Halo 5: Guardians Review

Title
Standard

Developer

343 Industries

Publisher

Microsoft Studios

Format

Xbox One

Released

27th October 2015

“What If You Miss?” “I…Wont?”

Halo 5: Guardians is a bit of mixed bag. To use a tired old football cliché, it’s a game of two halves. On second thought, let’s put that in more of a pseudo-Dickensian way – it’s the best of Halo games, it’s the worst of Halo games. Nah, that paraphrase just looks weird now that I’ve typed it out, let’s just go with a classic; it’s 50/50. Actually, forget all these cheesy turns of phrase, I’ll just spit it out; Halo 5‘s multiplayer is great, but the campaign is a big let-down. Happy now?

Wait, don’t go! Look, I know what you might be thinking, but please don’t scream “Un Forastero!” and reach for the torches and pitchforks quite just yet. Instead, allow me to lexically backpeddle for a bit as I try to put that blunt assessment across a tad more eloquently.

Halo 5: Guardians is an okay Halo game. It’s not bad, but it’s also not great. It exceeds expectations in some areas, but severely disappoints in others. Developer 343 Industries have pushed the gameplay of the fourteen-year-old Halo franchise forward in exciting new ways with this new title, but unfortunately in doing so seem to have dropped the (odd)ball on a whole host of other equally important issues.

Un-Locke-y

Master Chief

Don’t give me that look Chief, I’m just being honest. Hey, at least the multiplayer is still good, right?

Dichotomy and duality permeate every element of Halo 5: Guardians, and it’s in the campaign mode where these themes are given centre stage. The story picks up approximately eight months after the conclusion of Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops story (and shortly after the events of the Hunt the Truth podcast), and follows the exploits of two elite Spartan fireteams; Master Chief’s original Spartan-II Blue Team and Agent Locke’s new Spartan-IV Fireteam Osiris. A certain series of events come to pass, and Locke and co. are sent to apprehend Blue Team after they go AWOL…what could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

Okay, let’s bite the bullet and get the painful bit out of the way right now. Despite all the months of hype and build-up, prime time TV advertising slots and extensive (and surprisingly very good) social media campaigns, Halo 5‘s campaign is a deeply disappointing offering and the first major nadir of the series.

Considering the Halo franchise built its reputation largely on the strength of its story-driven campaigns, it’s a real shame then that Halo 5 has such an underwhelming one. The moment-to-moment gameplay is fine, and the presentation is top-notch, but ultimately a terrible script and overly linear level designs make Halo 5‘s campaign a feeble and shallow experience.

Initially, things start out on a very strong note. As you blast your way through the snowy Kamchatka cliffsides, it’s easy to see how 343’s revisions to the standard Halo formula work wonders in breathing new life into the series’ ageing systems. Gone are the Armour Abilities that granted extra abilities in Halo: Reach and Halo: 4, and in their place is a suite of new movement and combat controls that persist across campaign and multiplayer.

Known as Spartan Abilities, these new transplanted movement and combat mechanics enable players to tackle the series’ familiar first-person sci-fi shooting ranges with greatly improved skill, and a hell of a lot more style. The ability to sprint indefinitely, clamber up ledges, shoulder charge and ground pound à la Superman are all welcome new additions to your Spartan’s moveset, but specifically it’s boost and smart-link which steal the show.

Boost, as the name might unsurprisingly suggest, allows your Spartan to instantly shoot forwards in the direction of your left stick’s choosing.It’s basically a souped-up version of Halo 4‘s weedy Thruster Pack with a fractionally shorter cooldown. Though it may not sound like much on paper, these short accelerated bursts of movement irrevocably change the rhythm and pacing of traditional Halo combat for the better. Whether it’s to quickly dash to cover, dodge incoming grenade blasts or shoot towards an enemy for a snappy melee kill, using boost quickly becomes an essential part of how you navigate the battlefield. When deployed at the apex of a full speed jump, boosting also allows for increased verticality during engagements, allowing your Spartan to scale the environment with speed and aplomb. It’s speedy, snappy, and really quite brilliant.

Maybe even better than that though is the Smart-Link aiming system. Every weapon in Halo 5 can be now Smart-Linked (AKA aimed down sights) for increased accuracy – whether that weapon is an assault rifle, sniper rifle, or even a plasma sword (seriously, Smart-Link lets you make micro-adjustments to your sword lunges). It’s subtler in effect than the boost, but the ability to aim traditionally inaccurate and unwieldy automatic-fire weapons like the Assault Rifle, Covenant Plasma Rifle and Forerunner Suppressor with significantly improved accuracy across long distances greatly freshens up these previously less desirable weapons and makes them far more useful than they’ve ever been in the past. Additionally, when the aim button is pressed and held mid-air, your Spartan will activate stabilising jets which let you briefly hover in position above the ground for a few seconds to complete a tricky shot (or alternatively line up a cheeky ground pound below you). Unlike previous Halo titles, aiming is now mapped to the left trigger by default (like in Call of Duty or Destiny) and while it can take some time to adjust to this new setting, it quickly becomes second nature after only a few minutes of playing. In fact, it’s incredibly hard to imagine how you ever played the older games without Smart-Link and all the other new accoutrements at all. Truly, this is combat evolved.

Although the core gameplay of the series has been given some substantial new tweaks and improvements, the same care and attention to detail doesn’t appear to have been applied to the game’s script. Once you’ve shot your way through the first couple of levels, the threadbare nature of the plot becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Without a doubt, this is easily the weakest story in the mainstream Halo games to date. New characters are introduced with no backstory or motive, there’s hardly any significant character development at all from the start of the game to the end. Some characters have even had complete re-writes, making them hard to even recognise as the same person from when we last saw them in Halo 4. It’s jarring, strange, and very un-Halo like.

Perhaps one of the most egregious points about the campaign mode though is that it primarily focuses on Agent Locke and Fireteam Osiris, and not Chief and Blue Team. In spite of the false impression that Halo 5’s box art and marketing materials gave, this is essentially an Agent Locke game; the campaign has you playing as Locke and co. for a whopping 80% of the game, whilst Chief and his buddies are given just three paltry missions to shoot through. Considering the backlash that Bungie received for pulling a similar stunt in Halo 2 with the Arbiter, it just looks like 343 has learned absolutely nothing from the series’ past mistakes. Though a lot of players didn’t necessarily enjoy the Arbiter sections at the time, the Arbiter was undeniably an interesting new character; one who gradually develops alongside the player and shows meaningful character progression through the course of the game.

The same cannot be said for Locke. Already a boring character when he debuted in the awful Halo: Nightfall, I was actually looking forward to learning more about this secretive ONI deuteragonist and finding out what drives him to aggressively pursue the Master Chief. Incredibly, despite starring in twelve of the game’s fifteen missions, you learn absolutely nothing about Locke from the first trigger pull to the last. He has no personality, no charisma, and is completely unmemorable as a character.

Locke & Chief

Locke is a serviceable protagonist, but one utterly devoid of anything resembling a personality.

Though the other members of Fireteam Osiris help inject some much needed flavour and personality into the on-screen action (Nathan Fillion in particular does some sterling work as Buck, absolutely carrying the Osiris sections), Locke’s character remains a gaping hole in an already paper-thin script, in spite of Ike Amadi’s quality voice work. 343 undoubtedly have further plans for the character in future games, but for fuck’s sake, give Ike something – hell, anything – to work with next time. Master Chief is already one of the most bland video game characters out there as it is; his supporting cast need to be more interesting than he is, not less.

Ironically, while the game is very light on plot, it doesn’t bother to unpack some of the very lore-heavy information that actually is in the game for every player to understand. As a whole, the Halo 5‘s campaign is far too reliant on extra materials from the expanded universe of the books and comics. It offloads the responsibility to understand what’s going on and who these six brand new characters actually are (or why we should even care about them at all) to the player and makes little effort or explanation in the actual game itself to bring everyone up to speed. Which is a shame, as with the exception of Locke, these are some of the most interesting characters in the Halo universe – particularly Chief’s fellow Blue Team members, who are arguably far more intriguing than ol’ Johnny boy himself. Alas, they are simply included here to act as additional player surrogates, nothing more, nothing less.

Blue Team

Master Chief and Blue Team are relegated to a mere three of the fifteen total levels. Talk about out with the old and in with the new.

Playing the campaign co-operatively with other players naturally makes it easier to look past these narrative shortcomings and just concentrate on the great gunplay at hand. However, the lack of a dedicated matchmaking system for the campaign and no local splitscreen multiplayer option means that unless you have three other friends with their own seperate Xbones and copies of the game, you’ll be playing through it on your tod.

Which really isn’t the best way to experience things, because the accompanying Spartan AI leaves a lot to be desired. You see, your fellow computer-controlled Spartans are as ignorant as Monty Python Gumbys at best, and downright stubborn mutineers at worst. Commands can be issued to your computer-controlled teammates by looking at a point of interest/weapon/enemy and pressing up on the d-pad to get them to move there/pick that weapon up/target that enemy. It’s rudimentary stuff, and though tactically shallow it tends to work for the most part. I say ‘for the most part’ because unfortunately your AI teammates have a lot in common with the Xbox One’s Kinect sensor; they’re temperamental, finicky, and tend to struggle to understand even the most basic of instructions.

Typically, it’s when you need their help the most they’ll just flat out ignore your orders, dumbly standing still in a stationary stupor.

Or alternatively get stuck on pieces of the environment and start binking about like excited rabbits rather than help get fallen teammates back to their feet.

So much for ‘your team is your weapon’, your MJOLNIR-clad musketeers are consistently inconsistent variables you just have to oblige and babysit as you play. They’re serviceable companions when they want to play nice, but oh-so-infuriatingly irritating when they decide to go off – or more appropriately, into – the rails.

Whether you choose to play together with friends, or persevere with the computerised cretins solo, thankfully the high production values of the campaign do confer a slick layer of triple-A polish to the experience that helps to somewhat gloss over the flimsy script. Graphically, the series has never looked better, and a consistent 60fps framerate keeps the action buttery-smooth throughout. Of particular distinction is the excellent sound design; everything from the tiny tactile squeaks and strains of MJOLNIR armour to the thundering BOOM-ker-plunk-chick of Scorpion tank cannon fire has been meticulously recorded and mixed to perfection.

Perhaps most commendable of all are the inclusion of a few brief interactive combat-free sections. These small interstitial hub stages grant 343 further environmental storytelling opportunities outside of the usual FPS lens, and act as a really nice unexpected breath of fresh air to the player. Although these levels are very basic in design and execution – walk up to the indicated person/object of interest and hold X – they don’t outstay their welcome, and the chance to pause, interact and engage in dialogue with characters outside of your immediate squad lend the middle act of the campaign a more contemplative and immersive feel. These rudimentary yet promising sequences show a great deal of potential, and judging from Franchise Development Director Frank O’Connor’s recent comments about possibly exploring completely non-combat Halo experiences in future games, the ideas debuted here will hopefully be revisited and expanded upon in the series’ future in some shape or form.

As Halo 5 is a first-person shooter however, the fact that these combat-free sections are the most memorable standout sequences in the game speaks volumes about the quality of design throughout the rest of the campaign. For all the new technical and gameplay enhancements the game makes, Halo 5 never manages to match the same powerful stride of its predecessors, let alone outdo them. Crucially, it’s in terms of level design where Halo 5 feels particularly lacking. This campaign features some of the largest Spartan playgrounds yet seen in the series, but also some of the least interesting and memorable ones of the lot. Although the locations and set pieces impress in terms of sheer size and scale, they lack the sandbox magic that made the original Bungie trilogy of games zing with that potent combination of possibility and curiosity. Multiple paths can be discovered through each firezone, yes, but ultimately these tend to just offer hidden weapons or slightly different positions to shoot from, rather than offer up fundamentally different ways of tackling the level. There’s nothing here that’s comparable to the myraid ways you can bring down the first Scarab in Halo 3, or the freedom you have to plot your own course through Halo: CE‘s eponymous second level. The Halo campaigns have always been linear affairs, but Halo 5‘s feels the most restricting and one-way of them all.

