Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Review: "Halo 5: Guardians" nails the fundamentals, but disappoints where it counts

Editor's Note: This review is written by Sean Chapman, co-host of The Weekly Stuff Podcast! Please join me in welcoming Sean as our first 'new' writer on the site! 

Making Halo 5: Guardians is an unenviable task. The expectations heaped on to developer 343 Industries’ shoulders by both Microsoft, who has been lagging behind in console sales, and the millions of intense, dedicated fans must be crushing. While Halo 4 was an overall strong title which proved 343 could take up the reins on Microsoft’s marquee franchise, a confusing plot and confused multiplayer – which haphazardly mashed design elements from the modern Call of Duty games onto a traditional Halo framework – left diehard fans like myself concerned about the future direction for the franchise. Ultimately, Halo 4’s multiplayer population largely died out within a handful of months. That means that Halo 5 still has a lot left to prove to ensure the franchises continued survival. Unfortunately, while nearly all of the misguided changes to the multiplayer that Halo 4 introduced are either gone or severely reworked, a barebones multiplayer suite and lackluster campaign means that once again 343 has made a Halo game which plays immaculately, yet is let down by its disappointing ancillary components.

Continue reading after the jump…

The simplest way to explain the gameplay is to say that Halo 5 plays like Halo, which is a high compliment in my book, but this time around there have been several meaningful changes to the basic movement options which do steadily push the franchise forward. Sprinting has been a thorn in Halo’s side ever since it became a requisite addition to any first-person shooter in a post-Call of Duty 4 world. Both Halo: Reach and Halo 4 implemented sprinting, but the implementation didn’t gel with Halo’s much more methodical pace in either instance. Here, the sprint mechanic finally works in concert with the overall combat design because of two factors: shields do not recharge when sprinting and players cannot perform a normal melee attack while sprinting. The former ensures that the sprint option no longer serves as the rapid get-out-of-jail-free card it was before, while the latter is part of a rather ingenious move by 343. One of the new moves the Spartans can perform in Halo 5 is called a “Spartan Charge” which is a longer animated, higher damage melee charge performed by melee-ing at full sprint. The move is flashy and satisfying, but instead of simply being an effective new tool in the Spartan arsenal, it is actually a balancing change in disguise. The Spartan Charge prevents a tactic which plagued the previous two Halo games where players would sprint up and rapidly melee opponents. The tactic was far more effective than it should have been and highly frustrating to come up against. In introducing this new move, 343 deftly satisfies players by actually making them less capable than they were in previous entries.

Also in this vein is the new “Smart Link” system, which is a narratively appropriate term for aiming down sights. Well, I say aiming down sights, but in truth the system is not especially different from traditional Halo. Obviously, weapons like the Battle Rifle or Sniper Rifle have always had their zoom modes, but now other non-scoped weapons like the Assault Rifle also have a small zoom. However, unlike the traditional aim-down-sights model, this confers no appreciable increase in weapon accuracy. The default control scheme even puts this on the left trigger as a gesture to the standard Call of Duty control scheme, but in practice this change feels like a placebo which will make players more used to Call of Duty happy while diehard Halo fans will likely ignore it.

Along with the sprint, other movement options include a short thrust a la Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare which is good for quickly ducking around a corner – a slide which has become somewhat ubiquitous in first person shooters over the last few years – and a “clamber” move which both allows Spartans to climb up ledges quickly and is very fun to say. Clamber. Outside of that, players are now capable of performing a short hover by aiming down sights while jumping and they can also perform a ground pound attack by charging a melee while hovering. These last two options, while interesting, are so situationally specific that several times while playing I forgot they were even available. Outside of these changes, the core Halo gameplay remains intact and is as satisfying as ever, but the expanded movement suite does effectively update what the player can do in a meaningful way. Unlike Halo 4, the changes made here cleverly modernize the series while never taking away from its core design elements.

In fact, some of that core design is sharper here than ever before. The weapon balance is superb, with melee, grenades, and guns having perhaps the best synergy this series has seen, and the controls are tight with a highly impressive, rock solid 60 frames-per-second which ensures that they are always responsive and fluid. Impressive graphical fidelity and industry-leading sound design fill out the package by keeping the action visually and aurally engaging at all times. In short, the mere act of playing Halo 5 is a complete joy and no criticism can take that away.

