as custodians of a new chapter in Halo.
13.5 / 30
John: OK, so, just like the preceding "Dawn", "Requiem" starts off right. "Dawn" begins with a Cortana whose masterfully rendered facial animations actually took me aback with the power of the emotiveness on display. Wordlessly, we experience Cortana as never before: hesitant, torn, afraid, alone. Her eyes are photo-realistic and desperate, a technical and artistic achievement that stands regardless of the game's narrative attention deficits and tone-deafness in almost every situation not exclusively concerned with the two main characters. "Requiem" actually picks these threads up again as Cortana first tries (in an effort presumably to emotionally protect her Spartan, but maybe even with a little embarrassment too) to hide her decaying mind, and then, with downcast gaze and folded arms admits to the onset of her rampancy. Jen Taylor's performance deserves extra praise throughout Halo 4 in particular. Without bursting into tears, Chief's rigid refusal to accept her fate communicates just as much about his heart for his long-time AI partner. Instead, he turns the problem into something he can always handle: a mission. His wilfully blind faith is all the more moving in light of Cortana's educated insistence that such a mission is doomed from the outset.
The mission itself is... almost ok. The SAW is a lovely addition, a sort of Super Assault WRifle (it actually stands for something much less cool). There's some shiny Forerunner architecture. It's still early enough that I can forgive the fact that I still don't know what's the deal with this planet or what these humans or Covenant are doing here and why they seem to have arrived simultaneously by accident. I still don't know that I'll receive only bewildering, boring and/or hollow answers to these questions – if I receive them at all. Our first look at the Prometheans (it's... so stupid that the Forerunner would name them after a human myth that hasn't been written yet) is intriguing.
But there's just nothing memorable here in the gameplay department. The Covenant are just boring in this game. Sluggish. Like most of 4 and Guardians, far too much of it lacks any engaging score, which is important in most games, but especially in a series with Halo's gargantuan musical legacy. A lot of the sound design has been changed for no reason and not for the better, so that some formerly classic sounds ring false (the assault rifle's report, for example). Other effects are just sloppy; rather than winding down naturally the banshee's engine roar will abruptly blink out of existence as soon as you press the exit button. And other odd choices like, Elites can tank headshots from a sniper rifle which... no! How is that fun?
The mission's narrative comes so close to finishing without introducing any new Mystical-Forerunner-Capitalized-Common-Nouns into the "story" but can't quite resist as Cortana begins the final cutscene with: "According to the Cathedral...". This is one of my favourite examples because it literally never comes up again and they don't even pretend to explain wtf it is.
14.5 / 30
Heather: "Truth" has a promising beginning, introducing rudimentary stealth elements and night vision with a satisfying sniper's gallery to boot. Fighting off waves of Covenant spawning from the gravity lift is conceptually interesting; the turned tables as the enemy surrounds your boarding party at the top of the lift even more so.
Things soon take a turn for the frustrating, however. The hallways of the TnR are byzantine, especially without the remaster's help, some sections require unclear jumps, and for a solid 10 minutes Halo drops the ball and reverts to a simple hallway shooter of yesteryear. As if this wasn't enough, your victory is contingent on keeping Keyes alive, and he is simultaneously vexingly easy to kill and utterly unafraid of death.
He dies by my hand more often that not, such is the height of my battle frenzy. But maybe that's just me.
I digress, it’s a strong first third but otherwise a befuddling experience that's far too long for its own good.
15 / 30
Alex: For the first time in the Halo franchise you aren't playing as the Master Chief. You might not remember it but the Arbiter's positioning as an equal protagonist caused quite an uproar when Halo 2 was released in 2004. While the criticism isn't entirely justified (he's a well-written character and adds much needed complexity to the Covenant's internal politics), the Arbiter did end up starring through no fault of his own in all of Halo 2's low points (see "The Oracle", "Sacred Icon"). "The Arbiter" isn't nearly as bad as those missions, but it is a weak introduction to the character from a gameplay perspective. The mission features a Covenant strike team led by The Arbiter moving through a monotonous, industrialized version of what is basically Bespin from The Empire Strikes Back – but unlike Irvin Kershner's classic, there is no stunning betrayal or excitement to be had.