This feeling of being funnelled down one specific way of playing isn’t helped by the way in which the game all too frequently wrests control away from players by taking key action sequences out of gameplay and putting them into cutscenes. Sure, the Halo games have always leant heavily on their cutscenes to deliver the bulk of their narrative, and there’s no denying that Halo 5‘s cineamatics are high-quality, beautifully rendered sequences in pretty much every regard. It’s just a shame then that they are used to interrupt the action with such frequency that they rapidly become tiresome, eye-rolling roadblocks to player involvement.

On top of that, when you actually are in control of the action, 343’s decision to overuse a recurring boss character feels particularly unwelcome. Boss fights have never been Halo‘s forte, but at least they’ve been sparingly used in the past. Not so here. This tedious antagonist plagues the second half of the campaign like a belligerent herpes infection, and has to be bested no less than seven times; each new repetition just as dull and uninteresting as the last. Forget search and destroy, this character’s prerogative is rinse and repeat.

Finally, as a parting insult to a plethora of injuries, the campaign comes to an abrupt halt with a poorly-executed cliffhanger of an ending. Again, have 343 learned nothing from their real-life forerunners? Fair enough, a sudden cut-off in the action like this is certainly an effective way of getting fans champing at the bit for the inevitable Halo 6, but for a developer of this pedigree, it’s just about the cheapest trick in the storytelling book to play. Delivered in context – at the end of a sluggish story that’s only just getting into gear during its final moments – this ending just comes off as weak, lazy and, quite frankly, insulting.

343 Ending Text

See you on Sangelios? Are you fucking kidding me?

Unlike Halo 2‘s divisive ending (which, for the record, I actually enjoyed), Halo 5‘s brutal severance simply feels unmerited, and nothing more than a cynical cop-out way for 343 to kick the olive-green can down the road for the next few years. Halo 5’s campaign looks, sounds and feels like a snazzy big budget production, and 343 unquestionably deserve credit for pushing the traditional gameplay of the series into brave new territory. That said, a superficial script and a monotonous, one-dimensional approach to level design greatly overshadow the campaign’s technical successes, and suggest that its creators have fallen out of touch with what makes a great Halo campaign. Sod Chief and the virtual reclamation; let’s hope that 343 can reclaim their own mantle of responsibility in time for Halo 6. Finish this fight…on a high?

I Need a Weapon. Please? Pretty Please?

Blue Multiplayer

Feeling blue after the campaign? Don’t be, the multiplayer is fantastic.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Luckily, it appears that the same rule apparently applies to space clouds too, as Halo 5‘s multiplayer suite goes a long way to pick up the slack of its campaign counterpart.

For a start, one of the major accomplishments of the multiplayer suite that you’ll notice right out of the gate is that everything actually works. Compared to the disastrous launch of last year’s Master Chief Collection, it’s certainly a very pleasant change, and great to see that the problems that riddled the team’s first Xbox One effort appear to have been rooted out and solved here. From day one, the matchmaking systems have been both speedy and fair, getting you into hard-fought battles faster than ever before.

Which is appropriate, as not only is this the fastest multiplayer experience in a Halo game to date, but also the most balanced one in recent years too. Halo 5 equalises the playing field by standardising Spartan Abilities for all players across all modes, so no player has any one particular movement advantage over anybody else. By the time the credits have rolled on Locke’s misadventures in the campaign, you’ll have had plenty of time to adapt to get to grips with the Spartan Abilities, but it’s only when you jump into the game’s competitive multiplayer modes that you’ll truly master them.

Although it might be painful for a Bungie-era Halo purist to hear, these new moves totally change up the pace of multiplayer. Thankfully, it’s a change that’s clearly for the better. Halo 5‘s Spartan Abilities provide players with a familiar yet refreshingly different-enough set of tools that make tackling both the maps and enemy players an absolute joy. To put it another way, this is the freshest multiplayer experience the series has boasted since the halcyon days of Halo 2.

While it can’t compete with the kinetic pace and balletic grace of Titanfall, Halo 5‘s multiplayer experience is still a lithe and limber beast in its own right. For a start, the maps feel less like traditional multiplayer map fare, and more like whacky sci-fi jungle gyms for you to scurry over and explore. They allow for all sorts of creative new approaches to playing, and there’s this really exciting newfound sense of freedom and improvisation deeply married to the moment-to-moment gameplay. Clambering and boosting allows cunning combatants to shortcut their way around the maps and get the drop on their enemies, while sprint and shoulder charge allow aggressive players to dominate in close-quarters clashes like space bulls in a sci-fi china shop.

Like special moves in a fighting game, these Spartan Abilities are powerful tools in the hands of a skilled player, but they are carefully balanced so as to never feel overpowered or unfair. For example, sprinting allows you to cover distances at a greater speed, but will negate your shield’s recharge ability until you return to walking pace. Sprinting while under fire, or running away from a firefight with depleted shields means you risk being picked off with just a single shot by another attacker. Smart-Linking enables greater firing accuracy at longer ranges, but comes with the caveat of a reduced aiming speed, so hip-firing weapons the old fashioned way tends to win the day at close range.

Perhaps the most evident case of fine-tuned balance can be observed in the aerial ground pound attack. A fully charged pound will instantly kill an enemy Spartan on contact, but executing the move comes with a number of costly risks. First, the move has to be charged for a few seconds mid-air, leaving your motionless Spartan completely exposed and an easy target for others to pick off. Secondly, if you miss your target and don’t get a clean kill, then the move’s recovery animation will leave you wide-open to a swift counterattack (usually delivered in the form of an assassination) from your intended victim. Just like a fighting game then, learning how to best utilise your abilities and how to string them together in different contexts is vital to success in Halo 5.

If the campaign is the training course, then Warzone and Arena are the exams, and oh boy, if only every exam could be as much fun as these two. Arena is the mode most in-line with traditional competitive Halo multiplayer experiences. Arena matches are all about seizing power weapons and using co-ordinated teamwork to control small tightly constructed maps. These maps are ranked four on four affairs that feel like claustrophobic rat runs, (if rat runs happened to be populated by armoured supersoldiers carrying ridiculously powerful ballistic and beam weaponry) though the recently added eight on eight fan favourite Big Team Battle mode helps to add a bit of much needed variety in terms of maps and gameplay.

Which is handy, as the selection of modes on offer in Arena is rather slim pickings indeed. You’re basically looking at just Team Arena (which houses Capture the Flag, Strongholds and other objective-focused modes), Slayer, Big Team Battle, Free-For-All, Breakout and SWAT. The new paintball inspired Breakout is a curious new addition, which plays out like a Halo version of Counter-Strike, yet it ultimately ends up feeling like a protracted, clumsier version of SWAT and, and will likely only appeal to the most hardcore of players and esports wanabees. Compared to the number of modes offered in previous games, Arena definitely feels a tad stingy at the time of writing, and the lack of dedicated unranked casual playlists to compliment the uber-competitive ones feels like a glaring omission on 343’s part. Nevertheless, for players who are of a competitive nature, an accurate skill-based matchmaking system means that you’re in for fair but close-fought battles with similarly adroit antagonists no matter which playlist you choose to play. Plus, extra modes are temporarily introduced every now and then as one-off weekend experiences for players to dip into and help spice things up a bit. Shotty Snipers anyone?

At the other end of the multiplayer spectrum is Warzone. This is pretty much the exact opposite of Arena in every single way. Billed as a large-scale ‘anything goes’ type of experience, Warzone is a non-ranked twelve on twelve battle which incorporates some choice MOBA influences into the already bustling mix.

Warzone is basically Big Team Battle, only on a much larger scale and played on much larger maps. At the start of a match, both teams spawn in at their bases, and have to clear out the occupying AI enemies (usually irritating Forerunner Crawlers) that are rushing out to meet them. Once that’s done, the battle then becomes a large scale version of Halo 4‘s Dominion/Call of Duty‘s Domination; players have to try and capture three control structures on the map to score points for their team. Extra points can also be accrued by killing enemy Spartans and taking out further AI characters that will periodically spawn into the map, with the biggest points bounties going to those players who manage to take down the difficult Legendary bosses. If a team manages to control all three control points at once, then the shielding on the enemy team’s base drops and the attackers can rush in to attack the core.

If that all sounds confusing don’t worry, the win conditions are really quite simple – the first team to accumulate 1000 points or destroy the enemy core wins; in other words, seize and hold the capture points and shoot the living daylights out of anyone and anything that isn’t on your team. But the beauty of Warzone is that rarely do matches play out in such a simple fashion. Each point capture and boss kill is a potential game-changer, and learning how to read the flow of the match and integrate this ongoing info into your personal strategy is vital. Is it better to play the long game and hold down two control points for a long, slow win or aggressively push to try and capture a third? Is it wiser to defend your core in close proximity when it’s under attack, or better to lock aggressors out of your base altogether by taking back a control point and maybe even make a heroic counter-attack in the process? In well-matched games, both teams will jostle for the lead right up to the last second, and questions like these can make or break the match. Put simply, Warzone is one of the most exciting and tactical multiplayer modes seen in a Halo game yet. Its a winning combination of surface simplicity and integral complexity that makes it the go-to mode to play in Halo 5. But…

REQ

Ta-da! Microtransactions! They finally did it!

…there’s a catch. If Warzone were Achilles, then the REQ system would be his eponymous heel. REQ is a microtransaction system 343 have implemented in Halo 5 to replace the previous loadout system of Halo 4. Primarily speaking, the REQ system controls how weapons and vehicles are distrubuted in Warzone matches. Here’s how it works. Players earn REQ points by playing matches and earning medals in multiplayer, which they can then exchange for REQ card packs – think FIFA card packs, only packed with guns and vehicles instead of overpaid prima donna crybabies. The cards in these packs can be used at REQ stations in Warzone matches to requisition (get it?) the equipment on that card for use in the current match. The cards come in three varieties – permanent unlocks (loadout weapons and their variants), one-use consumables (all vehicles and power weapons) and cosmetics (armour, helmets and gun skins).

To prevent players from just instantly spawning in with their best cards and dominating a Warzone match, REQ cards also come with an energy requirement. Energy is gradually earned as Warzone matches progress and players kill enemies and capture bases. Once a player has met the energy requirement for a REQ card, then they can call it in. It all sounds a bit faffy and complicated on paper, but in actual fact the process of calling in vehicles and weapons from REQ stations actually works pretty smoothly in game.

So what’s my beef then? Prior to the launch of Halo 5, I voiced a lot of concerns I had about how the system would be implemented in the finished game, and lamentably, most of them still stand. The REQ system is a frustrating obstacle that consistently impinges upon the player’s experience, and sets a worrying precedent for how future multiplayer modes in 343 titles are likely to be structured.

The big problem with the system is that it allows players to purchase REQ packs with their real world money. Or, to put it more accurately, the system is specifically designed to act as an arbitrary barrier between the player and the multiplayer equipment in an effort to get them to part with real cash. While it’s not directly a pay-to-win system, the REQ system has been implemented for an equally nefarious reason – to coerce players into spending money to avoid an unreasonably lengthy grinding process.

As all the cards from REQ packs are doled out at random, it can take players who don’t pay into the REQ system a ridiculous number of hours to unlock just the basic set of loadout weapons (let alone anything fancier) without spending money. Gold and Silver REQ packs guarantee two new cards for your collection, but as there’s no order or routine to how players move through the unlock system, more often than not your hard earned points just seem to get you more useless cosmetic tat. This is a significant disadvantage for a starting player, as although the starting Magnum and Assault Rifle combo is great for close to medium-range combat, these weapons simply can’t compete with the Battle Rifle and DMR at long-range on the huge Warzone maps. Players who don’t have access to these more specialised scoped weapons are consistently outgunned once both team’s energy levels get to the Level 3 mark.

Take my own absurdly long quest for a DMR as an example. Listed as one of the five basic weapon loadouts in the REQ menu, I naively assumed at the start of my first multiplayer match that I’d have my preferred long-range weapon of choice in my Spartan’s gauntlets in no time. Poor old Level 1 me, how hopelessly wrong you were.

DMR

40+ hours to unlock the basic loadout? Really?

