Friday, April 22, 2016

Halo 5: Guardians review

Warning - this will contain some spoilers for Halo 5: Guardians.

    Halo Month at the United Federation of Charles comes to an extend not with a bang but a whimper. How do I put this in a way which shows my immense respect for the Halo franchise but doesn't lie to my audience? Hmm, that's a difficult question. This is a really well made game but I hate it. Really-really hate it.

    Now, actually, let me qualify that statement. I think it's a very well made game in terms of gameplay, graphics, and even the nature of the storytelling. It's just every single storytelling decision pisses me off. I had a similar situation with Charles Stross' The Jennifer Morgue in which the problem wasn't with the book but the fact, as a James Bond fan, every one of his decisions in the James Bond pastiche irritated the hell out of me.

Fire Team Osiris is the new heroes.
    If you are just looking to have fun shooting aliens then, well, go play any of the other games out there. I never got into the Gears of War franchise because of the militarism but I'd rather play it than the alternative. This is a very frustrating game for me to review because it's  a franchise I love and it's well made but the choices made are always dissonant with what I love about it.

    But I'll get to all of that.

    The premise is a series of earthquakes are rocking human colonies across the galaxy. Doctor Halsey, previously having defected to the Neo-Covenant after a failed assassination attempt by the UNSC, contacts her persecutors with a promise of information on them. After rescuing her, Spartan IV Fire Team Osiris is informed the person behind the earthquakes is a resurrected Cortana. Simultaneously, Master Chief and Blue Team receive a message from Cortana which lures them to a Forerunner world which she's taken over.

The gameplay is entirely adequate.
    I don't have a problem with reversing Cortana's death in Halo 4. As dramatic and touching as it was handled in said game, I felt leaving her dead would be a mistake. First of all, because she's an A.I. and that leaves a great deal more wiggle room than with a biological person. Second of all, because she's such an iconic part of the franchise. I do, however, severely dislike the way she's handled in the game.

    The Cortana of the games is a lovable playful hacker as well as the emotional heart of Master Chief's otherwise monotone military life. Transforming her into a cosmic dictator is equivalent to making Princess Peach, Zelda, or Lois Lane into the Big Bad. It's shocking, yes, but once the initial shock wears off you'll realize that's because it doesn't make any sense. The only way for it to happen is to disregard everything we know about the character.

Cortana is now wearing clothes.
    The number of retcons throughout this game is also annoying. At the end of Halo 3, humanity was a battered remnant of its former self. There were only 200 million human beings left on Earth and most of mankind's colonies were destroyed. The UNSC in Halo 5 acts like a galactic superpower when during the Covenant War, it was hopelessly outmatched in every single way, The game acts like humanity is the United States instead of a borderline failed state.

    The abuse of Halo lore goes beyond merely these retcons and actually extends to 343 Industries own characters. The Didact, a major character in the previous game, is barely given any mention. Jul'mdama, the leader of the Neo-Covenant, is killed off in the first mission. Doctor Halsey's rift with the UNSC is healed without issue despite numerous comics and books being devoted to it.

    The Janus Key, a major factor of Spartan Ops, has no role whatsoever in the story. Hell, a major part of the backstory of Halo 4 is the destruction of the Domain only for the Domain to appear undamaged as a major part of this story. What these artifacts do is less important than the fact they are created, destroyed, and remade as ideas strike 343 Industries. It's like destroying the One Ring in the The Fellowship of the Ring and then having it show up again in The Two Towers.

The Master Chief vs. Locke is a disappointment
    I'm also not a big fan of new character Locke as the co-protagonist. Locke seems like a likable enough character but he's not possessed of any real depth either. Even giving him Nathan Fillon and Laura Bailey to play off on as companions just highlights I'd rather be playing Laura Bailey or Nathan Fillon's characters. It's not Mike Cotter's fault as he's a great actor but the developers don't really have a strong character for him to work from.

    Gameplay-wise, Halo 5: Guardians is perfectly fine. The shooting is improved on from Halo 4 with equipment replaced with Spartan abilities. I didn't use many of them but the ability to climb onto items in the maps was one I enjoyed a great deal and added a surprising amount of verticality in combat. I'm not a big fan of the new Forerunner holographic and light-based guns, however, which become the chief weapon you'll come to use as robotic enemies replace Covenant ones for the majority of the game.

The Warden Eternal is fought way too many times.
    Perhaps the biggest change to gameplay is the fact you're always fighting with an A.I controlled team in single-player. This means, barring your character being disintegrated or falling into a hole, you'll usually be able to come back from the dead with their help. I didn't mind this but it made an already fairly easy game even easier. Solo-players may want to adjust their difficulty levels up one notch.

    The Forerunner robots are improved from Halo 4, though, with the addition of an Elite equivalent enemy to provide variation between the Sentinels and more powerful tank-like enemies. Halo 5 also adds a "Boss" enemy in the Warden Eternal who you face several times throughout the game. It was an enjoyable fight the first time but gets progressively less fun each battle due to the fact he's not all that interesting of a character nor does he change in his strategies.

Yeah, I feel the same way Cortana.
    I'm not one to bandy around the concept of fanfic lightly. I don't have anything against pastiches or continuing the story of other artists with your own spin. Halo 5, though, has a serious issue with keeping continuity with previous volumes of the game. It also changes, muddles, and restructures things from character development to world-building with no real attention to detail. Yes, also, it makes a character we love bad and you just don't do that and expect players to nod along. I don't want Cosmic Dictator Cortana any more than Cosmic Dictator Princess Leia--and I really don't want that.

    It's infuriating for those who actually care about Halo and leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth. The worst thing is they clearly know the lore by the amount of it in the game but choose to change it in order to facilitate their own vision. Then they change their own vision because they've thought of something cooler.

    As always, the multiplayer in the game isn't really why I'm here, though I understand from friends its golden. That's not going to help my deep and abiding antipathy for this game. I don't play games to turn off my brain and just experience the gameplay. I came to love the Halo universe, its characters, and its story. All of which get a raw deal here.


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