The Didact's actual, long-form (and slightly more coherent) review of HALO 5: Guardians


The most anticipated game of the year- hell, of the last three years, as far as I am concerned- finally made its way into my mitts on October 28th, and I promptly proceeded to spend the next five days blasting merrily away at Covenant and Forerunner enemies. As my last post on the subject made clear, I thought the new HALO game was REALLY DAMN GOOD.

Unfortunately, that post was just a tad incoherent, and I did put it together before I'd actually played through the entire game. So, now that I have played through it in full once already, and am well on my way to doing so again, what did I honestly think of it? (Note: I will try to avoid big spoilers concerning the plot and the gameplay, but be forewarned nonetheless that some may creep in regardless.)

Therefore, here, just in time for my 1,000th post, is what I think of HALO 5: Guardians.

The Good (Is REALLY GREAT)

Back in mid-June this year, I wrote an article for Reaxxion in which I detailed the things that I thought were going to be amazing in the new game. I also added a few things that I was on the fence about, and a few things that I was legitimately worried about.

For the most part, it would appear that I hit the mark on almost all of those points. I won't rehash what I wrote, but it's worth taking a look at my predictions against the reality, to get a sense of how good (or bad) the new game really is.

Overall, H5 is a tremendous addition to my beloved HALOverse. There are a number of brilliant new innovations that make the game feel fresh and alive, and which make it stand out compared to its peers in the same genre (such as the Call of Battlefield Honor Killzone Far Crysis games, for instance). This game promises much- and, better yet, it delivers.

There are several things that every HALO game absolutely MUST do, because these attributes are what make the series so unique relative to its peers:
  • Deep immersion into the characters that you control as the player;
  • Intense, thrilling, challenging first-person shooter combat that allows you to experience something new every time you play;
  • Vehicle-based combat, both on the ground and in the air;
  • New and unique weapons that allow you to change your tactics and style of play depending on the enemies you're facing;
  • A magnificent, epic musical soundtrack that you can enjoy on its own outside the game
The great news is that H5 does ALL of these things, brilliantly.

1. Spirit of Spartans


The single best thing about this new game has got to be the introduction of true squad-based dynamics into the gameplay itself. This is not all that surprising given that the development team included Tom Longo, the creative genius behind one of my all-time favourite FPS games, Star Wars: Republic Commando. For the first time ever in a HALO game, the NPC AI of your supporting SPARTANs is fully developed. The NPCs work as an effective unit. You can order them to do certain things which greatly increase your tactical effectiveness and make the missions easier, and which allow you to change up the gameplay depending on how you use your team.

More importantly, the voice acting, especially for Blue Team, is (for the most part) excellent. You really get the feeling that the SPARTAN-IIs that fight alongside Master Chief are family- there is even a bit toward the end where, as the Chief fights his own emotions to find and stop the source of the mayhem that is killing so many humans across the Galaxy as the Guardians awaken, each member of Blue Team vocally affirms his or her support for the Chief, as their comrade, their friend, their leader... their brother. They serve as his in-game emotional anchor after Cortana's death, and help him deal with the fallout from the plotline, and that emotional bond makes the Blue Team missions in particular a real joy to play.

2. To Crush Your Enemies...


In H5, you really feel like a 900lb harbinger of death encased in the Grim Reaper's very own party outfit.

Several of the armour abilities that came as optional customisations within HALO 4 are now part of your default MJOLNIR Gen2 toolkit. You now have unlimited sprint. There is an integrated thruster pack that is now omnidirectional, much more responsive, and which doesn't switch into the third-person when you activate it. Weapons reloading is much faster than what I remember in the previous game, and shields recharge faster too.

On top of this, new abilities have been added, such as the SPARTAN Charge (and Slide), the Ground Pound, and the Focus Fire feature. I particularly like the last one- basically, if you jump and then use the Active Scope function, you hover in mid-air for a few moments, which allows you to deliver a headshot coup de grace to any particularly irritating enemy that you might have in your sights. And of course, you can now climb over things and experience near-total freedom of movement in the process.

This game FINALLY does what every HALO game before it should have done: it makes you feel like the super-soldier that you are supposed to be.

3. Guns, Guns, Guns!


No HALO game is complete without a plethora of cool, snazzy new weaponry to play with, and in this regard H5 definitely does not disappoint. The Hydra Launcher, in particular, is a very neat little toy that I really like playing with, especially when used against Forerunner armigers.

