No Halo effect: formerly groundbreaking video game loses some of its lustre
Halo 5: Guardians may have cost US$100 million to develop, but it hasn’t managed to solve the problems facing the first-person shooter genre in the age of e-sports
Halo 5: Guardians
Master Chief was first introduced to the world not by Microsoft but by Apple. In 1999, Steve Jobs paced the Macworld Conference stage proclaiming the video game footage he was about to show was the “coolest” he’d seen. The lights dimmed and Halo’s melancholic choral refrain sounded in the background. Chief padded on to the screen behind Jobs, a symbol of Apple’s nascent gaming ambitions.
It was not to be. Within a year, the space marine, the game and Bungie, the company behind it all, were sold to Microsoft. Two years later, Halo launched alongside Microsoft’s Xbox console, a piece of hardware that was seen as a folly from a company that had no business in video games. The game, Microsoft hoped, would legitimise the machine. It worked. The company has sold more than 65m Halo games, and almost as many Xbox consoles on which to play them.
Sixteen years later, Microsoft hopes Master Chief can repeat that trick with Halo 5. The Xbox One has lost considerable ground to Sony’s PlayStation 4, which is seen by many as the superior, cheaper and, in its vibrant sweep of games, more relevant machine. Master Chief routinely saves the universe. Can he save a beleaguered video game system?
It’s not the only question Halo’s current developer, 343 Industries (a company named after one of the series’ characters and which, until 2012, had only been allowed to remaster Bungie’s classic work) has been forced to reckon with. The console-based first-person shooter (FPS), which Halo both defined and popularised, has become some of the most valuable creative real estate in video games. Activision’s annual Call of Duty releases are among the most expensively marketed entertainment products ever made, and the genre-splicing Destiny is made by Bungie, a studio whose nous and skill neither time nor success have dulled. The competition is resolute.
The FPS scene is shifting too, with the rise of e-sports. No longer is a 10-hour storyline followed by a breezy multiplayer mode enough. The blockbuster shooter must have what it takes to become a competitive sport (or at least a corporate-sponsored simulacrum of one). The US$100 million Halo 5 now finds itself as the underdog.
Certainly, the game is vibrant and exquisitely rendered; its vistas vary from humming desert lands to rolling green hills, flecked with purple flowers and wind-beaten crags. But it’s clear that this is now a series playing catch-up, lifting ideas wholesale from rivals. Before you battled alongside a loose knit band of US marines – cheery cannon fodder, really. Now you roll with three computer-controlled space marines, dressed in similar suits to yours. They keep the airwaves thick with chatter (although you’ll be hard pushed to tell the identikit characters apart). More usefully, they are able to revive you if you fall in battle – providing they make it to you within five or so seconds. The system comes from Gears of War, where it’s better implemented. There you are able to crawl toward a comrade’s position in cover. Here you must weakly call for them to come to you, and hope that they survive the lingering seconds its takes to revive you while under fire.
Your handling has been tweaked. Master Chief’s familiar, arcing jumps have been quickened, no doubt to add speed to the competitive portion of the game, which Microsoft hopes will become a fixture on the e-sports scene. You can now ground-pound, like Super Mario, and dash forward with a volatile melee attack. One button is given over to an evasive dash (a little less stylish than Destiny’s equivalent slide, alas) while, your character can clamber, cat-like, on to ledges in a flowing motion. Fixed at 60 frames per second, graphical texture and detail has been sacrificed for speed of movement, another example of where the multiplayer portion of the game is, for the first time, leading Halo’s design philosophy.
Combat feels more brittle and like Call of Duty – a feeling heightened in the campaign by sections where control is wrested from the player to allow for a canned animation, or a short, unavoidable sequence when, for example, you are forced to fall from masonry onto a lower platform. Call of Duty’s funnelling approach to level design can also be seen here. There’s nothing like the first Halo’s seminal level, The Silent Cartographer, which gave us a rounded island on which to knock about freely. Only much later in the game do you enter wider spaces.
There are, meanwhile, only a few stand-out set pieces (an unexpected puzzle, midway through the game, hints at an alternative direction). In one, a multidirectional battle on the alien planet of Sanghelios, you fight alongside Halo 2’s Arbiter. In another, you must board a gigantic Covenant spider-like contraption, destroy it from the inside and escape before it falls into a ravine. These highlights call to mind some of Bungie’s best work, but there’s little here that is truly 343’s own. There is also a great deal of repetition and too often the designers fall back on identikit boss battles.
This suggests that the game, despite its development cost, is still a little undercooked. In one level you fight successive waves of enemies on a tarrying lift, while the main action, which is taking place elsewhere on the planet, is recounted to you over the radio. Another of the 15 story missions provides some welcome downtime in a Covenant outpost (you can now, in fact, talk to the monsters). A second stop off in the same location, ambitiously described as a “mission”, is perhaps one too many.
The action switches between two perspectives: that of Spartan Jameson Locke and his unit, Fireteam Osiris (with whom you spend the majority of the game), and Master Chief and his three companions in Blue Team. Both groups are chasing Cortana, the anthropomorphised AI woman who has accompanied Master Chief through the series as his adviser. Cortana, delightfully voiced by Jen Taylor, has been the motivating McGuffin in the last two Halo titles now (previously Master Chief needed to save her from rampancy, an AI’s version of Alzheimer’s; in Halo 5 she is, seemingly, the adversary).
Cortana is the go-to character for the series’ scriptwriters for good reason. She is the only character of memorable spirit. By contrast, you’d be hard pushed to tell the eight members of Osiris and Blue Team apart. Aside from the tint of their armour they are indistinguishable in motivation and personality. The much-touted conflict between the two protagonists is, in fact, a limp quarrel. Compared to, say Halo ODST’s clever, affecting tale, there is no fire in Halo 5’s narrative heart.
If the campaign feels like a competent if slightly dated expression of the blockbuster first-person shooter, the game’s multiplayer modes work much harder to disrupt the status quo. Arena Mode is the closest to the classic Halo multiplayer, with familiar modes such as Slayer, Team Slayer, Capture the Flag and Swat played across a variety of maps (including futuristic, Tron-like locations). You take two weapons into battle and new, more powerful guns spawn in the environment, dynamically creating scuffle hotspots.
Warzone, by contrast, is a marked departure, influenced in part by MOBA mechanics, threading together player v environment and player v player elements. You can choose to attack enemy players or computer-controlled bosses. Both approaches contribute points to your team’s total; there is no single way to win a match. ATM-like pods can be found in these matches, where you can cash in so-called Requisition cards to, say, request a certain weapon or vehicle. These cards are won in packs from reaching various milestones in the game (or can be purchased with real money). Each card has an attached in-match cost; you cannot simply request the most powerful gun at the start of a match – rather, you must wait until later in the game when you can afford this cost, a smart natural balancing mechanic. Warzone is a revelation in a competitive shooting game scene that has become rote and ordinary.
With so much at stake, Halo 5 needed to be a new perfection of old triumphs, or a landscape-altering revolution. In terms of its campaign it falls short of both of these ideals. Online, however, 343 has taken more significant risks, of the sort that first convinced Apple and Microsoft to place bets on the series. Warzone, in particular, is a kind of bold design that we almost never see in expensive FPS game-making any more. The next 12 months will reveal whether or not the wager will pay off.