After diligently saving up my points and clocking up 11 hours in Arena and 29 in Warzone (correct, I have no social life), I’ve only just got a DMR variant from one of my most recent pack openings. I’m sorry, but forty hours’ of playing just to unlock the basic weapons is absolutely ridiculous! Unless you’re regularly reaching into the digital wallet of yours, Halo 5 has no respect for your time in the slightest. When a task as simple as unlocking the loadout weapons (which only took playing a few matches in Halo 4 I might add) requires almost two entire days of playing time, it just comes off as hilariously out of touch with modern multiplayer design, and how the majority of people play multiplayer games today. Or, perhaps more cynically (and likely), maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe the system is designed to feel so random and uneven that spending money to get ahead on REQ packs looks like an increasingly tempting proposition. The Rolling Stones once sang, ” You can’t always get what you want”. Unfortunately in Halo 5‘s multiplayer, you can’t even get what you need. I feel you Mick, I can’t get no satisfaction either.

Using the REQ system as a crude sort of lucky dip bag to get new cosmetic items is harmless enough, but that’s because they are effectively meaningless freebies. Personally, once I’d finally unlocked most of the basic arsenal, I found that I just couldn’t care less what fancy-schmancy helmets the game decided to chuck my way anymore. That being said, even the way in which the REQ system doles out these cosmetic items at random completely removes any of the value and prestige that used to be associated with these items in previous Halo games.

Because all the multiplayer unlocks you get (save a few specific armour sets which are tied to achievements from The Master Chief Collection) come from the luck of the draw (and the depth of your wallet) it never feels like you’re actually earning any of the shiny new trinkets that land in your lap. The REQ system completely fails to capture that sense of pride you’d originally get from having to work hard at unlocking a flashy piece of armour in the old games, and strips all significance and meaning from the various bits and pieces you’re allocated from the packs.

If, for example, you came across an enemy player in Halo 3 who was rocking the Elite Ascetic helmet then you instantly knew two pieces of information about that player just from their appearance alone:

1. This player is handy with the Energy Sword, as this armour is unlocked by getting the ‘Steppin’ Razor’ achievement, which requires getting a triple-sword kill. I should keep my distance.

2. FUCKING RUN!

As anyone can earn any armour at any time with the REQ system, this interesting nuance of detail and player expression is completely lost in Halo 5. The outcome is that the ‘winnings’ of your REQ packs feel like nothing more than tawdry throwaways; each new armour unlock an empty worthless husk to add to your collection.

Perhaps I wouldn’t feel as strongly as I do about the REQ system and its randomised card nonsense if I hadn’t already played a version of Halo 5 that didn’t implement the card collecting REQ system whatsoever, and was a far better experience without them present. At EGX this year I got to try out the Halo 5 Warzone demo, in which every weapon and vehicle in the game was available for use from the off. No silly consumable cards were in play – the energy level requirements of each piece of equipment alone managed to keep the gameplay balanced – and it was absolutely fucking glorious.

In the Warzone taster I played, I was able to order up a Ghost, a Warthog, a Mantis, and a Phaeton all in the course of a single match (as could every other player), and it was a hell of a lot of fun. To recreate that same experience in the finished game today would require me to either shell out potentially hundreds of pounds on REQ packs to get the cards I need for those vehicles, or spend who knows how many more days of total play time in multiplayer to earn the necessary number of REQ points required to achieve the same ends. In other words, it’s going to be a very VERY long time before I’m going to be able to experience the same highs I felt during my first hands-on with the game.

To be fair, if implemented instead in a free-to-play game, the REQ system wouldn’t feel nefarious or gross in the slightest. In fact, in such a context, the system could arguably function as a considerate and reasonable method of mediating out new content to players at fair, reasonable costs. However, when used as the core backbone of a full price first party triple-A flagship of a game like Halo 5, it just feels completely out of place and greedy. 343 have forced a free-to-play payment scheme into a big budget game, and it’s to the detriment of an otherwise excellent multiplayer suite.

Wake Me…When You Get Another Master Chief Card, Yeah?

Osiris

That’s all folks. See you in 3-5 years for Halo 6: The Search for Locke’s Character.

So, how to conclude this ridiculously long train of thought (one that legitimately started off as an attempt to write something shorter – my bad)? If you’re a long-time fan of the franchise, or solely interested in multiplayer, then Halo 5: Guardians is still well worth your time, despite the game’s many failings. Though the campaign marks the first significant stumble of the 343 era, the multiplayer is perhaps the best iteration of the system in any Halo game to date, in spite of the heinous REQ system. Plus, while the campaign will always be painfully mediocre, the multiplayer will potentially get even better with age, given the free map updates and other new content 343 are going be periodically rolling out over the coming months. It’s a flawed and fractured package, yes, but when considered as a whole, Halo 5‘s positives manage to just about outweigh its negatives. Just.

Given the general consensus of the game from the big names and publications of the gaming world, I’m sure that 343 will take on-board the concerns of its critics to eventually deliver a Halo 6 that excels on both the campaign and multiplayer fronts. Just please 343, don’t make us all another promise like ‘Hunt the Truth’ if you know you can’t keep it.

Pros

Cons

+ Excellent gameplay

– Disappointing campaign

+ Fantastic multiplayer suite

– No campaign matchmaking or casual multiplayer playlists

+ Ongoing free multiplayer maps

– REQ pack microtransactions do not belong in a full price retail game

Five Things from the Expanded Halo Universe That You Probably Don’t Need to Know for Halo 5

Chief Helmet
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Time sure does fly when you’re having fun. Conversely, I’ve found that it tends to drag a bit when you do nothing but stare at the Xbox One’s marketplace screen for hours on end, salivating in anticipation of that glorious moment when the Halo 5: Guardians game tile finally appears in the new releases section. As the old adage goes, a watched kettle never boils, and the same idea is true for digital games. Well, not literally I suppose, what with kettles and boiling water and how not checking the download never…okay fine, it’s a bad analogy. The point is, with only a few hours left to go before the release of Halo 5: Guardians, hype levels for the new game are through the roof. Well, through my roof anyway, and let me tell you, these roofing bills are fucking expensive.

To pass the time between roof repairs and eye watering sessions of endless screen staring, I’ve been gradually getting my Halo fix via alternative means. Namely, I’ve been catching up on a variety of exciting goings-on in the Halo universe by reading a bunch of the latest books and comics that have hit digital and physical store shelves. You see, being a bookworm bastardo, one of the things I particularly love about the Halo franchise is how it has gradually spawned a detailed and rich expanded fictional universe that massively enriches the basic narrative told within the confines of the games. While the main plot of the series is usually experienced from behind the familiar golden visor of the Master Chief, in my opinion the best stories of the Halo universe are instead explored from the eyes, cameras and tentacles (seriously) of the far more interesting characters (sorry Chief) encountered in the books.

While it’s understandable that the cerebral storylines of the novels wouldn’t really work at the breakneck pacing the games require, I sometimes feel that it’s a bit of a shame that the more unique character-driven stories of the Halo universe are relegated to the comics and books, a place where the majority of fans won’t experience them. That’s not to knock those mediums at all (hell, I’ve been lapping them up like a thirsty Unggoy for years since they first started), but for a series that’s first and foremost a video game franchise, it’s hardly surprising that a large part of the game’s fanbase just simply aren’t going to want to go and trawl through all this extra narrative material to get clued up on the Covenant, Crawlers and carbines. Oh, those sweet, sweet carbines.

Halo Books

You thought speedrunning the Halo games was tough? Try speedreading your way through this lot (with all skulls on).

Hell, it’s certainly not what you might consider a bit of light reading; alongside the six core Halo games, there are currently twenty novels, eight comic series, a podcast radio play, a collection of anime shorts, two live action TV series and a plethora of online ARG sites. Bearing this sheer quantity of material in mind, perhaps the most impressive thing about all of these expanded extras is that they’re all officially canon. With the exception of one delightfully daft Dragonball Z-esque episode of Halo Legends, everything in the expanded universe is written and designed specifically to be officially canon with respect to the story and events told in the games. Pretty impressive for a series that’s been going strong for the last fourteen years and counting huh?

So just why exactly am I prattling on about the Halo expanded universe here? Well, since 343 Industries inherited the Halo mantle from original creators Bungie, they’ve notably tried to cross over more of the giant lore library of the expanded universe into the realm of the games. While this is a very cool thing for a total square like me who’s thumbed their way through years of supplementary lore materials, it’s not always clear to the average Halo fan who’s not even read this wealth of extra materials just what exactly is going on at times.

This was a common complaint voiced by fans after the release of 2012’s Halo 4. That game’s inclusion of a significant chunk of supplementary plot material from outside the core games rankled with a number of players, and looking back at the game now, it’s easy to see why. At times, it can feel like the game expects players to be well read up on the developments that have taken place in the intervening years between the events of Halo 3 and 4, and doesn’t ever really pause long enough to bring those who are unfamiliar with said events up to speed. While this approach certainly made for a thrilling and streamlined gameplay experience, narratively speaking it meant that a lot of important but nerdy details were left out, and many players were left in the dark.

So, to butcher some time before the arrival of Halo 5, I thought I’d momentarily tear my bloodshot eyes away from the TV screen and repeatedly thump my head against this keyboard a bit to put together five daft pointers about the expanded Halo universe. Who knows, a few of them may even to be slightly useful as background context for the new game…maybe.

Specifically, I’m going to be looking at tidbits of info that aren’t covered in particular detail in the games themselves, or are otherwise just plain skipped over in the interest of time; small nuggets of knowledge that might just suggestively tickle away at your swollen curiosity glands in-between bouts of gunfire, grenades and ground pounds. It goes without saying then that I’m going to be discussing a fair few spoilers (a pretty major one right from the off in fact) so consider this your official klaxon-sounding SPOILER WARNING!

Knight Screaming

In case you missed the last one, SPOILER WARNING! AGAIN!

Still with me? Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, it’s time to put down those BR85 Heavy Barrel Service Rifles and let me lore you to death. Speaking of which…

  1. The Didact is Dead…Probably

Didact Death

Look, I did warn you that the first one was going to be a biggie, so don’t give me that look. Remember that big bad Forerunner overlord dude from Halo 4? The nasty six-fingered fellow with telekinetic abilities who commands a synthesised robotic army and is packing some mean-looking incisors to boot? Well, he’s as dead as a digitalised dodo. At least, I think he is anyway – allow me to explain.

Although we see the alien antagonist plummet into the ominous orange eddies of The Composer in the finale of Halo 4, his ‘death’ actually occurs in the comic Halo: Escalation Volume 2. As the title suggests, ‘The Next 72 Hours’ is a three-part story arc that takes place immediately after the climactic events of Halo 4’s campaign. Master Chief and his fellow Blue Team compatriots – Fred-104, Kelly-087 and Linda-058 – are deployed to Installation 03 to investigate the sudden loss of communication from a science team working under the supervision of Black Team (the same specialist ONI Spartan team encountered in Halo: Blood Line as a matter of fact).

The Blue Team buddies arrive on the scene to find that things have gone just a tad pear-shaped at the unresponsive science camp. The scientists are dead, Black Team are dead, and the place is crawling with enough Promethean pests to warrant a prolonged visit from Rentokil. What a cracking start eh? Shortly after defeating their attackers, Blue Team then discovers a structure known as The Composer’s Abyss, which houses a slipspace portal to The Composer’s Forge, the original resting site of the deadly weapon the Didact used to try and digitise the Earth’s population.

Going through the Portal to the Forge, John comes face to face with the dastardly Didact once again. You see, it turns out that after falling through The Composer’s portal, the Didact was warped to Installation 03, where he’s eventually encountered by the rather puzzled Spartan Black Team. Being the cheerful chappie he is, the Didact proceeds to tear apart the Spartans and scientists, and is currently in the process of repairing Installation 03 to use it against humankind, the slimy bugger.

Being purveyors of righteousness and whatnot, Blue Team leap into action and try to stop him. However, they are easily overpowered by the Didact’s Jedi-like mind powers and reactive armour, which gradually becomes immune to their basic ballistic weapons. Despite putting up a valiant fight, the mighty Blue Team are thrashed.