15 / 30
Alex: "Keyes" has quite the mic drop in store for players upon discovering the fate of Captain Jacob Keyes: the newest member of an amorphous Flood blob containing multiple human bodies. It's a chilling moment that really raises the stakes for the series: no one is safe and the Flood threat is very real.
Unfortunately, "Keyes" also features a return to Truth and Reconciliation's labyrinthine hallways and docking bays, except this time, you're fighting the flood. One of Bungie's hallmarks is reusing previously trodden areas in interesting, fun ways (see "Two Betrayals", "The Storm", "Halo" (Halo 3), and "ONI: Sword Base"); regrettably, this isn't one of those instances and the fate of Captain Keyes isn't enough to lift this mission out of mediocrity.
15 / 30
Heather: "Reunion" has some redeeming qualities, namely the Phaeton flying section and the intrigue surrounding what exactly Cortana's plan is. However, that plan boils down to the tired old robots rebelling against creators standby, which seems both derivative and kind of a non-sequitur after Halo 4 was so preoccupied with human reclamation of the past or something. Besides giving Cortana access to the Domain and immortality/insanity I guess Halo 4 is actually pretty irrelevant to the game that would claim to be its sequel? In an intentionally named "Reclaimer Trilogy", no less. Chief meets Cortana again (hence the name) and their interactions have always been 343's strong point, but sadly this one's just kind of forgettable.
15.5 / 30
Alex: GUARDIANZZzzzzzzz... In which 343 lost its debrief notes from Halo 2, forgot to make Master Chief the protagonist of his own game, and gave the final mic drop to the cartoonish Monitor, Exuberant Witness. "You took my installation! I will take something of yours!" Indeed. Some other stuff happens and humanity's situation seems even more dire than ever before. It may seem like there's a lot to unpack here but there really isn't and nobody really has time for that.
What precedes is a bizarrely anti-climactic level featuring you taking down some generators then walking in slow motion up a ramp. It's the best.
If this was your first introduction to the Halo series (I really hope not but I am also envious that it can only go up from here for you), you might be inclined to think, "Dang, that level was pretty neat! And wow! Cortana means business!" But for most players, this isn't their first foray into Master Chief's journey. They'll be recalling how they felt playing some of the series more memorable finales like Halo: CE's "The Maw" or Halo 3's "Halo". They'll think, "What has become of the series I looked forward to most?"
And that's the saddest part: I've fallen out of love with this series. Okay, maybe Halo 4 was when things started getting rocky but you get the point. Chalk it up to a change in studio or the urge to expand Halo Extended Universe while necessitating at all times a complete understanding of its bizarre minutiae, Halo's fall from grace has made it almost unrecognizable.
We took A LOT of shots at Halo 5. In isolation, a lot of these wouldn't seem deserved. It's a generally enjoyable game to play with solid combat mechanics. That's usually enough to warrant a playthrough. But taken in context with the original trilogy and Reach, you start to realize that the series has lost its soul. Gone is a focused, albeit simple narrative that gripped the player and was primarily about the Chief saving humanity. Gone is the Bungie philosophy of nailing that 30-seconds of fun over and over again. Gone is meticulous, palpable sense of care and craft that went into the series.
Based on 343's response to the criticism (http://wccftech.com/343i-halo-5-mistake-master-chief/), I'm hopeful they steer Halo 6 back towards feeling like its predecessors and maybe beginning to make more narrative sense.
But forgive me if I'm not betting on it.
15.5 / 30
Alex: YES. This is what we came for! The Chief is back and this time he's got his old SPARTAN-II pals Kelly, Linda, and Fred. Wouldn't it be cool to explore those characters? Too bad 'cause they're bland and we hired real actors for team Osiris.