There are new vehicles to play with as well, and old vehicles have been given some neat new toys and graphical overhauls that make them great fun to play with. One thing that any HALO game absolutely must do is deliver terrific vehicle-based combat- a HALO game without vehicle-based combat is a completely useless object. Fortunately, H5 delivers a knockout here. Fighting with Warthogs, Mantises, "Gungooses", and Scorpions is tremendous fun; the new Forerunner Phaeton is a hoot and a half to fly; and the Covie vehicles aren't half bad to use either.

4. Will You Just LOOK At That...!


This game is gorgeous.

The developers at 343i took the grandeur and magnificent landscapes that they put together in H4 and basically cranked the graphics ALL THE WAY UP TO 11 with this one. Every battlefield is rendered in spectacular detail; the backgrounds are mesmerising, especially on Genesis and Sanghelios; and the Guardians, when they actually appear, are simply stunning.

This game promised us plenty of eye-candy, and by gum, it delivered.

5. All Hail Eddie Buck!


I'm a big fan of Nathan Fillion.

Yeah, I know. Me and like 10 million other Firefly fans.

But I am especially a fan of his work within the HALO games. Eddie Buck is a fan favourite among us HALO nerds thanks to his wit, his gruff demeanour, and his outstanding combat skills. And Nathan Fillion's voice acting makes the character who he is. I have to say, in this game, he absolutely owns the role of SPARTAN Buck, career wiseass who also happens to be almost as much of an epic badass as the Master Chief himself.

6. The monks are back!!!


I am personally a very big fan of the HALO 4 OST. I thought Neil Davidge was a very solid replacement for Michael O'Donnell and Martin Salvatori. However, there were and are legitimate criticisms of the electronica-heavy music score that he composed for that game, and not all HALO fans liked his work. While I, personally, think that his score was the most listenable out of any of the games, it just didn't feel like a true HALO score- certainly not compared to the HALO: Reach OST.

This time, however, Kazuma Junnouchi took over the musical compositions completely, and in the process he created what has to be about as close to a perfect synthesis of the old O'Donnell work and the new Davidge creations as could possibly be made. He has also added his own unique work to the OST, which I am listening to as I write this. The musical score captures all of the epic feeling and drama that the scores from the older games did, yet adds promising new ideas and themes that I am sure will be expanded upon in future games.

The Subpar

Having gushed about all of the (many) things that H5 gets very right, surely there are some things that it didn't do well?

Actually, objectively speaking, there certainly are.

1. Different Helmet, Same Person


The one criticism I have of the squad-based play is the same one that I had of SWRC. The problem with it is that there is no differentiation between different SPARTANs, which is downright silly- especially when it comes to Blue Team. I mean, Fireteam Osiris is basically just a bunch of interchangeable characters (more or less), but Blue Team's members all have their own specialisations that should have been brought forth better.

For instance, Linda-058 is well established within the canon as the greatest sniper in the UNSC's armed forces. Yet you cannot assign her to take out an enemy from long range. Kelly-087's incredible foot-speed was often used by previous incarnations of Blue Team as the "bunny" that would fool enemies into chasing her straight into a trap- but you can't give her a command to do precisely that in order to lure the toughest enemies out to where you can destroy them. And Fred-104's abilities as a warrior, tactician and commander are completely inaccessible here. I really feel like more could have been done to bring forth the team dynamics and individual personalities within Blue Team, in particular.

2. That Warden is REALLY annoying


If you haven't encountered the Warden Eternal yet, don't worry, you will. And my GOD but he is irritating.

There are levels in every HALO game that just feel like a massive chore- "The Library" in HALO: CE, "The Great Journey" in HALO 2, and "Cortana" in HALO 3 come to mind as particular lowlights. But in nearly 7 years of playing HALO games repeatedly, never have I felt the level of frustration and annoyance in a HALO level as I have when battling the Warden Eternal.

He is, quite simply, the most irritating "boss" character ever encountered in the series. And you have to fight him like four freaking times! I simply don't see the point of disrupting the flow of an otherwise extraordinarily playable game with such overwhelmingly irritating boss character.

3. Some Pre-reading Required...

The biggest flaw with this game's plot has got to be the amount of expanded-universe canon that you need to know in order to understand the story. This was never an issue with the Bungie-developed games, but 343i has deliberately adopted a strategy whereby even the casual gamer has to read up on all sorts of canonical media in order to understand just what the hell is going on. They made that mistake with HALO 4, and they repeated it here, but on a much larger scale.

In order to actually understand the plot, you have to read: the Initiation AND Escalation comic book series, the novels Hunters in the Dark and Last Light, and you have to have gone through every last nook and cranny of the "Hunt the Truth" series that preceded this game's launch.

