Halo 5 Guardians Review: It's still fun, but Halo is having an identity crisis
Halo, created to legitimize an oblong black box from Microsoft, overcame the corny essence of its initial space clichés. Space warriors, space aliens, space ships, space rings; Halo's surface fiction felt like a leftover from the early '80s Star Wars fervor. Instead, Halo tackled religious zealotry with the alien Covenant and the cruelty of child soldiers manipulated into fighting against them. This came wrapped in a first-person shooter destined for dorm parties in a post-Goldeneye existence.
Then came the cross-media mingling, significant in fictional depth and entertaining in colorful world building. Halo became an expensive narrative puzzle. The pieces were composed of books, animated series, comics, and live action. Somewhere, the games themselves were lost. A Spartan doesn't elicit awe anymore; there are too many of them. That's a problem. Halo 5 lacks urgency, a dramatic failure of the fiction as much as it is the genre.
Spartans fell into the superhero cinema cycle. Master Chief attached to the lone wolf role – he needed no one else. Covenant aliens feared him as “The Demon,” a distinctive power fantasy even in an industry flush with them. Halo 5 puts eight Spartans on the field, four at a time. Chief needs help. Maybe he's getting too old.
Master Chief was given four video games to establish his place and his bond to an AI. Newcomer Jameson Locke's team is an underdeveloped collection of Spartan IVs, Fireteam Osiris. If the idea of Spartan IVs are new, you're already behind. Here's Halo 5, delivering a paucity of information, failing to deduce even a basis for character's existence. Locke is a poorly rendered character shell, inexcusable for a lead (this is mostly Locke's journey, more so than Halo 2 was to Arbiter). Squad members Tanaka and Vale are vocal background color. Osiris' qualifications are only glanced in dialog.
As a story composition, Halo 5 is determined to go forward even if only the first two acts of a three-act structure are here. It ends like Halo 2, only bogged down by two generations of established mythos as opposed to one prior game.
In progression, it would appear the interesting layers of the universe - gripping religious fanaticism and necessity of war - are being excised for a playable essay against progressive technology. Halo is stepping into Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke's territory. What was once so unique has fallen into the derivative and intellectually stymied.
There is a corporate responsibility to sell products.
Split the story, grab the hardcore fans, and they'll rally in defense. But Halo 5 is equivalent to a book turned failed screenplay. Never require the book for explanation – there's a responsibility on filmmakers to present the necessary details in their work less they fail. That's critical artistic process.
Halo 5 doesn't even do this. It expects ingrained knowledge rather than earns it, shunning those who cannot follow. Out goes a critical allegory of belief systems and in steps a perfect metaphor for video gaming's guarded and insular bias.
Where did you come from?
At the surface, Halo 5 is an intergalactic missing person saga that the narrative's important historical background is never there to support. Locke is introduced and never contextualized – he was mentioned in a hidden compartment of Halo 2 and prominent in Halo Nightfall, a live-action direct-to-video dud. Buck (Nathan Fillion) was a part of ODST. Chief's Blue Team has Frederick. Fred was featured in Halo Legends - the direct-to-video animated short collection - and mentioned in passing during Halo Reach. None of this makes itself known in Halo 5.
The time-crucial, late-stage plot details are inset under boomy action; it's clear 343 Interactive as a development studio lacks the structural clarity of Halo's progenitor's Bungie. Oddly, Halo 5 is reaching for a mass market. In battle, Spartans shout battle orders they should know at this juncture – attack Covenant Hunters from behind - a weird dialog tutorial stepping on the logic of any canon.
If Halo 5 is certain in this context-necessary approach, adding in baseless contextualized dialog is contradictory.
Between the legion of storytelling composition gaffes, Spartans punch and fly and jet pack and shoot lasers like no human could, all as colorful as ever. Few battlefields have been this saturated by criss-crossing energy beams and slightly metallic drop ships, painted a reflective purple. It's still a beauty. Halo's introduction of inner planetary lava flows finally lets the series cover the industry's basics in level design too – snow, forests, space, lava. Halo 6 just needs to add swimming and a minecart for complete coverage.
Multiplayer: Paying nice with others
All of Halo's inventiveness has been shifted into multiplayer. If this is the inevitability for Halo (and a majority of shooters), then rip the band-aid off instead of spending millions piecing together shiny cinema-like story bits pretending to be more.
The keeper here is Warzone, more or less because it displays the pew-pew lasers and intentionally wonky physics as having an in-match battle economy. Requisitions can be doled at earned in-match levels – a Battle Rifle at level three, a tank at four – eventually leading to a crowded vehicle melee in a rush to capture bases by each match's close. This assumes everyone has access to vehicles.
Charging to open packs with random digital items is as shady as Draft Kings' fantasy sports business model...
Any economy will cater to have/have nots. Here the haves can spend money on non-existent digital things to make themselves feel even more like haves.
Requisitions must be unlocked in packs before heading into a round of Warzone. Charging to open packs with random digital items is as shady as Draft Kings' fantasy sports business model; the difference with Halo is you can only win numbers on a leaderboard after a $60 investment.
It's the old, defensive company adage: You can play to unlock everything. Pay, you see unlocks faster. But this is based on a model of controlled artificiality: rarity exists only because a server says so. In a losing multiplayer scenario, spending cash NOT to lose seems alluring. That's the hook and why the model continues to be successful – and hopelessly exploitative.
The purity of Halo multiplayer fills in the Arena, traditional four-on-four bouts with weapon spawns and limited real world financial interference. At least Halo stopped chasing Call of Duty and loadouts, although speed and higher frame rates have extinguished the once sacred pace. Spartans have ceased to feel like the two-ton soldiers they are. They're far too fast.
All said, it's still fun, thankfully. Most of Halo 5 is. Inherent likability is on Halo's side. Pink, blue, and orange lasers stride across the screen as if part of GI Joe's canon. Halo is old enough to cater to nostalgia too, now.