I was much higher on "Blue Team" than my colleagues. Why? It's secretly one of the series best examples at striking that balance between claustrophobic hallway shooter and providing just enough space for creativity. There are so many angles to take on each enemy. Angled walls to bounce grenades off of. Platforms arranged just so to let you get the jump on an unsuspecting Elite. If you're at all competent at playing these games, you can create lots of those little gameplay moments that make you forget for just a moment how stupid this game's story is. It loses points because it fails to justify itself narratively beyond introducing us to a squad full of dauntless Spartans whose resurrection from the extended universe remains nevertheless tragically unearned and undeveloped by the "plot" unfolding before us.
15.5 / 30
Alex: "Crow's Nest" is a bit of let-down after Halo 3's strong opening. Where Halo: CE's first two missions featured movement from tight, confined spaces in "Pillar of Autumn" to open ones in "Halo", Halo 3 employs this contrast in reverse to unfortunately middling results. "Crow's Nest" is a paint-by-numbers base defence that is severely bogged down by backtracking through meandering hallways. Fun encounters are few and far between with the only real highlight being a winding hallway fight with Brutes, Grunts, and Jackals that allows for a lot of flanking, using elevated positions to your advantage and extremely rare ladder gameplay (do yourself a favour and play this one on coop to see the climbing "animation").
Narratively, the level just seems out of place and unnecessarily pumps the breaks on what should have been an urgent mission to save Earth. You could probably replace this mission with the ending cutscene and go straight to "Tsavo Highway". My hunch is a lot of players would be none the wiser.
16 / 30
Heather: This sure is a level where you fight some guys who are attacking a moving tram. Fighting Prometheans on a tram is... more fun than fighting Flood on a tram. I'll give you that. But this is still a slow moving tram level. Possibly the longest tram level in a tradition going back to "The Library", a dubious honour to be sure. You're also called to face your greatest challenge yet: Not one, not two, but THREE Warden Eternals.
Kind of makes you wonder why he didn't attack with more of himself at once earlier? I mean if he's really dedicated to stopping you from reaching Cortana why wouldn't he just send fifty platforms after you? And if Cortana can apparently vaporize matter at will (as she demonstrates in this level) why doesn't she just kill Osiris? I feel like the answers are probably out there on the wiki but I suspect they'd just upset me.
16.5 / 30
Heather: "Floodgate" is pretty good. For a Flood level, I mean. The Flood have certainly become much tougher in their final incarnation, though maybe a little too tough (Pure Flood Tank Form, anyone?) all things considered. The new wall-crawling Ranged Form is especially annoying with its high rate of fire, relatively impressive resistances and ability to shield its head. Still, energy swords cut through them as easily as ever, and if that wasn't enough "Floodgate" is also kind enough to introduce you to the flamethrower. Style points awarded for the Flood dropping down in repurposed Covenant Sarcophagi. Style points summarily removed for the Gravemind forcing more edgy amateur poetry down our throat. As if Cortana's psychic(?) interruptions weren't enough.
16.5 / 30
Heather: "High Charity" is resoundingly ok. It doesn't lack for variety of enemy types (Covenant and Flood are both well represented), and the final push towards the Conduit, coupled with Cortana's parting words, is indeed epic. It's just kind of short, and more of the same ship interior combat we've already experienced in "Gravemind", only without the literal uphill battles and with Flood thrown in, and that's almost never an improvement. The light bridges are also notoriously glitchy, which doesn't exactly help matters.
This is probably no one's favourite level, unless you're That One Guy who just really likes sniping Drones. Also there's some spookily darklit hallways.
16.5 / 30
John: Leading a motley crew of ardent Elites, winsome Grunts and stoic Hunters on a quest to rescue more allies and finally exact vengeance upon the Brute usurpers you've come to hate throughout Halo 2. Flying Banshee-escort for Johnson's hijacked Scarab through a perilous ravine. Finally going mano-a-gravity hammer with that son of a bitch Tartarus. This all sounds great on paper but only the first section actually works in-game the way it should.
Johnson's Scarab is indestructible so there's no tension there. Your banshee however is very fragile, forcing you to maintain such distance from threats that you lose the intensity of looking your enemies in the eye, as it were.