WHO HAS THE TIME FOR ALL OF THAT NONSENSE?!

Someone at 343i wasn't thinking straight when he (more likely she) came up with something so silly as to require even casual fans to spend weeks of their lives poring over pointless canonical trivia.

4. So... What's Happening Again?

Related to the point above, the plot of this game is probably the weakest of any game in the HALO canon.

I am dead serious when I write this. In HALO 4, it took some work to figure out just what the hell was going on, but once you did, it was clear that the Didact (hey, that's me!) was in fact a gigantic and terrible threat to the human race, and the Chief's relentless, dogged quest to stop him made a lot of sense, even if the plot was considerably less epic in scale and scope than previous games and focused much more on the personal relationship between the Chief and Cortana.

But in this game, I have a very hard time figuring out what's going on- and given how much I know and have read into HALO lore, that is saying something.

Basically, there's something about recapturing Catherine Halsey... and then a missing research station gets BLOWED THE FULL CUP, and then Chief goes AWOL, and there's some massive manhunt spanning like three worlds, and meanwhile the Covenant gets its ass whooped, and then... I sort of lost the plot at that point.

Oh yeah, and Cortana gets involved somewhere too. (No, I'm not going to say how, that would be telling.)

This is not a simple, easily understandable, easily navigable plot. A HALO fan shouldn't need to spend his entire week trying to figure out what the heck happened in a video game- life is too short for that.

The worst part, though, is that it's impossible to tell who is the bad guy here- or if there even is a bad guy (or girl)- until the very end of the game. Next time, 343i, just stick to the basics of telling an epic story, the way your predecessors at Bungie were so good at doing. (Well, before they jumped the shark with Destiny, anyway.)

I will say one thing in H5's favour with respect to plot, though- it does redeem itself. The twist at the end, and the nature of that twist, has changed the HALOverse forever. It will be fascinating to see where they take it from here.

The Very, Very Ugly

Unfortunately, the flaws don't stop there. And there are a few very gaping flaws that really wrecked (small) parts of the game for me.

1. Bonnie Ross and Her Long Pointy Nose


Earlier this year, I wrote at some length about the likelihood that Bonnie Ross, the studio head of 343 Industries, would inject social justice nonsense into the HALOverse by attempting to throw in as many Strong Female Warriors as possible. I fervently prayed at the time that she would not be so stupid as to sacrifice plot, character, and gameplay for trendy SJW whims.

I was, very sadly, wrong. She cocked up, massively, in at least two separate places with this game.

First is the fact that each of the two SPARTAN fireteams in this game is half female. Now, with Blue Team, I get why this is the case; the existence of the female SPARTAN-IIs has been part of HALO canon for 15 years, and that cannot be undone. I don't even particularly mind the presence of either Linda or Kelly in the game, as they are the Chief's family and act as such. Rather than being pointless diversions, they are central to the game's plot.

But where, exactly, was the need to introduce two new female SPARTAN-IVs into Fireteam Osiris? What value did Holly Tanaka and Olympia Vale add?

Answer: ZERO.

Bonnie Ross and the entire development team at 343i need to STOP screwing around with all of these useless female characters for the sake of "balance", and start giving fans what we actually want. I am sick and tired of seeing the games that I love being warped and twisted by social justice imperatives just to satisfy some non-existent demand for "more strong empowered GIRLZZZ".

Second, there is an extremely jarring moment somewhere in the middle of the game where Fireteam Osiris is fighting their way through a Covenant stronghold, and all of a sudden a female Sangheili Shipmaster's voice comes in over the comms.

Now, to understand why this is such a WTF moment, you have to realise that the Sangheili- the Elites- are a very masculine society. The males do the fighting and hunting, the females raise the young. Sangheili society, within the canon, is the literal definition of a patriarchy.

So when a female shipmaster starts talking to you and giving you instructions, it is just bizarre. Hell, even the characters in the game comment on this- Olympia Vale basically delivers a two-minute speech on how unusual it is for a female Elite to command a ship, and how this is a positive sign of change within Sangheili society. (She doesn't exactly state the latter, it is simply strongly implied.)

What, exactly, was the point of that? Why did 343i see the need to basically stop the game right after one of its most intense combat sequences to deliver a heavy-handed and completely unnecessary lecture about gender equality to the player?

The next HALO game really needs to focus more on a strong plot with really believable characters. I would not mind in the least if Blue Team reappears, or if more of the remaining SPARTAN-IIs show up, but there is absolutely no need for more strong female characters.

