Juggling fan expectations for the Halo series must be incredibly tricky for 343 Industries. It’s not just that the newish Halo kids on the block have inherited a hell of a mantle from Bungie, it’s also that we fans expect that a Halo game’s campaign experience will be just as compelling as the multiplayer (unlike, say, the Battlefield series). For the most part, Bungie achieved this lofty balance with its Halo games, but after an impressive first shot at the sci-fi series with Halo 4, 343 Industries has fumbled with one of the most important parts of a Halo experience: the solo campaign.
In retrospect, I was probably more lenient on Halo 4 because it was the first game from 343 stepping into incredibly large Spartan boots, and it was towards the end of the Xbox 360’s cycle, which means that developers tend to push for graphical fidelity increases over gameplay improvements. Actually, that’s been a trend of the series, with the original Halo more noticeably open in approach than Halo 2. Despite the funnelling in Halo 4, 343 replaced the tiresome Flood threat from older Halo games with the deadly Prometheans, and it helped to balance out some of the weaker parts of the campaign.
To top it off, the new Halo developer had the stones to kill off a major character, and did so with the kind of reverence such a death deserved. It was exactly the kind of minerals 343 needed to exhibit for its first crack at the beloved franchise, but its second attempt leaves a lot to be desired. Let the ripping begin.
First and foremost, the campaign is short. I’m talking, six hours on normal difficulty by yourself. This is partly because it’s technically possible to make it through the game without dying. Of course, skilled players can pull this off on Normal difficulty without too much effort, but I was rushing through it under the misguided belief that I’d want to play through multiple times in co-op mode. It’s nigh impossible to die because when your shields and health hit zero, you fall into a third-person incapacitated state and can be revived by your teammates.
If those teammates are controlled by humans, it’s less of an issue. But when they’re controlled by the worst friendly AI the series has ever seen -- and that’s saying something -- it fast becomes a frustrating affair. They might revive you if you’re right next to them, but they’re unlikely to do so if you’re above or below them. They have major problems with pathfinding, and like brainwashed soldiers, they’ll run headlong into danger to obey your orders.
There’s very little nuance to the way a solo player, or the cooperative player who picks the team leader (when you’re shy of four human players), directs the friendly AI. D-pad down handles everything, which covers ordering AI allies to move to a point, attack a specific enemy, jump on a turret, or commandeer a vehicle. You can hit X when you’re incapacitated for them to attempt a revive, but it’s a coin toss as to whether they’ll actually make it to you.
Checkpoints are incredibly forgiving, so it’s not the end of the world, but the friendly AI mostly stands around doing nothing and only becomes sometimes useful if you need a revive. More often than not, they’re the ones in need of saving, and it distracts from the shooting at hand. I bumped the difficulty up to Heroic and played through the entirety of the campaign again with AusGamers contributor Joab Gilroy. Things were noticeably tougher than Normal difficulty, but there wasn’t a whole lot of fun to be had.
The biggest problem with Halo 5’s campaign is that it doesn’t feel like a Halo game. In prioritising 60fps above all else, upping the movement speed, and generally offering more options to boost and vault through the world, it doesn’t feel like Halo out of the gate. Throw aiming down sights (ADS) in the mix -- an option that I still find weird to use in the Halo space after more than 20 hours of playing -- and a lack of sandbox encounters, and this is the least Halo feeling game, to date.
As you may recall, the original Halo had the subtitle Combat Evolved. This wasn’t because it did anything particularly unique with shooting or movement; hell, it was riffing off the familiar shooter tropes of the time. The reason it had and earned the subtitle was because of its open approach to combat. Outside of certain corridors, it was mostly open-approach to how you dispatched the Covenant foes. Spaceship interiors had side paths to tackle combat encounters in different ways and, more importantly, when you hit the ground on the titular Halo, there was a lot of 360-degree possibilities, with vehicles sporadically thrown into the mix.
Halo 5 has very little of that. There are obvious vehicle missions and an open approach to combat extends as far as sporadic flanking options, usually by way of Spartan Charging an opening through an obviously marked wall. Still, the bulk of the game is funneling you, and when certain levels are little more than running to activate different conversations between cutscenes, the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired.
Then there’s the story or, more accurately, the lack of a story. The premise is that players jump between the perspectives of Spartan Locke and Master Chief / John / Sierra 117, each with their own three-person Spartan backup, as Chief tries to stay ahead of being hunted by Locke. They’re both seemingly hunting some sort of truth: Locke, as to whether Chief has gone rogue; and Sierra 117 as to the reality of a seemingly impossible truth.
I can’t tell you what that truth is without ruining things but, suffice it to say, it’s poorly executed, with Halo 5’s villain descending into cliché moustache-twirling villainy. And you never get to fight that villain, either. And the game ends like Halo 2 ended: that is to say, it doesn’t have a proper ending. Like the massive pile of steaming disappointment that was Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Halo 5 asks some big questions at the beginning and dedicates almost zero time to answering them before the credits roll.