Just when things are looking pretty grim for Johnny and the blues though, the monitor of The Composer’s Abyss, 859 Static Carillon, joins the fray. This little orb is downright appalled at the Didact’s procurement of Prometheans (apparently vaporising humans to twist them into monstrous robotic killing machines is a bit of a Forerunner no-no – who’d have thought?) and in a moment of rage, teleports the Didact away before he can deliver the killing blows. However, being a bit of a dingbat, Static has only gone and sent the Didact to Installation 03’s control room – exactly where he needs to be to fire the ring. D’oh!

While the rest of Blue Team return to their Longsword fighter, Chief gets Static to teleport him up to the ring to try to stop the Didact. Mocking the now unarmed Spartan, the Didact asks how Chief has any hope of stopping him in combat, to which Chief states he can’t; he lets gravity do the job for him instead. Ejecting the ring’s control platform, Chief and the Didact hurtle back down towards The Composer’s Forge. While Chief is safely teleported to Blue Team’s Longsword at the last second, the Didact isn’t so lucky; the final shot we see of the fearsome Forerunner is of him bellowing out a final Darth Vader-like “Noooooooooooooooooooo!” as he digitally dissolves into the Forge. Ouch.

While this certainly looks like quite a painful way to go, it’s not exactly a confirmation that the Didact is 100% dead and gone. In a debriefing to Admiral Hood back on Earth, Chief considers the Didact a ‘contained’ rather than eliminated threat, so it’s not clear whether he’s actually dead, or just trapped somewhere in the matrices of the Forerunner Domain. Only time will tell I suppose. Whether or not the Didact makes another comeback in Halo 5 or future titles is yet to be seen. But if he does, one thing’s for certain – he’s going to need a heck of a lot of after sun lotion to cool off after his digital dunking.

2. The Spirit of Fire is Still Lost in Space

Spirit of Fire

The massively underrated Halo Wars by Ensemble Studios was not only one of the few examples of a real-time strategy game done well on a home console, but also a really good Halo story in its own right. Instead of shooting your way through alien hordes from the first-person perspective of a MJOLNIR armour suit, Halo Wars zooms the camera way back to a third-person overview and lets you call the shots from above as a UNSC commander. You’re still shooting your way through Covenant and Flood, just mixing things up a bit.

With regard to the game’s story, there’s some very intriguing plot threads that are suggestively left dangling by the time the credits roll – ones that may have much bigger repercussions in Halo 5. Here’s the condensed record of events. Taking place twenty years before Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo Wars‘ story follows Captain James Cutter and the crew of the Spirit of Fire, who are sent to investigate a Covenant excavation operation on Harvest, the first human planet to be attacked in the human-Covenant war (as detailed in Halo: Contact Harvest). Touching down on the glassed planet’s north pole, the UNSC discovers that a Covenant fleet (under the command of the brutal Arbiter Ripa ‘Moramee) are sticking their jaws, beaks and tentacles into places where they shouldn’t – namely into a fancy schmancy Forerunner relic site.

Clearing out the Covenant forces at the structure, the human ground forces move in and discover a giant interstellar map. Fearing the worst – that the Covenant have acquired the location of Forerunner weapon cache – the Spirit of Fire goes in hot pursuit of the alien fleet, tracking them first to Arcadia, before eventually intercepting them inside a hidden Forerunner shield world (similar to the Requiem planet in Halo 4). Within this giant safe-like planet, things quickly go from bad to worse; it turns out that the Covenant are in the process of reactivating a massive fleet of ancient Forerunner warships. To put it lightly, if they succeed in getting them operational, it’s pretty much game over for the human race.

Realising their only hope is to play the dog in the manger card – if we can’t have the Forerunner ships, no one can – The Spirit of Fire sacrifices its FTL drive as a rudimentary bomb to destroy the entire planet and its deadly cargo. The Spirit of Fire escapes the exploding planet using some clever gravitational slingshot manoeuvres…but without her FTL drive, the ship is stranded way out in the vast darkness of uncharted space. With no means of returning home, the crew solemnly enter cryosleep one last time, and prepares for a potentially very long nap.

Hang on a second – what the hell has this got to do with the books and comics you might ask? Well, as it turns out, quite a bit actually. In Halo: Escalation Volume 1, we learn that James Cutter’s son, Daniel Clayton, isn’t all too happy about the fact that Admiral Hood and the UNSC have basically declared the Spirit of Fire as lost with all hands. Not too happy at all.

Joining up with the New Colonial Alliance, an insurrectionist anti-UNSC militia, Clayton tries to strike back at Hood in 2558 by attacking a post-war peace summit between the Sangheili and Jiralhanae on Ealen IV. Thanks to the efforts of Commander Palmer and her Spartan IVs, the NCA are unsuccessful at taking out Hood and further souring relations between the Brutes and the Elites, but Clayton is quick to push a counter-offensive by sending the UNSC Infinity a Trojan space horse of sorts. Intercepting a distress signal from the Pilgrim’s Pride, a damaged freighter with faint life signs and a rapidly venting atmosphere, the UNSC pick it up only to find the core is rigged to blow with explosives. Just brilliant right? Fireteam Majestic board the Pride, and eject the core to prevent the Infinity being blitzed. Afterwards, it’s established that the assault ships deployed from the wounded freighter during the attack came from a certain vessel called the Spirit of Fire – which leads Hood to realise who’s behind the attack, and why.

Cue obligatory flashback scene. In command of the Roman Blue during the events of Halo Wars, Hood (at this point in time just a Navy Captain) is tasked with retrieving the Spirit of Fire’s log buoy after the battle of Arcadia. Encountering a Covenant fleet enroute to the buoy, Hood disobeys orders to not engage the enemy and attacks them out of wounded pride. Though he emerges victorious from the battle, it’s at a great cost. Having sustained heavy damage, The Roman Blue has to abandon its search for the Spirit of Fire, effectively dooming the ship and her crew to the inky blackness of space. Whoops.

Tracking the assault ships back to a Covenant space station hidden in the asteroid belt of Oth Lodon, the UNSC Infinity engages Clayton’s forces, but takes an absolute battering from the station’s plasma cannon. Just when it looks like lights out for Hood and the Infinity, Clayton’s plans are foiled once again by Commander Palmer and her Spartan IVs, who lead a booster frame assault on the station to do what they do best – kick ass and take many, many names. Though he’s ultimately captured and detained in the Midnight Facility (the Halo universe’s equivalent of Guantanamo bay), Clayton swears revenge on Hood, boasting that he’ll meet again when the UNSC finally crumbles. Oh Danny boy, the cells, the cells are calling…

For all we know, the UNSC Spirit of Fire is still out there drifting away in the cold black void of space – and if the final few panels of the comic are to be trusted, there might be a few unwanted stowaways lurking on-board as well. Whether it turns up during the events of Halo 5, Halo Wars 2 or beyond, who knows, but whoever eventually finds it may be in for a very unpleasant surprise.

  1. Master Chief is Potentially a Reborn Version of the Iso-Didact

Chief Evolution

Greg Bear’s Forerunner Trilogy is an excellent read if you want to learn more about the mysterious Forerunner race that is at the heart of Halo‘s many mysteries. Set millennia before the events of the first game, the books chart the fall of the mighty Forerunner civilisation to the greasy, corrupting tentacles of The Flood. Over the course of the trilogy, some very provocative questions are raised in the reader’s mind, ones that are likely to have far-reaching implications for the Master Chief in particular.

There’s an awful lot of info to cover on this topic, but I’ll try to give you the whistle-stop tour. The Forerunner Trilogy is told primarily through the eyes of Bornstellar-Makes-Eternal-Lasting, a young Forerunner Builder (think an alien Luke Skywalker, only one who designs fancy buildings as opposed to working on a moisture farm) who is reluctant to go into the family business so to speak, and instead yearns for adventure and to learn more about the Precursors (the Forerunner’s fabled forebears…still following me?)

Sneaking aboard supply transport headed for Erde-Tyrene (AKA Planet Earth) under the direction of his ancilla (a Forerunner AI), Bornstellar eventually meets the Didact (popular guy huh?) who after awakening him from his Cryptum (the same big orange and black ball thing we see in Halo 4) imprints his consciousness, memories and genetic markers on the young Manipular. I’m glossing over a lot of details for simplicity’s sake here, but this basically turns Bornstellar into a second copy or clone of the original Didact if you will.

To cut a very long story short, from this point onwards two versions of the Didact exist in the Halo universe – the Ur-Didact and the Iso-Didact. The Ur-Didact is the big human-hating bastardo who players encounter in Halo 4 and the one digitised in Escalation Volume 2, whilst the Iso-Didact is the pro-human version responsible for activating the Halo array and whose last communications to The Librarian you can read in the hidden terminals of Halo 3.

So how does this all tie back to the Master Chief? Because it’s strongly hinted at throughout the Forerunner trilogy and other sources that John-117 is actually a reincarnated version of the Iso-Didact. Cool right? Here’s why.

One of the key pieces of evidence for this theory is linked to how 343 Guilty Spark, monitor of Installation of 04, interacts with Master Chief after he almost fires the ring in the ‘Two Betrayals’ level of Halo: Combat Evolved. When Chief asks whether 343 already knew the ring’s true purpose – to wipe out all life in the galaxy – Guilty Spark is absolutely baffled:

“…You already knew that. I mean, how couldn’t you? We have followed outbreak procedure to the letter. You were with me each step of the way as we managed this crisis. Why would you hesitate to do what you have already done? Last time you asked me: “If it were my choice, would I do it?” Having had considerable time to ponder your query, my answer has not changed: There is no choice. We must activate the ring.”

Out of context, this all sounds like nonsensical gibberish. However, there are answers to be found in the musty pages of the books. It’s revealed in the Forerunner Saga that 343 Guilty Spark used to be the proto-human Chakas, who befriended Bornstellar back on Erde-Tyrene all those millennia ago. Midway through their galactic gallivanting, Chakas becomes mortally wounded, so Bornstellar (the Iso-Didact at this point) transfers Chakas’ consciousness over to a monitor unit to save him. Eventually, the duo find themselves in the unenviable position of having to fire the Halo rings in a last ditch effort to stop The Flood. Moments prior to firing the Halo array, the Iso-Didact asks 343 this:

“Were it your choice, could you fire the Halo array?”

Why is this line important? Because it gives vital new context to 343’s confusing utterances on ‘Two Betrayals’. In other words, 343 Guilty Spark recognises Master Chief as Bornstellar/Iso-Didact, and is utterly confused why his friend has no apparent knowledge of the weapon system he has already fired years and years ago.

Need more evidence? You got it. In Halo 4, the theory that Chief is the Iso-Didact is further supported when Chief encounters a vision of The Librarian, the Didact’s wife and the main Forerunner Lifeworker responsible for curating and studying all life in the galaxy. Shortly before catalysing the mysterious geas (the Forerunner word for a latent genetic command) hidden in Chief’s genetic makeup, The Librarian reveals some rather interesting secrets indeed:

“Reclaimer, when I indexed mankind for repopulation, I hid seeds from the Didact. Seeds which would lead to an eventuality. Your physical evolution. Your combat skin. Even your ancilla, Cortana. You are the culmination of a thousand lifetimes of planning.”

This revelation, taken with 343’s recognition of Master Chief as Bornstellar in Halo: Combat Evolved strongly suggests that Chief is indeed a human reincarnation of the ancient Forerunner Warrior-servant known as the Iso-Didact. Fascinating stuff huh? Although all this is just unconfirmed conjecture at this point, my personal assumption is that whatever latent genetic properties that the Librarian activates in John will undoubtedly have some major bearing on his journey. Whether we’ll get more information on the Chief’s genealogy in Halo 5 or a future game remains to be seen, and while I don’t think we’ll ever get a look under that olive-green helmet of elusiveness, here’s to hoping we get further info on his mysterious heritage sometime soon.

  1. Halsey now has both halves of the Janus Key

Janus Key

Though Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops was a tedious and uninspired attempt at bringing new post-launch story content to the game, one aspect of the package that couldn’t be faulted was the fantastic quality of the pre-mission cutscenes by Axis Animation.