2. Not ANOTHER Cliffhanger!

I'm not going to say much about the ending of the game, other than to state that 343i clearly made the exact same mistake with this game that Bungie made with HALO 2. Namely, they ended the game with several major plot points and questions completely unresolved, and now we have to wait three years to find out WHAT. THE. FRACK. HAPPENED.

Look, I get it, this is a good way of keeping interest high until the next game. But, for heaven's sake, this is HALO we're talking about! They could produce a game made up of light strobes and fart noises, and it would still sell, thanks simply to the power of the HALO brand name. Was there really any need to keep us on tenterhooks, yet again, for so long?

3. Where the HELL is the Chief?! And the Halos?!?

The absolute worst thing about this game, though, has got to be the fact that it is in many ways the least HALO-ish game in the series.

First, you spend 80% of the game playing as SPARTAN Locke. This is like taking the mistake that Bungie made with introducing the Arbiter as a playable character in HALO 2, and then doubling down on it. SPARTAN Locke just isn't a very interesting character to play. I have no vested interest in his back-story, I don't particularly care about him as a person, and his voice-acting isn't that great.

But when you end the game as SPARTAN Locke- with a message flashing on your HUD saying "FINISH THE FIGHT", no less- well, that tends to stick in my craw.

Generally speaking, when we play a HALO game that has the Master Chief on the cover, we want to play as the Master Chief- Bonnie and Frankie, I really hope you're reading this because you need to understand this message loud and clear. We DON'T want to spend most of the game playing as a charisma-free ex-ONI agent who is simply hunting the Chief down.

Second, the Halo rings themselves- the very reason the entire series is called what it is- never once make an appearance in the game. You only get to see one of the rings in the Legendary ending to the game. The games appear to be having less and less to do with the actual Halo rings with every release under 343i's aegis, which just doesn't make any sense at all. At least Bungie kept the focus on these galaxy-killing weapons of mass destruction throughout their entire run (more or less).

The Didact's Verdict

So, after all of that nattering on, where does HALO 5: Guardians stack up relative to its predecessors?

Well, for that, we need to have some reference points for comparison.

In my opinion, HALO 3 is, quite simply, the greatest FPS game ever made. No doubt many would disagree, but I can't say I care. I love everything about it, and to me, nothing beats it. So that's the bar for 100%- absolute perfection, can't be beaten.

By contrast, HALO 2 is probably the "weakest" game in the series, let down by really annoying levels, very unbalanced gameplay (a pack of five Grunts can kill you in that game, whereas in other games you could mow the damn things down by the dozens), incredibly irritating enemies (Jackals with beam rifles and Drones with plasma pistols- remember those?), and that stupid cliffhanger ending. That game, in my opinion, rates about an 85%.

HALO: CE, the game that started it all, rates about a 90%, as does HALO: Reach; HALO 4 rates in at about 93%, in my opinion, and HALO 3: ODST comes in at about an 89%. HALO Wars, which isn't an FPS game anyway and therefore cannot be compared with the others easily, ranks about at 75%.

Based on all of the above, I'm going to give HALO 5 a score of 94%- just a shade better than HALO 4. And I'm probably being generous.

Why? Well, because it could have been magnificent, brilliant, monumental, a true landmark in the history of FPS gaming. It could have been the game that took HALO 3's hallowed place as the greatest FPS ever- but it was let down, badly, by some very stupid mistakes that the developers made with respect to plot, character, and gameplay.

Don't get me wrong, I love this game. I'm having a blast going after all of the intel and skulls in my second run through it, even though this significantly slows down the gameplay. I love the new team-based features, particularly when playing the Blue Team missions- which are sadly way too few and far between.

But when I completed it the first time, I felt an almost nostalgic sense of regret. Part of that had to do with the fact that I now have to wait another three long years before finding out how this game will resolve that cliffhanger ending, and how the HALOverse's new arch-villain is going to be stopped by the Chief. Yet a lot of it also had to do with the fact that, as good as HALO 5: Guardians is- and it is fantastic in all of the places that it really needs to be- it still isn't as good as HALO 3, despite having so much talent and money being poured into it.

Put another way, if HALO 3 rates at 100%, HALO 5: Guardians absolutely should have rated in at 115%. But it didn't. It missed that mark by over 20 percentage points- and, again, I'm almost surely being very generous.

This game is still phenomenal. I love it, and I look forward to many, many more hours of playing through it again (and again, and again, and again), as I do with every HALO game. It just... isn't as good as I had expected it would be.

So what did you think of HALO 5: Guardians? Think I'm right? Completely and totally off-base? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Great review; absolutely on the point and no mincing of words what-so-ever.

