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Ryme of the Ancient Gamer: Halo 5

Posted on | December 3, 2015 | No Comments

In the Halo story-line there is a concept known as the “Mantle of Responsibility”. It involves the creators of the game’s titular ring, the one that has served as playing field for so much war and adventure involving the Master Chief. This race, known as the Forerunners, were created by an even older species who also devised the ancestors of Mankind called the Precoursers. When the time had come to choose a successor, to decide who would carry on sheparding all Life in the universe in their place, they called this obligation the Mantle of Responsibility.

Much like that ancient race, Bungie Studios, the creators of the original Halo, moved on from producing Halo games and gave another that Mantle of Responsibility. 343 Industries, a company created by Microsoft solely for this purpose, was given that obligation to carry on making games within the Haloverse.
They knew it was a big responsibility. An enormous one in fact. In the credits screen at the end of Halo 4 they flash a letter saying this, telling fans the hope they did a good job.

And did they? If you look at my previous review, you can see that their first effort was quite impressive. They carefully built on the story and game-play that came before, infusing it with an engrossing story line that played on the relationship between the Chief and Cortana. They fell prey to the well-known tendency of repetitive levels in Halo, but other than that…yes, it was good.

But did they keep up the quality in Halo 5?

Halo 4 Master Chief

Jameson Locke vs. The Master Chief. Has the Chief gone rogue? Will Locke stop him? Actually, it was pretty obvious none of the above.

Halo 5
There’s a term I’m rather fond of: the Sophomore Slump. It’s when a spectacular first effort is followed by something of lesser quality. It happens to writers, movie directors, and occasionally game studios.

343 Industries has fallen victim to this with their latest Halo release.

It is by no means a mark of failure; apart from Pixar in its early years there are few entities that can create hit after hit right out of the gate. But while Halo 4 was a brilliant first effort, Halo 5 unfortunately was not.

 

Plot

Story is king. That’s the favored rally cry of Pixar director John Lasseter. Since we sat as Cavemen around the communal fire and heard tales of gods and monsters, Humanity has been enraptured by a good narrative. However, after a strikingly good beginning the plotline of Halo 5 takes on a more rushed and less meaningful feeling. The pivot point for this was when Cortana made her return from the “dead” (as much as a computer program can resurrect, anyways). With the use of a few Forerunner plot devices she comes back, calling out for the Master Chief to come to her. However, therein lies the split: instead of letting him go, the Office of Naval Intelligence orders him to stand down and let another team (which you also get to play as during part of the game) to rescue her. Of course, the Chief ignores them and goes after her.

Now, this is of course disobeying orders, going AWOL, etc. But the trailers made a big deal about the Master Chief going rogue, to the point that the government claims he’s been killed in action rather than acknowledge is disobedience. This seemed strange to me, because is a discipline problem really worth declaring to the galaxy Mankind’s repeated savoir is dead?

Things went rapidly down-hill from there. Jameson Locke, a new character introduced in the television mini-series Halo: Nightfall, leading the team assigned to bring in the Chief, finally catches up with the Chief and calls him out. Well, more butts heads with him. And while they do fight it was very half-hearted. To be honest, it was more like an energetic scuffle (at best).

Then there’s Cortana’s role in the overarching plot. She’s trying to take over leftover Forerunner tech (Guardians, Prometheans, etc.) plus suborn Human AI’s from her new perch inside the ancient Forerunner computer network a.k.a. The Domain (how she got there is never adequately explained). During her last moments in Halo 4, with multiple copies of herself going through Rampancy, she wasn’t exactly a prime candidate for uploading into a galaxy-spanning alien Internet. Her instability in Halo 5 shows this, as does her deep desire to end war by putting ALL races under her thumb (whether the Chief likes it or not). It’s a serviceable idea, but I have to admit that Cortana has always been a beloved element of Halo for me. Having her go insane like this was tough to see. Of course that was probably part of it, to engender sadness in players by making her that way. But if they do want to use the well-worn theme of super-intelligent computer trying to enslave everyone, perhaps it could be one of her clones from the previous game? The original Cortana could be discovered elsewhere, less Rampant and willing to help fight her sister on the side of the Chief. To be honest, any candy-coating for this particular bitter pill would have been welcome.

