Saturday, January 2

Halo 5: Guardians Review (XB1): A retcon for the ages

I am a guy that likes Halo. I am one of millions.\

I wanted to like Halo 5. Really, I did. It's funny then that the game -- as both a package, or when considering the PvE and PVP offerings in relative isolation -- did all it could to dissuade me. Halo 5 hates players, be they series veterans or new players. This is a hostile experience.

So, consider this your spoiler warning. I'm going to talk frankly about why I don't recommend picking up Halo 5, and I plan to talk story.

I'm not someone who deep dives into series lore: I haven't read the veritable library of comics and novels that make up the series' extended universe. For that, I am both punished and thankful. Punished in that I had very little idea of what was happening initially, or why. Thankful in that I haven't invested anything more than what was required for a pretty shitty, nonsensical narrative payoff.

If you're playing alone, you play as Spartan Locke of Fireteam Osiris, that has the task of tracking down Master Chief for some reason; or Master Chief of Blue Team who has gone AWOL for (also) blue, AI lady friend and somehow love interest, Cortana.

Throughout the adventure, there are close calls and run-ins with old friends and foes. These encounters are baffling, in terms of both how they're set up, and how incoherent they are. As Locke, your comrades watch dumbfounded as you engage in fisticuffs with Master Chief. Do they intervene? No. Do Blue Team question why Chief takes them AWOL to follow a seemingly evil warlord? Yes, but only briefly, and in the most laughable way possible. Apparently they've fought together so much that they're like family, so OK let's destroy a mining settlement full of civilians. Wooooooooo!

What's worse is that all of Master Chief's heroics from the first four games are misappropriated in the end. Turns out that instead of saving the galaxy all of those times, you were actually helping stage the villain's master plan. Worse still, the ending is the barest of setups for the inevitable next instalment.

"Are we gonna keep running?"

"Yes, until we're ready."
Fade to black, roll credits. Worst. Ending. Ever. The conclusion made the Halo 2 "Finish the fight," debacle look like a narrative master stroke.

It doesn't help either that the action that holds this mess of a story together is so familiar as to feel redundant. There's another level where you ride a scorpion (read: tank) for an extended period, there's more weapons than you could possibly hope to use, there's lots of situations where you'll flank Covenant and Forerunner forces. To my knowledge there's only one new enemy type: the Warden Eternal. Each time you fight one or more of this boss type thing, you'll find yourself in an arena setting. Every time you can sense a showdown, it's with one or more Wardens.

It's weird that there are no other varieties of boss encounters littered throughout the campaign. I thought for sure that I would've been pitted against a Guardian in some vertical encounter, but nooooOOOOoooo. Just as well too, as the collective intelligence of the friendly AI for both Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris would be hard pressed to solve how one would escape from a wet paper bag. I mean, for fuck's sake, if the voice actors keep saying "We have to shoot him (in this case, Warden Eternal) in the back," but when ordered to attack, move to the front of the enemy and aim for nothing but his mid-section, that is a clear recipe from frustration. I can only imagine how painful some of the later firefights would be on higher difficulties, with your ill-programmed partners spraying bullets any which way but where they need to be.

Insult is added to injury when you realise that split screen co-op is no longer supported. You're on your own if you don't have Halo-loving friends on Xbox Live. To me, split screen is a big part of the Halo brand, and to forsake it for slightly more fluid visuals seems a betrayal; albeit the slightest committed in this particular iteration.

The real tragedy of Halo 5 is the multiplayer.

The Arena playlists take the multiplayer back to something more familiar, when compared to Halo 4. At first, I thought this was a change for the better, but then I realised that I've played this game for hours, days, years already. After grinding out requisition points and experience for about four hours, I felt it was time to move on.

All the old friends are there, but the stories haven't really changed. The Spartan Charge and ground pounding are done better in better games. Halo feels like it's in this weird space where it made the console first person shooter a viable product, but now it can't evolve without noticeably aping competitors.

Even the new Warzone mode borrows from games like Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, and doesn't feel overly fresh. In fact, it's only fun when you're winning; otherwise it's the worst kind of grind. Performing well increases the level (read: effectiveness) of requisition that players are able to call in, which include power weapons, vehicles and buffs. Better hardware means you're not only more prepared for your human competition, but also the AI enemies which afford generous lots of points to your team. If you're losing, you can still call in reqs, but usually less spectacular ones than those your enemies have command of.

More problematic still is the fact that requisition packs can be bought. Yes, they can be unlocked, slowly, through continuous play, but shelling out anything from 4 to 140 real dollars can make them available faster. While a lot of reqs are cosmetic in nature, there's a troubling proportion of which that can directly impact the result of Warzone matches. This is pay to win, in a game that costs as much as 99 actual dollars depending on how savvy (or not) a shopper you are. That is, as the French say, fucked.

When I spoke with my brother, a Halo tragic, about the virtues of this iteration, he advised that Halo 5 was a good tale if you're prepared to read several novels in preparation. For Halo 5's mess of a story to make any sense, I had to read hundreds of pages of licensed pap. To look how I wanted to in multiplayer I had to grind for about six hours, or just easily drop tens, even hundreds more dollars. No returning characters from ODST, no beautiful graphics, no Nathan Fillion is going to be enough to make that sound like a good deal.

Halo 5 is not a bad game, technically speaking. It's just not a very good one either.

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