The final boss-fight that should be the crown jewel of the game is tremendously undercut by Johnson's transparently artificial intelligence as he fires his victory-essential beam rifle with mixed accuracy and at regular intervals, large intervening solid objects notwithstanding. Accidentally happening into close proximity with Tartarus is indeed frightening, but for the most part he's laughably easy to avoid and has no ranged support, rendering him nothing but a big boring bullet-sponge that takes an agonizingly long time to bring down on Legendary, but only a pathetic few moments on Normal.
Oh yeah, and Chief's gonna finish this fight later, okay?
17 / 30
John: So this opening cutscene would really work if (A) I had grown attached to these characters over the course of their "journey" (which I feel uncomfortable calling it), and if (B) Tanaka had been established as the team's resident inspirational speaker of pith before this, the game's twelfth goddamn mission, and maybe Buck had heretofore playfully sassed her sappiness a little irreverently each time. But of course... none of those things are true. Like many others here, it's only a good scene if considered in a vacuum, like if it had been a trailer. Nothing actually hangs together.
Still, it characterizes the imminent battle as a perilous and epic endeavour, even for a tight-knit team of Spartans. And it's of course exciting to fight through the spires and domes of the Sangheili capital, which is indeed beautiful, especially as it all seems to hover over the waves below.
But then the actual game starts up again and undercuts what scant drama there is with these truly uninspired and juvenile objectives that provide the structure of the mission's first half. "Take out those AA cannons!" is at this point such a tired trope in the series, but here it's especially contrived. You disable the cannons by essentially solving the classic kindergartener's puzzle of following a line from the cannon to its power generator. Despite being essential to the enemy Covenant's defense, these generators seem to have exactly 1 HP and are invariably sitting right out in the open at a random distance from the cannon itself, with no consideration going to any kind of tactical defilade or in any strategic position for enemy troops to defend. It's supposed to be the enemy stronghold and it's a pathetic and ham-fisted chaos.
There's also this really pathetic pro-diversity attempt to say "Hey, we have girl Elites!" when you suddenly here one over the com, and Vale is very impressed with the Arbiter for recruiting them... but 343 can't be bothered to actually depict one on the battlefield.
Plus at one point there's this forcefield you need to get through. Your allies will prompt you to find a way around. But... there is no way around. In the end I just got frustrated and fired a charged plasma pistol at the shield... and that worked! Despite no other structural forcefield working this way previously in the game, let alone the series.
Halfway through, Lock tells the Arbiter: "I want to warn you. Before the Guardian jumps to slipspace, it sets off a series of concussive blasts. If you move your ships out of the way in time, the Covenant should take the brunt of it." But the Spartans are completely safe from these fleet-threatening waves while simply standing on the Guardian as it jumps (and why does the Guardian generate a personal portal to shelter Osiris inside itself and save their lives right before it jumps???). Then at the conclusion of the game, these same waves that can knock out giant spaceships fail to stop one man from walking up a ramp. And yet the entire premise of the game is that Cortana can control an entire star system with each of these almighty "Guardians".
At least the core combats in this mission are decent, with swarms of Covenant, tons of cover objects and a variety of altitudes in each encounter. The Guardian's rise from the ocean depths at the end of the level is quite a spectacle also. I love that Halsey closes her eyes while flying.
And then the Warden's back... Did you know that while fighting you, he can sometimes say, "Hurry up and die––I have friends coming over"? Just another hilarious joke that makes no sense and completely undermines the gravity of the situation, let alone the tone of the whole damn game.
17.5 / 30
Heather: The thing about Halo vehicle levels is that even at their least inspired they can be a good time. "Tank beats everything" and all that. Also the beginning with the running down a Guardian's spine in low gravity is actually pretty cool.
This is still an uninspired vehicle level.
I'll give 343 props for the charming Exuberant Witness, but the props are tentative because she's introduced rather late in the game and functions as a machina ex machina to explain away any problems Osiris and Blue might have had fighting an AI that can evaporate guns with her mind. I still don't know why Exuberant is helping us...I guess she's just nice like that? Given how critical to the fate of humanity her assistance is I feel like I should have a better handle on her motivations, but you know, that's just me.