These weekly cutscenes from the Glaswegian studio were easily the best thing about Spartan Ops, and while the missions that followed them were often just the same hackneyed shooting galleries ripped straight from the singleplayer campaign, the pre-episode shorts told an interesting brand new and exciting story, taking place six months after the events of the main campaign.

The second batch of Spartan Ops cutscenes were where the story got particularly interesting though, with the final episodes of the season depicting an exciting clash between Commander Palmer’s Fireteam Majestic and Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant splinter faction – the fallout of which could have a big influence on Halo 5‘s narrative.

To recap, Spartan Ops ends on the ominous note that Halsey has defected to ‘Mdama’s legion and wants revenge on the UNSC. After she’s nearly assassinated by Palmer, and loses her arm to the stray bullet, it’s kind of hard to argue with her logic. Halo: Escalation Volume 3 picks up shortly after Spartan Ops’ story, and shows how Halsey is actually going about the process of enacting her revenge by reuniting both halves of the Janus Key.

What is the Janus Key, and why is it important? Well, the Janus Key provides the real time location of every piece of Forerunner technology in the galaxy, and was gifted to Halsey on Requiem by The Librarian. She instructed Halsey to take the key to a place called the Absolute Record, and use what she finds there to elevate humanity. That’s before she was shot by a fellow human however, so now it looks like she’s going to use whatever might be there for the purposes of crippling humanity rather than progressing them. Bummer.

Now working alongside ‘Mdama as his brainy second in command, Halsey lures the UNSC Infinity to the Planet Oban, where she remotely tampers with the UNSC Infinity’s engines (using some fancy-schamncy Forerunner tech, natch) to prevent them making a slipspace jump away. Descending to the planet’s surface to determine the cause of the interference, the idiotic Dr. Henry Glassman discovers what he thinks might be the Forerunner artefact messing up the Infinity’s engines, and requests to have his half of the Janus Key brought down to him. What he doesn’t know is that the artefact is actually a fake planted by Halsey to dupe Glassman into bringing his half of the Janus Key out into the open, so it’s ripe for the taking. Needless to say, it’s not long before Glassman’s half inevitably falls into the paws/claws of ‘Mdama, and no thanks to Palmer cocking up her Halsey assassination attempt number two, the two conspirators escape.

The story arc ends with Halsey and ‘Mdama reuniting the two halves of the key, and finally acquiring the location of The Absolute Record, a suppository of Forerunner tech and goodies that really shouldn’t belong in the hands of a mad scientist with a thirst for revenge. Shitting crikey, that really can’t be good – perhaps Master Chief will have something to say about her change of heart in the very, very near future.

5. Master Chief has a Bit of a Crush on Linda-058

Linda-058Okay, so this is a bit of a daft one to finish on, but what the heck. It’s subtly hinted at several times in Halo: First Strike that John is romantically interested in his fellow bootcamp buddy, Spartan Linda-058. As Linda is part of Chief’s Blue Team unit in Halo 5: Guardians, this should give them plenty of time to get to know each other way better.

Considered to be the galaxy’s best shot with a sniper rifle, Chief reckons Linda is by far the strongest and most independent of all the Spartan IIs. Praise indeed from one of the most efficient killers in the UNSC.

First Strike only has a few subtle clues about these two – a tender embrace here, a lingering glance there – but there’s enough references throughout the novel to suggest that John and Linda have a bond that’s perhaps just a teeny bit more intimate than the typical Spartan camaraderie.

As these are sexually repressed supersoldiers bred for war we’re talking about here, I doubt we’ll see a blossoming Rule 34 fan-fic romance play out between the two characters on our consoles, whether we like it or not. So while the Halo equivalent of Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher coupling probably isn’t on the cards any time soon, it’ll be interesting to see if this tantalising narrative thread will be picked up in the Halo 5 script.

Anyway, that’s enough background noise from me – enjoy Halo 5, and I’ll see you on the other side Spartans. Kick a Guardian in the face for me yeah?

EGX 2015 – Halo 5: Guardians, Warzone Multiplayer

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Hands-on with Halo 5‘s Massive New Multiplayer Mode

Going to EGX is both an exciting and daunting proposition. On one hand, it’s a great opportunity for a regular punter like myself to be able to get hands-on access to the brand new shiny games shown off earlier at E3 and Gamescom. On the other, because you’re attending as Joe Public, what sounds like a fun-filled day of non-stop gaming action on paper is actually more like an eternity of queuing, pocketed by evanescent moments of virtual escapism. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an exciting place to be, but boy is it exhausting on the pins.

Aside from the expected physical aches and pains, operating as an individual blogger at an enormous expo like this can also be quite a mental strain as well. From the second you set foot inside, it’s easy to quickly feel way out of your depth; everywhere you look there are these big professional teams of hip, young trendy YouTube personalities going about with their own personal harem of cameramen, boom-wielding sound engineers and lighting technicians that document every second of their time there. It’s a bit intimidating to say the least, particularly when all you’ve got for company during your hours of queuing are a notebook, camera and a half-eaten tuna sandwich – oh joy.

EGX 2015

However, such is the life of a solitary blogger, and despite this whingey and pessimistic pre-amble, I actually had a very enjoyable few days of checking out all that’s new and exciting in the gaming realm. EGX 2015 was held at Birmingham’s NEC as opposed to last year’s venue London’s Earls Court (which sadly is due to be demolished like a set piece in a Call of Duty campaign), and although the NEC itself felt like a rather bland backdrop for a video game convention, the important thing is that a lot of the games on show were well worth the long queues to play.

One such game that is very worthy of your attention if you like sci-fi first-person shooters is 343 Industries’ Halo 5: Guardians. My verdict? To paraphrase the all-consuming Gravemind, “There is much talk, and I have listened, through rock and metal and time. Now I shall talk, and you shall listen”. In other words, get a cup of tea, get comfortable, and I shall regale ye rotten with my thoughts on Halo 5‘s multiplayer.

Or to cut a long story short, yeah it’s pretty good (does the Ocelot gun gesture).

The Art of War…Zone

Halo 5 Xbox One

Like many other Xbox owners around the world, my fetish for seeing men and women in bulky combat armour clank into each other on virtual battlefields only intensifies with each new release in the Halo series. So, to indulge my insatiable desire for steamy power armour on flesh action, I headed straight to the big green Microsoft stand after getting my entry wristband to join the already massive queue for their marquee title.

Three hours of queuing (and heavy excited breathing) later (all the while enduring the dopey antics of some of the most punchable dudebros I’ve ever come across), I was finally able to pick up a controller and get stuck in to a 20-25 minute Warzone match on the ‘Escape from A.R.C.’ map. Before we get into the nitty-gritty details however, let’s back up for a second and go over the basics.

As already indicated by the title of this post, the mode 343 had on offer for the Halo-hungry hordes attending EGX was Warzone. This is the new large-scale competitive multiplayer mode debuting with Halo 5 which pits two teams of twelve players in a head to head (or more appropriately, helmet to helmet) battle of attrition, but with the added twist of also fighting off malicious mobs of AI attackers. 343 have playfully dubbed the mode as ‘Player Vs. Player Vs. Everything’.

Warzone is basically a riff on the familiar Big Team Battle mode from the previous Halos mixed with the point capturing of Halo 4’s Dominion and some choice MOBA elements that put an interesting new spin on the series’ traditional multiplayer formula. If the use of the word MOBA makes your stomach churn in panic, don’t worry – Warzone’s objectives are simple. The first team to 1000 points wins; points are earned for killing enemy players, killing enemy AI characters and capturing and holding target zones on the map.

See, nice and easy right? Having said that, there is a very cool twist to Warzone, and it’s here that the MOBA influence comes into play (Don’t panic, this is straightforward too, I promise). If one team simultaneously controls all the zones on a map, then the opposing team’s power core will be exposed back at their base, leaving it wide open for an attack. If the power core is destroyed with, say, a cheeky proton torpedo or two (read: plasma grenades), then that counts as an instant win for the attacking team, irrelevant of the current points total – yippie-ki-yay motherfucker indeed. It takes a lot of hard work and close co-ordination with your teammates to pull off a successful core detonation, but the sweet reward of a decisive on-the-spot victory makes all those gallons of blood, sweat and tears worth it.

Laptop

The culmination of all these different gameplay ideas working together results in a multiplayer mode that feels consistently exhilarating, regardless of whether you’re trouncing the opposition, or being completely dominated. There’s always hope of a last-minute comeback victory for the losers, but also the ever-present danger of defeat for the winners at any moment, which serves to keep both teams on their toes right to the very last second of the match.

Okay, so that’s the theory of Warzone out of the way – let’s crack on with the practical.

Spring Cleaning

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At the start of a Warzone match, both teams have to first clear out the pesky AI Forerunner squatters that have taken up residence in their respective bases. With the stern yet dulcet tones of Jennifer Hale’s Sarah Palmer in my headphones, my Red team chums and I drop into our base via Pelican dropship and prepare to fuck up some ferrous Forerunner ass.

These starting enemies mainly comprise the canine-like Forerunner Crawlers first introduced in Halo 4, but there were a few of the new Armiger enemy types amongst their number too. Sadly I completely missed this early engagement with the Armigers as I had to readjust my settings to invert my aiming and look controls, so I can’t really say much about how these new enemies operate as they were all wiped out by the time I properly joined the fray. From what I could see though, the Armigers appear to operate as a sort of much-needed intermediary enemy in the Forerunner ranks – stronger than the Crawlers, but weaker than the Knights.

With our base secured and free from enslaved human robots, the next few minutes see our team slowly wander out into the map to butt heads with Blue team and try to capture zones along the way. It’s all pretty low-key stuff at this early stage in the game; snipers volley short-range pistol shots at each other across the glinting metal rooftops, run-and-gun attackers clutch assault rifles and zig-zag across the dusty open ground from cover to cover, and explosive indoor corridor jousts flare up wherever the two sides meet.

It’s at this point that Halo 5‘s Spartan abilities really come into play and give you some interesting new map traversal options to experiment with. In particular, the new Spartan Boost ability that transforms what previously would otherwise be a rather dull and tired part of the Halo multiplayer experience – commuting across the large distances on foot to get to the action – into a high-speed adrenaline rush. Take a running leap off a platform and hit your thrusters mid-air and your Spartan is temporarily soaring through the air round the map like a bird. An ungraceful man-sized metallic bird with an assault rifle in its hands (or should that be talons?), but a bird nonetheless. Used in conjunction with the also new wall-clambering ability and the capability to indefinitely sprint (finally), it’s easy to achieve moments of kinetic (no, not that kinetic) grace as you swoop and soar your way across the map’s sandy orange dunes.

Aisle Shot

As both teams settle into the to-and-fro rhythm of capturing and defending zones, the interior spaces of these structures inexorably play host to the most intense firefights of the match. It’s here where the true benefits of the Spartan abilities come to the fore, as players clash in a crackling blur of extinguished shields and smoky thruster trails, a lightning-fast ballet of quick fingers and even quicker wits. The ability to hover mid-air, clamber up ledges and deal out deadly ground pounds give players access to a whole new vertical library of punishment, transforming a basic indoor scrap into a ridiculously exciting pressure cooker of claustrophobic indoor chaos.

In particular, mastering the nuances of the Boost ability in a close-quarters combat situation proves essential to survival. Learning when to rocket forwards to rapidly close distances and deal out crunching melee hits, or backdash with a reverse boost to escape a hail of bullets or the thundering blast of a grenade are vital manoeuvres to commit to muscle memory. With regard to the latter point, it’s hard to get an accurate feel of just how Halo 5‘s pineapples are balanced in this current pre-release build of the game, but they seem to pack a bigger wallop compared to the frag grenades of old, presumably as a means to compensate for players’ increased manoeuvrability.

Interestingly, as a final point on the zone capturing, whenever you move in to capture an enemy-controlled structure, a small readout on the HUD appears to let you know how many enemies are still occupying the building. This small detail is fantastic, as it helps you to quickly make important snap decisions; is it better to fall back and get reinforcements, or keep pressing on and find where that last dirty little cloaked camper is and rip out his thro…ahem, sorry about that, got a bit carried away there (deep breaths).

