Halo is an odd franchise, it really is. When you think about it, you can pretty much blame Halo for the first-person-shooter renaissance that pretty much defined the Xbox 360. Sure, the Call of Duty franchise defined the era, but Halo started it on the original Xbox. Yet, while Halo helped to start the renaissance, it was never really a part of it; it was never one of those franchises that published a new iteration every year with only slight “improvements” between each iteration. Now that Halo has jumped ship from Bungie to Studio 343, the big question is: does Halo 5 Guardians, the seventh game in the series, continue this trend?
Answer: sort of. And sadly that’s not necessarily a good thing.
In terms of gameplay, Halo has always been alright. It’s not too complex, not too simple; the controls are easy to pick up and once you’ve learned them there aren’t too many right turns, even when the game switches character. It’s always been that way, though, and it’s why a lot of people like Halo. Simple controls which allow for a varied player experience, meaning that each player can play a Halo game whatever way they want. And, to the development team’s credit, Halo 5 Guardians mostly continues this trend whilst also including certain new controls that makes the Halo experience more fun than ever. So, in terms of gameplay on a base level, Halo 5 Guardians is still alright. Just like it should be.
However – and for the life of me I can’t work out why – the development team has decided to flip the trigger controls, meaning that for long time players of the series, you’re going to struggle with muscle memory and more often than not end up throwing a grenade when you wanted to use the scope. It’s not something that will annoy people for too long, but for a series as long living as Halo, consistency is key, especially for oldies like me; you can’t change something like that this late in the game. It’s the same thing with the vehicles – controlling them is like trying to steer a three-wheeled shopping trolley while sitting in it, but that’s always been the case, and to change that now would just be wrong. Thank the Precursors controlling vehicles in Halo is still like steering a three-wheeled shopping trolley while sitting in it.
My main complaint about Halo 5 Guardians is the RPG elements that I think have been shoehorned into it – small ‘fetch quests’ here and there, conversations with faceless and undeveloped NPCs that would have worked much better as a cutscene. In an RPG, fetch quests and conversations with NPCs serve to develop the story and as an opportunity for a player to give their character experience or to get them better weapons, but in a game like Halo, where you don’t have experience points and weapons are found during missions, fetch quests are just padding that stretches out the game for a few minutes at best.
Speaking of RPGs, in terms of story, Halo 5 Guardians takes its cues from them. More specifically, it seems that the post-Covenant War setting of Halo 5 Guardians takes its cues from the Mass Effect trilogy in terms of tone and its narrative tropes. While this shift certainly opens up possibilities for further story developments, and I suppose was needed after the ending that Halo 3 (2007) gave us, ultimately I think something was lost with Halo’s original direction: a gritty view of war in the future. The old direction gave Halo a feeling that wasn’t replicated anywhere else, and it could just be me, but it seems that too much originality has been sacrificed in the name of “newness.”
Likewise, I’m really annoyed that Halo’s story has become almost impossible to follow if you’re not following the expanded universe. An expanded universe should be just that: an expanded universe of supplementary material that you can purchase if you’re interested enough. An expanded universe should not be required reading if you want to follow a series, which is, I think, the direction that Studio 343 is going with the Halo-verse. The whole thing stinks of money-grabbing and I don’t like it.
But let’s talk about Halo 5‘s campaign, shall we? To put it frankly, it’s too damn short. Halo games have never been particularly long but Halo 5 Guardians really takes the biscuit. I mean, it’s fun, sure, but I’m pretty sure I could finish Halo 5 Guardians between lunch and dinner, and in a world where video games can cost £50 new, that’s not a good thing, especially as there are no plans for a campaign DLC. I guess the online play may save it for some people, but for me, a campaign this short is unforgivable.
So the gameplay is alright and the story is so-so, but what about the voice acting? Well, If I’m going to be honest, I was apprehensive in regards to whether or not Master Chief would prove an interesting character without Jen Taylor‘s Cortana to counterpoint him. Stoicism with her sharp with, but once again Steve Downes managed to give an admirable performance by himself as the Master Chief, John 117. He doesn’t get as much time to himself, being that Halo 5 Guardians is much more of an ensemble piece than earlier games, but the times when it is just the chief, they don’t feel dull – probably thanks to the new teamwork dynamic introduced with this game.
Joining the cast as the enigmatic Spartan and former Office of Naval Intelligence agent Jameson Locke, Ike Amadi (of Mass Effect 3 fame). He gives an impressive performance, having taken over the role due to Mike Colter’s obligations to Marvel. Unlike the chief, Amadi’s Locke is almost jocular in his interaction with the members of his team and their artificial intelligence, 031 Exuberant Witness (played by actress Melanie Minichino, who makes her debut in the Halo franchise and gives a far better performance than Peter Dinklage or Nolan North did in Destiny). The differences between these these two performances, Amadi’s and Downes’, really helps to demonstrate the nature of the Halo franchise at this point. Downes, as the veteran of the series, represents a time where the storyline was a lot more pressing, where there wasn’t as much room for “fun”, where Amadi and his team represents a Halo that is a lot more lively. Where the Halo franchise is going is an ongoing question, but with a voice cast as strong as this one, we can be confident that in at least one respect it’s heading in the right direction.
It would be a crime to have a section of this review discussing voice acting without mentioning two very impressive returns to the series: veteran voice actor Keith David as the Sangheli Arbiter and Nathan Fillion as Edward Buck, now a Spartan IV and a member of Fireteam Osiris. To be brief, both actors give very impressive performances as their characters, and as a long time fan of both actors, I was very happy to see both characters return to the franchise. I’m disappointed Keith Szarabajka didn’t return as the Didact, but I guess a cameo didn’t fit the story.
If the voice acting is as good as ever then the same could be said about the art direction and graphics. There’s been a noticeable change in art direction with the Studio 343 era and the graphical improvements that come with a new gaming generation. It’s brighter, more dependent on light than the earlier games, and as with pretty much everything else in this game it’s very much a hit or miss situation. On the one hand, the new style works very well in updating Halo to the new generation – especially the scenes depicting planetside. But on the other hand, I think the change in design has robbed Halo 5 Guardians with the grittiness that was integral to the look of the earlier games. There were many times when playing that I wondered if I had in fact bought some sort of sub-game for Destiny or a First-Person-Shooter version of Mass Effect. The new look is certainly nice, don’t get me wrong, but no matter how you put it, aesthetically this is not Halo.
So, based on what I’ve said, you probably have the idea that I’m in two minds about Halo 5 Guardians, and you’d be right. That’s because, while on the whole I’m sceptical about the new direction the series is taking, at its core this is still a game in the Halo franchise, and that still means a fun experience. I’m apprehensive about Halo’s new direction, sure, but I think it’s important to remember that this is not Call of Duty, where each new game is an incremental change on the one that came before. This is still Halo, combat evolved on a new generation of Xbox consoles, and that’s all this odd franchise has ever promoted itself as.