 

Graphics

This was actually the first game I played on the Xbox One. The graphics were good, but not the quantum-leap forward I was expecting. There were indeed some moments of grandeur, such as the deep iridescence of molten lava flows while exploring beneath the crust of a planet, and the bright cathedral-like beauty I was surrounded with in the red rock canyons on the Sangelli home world.

But overall there didn’t seem to be anything that really stood out. Even some of the textures seemed lacking upon closer inspection, reminding me of the abysmal time I played Halo 2 for the first time with my HDTV.

I will say however that as with the previous Halo installment the character animation during the cutscenes was top-notch. Even though I was a fan of the first official live-action Halo movie, Forward Unto Dawn, I think that an animated film could easily be made solely using their own internal cinematic CGI division.

Game-play
After 27 years, the Halo franchise has hit a point where those who develop the game have most likely grown up playing it. It’s a “By the Gamers, for the Gamers” situation. They’ve probably played their fair-share of FPS, and one would expect for them to know how to build a good one.

One would expect.

But the problem that’s been inherent in the Master Chief’s chronicles (long before 343 came into the mix) was the tendency to have long, monotonous levels. It was especially apparent in the first installment of the series (trudging through the inner tunnels of the titular ring world).

To be fair, they did have their subtle methods of injecting excitement during dull periods, perhaps finding a new weapon to deal with the sudden appearance of a powerful enemy. But no matter the difficulty level, boredom would eventually set in. I will give them props for injecting a certain amount of RPG gameplay into one of the levels. It wasn’t anything nearly as complex as Mass Effect’s decision wheel (you hit “Y”. That’s it), but I will applaud their adding a “hunt for info” aspect.

But if I had to put a name to my chief complaint, the problem with Halo 5 wasn’t merely the repetition, but the infuriating blandness of the experience.

With access to enemies both new and old, it was easy to cycle a level’s antagonist from Covenant to Flood to Promethean. However with Cortana as the nemesis and being in charge of the various Forerunner installations, the most frequently encountered combatants were Promethean Knights. Now, it might just be me, but I’ve never liked fighting Promethean Knights. Sure, there are some interesting weapons to use, and there are several different species of them, but that didn’t help mitigate the annoyingness that is fighting a Promethean Knight to begin with. They don’t bleed like Covenant, nor do they even go “pop” like the Flood, and they have extra shields from hovering drones that always have to be killed first. But even then, to me, it’s like shooting a bunch of silverware stuck to a magnet that can shoot back. Seriously, there’s no satisfaction when you win against a fork.

And the Promethean levels, especially the ones you have to fight your way through to reach Cortana at one point, are beyond repetitive. As the gameplay takes place in the dark you don’t even get to enjoy the stainless-steel iridescence they show in daylight. The burnt-orange gleam of dying Knights and exploding Promethean grenades quickly became almost nauseating. Perhaps these levels were earmarked for arena play and were temporarily added to the campaign play, but even crawling with enemies the space felt too cavernous.

 

Ending

Because Halo 4 was stated as the first part of the new Halo Trilogy, an open-ended finale was expected, but it was open-ended to the point of being dissatisfying. Cortana gets away to continue with her scheme to save Humanity from itself, and as she escapes wishes the Master Chief could see things her way. Really it’s all pretty much boiler-plate Rampant AI/crazy meglomania talk. I will admit it’s a good intermission for the story, but for a game, it just didn’t feel like we’d hit a good place to stop

 

Conclusion

A friend of mine once told me that after Halo 3, he felt like the whole story was finished: Cortana and the Master Chief were on the Forward Unto Dawn in a sort of ex machina limbo, the Flood was defeated, the Prophets overthrown, and the Sanghelli (Elites) now Mankind’s allies. The saga still went on, only now through books and movies. When Halo 4 came out, I had my concerns, but 343 managed to create a good product within the Haloverse.

But this one…I’m not sure if it was maligning Cortana or having the Chief go rogue, perhaps it was the ungodly avalanche of Prometheans to fight and the unsatisfying ending, but Halo 5 is a game that fell very short of the mark. I’m glad I played it if only to have experienced one more chapter in the Halo saga, and I plan on playing the next installment, but if this had been the first Halo game I ever played, it also would have been the last.

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