 Where the Wild Things Aren’t

Big Halo Sign 1

One of the slight disappointments with Warzone is that despite the mode’s inclusion of AI enemies, the truth is that there really aren’t an awful lot of them to go around. In addition to the handful of standard enemies occupying the bases at the start of the match, there’s a few straggling outliers huddled near each of the zones, and…that’s about it. Whether the AI population is an ongoing balance issue that’s still being tweaked, or whether it’s simply the case that the Escape from A.R.C. map simply doesn’t have many standard AI enemies to hunt, I’m not sure. Perhaps I just went in with my expectations set too high, expecting to see swarms of enemies rushing both teams in numbers comparable to Halo: ODST‘s excellent Firefight mode, but thankfully it’s not a big deal. The exciting part of Warzone is, of course, taking the fight to the enemy human players à la Big Team Battle.

However, what the AI troops lack in number, they more than makes up for in might. As both teams are racking up kills and holding down zones, Palmer occasionally pipes up to announce that Covenant and Forerunner boss enemies have spawned into the map. Simply put, these things are fucking beasts. These bosses are essentially souped-up versions of the standard Covenant Elites and Forerunner Knights found in the campaign, but don’t let their appearances fool you. Though they might look like the typical enemies you’d encounter in a Halo campaign, they have significantly better shielding and health to draw on, and can pack a much heftier wallop compared to their story-based counterparts. I repeatedly tried to take down a big Elite commander lurking in an out of the way construction tunnel by myself, but after being melted one too many times by its plasma rifle, I quickly decided to focus my efforts on helping my team hold down zones instead. Teamwork is essential to taking these big baddies down, but for those who enjoy a bit of bounty hunting, there’s a hefty jackpot of bonus points to bag for felling these fierce foes.

Check Yourself Before You REQ Yourself

REQ Station

To even think about tackling the enemy AI bosses, you’re going to need some serious firepower, and this is where 343 have decided to mix things up a little. Warzone differs from the rest of Halo 5‘s multiplayer in that it utilises the new REQ system as the primary means for players to get their hands on better gear.

Unfamiliar with it? Let me bring you up to speed. REQ is a vehicle and weapon requisition (get it?) system that 343 have designed specially for Warzone as a sort of middle ground between traditional first-come first-served weapon and vehicle distribution of the older titles, and Halo 4‘s controversial loadout system. Players earn energy points in Warzone by killing enemy players, AI troopers, capturing and holding bases etc. which they can then cash in at REQ terminals in their base to get a shiny new weapon or vehicle to kick ass with. Each item you can order belongs to a specific tier, and these tiers gradually unlock over time according to their energy requirement; basic items with a low energy requirement (such as pistols and rifles) will unlock sooner, while the power weapons and big vehicles will unlock later on in the match. It’s a clever and elegant way of allowing the player to pick the weapons they want, whilst still keeping the competitive playing field fair for everyone else.

Come to think of it, why am I trying to explain the ins and outs of the REQ system, when I could have the sage-like Mister Chief do a much better job of it for me:

It’s a difficult equilibrium to achieve, but I think on the whole 343 have got the balance between player choice and competitive fairness pretty spot on (though I still have some major concerns, but I’ll get to these later). A lot of Halo traditionalists disliked 343’s first foray into personalised weapon distribution in Halo 4, as they felt it negatively impacted the classic map and power weapon struggles they adored in the older games. Others disagreed, and enjoyed the more flexible approach to basic weapon acquisition, seeing it (alongside the inclusion of a standardised sprint function) as a progressive and considerate step in contemporising the Halo franchise to its industry peers and bringing it up to speed with the expectations of the modern FPS player.

As one of the minority of players of Halo 4 who actually appreciated the ability to spawn in with your preferred low-tier weapon of choice ready to go in your hexagon-riddled gauntlets, I think the REQ system will satisfy both schools of Halo thought. The timed unlock tiers of the arsenal mean that players can’t just instantly spawn in with top-tier armaments and wipe the floor with everyone else, and the energy requirements encourage players to think wisely about their purchases. Should you cash out on a Covenant Carbine, or save your energy and splash out on a Spartan Laser a few spawns later on? Go for a Gungoose early on, or splurge on a Scorpion tank further down the line? The choice is up to you (and the contents of your sizzling green energy wallet).

 Unfortunately though, as my Warzone match progressed and piles of dead Spartans started to pile up in crumpled heaps around the map, it gradually became apparent that hardly any players were making use of the REQ system. This was probably due to the clownish oafs Microsoft employed to man the Halo booth being more interested in dancing to the tunes thumping out of the nearby Rockband 4 stand than, you know, actually telling people how to play their fucking game, but hey, that’s just my guess. For whatever reason, a lot of the players I encountered didn’t seem to know how to get hold of a new gun or vehicle – either that or they were perfectly content to just go running out into the map with nothing but the standard issue assault rifle and pistol combo. This was a shame, and as a result the match I played didn’t really have the same level of intensity and pandemonium that the pre-release trailers have hyped up to the max. I’m sure when the final game comes out and people are familiar with the new systems that things will quickly start to feel more jam-packed and manic, but my first Warzone match definitely felt weirdly quiet at times.

Fortunately for me then, the noticeable lack of other vehicles and power weapons on the field meant that when I took to the skies in a Forerunner Phaeton I met very little anti-air resistance (cue Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’, and pull on a pair of tinted aviators).

Phaenting the Town Orange

Player Close-up

Being a long-time Halo wheelman, I knew instantly from the second I picked up the greasy display controller that I wanted to get behind the controls of Halo 5‘s coolest new vehicle ASAP. I made sure to frugally hold back enough energy points for one so I could deploy this new toy as soon as the time-restriction passed, and it was certainly well worth the wait.

Allow me to indulge in my obsession for this beauty. The Forerunner Phaeton is a beastly aircraft, and the first vehicle we’ve seen from the Didact’s Forerunner faction; it’s an angular gunmetal grey aircraft that combines the shape of a Harrier Jump Jet with the sleek contours of stealth bomber. It also has a lot of orange paint on it, because you know…Forerunners and stuff.

Mechanically speaking, it’s an interesting vehicle to get to grips with. Unlike its Human and Covenant peers, the Phaeton feels designed first and foremost for defence over offence. It manoeuvres and hovers in a similar fashion to the Hornet, though it’s increased size means that it handles more like a floating gun platform than nippy attack chopper, swapping speed for increased durability. It comes equipped with a beefy futuristic chaingun, which spits out a hail of hard light bullets at your target, which quickly turn enemy Spartans into fizzing puddles of Tango. These bullets are powerful, yes, but they’re also quite slow moving (compared to the fire rate of a Banshee’s primary projectiles for example), so learning to lead your shots just slightly in front of your target is essential to land hits.

The most unique feature of this flying Forerunner craft though has to be its ability to phase in and out of the air, meaning you can essentially juke out of the way of incoming projectiles. While I couldn’t figure out how to activate the dodge ability myself in this match, it’s definitely going to be a vital thing to be able to pull off in the heat of combat.

I spent the entirety of my time in the craft punching sizzling orange holes in ground-based infantry targets, so I didn’t get to see how the Phaeton holds up in an aerial dog fight, but I imagine the trick to taking on airborne vehicles will be to stand your ground and let your attacker come to you rather than give pursuit. While the Banshee and Hornet can probably outrun the Phaeton in terms of raw speed, the Phaeton’s phase ability gives it an unparalleled flexibility at short-distances; continually warping out of range of your attacker’s guns will be highly irritating, and also give you extra time to rake nasty orange bullet scars across their hull.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and ultimately my airborne killing spree was cut short when I was rudely blown out of the sky by a particularly determined rooftop defender. It was time to get back to the fray on foot for the final few minutes of the match, but my next thought was, to quote the mighty 117 himself, “I need a weapon”. Again. Although I’d been regularly plucking out basic ranged weapons throughout the course of the match, I didn’t really have a full perusal of all the goodies on offer until I’d had my fun with the Phaeton.

Warzone’s arsenal consists largely of Halo 4‘s returning armoury (sadly minus the sticky detonator) along with a few new additions such as the Hydra, a homing RPG weapon that debuted in the previous Arena multiplayer Beta. Though my natural tendency was to stick to familiar favourites when ordering weapons (nothing comes close to speed, accuracy and satisfying thunk-thunk-thunks of the Covenant Carbine at mid-range sniping in my opinion), I did make an effort to sample some of the new tools on offer. One such newbie is the Covenant Plasma Caster; this is a purple crossbow-like contraption first showcased in the Gamescom campaign demo which has both rapid fire and charge-shot capabilities. It basically functions as a sort of hybrid between the Concussion Rifle of and Reach‘s Plasma Launcher – I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to use, but sadly, due to a deadly mixture of impatience and unfamiliarity on my part, I couldn’t really get it to work for me in the short time the weapon was in my grasp.

Indoor Ghost

The final few minutes of the game were a busy blur of running between bases, capping fools and dodging those fearsome AI bosses. Though we had a solid lead points-wise, our team still had a bit of a shock when all of the zones bases were suddenly under blue control, and we had to quickly scramble to capture at least one back to shut them out of our core. We managed it by the skin of our teeth, and before long we had all three zones under our control – touché Blue team. I’d just leapt into the bulky cockpit of a Mantis and was thudding my way across the map to launch everything I had at their exposed core when Red team won with a 1000 point total anyway. Sighing with contented relief, I turned my Mantis towards the sun and thudded into the distance as the monitors faded to black. Mission complete.

Oh, Just One More Thing…

Yes I’m doing a Columbo here, and yes I know this piece is really dragging on by this point now, but this last bit is important, trust me. Remember how I alluded to some concerns about the REQ a few paragraphs ago? Despite the delightfully daft attempts of Frank O’Connor’s scribbled Spartan to harbour goodwill towards this new system, having tried REQ out first-hand, I’m still uneasy about how the system will work in the final game. Specifically, I’m apprehensive about how it’ll impact on one of the key aspects of Halo multiplayer – vehicle and power weapon acquisition.

You see unlike the build of the game I got to try, when the finished thing hits store shelves and the Xbone marketplace later this month, the REQ system will have an secondary layer of virtual currency added to it – REQ cards (Mister Chief outlines how they work in the video I posted earlier, but for the benefit of doubt I’ll explain them again here). REQ cards are digital trading cards that players will use as a secondary payment system (on top of the energy level costs) to acquire power weapons and vehicles in Warzone matches. In other words, in order to call in a specific power weapon/vehicle in the retail version of Halo 5‘s Warzone mode, three conditions have to be met:

  • The player has the sufficient level of energy required to spawn in their chosen power weapon/vehicle.
  • The REQ system has time-unlocked the tier that the player’s chosen power weapon/vehicle belongs to.
  • The player owns the corresponding REQ card for that power weapon/vehicle.

Upon first glance, these conditions seem pretty fair and straightforward. However, there’s a catch. A couple of catches actually. As an old-school Halo wheelman, the initial worry I have with this system is that unlike the game’s basic weapon cards (which I believe are classed as permanent, unlimited unlocks once earned), Halo 5‘s power weapon and vehicle cards are categorised in the REQ system as single use cards. This means that whenever you order up your chosen vehicle/power weapon of choice, it costs you a card each and every time you want to spawn that item into a match. To put it another way, no card = no vehicle/power weapon. Out of Warthog cards? Sorry Spartan, you’ll have to hoof it on foot. The much bigger worry I have is the fact that packs of REQ cards will be available for players to buy with real world money as microtransactions. Want that Rocket Launcher soldier? Drop and give me twenty…pence.

Yup, we’re finally at the point ladies and gents – the mighty triple-A Halo series is soliciting microtransactions in addition to asking for your £60 upfront. Before you roll your eyes, no, I don’t think microtransactions are an inherently evil concept. Like additional DLC content, microtransactions can be well designed and fairly implemented in a game, usually offering purely cosmetic items for sale, or they are implemented in such a way that they don’t negatively impact the core gameplay experience of you or other players. Free-to-play games like Killer Instinct and Planetside 2 are excellent examples of games that positively use microtransactions in non-invasive ways, and most importantly, they don’t reward the players that do spend their money with unfair advantages over those who don’t.