    I personally -don't mind- the inclusion of Tanaka and Vale, or even a female Elite officer. But that line of how "progressive" the Arbiter was for letting women join the ranks was really jarring for me too. I couldn't help but think, "Why mention this? What's the point?" Is it to show SJW's how much of a "good guy" the Arbiter is? Any Halo fan who respects the franchise doesn't need this political BS.

    What about Sangheili men who aren't allowed to form relationships with their sons? Is the Arbiter addressing that, too, 343? What's that? You don't know? Yeah, didn't think so.

    I also have mixed feelings towards the story. It's hard to tell which direction 343 will go in and whether or not it'll be any good. Time will tell. I'm personally hoping they'll release an additional campaign before moving on to Halo 6 (like ODST, only an epilogue campaign instead of a prologue one) but it's unlikely.

    I think the drop in writing quality can attributed to Chris Schlerf, lead writer of Halo 4, leaving the team, and Brian Reed taking his place. Reed is a decent writer, generally, but he -did- write that Escalation arc with the Didact, so, uh... Yeah...

    I kind of wonder Ms. Ross has anything to do with that change. I'd like to think Schlerf left on his own, but that Bloomberg interview only made me suspicious of her motives, and I wouldn't put it past her to fire one writer and replace him with someone whose political values aligned with her own.

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    1. Any Halo fan who respects the franchise doesn't need this political BS.

      Quite right. And I would be very surprised if we are the only ones among the HALO Nation who reacted violently to that nonsense.

      It's hard to tell which direction 343 will go in and whether or not it'll be any good. Time will tell.

      I got an email asking me a similar question, and I think it could be interesting. The HALOverse is at a crossroads now, what with Cortana essentially becoming the new arch-villain(ess).

      If 343i does it right, the plot of the next game could easily be the most emotionally gripping and epic one ever seen in one of those games- I can totally see the Master Chief racing against time to stop Cortana from using the Guardians and activating the rings to punish those who resist her rule over the galaxy. And I can absolutely see a plot where Cortana's utter devotion to the Chief, and her inability to harm him, would result in a climactic showdown where Cortana has to choose between killing the Chief and achieving her goals.

      But if they do it wrong, they could potentially turn the greatest badass in gaming into a whiny crying emo butt-boy. At which point I would have to simply walk away from the franchise.

      I think the drop in writing quality can attributed to Chris Schlerf, lead writer of Halo 4, leaving the team, and Brian Reed taking his place.

      Could be. Certainly the writing for the Osiris missions was pretty lame, by historical standards. I thought the Blue Team missions were great, but then the Osiris missions came along and kind of disrupted the flow. And that ending... man, that annoyed me!

      I wouldn't put it past her to fire one writer and replace him with someone whose political values aligned with her own.

      Given what I know of Microsoft and of how thoroughly it has been infested by SJW types, that would not surprise me in the least.

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  2. I am disappointed that the whole cast of ODST save Buck has apparently been put out to pasture.

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    1. To be fair, the rest of that ODST drop team was discussed in HALO: New Blood- and none of the other characters are half as interesting or as popular as Gunny Buck is.

      What's interesting to me is the way that Buck's character has changed between H3:ODST and the latest game. In the former, he's a cranky, hardened drop trooper and a natural leader who somehow has to fight his way out of a complete goat rodeo. In the latter, he becomes almost the light-hearted foil for the straight-laced Locke. It's almost like they basically let Nathan Fillion play himself.

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  3. I haven't played Halo 5, but what you said regarding its ending resonates a lot.

    "2. Not ANOTHER Cliffhanger!
    I'm not going to say much about the ending of the game, other than to state that 343i clearly made the exact same mistake with this game that Bungie made with HALO 2. Namely, they ended the game with several major plot points and questions completely unresolved, and now we have to wait three years to find out WHAT. THE. FRACK. HAPPENED."

    I've just finished beating the first F.E.A.R. game over the weekend for about the 5th time. I love that game, probably one of my favorite FPS's of all time. The atmosphere, the gunplay, the story... all amazing. The ending would also have been perfect if not for the stupid, cliffhanger ending. The expansions did nothing to alleviate this and the sequels were crap. I get really tired of good games having a blatant sequel hook tacked on the end. There are ways to leave room for a sequel and cliffhangers like this are not the answer. I fear that this happens far more than it should and bothers me to no end. I am firmly convinced that the need to continue the story from the first F.E.A.R. game (in order to address its cliffhanger ending) ruined the entire franchise. This is a problem that needs to be fixed in video games.

    ReplyDelete

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