My relationship with the Halo games has always been akin to that of, say, a Kix cereal commercial: I question why people enjoy these games even though I don’t see what’s so special about them; people just say they’re really enjoyable, and so I just let them be while I eat my Reese’s Puffs. But now that I’ve finally obtained a vaguely respectable position as a freelance journalist in recent years that actually allows me to cover games beyond my usual spectrum, I thought it was time to actually dive into the latest (and potentially biggest) entry in the series, Halo 5: Guardians, and finally see what the Kix actually tastes like, having never sampled a Halo game myself. How was the taste? Well, let’s go to my thoughts on it…
1. The Plot Kind of Baffled Me
“You picked a great time to jump into the series!” said the PR man as I sent in the request for my review code. Yeah, that was kind of a lie right there. Halo 5 is still definitely built for veterans, from the lack of tutorials in notable places (more on that later) to the complete absence of explaining why anything in the plot matters. Nothing is said about why these characters matter, no big introductions are made, no recap about what’s happened in the past four games, no personalities get fleshed out, et cetera. For the longest time, the plot came off to me as “Wah wah wah wah wah wah Master Chief wah wah wah wah Cortana wah wah wah wah wah wah Nathan Fillion wah wah wah wah wah wait, holy crap, it’s The Arbiter, it’s the voice of Keith David and he’s as awesome as I’ve heard wah wah wah wah Osiris wah wah wah.”
But while the overall arc of the series is still a mystery in parts to me, I was able to piece together the basic plot of Guardians as I progressed. Basically, Master Chief gets contacted by what appears to be Cortana, disobeys a command in order to go after her, then Locke and his team are ordered to find Master Chief’s team and bring them back. Looking at it, I guess I should emphasize “basic” even more. I wasn’t exactly expecting the most exciting plot here, but not much happens, to be honest. And that whole Master Chief vs. Locke approach the trailers all focused on from the very beginning? Yeah, it happens at one point during a cutscene. Yeesh. And even though I don’t have a grasp of the overarching plot of the Halo series, all I kept thinking about after I had finished was how Guardians felt like the Iron Man 2 or Age of Ultron of the franchise: An entry that seemingly only exists to set up the plot for a much bigger, better story the next time around. This was pretty evident when I kept questioning if our main protagonists had actually achieved anything by the end. I could be wrong, but it seems like Master Chief and Locke could have just spent their whole time knocking back drinks on the bar of the Infinity and the final outcome of the story would be the exact same no matter what.
2. The Weapons Are Fun to Experiment With
Okay, despite not having any hands-on experience with the Halo games, there are at least more than a few terms from it that I know of. Among those are “Needler” and “Energy Sword,” two iconic weapons from the franchise that I finally got the chance to test drive. And oh boy, were they a delight indeed.
A lot of Guardians is still solid FPS gameplay, but props definitely have to given for what is a rather huge selection of weapons (at least what I could perceive). In fact, the only reason I hated the two-gun limit here is that it kept forcing me to discard kickass guns I was just getting used to because I wanted to try out what else they were tempting me with at that moment. Then again, I suppose if I were able to a carry over a dozen weapons at once including a one-hit kill sword, a futuristic Tommy gun, and what I’m pretty sure is a sniper rifle that shoots lasers, the entire game would have lasted about all of one hour with a trail of lizard corpses in my wake. It actually made me annoyed whenever the game tried to present me with conventional weaponry as opposed to the more alien stuff that definitely had more innovation put into it. An assault rifle? Don’t kid me, game. I’m going with the three-burst energy pistol that shoots homing bullets and you know it.
3. The Vehicles Really ARE Wonky
Yeah yeah, I can already sense the sarcasm being typed into your keyboard as you go “A Halo game with awkward-controlling vehicles?? Noooooo, REALLY??” Yes, I was aware of how this series hasn’t had the best luck with driving and flying since the earliest games. But I’ve experienced several first-person shooters that everyone said had wonky vehicle controls that I ended up getting used to (the Borderlands and Far Cry games, for example). Plus, I figured that with over a decade of advancement, clearly they must have improved things, right?
Yeah, things did not turn out well in the vehicle area. I suppose it could just be a lack of tutorials as mentioned earlier, but I had difficulty getting used to maneuvering here. There were some vehicles that I got used to quickly due to their simplicity, mainly the Ghost and the Mantis (can’t go wrong with a mech suit), but on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have stuff like the Scorpion. Seriously, screw the Scorpion. You would think driving a tank would be one of the game’s most exciting parts, but the damn thing is too clumsy to enjoy. And the fact that it ends up being prominently featured during one of the game’s final missions while under a constant barrage of fire didn’t exactly help either.