Microtransactions absolutely have no place in a boxed £60 retail game like Halo though, and their inclusion is just unacceptable in my opinion. We’ll have to see exactly how these REQ cards work in the finished product of course, but from everything 343 has told us so far, it looks like the microtransactions are purely there to act as a tertiary barrier to encourage players to open their digital wallets.

To momentarily play devil’s advocate on 343’s behalf, players are said to be able to earn REQ cards for doing pretty much anything in Halo 5‘s multiplayer modes. Although we haven’t been given any solid info on frequency and drop rates for these cards, for all intents and purposes it sounds like players will be earning them at a steady rate, so I’m pretty confident that they won’t be given out quite as randomly and inconsistently as the engram rewards that the infamously tight-fisted Cryptarch in Destiny doles out (the smug blue-faced cunt). But the fact remains that although 343 have said that players will be continually earning plenty of cards for everything they do in Halo 5, these cards are an intrinsically unreliable resource by design. You won’t be able to 100% guarantee that you’ll have the capability to spawn in a Mongoose for that vital last minute rush on the enemy’s core unless you’ve paid cold hard cash for it.

Not getting the sniper rifle or Wraith you wanted exactly when you wanted it in the previous Halos wasn’t a big deal, as all the weapons and vehicles spawned into the map at once and were available on a first-come first-served basis. Missed out on getting a Banshee? No worries, just keep playing and it’ll respawn back in later. Conversely, Halo 5‘s REQ cards turn the process of getting into vehicles and getting power weapons into a random lucky-dip bag, unless you spend extra money. Why make a system that’s deliberately built to be unreliable in one area otherwise? If players can order up basic weapons at any point without requiring additional consumable cards (providing they meet the energy and time requirements) why can’t we do the same with the vehicles and power weapons?

It just feels completely unnecessary and tacky. In the Warzone match I played, vehicles and power weapons were already rationed out fairly to players with the energy cost and staggered time-based unlock requirements of the REQ system. These are more than adequate safeguards already in place to stop people abusing the system, and it simply looks like the REQ cards have simply been introduced to add another level of unnecessary complexity to the system, and a means of nickel-and-diming desperate players for extra cash. I’ll happily have my concerns proven overly-cynical, ill-founded and wrong – nay, fuck it, I’ll go one further and say I desperately hope I’m proven wrong – but until we get the finished thing in our hands, I’m definitely more than a bit worried.

Anyway, I’m just chuntering at this point, so I’ll climb off my soapbox for now and call it a day. Warzone is very cool, I had a lot fun with it, and I’m looking forward to vegging out playing more when Halo 5 drops at the end of the month. See you on the battlefield Spartan…or something like that, yeah? Oh, you’ve gone. Sadface.

Halo: Nightfall – Review

Halo Nightfall - Title Picture
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Darkest Night

In and amongst all the (quite frankly) deserved flak that Halo: The Master Chief Collection has received from both critics and fans alike since its November 11th launch, it’s quite easy to forget about Halo: Nightfall – the latest TV series set in the Halo universe, that came bundled with copies of the game. Produced by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions in collaboration with 343 Industries, Nightfall is similar in both style and presentation to 2012’s Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. It’s an episodic five-part Halo TV series (accessible via the Xbox One’s Halo Channel, the Xbone’s next-gen replacement for the 360’s Halo Waypoint app) that follows the exploits of new character Jameson Locke (or, as he’s known at this point in time, Lieutenant Commander Locke) and a bunch of ONI operatives on a high-risk covert operation to a blackened and twisted fragment of the Alpha Halo ring from Halo: Combat Evolved.

However, once you have watched it, you start to see why Nightfall is rather easy to forget. Whilst the series is a palatable Halo-flavoured sci-fi action romp with some mild horror elements thrown into the mix for good measure, overall the series just feels generally underwhelming. Similarly to Forward Unto Dawn, the visuals, special effects and aesthetics of Nightfall are for the most part pretty cool; unfortunately though, like its predecessor, Nightfall is let down by a weak script, its shoddy execution and pace and a largely uninteresting cast of characters.

It’s a shame, as there are some cool ideas and concepts in Nightfall, but they’re massively hindered by the series’ truncated structure; the plot never really gets chance to unwind naturally across the limited span of five episodes. Occasional attempts to create any tangible sense of tension or fear in and amongst the bland dialogue – which is completely saturated with cheesy ’80s action film one-liners – largely fall flat, as events are hurried along at such a pace that it becomes hard to connect with or even care about the majority of the cardboard cut-out cast of characters; most of which are either forgettable or played in a laughably bad over the top manner.

Combine all these concerns with some dreary backdrops, some shockingly bad costume/creature designs, and a pretty big clump of narrative loose ends that are just left unsatisfyingly untied by the series finale, and you get a series which unfortunately feels really limp, loose and decidedly lacking.

Unlike The Master Chief Collection, which feels like it was yanked out of the development frying pan far too soon – on the multiplayer side of things, a hideously undercooked and unacceptably red-raw fillet steak of a fuck you to Halo fans – Nightfall instead feels like (to stretch this poor cooking analogy even further) someone tried to force far too much stuffing into a tiny little poussin, then slapped it in the oven for 119 minutes at gas mark 6, and lo and behold, it’s just gone absolutely everywhere. A grisly cacophony of flesh and forcemeat, smeared all over the inside of the oven like a Jackson Pollock painting gone horribly, horribly wrong; a gallimaufric gloop of meat and bone, oozing through the wire shelves before finally congealing into pools of fat and misery on the crusty oven floor. You can see that Nightfall had some cool ideas in the mix, and the potential to get us really excited about 343’s new protagonist ahead of the launch of Halo 5: Guardians, but instead the show feels rather like the Alpha Halo fragment the story takes place on; a lifeless burnt out husk of ash and dust.

Plotholing

Okay, let’s take a step back here for a second, and put my shoddy cooking metaphors to one side for the time being. What’s the series all about I hear you ask?

Halo: Nightfall focuses upon the re-emerging tensions and the old animosity that’s starting to bubble back up the surface between the UNSC and the outer colony worlds since the war with The Covenant ended in an uneasy ceasefire after the events of Halo 3. Set in the year 2556 (placing it on the Halo timeline roughly between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4), the plot of Nightfall takes place just prior to the detonation of a massive chemical bomb on Sedra, an agricultural outer colony planet largely ignored by the UNSC. 343 Industries have said that the events of Nightfall are set to connect the story between Halo 4 and the upcoming Halo 5 – in which Locke is said to be a playable character – and it effectively acts as a vehicle for us to learn about Locke’s origin story as a soldier.

This is a really interesting part of the Halo lore which never really gets explored in the games, and is largely left to the realm of the books – which is a shame really, as this conflict is in my opinion one of the more interesting backstory elements of the entire series, so it’s great that Nightfall is the first major exploration of these themes outside of the printed Halo media.

We first see Locke and his team of ONI operatives as they track and attempt to neutralise a suicide Sanghelli (that’s Covenant for an Elite my dear Watson) but despite their efforts, they are ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the detonation. While there’s no explosion as such, the bomb sends out a massive energy wave which rapidly makes the majority of humans within the blast radius contract a deadly poisonous infection – one which appears to be able to specifically target and break down just human DNA. Upon further analysis, it turns out the deadly chemical element of the dirty bomb came from a loose fragment of the Alpha Halo ring that the Master Chief destroyed in Halo: Combat Evolved, which is now in a low orbit around Sedra’s sun.

Locke and his ONI unit (handily unaffected by the infection, despite being right there at the ground zero of the bomb’s detonation) are then dispatched to the surface of the ring fragment on a secret night operation (hence the name Nightfall). As part of the operation, they are begrudgingly paired up with a group from the Sedran Colonial Guard and its commander, Randall Aiken, to track down this poisonous chemical cache and destroy it with a HAVOK nuke – after all, it’s the only way to be sure.

The catch is that the team only have a couple of hours to get in, destroy the chemical deposits and evac; due to the ring fragment being in a very close orbit to the sun, if they aren’t off the surface by daylight, then they will be burnt to a crisp. Naturally, soon after they touch down, things start to go horribly wrong, and the mission suddenly gets a lot more complicated…

Leatherface or Dr. Who the Fuck is That?

I’m going to kick my critique of Nightfall off properly with what’s admittedly a very trivial point. It’s minor, superficial and quite frankly, it’s a really petty thing for me to have a go at, particularly at such an early stage of the review. But due to the immediacy of the appearance of this problem within the opening moments of the very first episode, it’s that incredibly jarring to the mood and atmosphere which Nightfall tries to establish that I feel it’s entirely appropriate to bring it up right now before we get into the more salient points of discussion.

What might I be alluding to you ask? Well, in the opening scene of Episode 1, we see Locke and his team tracking down a mysterious alien creature, who’s lurking about in the Sedran forests to deliver the dirty bomb to the Elite bomber. This ‘thing’ is a brand new alien race that we’ve not seen yet in the Halo universe and…oh great, it’s just a man in a fucking rubber mask.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, The Halo Channel is currently not my friend (most likely because of the recent DDOS attack, or perhaps due to what I’ve written so far) and is refusing to let me play back the episodes of Nightfall after my initial viewing – hence the reason this review is rather short on relevant imagery. Unfortunately, this also means that I’ve been unable to acquire my own decent images of the new critter to include in this piece, so I’m afraid that you’ll just have to witness the general disappointment of it yourself via YouTube etc. I’ll wait, don’t worry.

Seen it now? Good. It’s pretty rubbish in my opinion – it looks like a cross between a rejected Doctor Who creature and an exploded curd tart (okay that’s the last cooking gag for now, I promise) and it certainly curbed my appetite (No seriously, that really is the last one, I promise) of what to expect from Nightfall pretty early on I have to say. It’s totally immersion breaking; it just looks like a guy in a rubber mask, not some enigmatic new alien race – did the costume department get absolutely shafted in the production’s budget or something? It looks like something out of an amateur student horror film, not a top-end sci-fi production.

What’s really bizarre though is that from a visual effects perspective, Nightfall has some particularly good and tastefully used CGI aliens in my opinion – they look pretty damn good in other words. In particular, the Elite suicide bomber in Episode 1, and without going too much into spoiler territory, the creepy-crawlies that later terrorize the team on the ring look suitably impressive. It’s just a shame that the ‘real’ creature effects look laughable in comparison. Nightfall is quite possibly one of the few times when I’ve watched a TV series/film where the CGI looks way better than real effects used within the same piece of media. Couldn’t the Yohnet have been CGI’d in too?

It’s introduced in an incredibly poor fashion as well – there’s no significant explanation for who or what this brand new creature is in Nightfall, so I had to go look it up online – always a good start. It turns out that these candlewax catastrophes are known as the Yohnet; from my reading around, apparently the Yohnet do make an appearance in the comic Halo: Escalation to be fair, but Nightfall is their first introduction in a feature-length visual piece of content, and arguably, the place where the vast majority of Halo fans will first encounter them. It’s treated right from the off as though this brand new blancmange-faced alien race has always been part of The Covenant, and that the viewers will conveniently know this as well and be instantly familiar with them. Wrong. As a result, you don’t really feel that much empathy with the thing/character when it’s being interrogated by Locke and the ONI/Sedran team in a later scene, it just feels like a nonchalant shoe-in here, a convenient plot device conjured up to plug a gap in the papery thin story.

The Halo universe is renowned for having a vast plethora of uniquely fantastic alien races to draw upon, each with their own distinct cultures, behaviours, thoughts, societal structures and belief systems which are fleshed out to a great extent in the extended Halo universe of the books, comics, anime etc. So why on earth does Nightfall decide to kick things off by thrusting not only a brand new race into the fray without explanation, but a really dull and uninspired one at that? Were the other races not good/rubbery-faced enough?

From the word go, this shoe-horning in of a brand new, uninteresting creature and it’s appallingly tacky on-screen quality just really knocked me sideways. It doesn’t sell you at all on the atmosphere of gritty realism that Nightfall is desperately trying to go for, nor does it draw you in as a viewer; it does the opposite and pushes you further out.