Also negative props for Vale's " That's a monitor". This is only the sixth Halo game so I guess maybe 343 thought we might not be sure what a monitor was on sight. Thanks 343. Then to make absolutely sure you know Exuberant is a monitor, she identifies herself as one in the very next line. I see you really took show don't tell to heart, Brian.
John: Not to mention the fact that the word "monitor" will only have relevance to players who can already identify one on sight.
Alex: So apparently, for those still awake, Blue Team has been transported to a lush Forerunner planet. Some Covenant are here for some reason. My research indicates that they were "dragged through in the wake of multiple Guardians' slipspace drives, who believe that the planet was promised by the Prophets." Normally I'd say "Sure, whatever," but this game has lost any goodwill it had mustered to just yada yada it's way through such a massive jump. Oh and in case you were wondering (we were), Cortana's rampancy was cured simply by accessing the Forerunner Domain. And yes, you guessed it, we won't be exploring that much further.
What we are left with is a decent vehicular combat level that features way too many encounters with the Warden Eternal. Hope you liked fighting him cause we're going to do it about ten more times before this campaign is over. This is the third best Halo 5 level. It ranked 35th out of 65 playable missions in the series.
17.5 / 30
Heather: It's a strong start, waking to a strange new forerunner world, a mysterious Covenant faction formed in Chief's lost time, a Cortana succumbing to rampancy after years spent awake and alone.
Unfortunately, Halo 4 doesn't really feel like developing the theme of discovery or answering most of the questions raised here. All you learn is that Requiem is a prison for the Didact and his army of Promethean Knights which are Composed humans because the Didact didn't want humans to attain the Mantle but the Librarian did, which is to say, virtually nothing, because I dare any of you who hasn't read the books or the wiki to explain to me what I just said. Without using capitalized common nouns. I played this game and I still had to look up what Requiem was exactly before writing this entry. I certainly didn't catch what it is exactly the Covenant were doing. Would you believe me if I told you they were led by Halo 5's Supreme Commander Jul'Mdama, considered themselves the heirs to the original Covenant, and that they were trying to wake up the Librarian?
I know I wouldn't.
I digress. "Dawn" is intriguing and the new graphics initially dazzle, but the mission harbours too many warning signs for the mediocre game to come. The low gravity section is inexcusably less realistic and immersive than Reach's "Long Night of Solace", to say nothing of Halo 2's"Cairo Station" of eight years ago during the previous console generation. Here, the rule is that gravity immediately stops affecting you as soon as you die––just like real life! But don't worry, you'll just float in place forever despite the impact of whatever killed you even though there's no friction in space. Far from "more fanatical" Covenant that we've fought in the past, the enemy AI feels downright drowsy, and the grunt's voices have been lowered an octave or two despite being an iconic and beloved quirk of the series.
18 / 30
Alex: I had to watch a Let's Play to remember what this level was about. Thus concludes my thoughts on "Forerunner."
John: Didact-dact-dact dat don't kill me! Can only make me stronger! I need you to leave me alive now! So I can predictably return to defeat you at the end of the game.
18.5 / 30
Alex: "Enemy Lines" is better than it has any right to be. I have to think someone at 343 was feeling especially inspired one day and thought, "Imagine a Scarab but BIGGER and with MORE LEGS!" It's a silly idea, particularly considering the tactical utility of a massive crawling destroyer robot, but sometimes fun missions are borne out of ridiculous premises. Battling your way through Covenant forces onto the aptly named Kraken is a blast but falls flat when you are actually tasked with taking it down. It boils down to: Get onboard, shoot any enemies in your way (it can be none if you play your cards right), shoot the glowing orb, hop off. This could have been an awesome multi-stage bossfight where you take down each of the Kraken's arms and barely escape but instead it was essentially like hopping on a platform and hopping off. Too bad.
John: Umm... why have any multi-pedal vehicle concepts when you can eliminate that inevitably fatal vulnerability with your unlimited mastery over anti-gravity technology? And hey! Krakens and Scarabs aren't a subcategory of ghosts at all!