4. Okay, the Setpieces Are Impressive
What can I say? We may criticize games like these for their over-reliance on setpieces, but when they get it right, they can be quite the amazing spectacle indeed. In fact, I would actually say that the beginning of Mission 13 – which I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to spoil the experience, sorry – will probably wind up as one of my own personal best video game moments of 2015. Sure, other bits like taking down an entire spaceship at least twenty times larger than yours are nifty as well, but man, that one climbing segment…amazing. Truly, it was an amazing reward for playing the campaign all the way through up to that point, the way it should be, dammit – sorry, sorry, got off-topic there slightly. Of course, it probably helps that the game just has amazing graphics all around, which makes the more grandiose bits stand out even further. The more exotic locales are definitely some highlights, even if it’s just the various fauna decorating the area in between headshots.
5. Elevator Sections Are Still a Thing?
So the majority of combat in Halo 5 is built entirely on waves, I discovered. Defeat one group of enemies, a stronger one piles in (or shows up after you advance slightly), lather, rinse, repeat. It does get quite annoying towards the end (and level design isn’t exactly one of the game’s strong suits), but the one use of waves that stood out to me was during Mission 6, in which me and the other Spartans in my team found themselves in a full-on elevator section.
You remember elevator sections, right? Typically, they’re best remembered as a part of classic beat-’em-ups like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage. The elevator moves, and occasionally stops to let more punching bags join the party. And now here one is, plain as day in Guardians. I know it’s a weird thing to single out, and I’m not even saying it’s a bad part of the game, it’s just odd to see a trope like this played completely straight in a modern-day triple-A game. Loving homage, or lackluster levels? You make the call!
6. Master Chief Is Mostly AWOL
…And I just don’t mean as part of the plot. Out of fifteen missions in the entire game, only three of them are actually spent playing as Master Chief. The rest are spent playing as Locke and his Osiris team as they attempt to find MC. Yes, only a whole twenty percent of Halo 5 is spent playing as its signature character.
And looking back on that fact, I realize…I am cool with a setup like this.
Again, maybe it’s just because I have no prior attachments to these characters, but I fully appreciate any game like this that actually attempts to switch things up and give some other characters the attention they deserve as well. Like I said before, it doesn’t exactly work as well as it should given that there’s little character development to be found here, but I appreciate the effort anyway.
Plus, playing as Locke means you’re on the team with Nathan Fillion at your side 24/7. No way in hell will I argue with that.
7. The Boss Battle Is A Disappointment
No, that wasn’t a typo. That’s just a battle, singular. Or rather, one boss battle used multiple times over.
Okay, the elevator section was one thing, but why are video games today still reusing bosses like it was the early ’90s and they needed some palette swaps to pad out the game? Are we still subscribing to the Donkey Kong Country school of boss battle design? Did the time it took into creating the boss’ visuals eat into the budget or something? I mean yeah, he looks awesome, but was it really worth it if it meant less variety?
In fairness, the boss being reused is somewhat justified given the way the plot explains the character. But what isn’t justified is how insanely cheap he is, constantly being able to knock you out with one hit or draining your health down to a mere fraction, leaving you to either run for cover or wait for an ally to revive you.
The low point comes when you have to fight three copies of him all at once. Let’s do the math here: Three insta-kill bosses + three additional AI-controlled teammates who will charge right at them = one boned Spartan. Maybe you’d have better luck if were playing co-op, unlike me, but I didn’t have that luxury at the time. And in a particularly cruel move, I killed one of the copies just as the others had wiped out my teammates, and that’s when the the mid-boss checkpoint triggered. So for the longest time, I constantly had to respawn back at the moment where everybody got KOed, then prayed to god I could find a strategy that actually let me survive long enough until they recovered. Dick move, boys. Dick move.
8. Oh, and Multiplayer Is Cool, I Guess
I did indeed make sure to give multiplayer a whirl, namely the new Warzone mode Guradians introduces. Again, despite having no other experience with Halo’s legendary PvP matches, I quite enjoyed it, especially the way enemy NPCs were constantly being added to the fray to hunt down for points. Like the name suggests, it really does give things a bit of a warzone feel. Definitely a blast.
…Oh, you wanted more elaboration on multiplayer? Oh no no, my friend. You can’t just expect a game like this to constantly advertise how this is supposedly the biggest story yet for the series (it is at least larger than Halo 4, from what I hear), show us several trailers that emphasize the importance of the game’s plot, then just say that only the multiplayer matters. And let’s face it, it’s not like the multiplayer needs more coverage. I assume die-hard fans have already salivated over it this past week. Like I said, the multiplayer is a blast, but if you’re going to sell me on a game by emphasizing a game’s campaign mode, you had better bet that’s where I’m putting my focus. That said…
9. I Really Did Have Fun With Halo 5
Yes, I actually found Halo 5 to be quite enjoyable. Despite the many warts it might have that I’ve listed here, I found my first venture into the vast jungles of the Halo franchise to be a good one, leading to an overall fun FPS that may not break the mold, but can still be an amusing ride nonetheless. It didn’t necessarily make me into a full-blown fan (hell, I can probably name at least two dozen other games I’ve played this year that I’d rate higher), and I have heard from those who have played other games in the franchise that this is the most boring entry in the series, but as someone who’s a Halo newbie, I can say that Halo 5: Guardians is still a damn good experience indeed.
I should’ve known. Those damn Kix commercials always did end with the doubter eating the cereal…