Worse still, the villain could have been so much more. Instead, the credits might as well scream, “Tune in three years from now when we might provide some sort of answers to these big questions in Halo 6!” You get to play as Locke far more often than you play as Chief, which isn’t even that disappointing when you realise there’s fundamentally no difference between the teams. Their motivations are sloppy at best and, if you play it through more than once as I did, you start to notice bigger holes that open up in 343’s approach to storytelling.
If it wasn’t for the soundtrack and rare moments when combat actually opens up -- y’know, like a Halo game -- the campaign would be a complete waste of time and an insulting entry into canonised Halo lore. Hell, to add insult to injury, 343 goes all Batman: Arkham Asylum and makes you have the same boss fight multiple times over. In fact, it’s the only
boss fight you’ll have in the entire game, and the only way it mixes things up is by throwing more of the same boss at you in a single encounter.
For the first ground-up Halo game on the Xbox One, there’s very little to write home about in terms of the campaign, whether played solo (please don’t do that) or cooperatively (marginally better). Thankfully, the multiplayer goes a long way to repairing the damage of the campaign. Arena is the overarching banner for the kind of shooter modes that you take for granted, like team deathmatch and capture the flag. There’s also the new eSports contender called Breakout, which increases lethality and offers a single life to players per round.
There’s the option to capture a single flag in Breakout and return it to your base, and Counter-Strike-like grenades-from-spawn tactics pay dividends against unsuspecting players once you learn the layout. It’s fast and frantic and a great mode for hardcore Halo fans looking for a competitive match in a 4v4 scenario. Best of all, every multiplayer thing in Halo 5 takes advantage of Microsoft’s Azure dedicated servers in the best of ways.
Matchmaking is still handled in the traditional peer-to-peer way -- whether in 4v4 Arena modes or 12v12 Warzone -- but once there’s enough players, it transitions the match to a dedicated server. The result is silky-smooth multiplayer without having to worry about host transitions or laggy players ruining the experience.
Custom maps are the most fun if you’ve got a group of friends that want to play together in customised free-for-alls. For instance, I played a couple of rounds of 8-player free-for-all with low gravity, faster player movement, Active Camouflage (read: invisibility), full grenades and energy swords. It was some of the most random fun I’ve had in multiplayer gaming in a long time and everyone was laughing. All of this madness is replayable in Theater Mode, where recent matches are automatically saved, and it’s actually a viable way for learning the map layout and subsequent tactics without the threat of death.
Warzone comes in two forms: one which is 12v12 PvP, and the other which is 12v12 PvPvE. Playing Warzone is a bittersweet experience, partially because the open-design nature of the maps makes you long for more of that in the campaign. With the AI-controlled enemies in there, newer players are encouraged to sample PvP in the Halo universe because, instead of taking on human-controlled Spartans, players can take on environmental enemies and bosses for decent rewards.
It’s a clever inclusion by 343 Industries, and it could have been the crown in Halo 5’s multiplayer offering if it wasn’t for the Requisition system. As you play through a Warzone map, you earn individual Requisition energy that rises through various ranks which, in turn, allows you to equip deadlier weapons and bigger vehicles. In theory.
The problem is this solid idea of rewarding player dominance is hamstrung by a behind-the-scenes random-number-generator (RNG) that determines which weapons, buffs and vehicles you’ll have access to. Worse still, whenever you use one of these Requisition cards in a match of Warzone, it’s gone for good. You’ve still got the option to swap out your mid-to-close-range assault rifle for a mid-to-longer-range service rifle as many times as you want in a match (from rank three onwards), but that’s it.
Given that better weapons and vehicles are rarer than more common options, this is an issue because it rewards veterans who put in more time with the potential for greater swag, while holding back newer players with unlikely practical solutions for engaging, say, a tank at range. But that’s okay, says Halo 5: if you’re time poor or a newer player, you can fork out a few bucks to buy Requisition packs that might
give you better weapons and vehicles. Maybe. What a joke.
Considering there’s no ranked option for Warzone, which is at ends with how the various Arena modes are handled, it means you have no way of avoiding mixing greener players with time-rich veterans who have put in the time that stacks the odds in their favour for better armaments. You can sell dud cards (like the 20,000 unarmed Mongooses I have) for a small requisition return, but considering there’s no Big Team Slayer mode in the game right now, Warzone is the only way you can have a crack at bigger maps, more players and vehicles.
The good news is that Warzone can be saved. If enough players make noise about it, 343 Industries will be forced to rethink its approach to the randomised Requisition system. As it stands, the current approach is familiar to the gripes I had with Dirty Bomb
, in that it stops players from embracing their natural play styles by forcing people to grind or pay their way through a RNG system. Considering there’s very little sandboxing in the campaign, 343 really needs to provide some sort of way for players to get their actual Halo gameplay fix. As it stands at launch, it’s not there in Halo 5: Guardians.