However, while that core gameplay is outstanding, it is what a game has you do with its mechanics which truly matters. It is unfortunately in this respect that Halo 5 falls short of greatness.
At launch, every aspect of the Halo 5 experience feels slim compared to its predecessors. The campaign is markedly shorter, clocking in at about six hours on Heroic difficulty played solo, and the multiplayer suite is heavily reduced in regards to multiplayer modes and maps. Compared to expectations set not only by the current market standard, but also the standard set by previous entries in the franchise such as Halo 3Halo 5 comes across as incredibly limited. How much this lack of variety affects an individual player’s experience depends on what kinds of modes they are interested in, but personally, the more time I spend with Halo 5 the more frustrated I am by the sheer lack of things to do. The multiplayer is weighted almost entirely towards Slayer and every map at launch is a small arena-type map. In fact, this is the first mainline Halo game to not feature any split-screen multiplayer, competitive or co-operative. 343 Industries justifies this exclusion by saying that they couldn’t get the game to run at the high benchmark they were aiming for in split-screen, a claim I am sympathetic towards, but in the end one time-honored and well-worn element of the Halo experience is missing. Personally, I have played through every Halo game on split-screen co-op with my brother, a tradition which sadly must now end. If one is only interested in playing Team Slayer matches online on small arena maps, then Halo 5 has that in spades, but any players interested in the wide variety of interesting and varied modes and ways to play from Halo’s history will come away very disappointed,
This lack of variety doesn’t exist only in the multiplayer, but the campaign mission design is similarly focused around smaller infantry engagements. Vehicle sections, which in past Halo titles served as a satisfying change of pace, are brief, heavily linear, and very rare throughout the short campaign. Nearly every level has the player move through a set of short linear hallways into a slightly larger area filled with enemies, kill those enemies, then proceed to another set of hallways, rinse and repeat. Occasionally the player will be given the most novel of video game tasks which is to defend a circular room until a certain number of waves of enemies has been defeated. Sometimes, it’s actually more than three waves, which really threw me for a loop. Okay, obviously plenty of good games can be boiled down in this reductive way, but Halo’s expansive sandbox has always allowed for interesting and varied missions which defied the rinse and repeat objectives the genre usually falls victim to. Most missions in past Halo games were constructed around a core conceit, which is an aspect almost uniformly missing from Halo 5. Missions like ‘The Silent Cartographer’ in the original Halo, which tasked players with freely moving around a small island to accomplish their objectives, were interesting and memorable because no other mission in the game looked or played the same. With the exception of the first two missions, the entire campaign in Halo 5 is distributed among three locations: a rocky planet, a desert planet, and a forest planet. And none of the missions have a unique structure, aesthetic, or theme to tie it together. This leaves the campaign feeling repetitive and tired by the end because there simply isn’t the kind of creativity on display here that Halo campaigns have always flourished with. The design repetition is at its most ludicrous during the multiple repeat encounters with the same boss. Halo 5 has only one boss enemy, and it is very unfortunate that he is not particularly fun to fight, because you have to fight him five times over the course of a six-hour campaign.

One way some games make up for repetitive design is by providing a compelling narrative which can push the player forward and create a feeling of novelty and urgency. Unfortunately, the story is where Halo 5 falls the flattest. As the Halo franchise has gone on, the stories have become steadily more convoluted as the lore and mythology has grown. Bungie clearly tried to head this off by deliberately setting their latter two entries, Halo 3: ODST and Halo Reach, in areas of the mythology which allowed them to tell smaller, more character-focused stories. 343 Industries has decided to go completely in the opposite direction, fully incorporating the extensive material covered in Halo novels, comic books, web series, etc. into an epic, galaxy-sprawling narrative. Halo 4 more or less managed to balance the obtuse plot by focusing heavily on the evolving character dynamic of the Master Chief and Cortana as Cortana descended into rampancy. However, while the character elements were elegantly handled, the larger mythology involving the Forerunners and Prometheans was baffling, as epitomized by the moment when Cortana refers to the new antagonist, the Didact, by name without ever learning his name in the first place. Halo 5 for the most part abandons all of the character material established in Halo 4, and instead leans even heavier into the deep series mythology until I – someone who has read several Halo novels – have no idea what anyone is really talking about for most of the game. Luckily, understanding the plot isn’t that important as not much happens over the course of the game.
The campaign is split between Master Chief’s Spartan-II Blue Team, and the new Team Osiris, led by this game’s primary protagonist the remarkably flat and stock-standard Spartan Locke. Nearly all of the campaign follows Spartan Locke and his team as they try to find the Master Chief who is off actually pushing the main plot forwards. This structure means that the story is left spinning its wheels for hours on end as Spartan Locke is forced to perform objectives irrelevant to the ongoing storyline. Halo 2 experimented somewhat unsuccessfully with a parallel plot structure featuring the Master Chief and the Arbiter, but Halo 5 has a remarkable perpendicular plot structure in which Master Chief is constantly pushing forward and Spartan Locke is stuck wandering aimlessly off at a 90-degree angle. All of this wheel-spinning ends the only way it could, with a non-ending similar to Halo 2’s infamous “finish the fight” scene, only without the intense narrative momentum that moment possessed, which leaves all the real narrative work for Halo 6.

The story is not simply bad, but astoundingly bad. The game introduces six new characters to fill out the teams and none of them, not even the recurring characters, get any real development. There is a moment in the final level where the villain taunts Team Osiris by picking at their individual insecurities, but since the characters are so poorly developed the moment becomes laughable as the player can’t be sure if anything the villain says actually resonates with the characters at all. Even Nathan Fillion’s character Buck scoffs at the villain as the best the writers can come up with for him, even with such a clich√© set-up, is that he’s older than the other character which, for all I know, might not even be true.
From the story to the mission design, Halo 5 reeks of a project which was severely hacked down from a much more ambitious outline. Odd non-combat missions are peppered throughout the campaign, which have Spartan Locke and crew wander around a small area and talk to one or two NPCs. The small amount of information gleaned in these scenes could easily be turned into a cutscene or beginning of mission radio chatter, but instead you briefly play through these vestigial remnants of a much more ambitious Halo campaign which might have used such sections to fully develop the characters and break up the pace of the campaign. Other undeveloped areas include the squad setup which the game does little with beyond a move here/attack this command and the ability for your AI teammates or co-op partners to revive you. The squad commands come across as a heavily pared down version of the lynchpin mechanic in the excellent Star Wars: Republic Commando, as Halo 5’s creative director worked on Republic Commando. If the mechanic had been developed more thoroughly or incorporated more of Republic Commado’s ability to set up specific roles for the squad members, perhaps it could’ve opened up the mission design more, but unfortunately the AI squad members never amount to anything interesting, story-wise or gameplay-wise.
It should be stressed that despite all of these criticisms, Halo 5’s core gameplay is so engaging that the campaign is still enjoyable to play through. The core gameplay loop that Halo has always enjoyed remains intact here, and defeating a group of Elites, Grunts, and Jackals is still tremendously fun. The new abilities like the Spartan Charge also open up interesting new tactical opportunities which simply didn’t exist in previous Halo games. But the lack of mission variety or interesting narratives makes a prospective second playthrough thoroughly unappealing. It doesn’t help that Halo 5’s campaign still heavily features the Promethean enemies introduced in Halo 4 which are simply not as interesting to fight against as the Covenant are.
These AI opponents don’t stay confined to the campaign this time around though. Halo 5’s big new multiplayer mode, Warzone, features two teams of 12 people each battling over bases to gain points. AI enemies, either Covenant or Promethean, occasionally spawn on the map with a large bounty of points for whichever team can defeat them. The mode obviously pulls these elements from the popular MOBA genre, but interestingly blends it with a more traditional Territories/Call of Duty Domination-style objective game type. This mode is also where the new REQ card system comes in, which allows players to spawn in with weapons or vehicles from one use cards acquired through packs purchasable with either in-game or real money. Warzone is a novel concept and is interesting to play if only because it’s currently the only multiplayer mode in Halo 5 to feature vehicles, but I personally find the large scale battles and random element introduced with the REQ cards to be too chaotic for my tastes. The mode fails to present clear, concise objectives to the player, so everyone is left to do their own thing. The matches also run especially long, topping out at around thirty minutes in length. Some players will certainly enjoy Warzone, but I simply haven’t been able to.
And that more or less rounds out what Halo 5 has to offer. The micro-transactions with the REQ packs means that 343 is committed to delivering map packs for free, and they have already said that Big Team Battle modes with new maps are coming in the future along with Forge, the in-game level editor introduced in Halo 3, which is dropping sometime in December. It is heartening to see that additional content is coming to Halo 5, because it so desperately needs it. As it stands now, something as basic for a Halo game as a custom multiplayer match with vehicles is impossible as there are simply no maps which support vehicles outside of Warzone. Other basic modes like Oddball, King of the Hill, and Assault are also mysteriously missing. The multiplayer component is so bare that of the five playlists available as of writing, only one of them, Breakout, does not feature some variation of Slayer. Highly customizable options in the multiplayer was one of the key features that allowed Halo 3 to have a strong, evolving community. The seemingly infinite options for customization allowed the community to drive that game forward and developer Bungie followed the community’s lead with subsequent content updates. With the state that Halo 5 is in at launch, a similar situation is simply impossible. For Halo 5 to become the game it needs to be, 343 Industries must follow up on its promise to update the game frequently with new maps and new modes. Free content updates aren’t a bonus here, they are an absolute necessity. But judging this package in its present condition, it’s impossible to describe the game as anything but spare.
It is a shame that Halo 5 has such an issue with the breadth of content available and the particulars of its campaign, because the core game has such huge potential. It is extremely rare to get a game as technically accomplished as Halo 5, but games are not built on graphics and mechanics alone. Halo 5 is a lesson in the importance of variety in gameplay. If the game is incapable of convincing the player that they are doing something different than just shooting things, either through story, clever mission design, or a variety of objectives, the player will realize that all they are doing is just shooting things over and over and over again. Obviously, all the player ever does in a first person shooter is shoot things over and over and over again, but the illusion of difference is enough to make the experience feel fresh. Right now, when I play Halo 5, all I can feel is the same routine of shooting things over and over and over again, and honestly, it’s getting pretty old.

Listen to our audio review of Halo 5: Guardians on the latest episode of The Weekly Stuff Podcast:

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