When the creature’s design looks like something you could bodge together yourself in true Blue Peter style, using several swimming caps, countless tubes of PVA glue, a plethora of toilet roll middles, swathes and swathes and swathes of sticky back plastic and a whole fucktonne of Play-Doh to top it off, it’s not good. Oh, and don’t forget a gaint Fairy Liquid bottle too – don’t forget that old chestnut, whatever you do.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that new ideas aren’t welcome in Halo – far from it, I’m personally desperate for new and exciting changes in the Halo series now we’re up to the fifth numbered entry in the games. But the way this new race of rubbery leatherfaces are just casually retconned into existence just feels uncharacteristically sloppy for the otherwise meticulously constructed Halo canon.

Scriptly Come Prancing and Shed Queasiness

Okay, now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to some of the more important concerns about Nightfall. Like I said at the start of the piece, the main problem that I found with the series is that while there are some potentially interesting characters in the story, the writing is so cripplingly poor that it does little to make you care about them.

There are good performances here and there; in particular, Christina Chong injects some real passion and grit to the proceedings. She’s the character that’s easiest to identify with in a lot of ways, as the others are mainly just the same typical old macho-man marine hardasses you see in game after game, film after film. In fact, she’s easily the most expressive character in the whole thing; Exuding quiet but steely resistance to the elitist ONI operatives when they assume joint command of the mission in the early episodes, and portraying convincing reactions of fear and fright when things rapidly head south, she pretty much carries the human element of the story throughout the entire series.

Likewise, Steve Waddington brings a gruff solemnity and a charismatic world-weary charm to his character, Randall Aiken (a name no doubt familiar to observant Halo fans), and many of the series’ more emotional scenes are suitably anchored around his character’s poignant arc.

Mike Colter does turn in a decent performance as Locke, but ultimately his character just simply isn’t that interesting. In fact, that’s kind of the problem with Nightfall; the main character is less engaging than his supporting cast. You don’t really get much chance to peek under Locke’s mental bonnet at any point to see what really makes him tick; you have little idea what he’s truly about, what he stands for, what his raison d’être is beyond just following the mission protocol. Nightfall is an origin story that fundamentally fails to tell the protagonist’s origin story; it fails to convey to the audience what exactly makes its protagonist interesting.

Nonetheless, you do root for Locke. I’m still keen to play as him in Halo 5: Guardians (presumably he has an Advanced Warfare style accident which is how he’ll get the necessary Spartan IV augments before the events of Halo 5), if only to have the chance to leave the Master Chief’s bulky MJLONIR shoes for a bit. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s more of a substantial grounding to his character in the upcoming game. In fact, I actually learned far more about Locke from the feature-length video documentary/advertisement that was Remaking The Legend – Halo 2: Anniversary, where in between recording takes in a voice-over session, Mike himself dishes out a few details about his new character in the context of the new game.

Unfortunately though, from what we get to see of him in Nightfall, it looks as though Locke is pretty much written to be the same character as Spartan 117 – bland, stoic and essentially another blank and boring canvas to project yourself onto, another empty set of shoes to fill with little character of his own to explore. I’m hoping 343 will prove me wrong on this of course – playing as the Arbiter in Halo 2 was fantastic plot device, one which was almost universally disliked by the majority of fans unfortunately – but from what we get to see in this ‘origin story’, I’m not at all convinced that lightning will strike the secondary character slot twice as it were.

The rest of the performances are particularly lacklustre. One minute the crew are a highly trained bunch of professional soldiers, they touch down on the ring and almost instantly everybody turns on each other like a bunch of headless chickens (just how headless chickens go about turning on each other, I’m not too sure, but trust me, they do). There’s no natural character development; everything feels cut and pasted, scene by scene, episode by episode. You pretty much can spot the typical character stereotypes for what they are in the very first episode even before the proverbial brown hits the proverbial fan blades – which is not necessarily a problem in of itself, but the result is that absolutely nothing will catch you by surprise. The writing feels static and lacklustre, as the majority of the cast show no interesting progression or any significant development throughout the series.

It also doesn’t help that there’s a dirge of cheesy one-liners throughout – “Tonight…we are god!” being a particularly excruciating moment of toe-curling wincery from what I can recall – and some dopey over the top death sequences which give the series a decidedly B-movie tone. All these things keep Nightfall feeling like a sheep in wolf’s clothing; it looks like a slick top-tier production upon first glance, but ultimately feels very video-gamey in a cheap and chintzy way when you barely scratch the surface.

Without spoiling things too much, when it gets going the show’s central conceit is a sort of Lord Of The Flies situation, where the morality and mental stability of the group is gradually worn down over the course of the series until they are essentially just desperate savages. But the pacing of Nightfall’s episodes are just so fast to the point that the isolated cabin fever like pressure-cooker situation that the writers have tried to craft never really manages to take hold. The execution and pacing of the plot just feels rushed and compacted to neatly fit within the five episode arc – it’s a limited vehicle that isn’t particularly suited to building the sustained sense of tension the story required. Perhaps going for a feature length single-sitting movie might have worked better?

Anyway, the slow-burning paranoia that sets in amongst the team of soldiers in the early episodes doesn’t really get the chance to naturally unfold, and instead of things gradually boiling up to an intense breaking point, it just disappointingly fizzles out like a lukewarm opened bottle of coke. Unsurprisingly then, a lot of the drama just feels artificial, dull and boring; again, often to the point where its laughably bad at times.

Dust Bowl

The cinematography in general is pretty good. In particular, the early scenes set on Sedra all look great. With its pouring rain, lush green forests and sprawling futuristic urban metropolis all suitably realised on-screen, these scenes look like they fit into the Halo universe perfectly. The art direction is detailed realistic and familiar; the design of the Sedran city looks just like it could be something straight from the Halo: Reach‘s New Alexandria, or Halo 3: ODST‘s New Mombasa. In other words, the art direction and cinematography of the early episodes feels spot on.

Unfortunately, the later episodes set on the broken Halo fragment just become a blur of charcoal and ash after a while. Although these are impressive and mysterious at first – you get plenty of these awesome wide open shots which are very reminiscent of Scott’s Prometheus, Lynch’s Dune and Cameron’s Aliens – these dusty environments all start to look pretty much exactly the same. Each scene becomes just another variation on watching the same dwindling group of soldiers clamber up and down the same sooty hills again and again. At times, it can be hard to work out what’s more interesting; the barren landscape or the more barren characters.

Classified Intel

As you watch Nightfall, you’ll get prompted to watch additional bonus scenes and ‘second stories’ that act to bulk out the main narrative. They don’t. The bonus scenes that unlock as you watch the episodes range from stuff that should have remained on the cutting room floor, to these frenzied rambling vlogs which are just obtusely boring and impenetrable. They’re just filled with characters giving fish-eye camera lenses a very stern talking to; their scientific logs and video diaries all sound very important, chock full of sci-fi medical jargon, but you can just feel your eyes glazing over the more they go on. With the exception of some of the early additional scenes that depict characters who actually are in the main piece, a great deal of these extra scenes just felt unnecessary and boring. They simply come across as pretentious; the harder they try to push home just how serious and grave whatever subject matter they are waffling on about is, it also becomes less and less interesting to process, which is a real shame.

Everything is heavily censored and classified. After a while, it starts to feel like you’re listening to a confidential blacked out FBI report in audiobook form, and it’s about as entertaining. Even as a longtime Halo fan, listening to these extra sections, straining with freshly peeled ears to hear any little golden nuggets of info that might drop, any easter eggs or cheeky nods to other materials in the Halo canon quickly felt boring, and just not worth the effort after a while.

Before we move on, it’s also worth addressing a whole bunch of questions that are thrown up for hardcore Halo fans to digest. Again, I’m trying my best not to go too far into spoiler territory here, but there’s a lot of loose threads left unsatisfyingly dangling in the breeze that are just never tied up. For example, it’s never really explained just why the main threat on the ring is the way it is. Basically, it’s a variation on the well known creature/organism from the Halo universe, only exhibiting drastically different and uncharacteristic behaviour from anything that we’ve seen before in any of the books, games or TV projects. That in itself is fine – again, I’m all for new ideas in all aspects of Halo – but there’s not even a hint of just why this organism is acting so erratically. It’s just sort of arbitrarily thrown in in similar fashion to the leatherfaced Yohnet; it’s all kicking off because (as Mr. Torgue would say…loudly) reasons. So although the CGI for this organism is cool, the way it’s handled in Nightfall basically renders it as just another poorly used side plot device.

I do understand that 343 don’t want to give away too much information here – after all, a great part of Halo‘s success was due to the mysterious and enigmatic sci-fi tale woven carefully throughout the series – and I appreciate that Nightfall is set to tie into Halo 5: Guardians, where we might well get concrete answers for a lot of the strange shenanigans going on here. However, as a viewer watching this as a standalone piece, the lack of any explanation/resolution is frustrating. In fact, if the soldiers weren’t carrying around the iconic assault rifles, battle rifles and DMRs of past games, you’d struggle to identify Nightfall as having anything remotely to do with Halo at all.

Whilst mystery and intrigue have always been significant parts of the magical Halo formula, they’ve certainly never been enigmatic to the point where any previous media has required a prolonged and carefully sustained analysis (apart from perhaps the exception of Greg Bear’s awesome Forerunner book trilogy) in order to get at their true core meaning.

Lump of Coal

For all it’s faults and my moaning, if you’re prepared to endure through Nightfall‘s plethora of problems, then you will appreciate it as a piece of content designed to function as a hook in the run-up to Halo 5. However, as I’ve indicated here in this piece with all the subtlety of custard pie to the face (sorry but I had to just shoehorn one more cheap food gag in), it’s a shallow, tedious and unrewarding watch at best.

It’s just that, to me, it’s incredibly disappointing to see how poor Nightfall has turned out to be. This should have been much, MUCH more. This should have been a glorious marriage of awesomeness, a sci-fi fan’s sloppily wet dream, a great big fucking triumph of triumphs to be shouted aloud to the heavens (or Halo rings) – Ridley Scott, the king of realistic and gritty sci-fi movies such as Alien and Blade Runner, working on a Halo project, arguably one of the greatest sci-fi video game series ever made. But instead, it just fails spectacularly on the absolute basics it should have easily got right. Uninteresting characters. Weak story. Cheesy dialogue. Bland environments. Poor pacing. Yada yada yada, you get the picture by now – it has none of the hallmarks of quality and excellence that you would expect from either big name.

It’s not like a good Halo TV tie-in can’t be done though – far from it in fact. Halo: Legends in my opinion was absolutely awesome, and without a doubt it’s easily the best DVD/TV offering that has been produced so far. In my eyes, it set the bar high for what to expect from Halo when it comes to extraneous Halo TV content. Yes, it’s not live action, that’s kind of missing the point – what Legends did really well was to take small bite-size self-contained stories from across the Halo universe and put some creative and fresh twists on the familiar material; fleshing out both canonical chapters in non-canonical offshoots and creating new stories that fit the franchise like a glove, totally getting what makes Halo, Halo. Something Nightfall completely missed.

Forward Unto Dawn fell short in a lot of the same places Nightfall does, but credit where credit’s due, Forward Unto Dawn actually did provide an interesting origin story/introduction to a brand new character – again, something Nightfall completely failed to do. In addition, the pacing of Forward Unto Dawn felt just generally better paced and more exciting than what’s on offer in Nightfall, the latter containing both peaks of excitement and quieter moments of calm whilst Nightfall just plateaus out at this steady mediocre level before petering out completely. In particular, the carefully orchestrated set pieces of Forward Unto Dawn were really well executed; the section with stealth elite stalking the young cadets in the locker room, and the final battle with the hunter being particular standout moments.

Anyway, you get the picture – Nightfall is a mere shell of what it could have been. A Halo fan’s dream scenario of epic proportions in theory, but lying in the gutter, gurgling pitifully to itself in a drunken stupor whilst staring at the stars in actuality. To end on a more positive note, let’s collectively hope that whatever the state of play is with Spielberg’s Halo: The Television Series, I just hope that it doesn’t suffer from the same problems that Nightfall has. Just like the dirty bomb that goes off at the start of Nightfall, let’s hope that the problems that infected this series don’t jump and take hold on the next one.

In other news, the Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta is now live at the time of writing, (I’m probably playing it in my pants as you read this – an image almost as revolting as the rice pudding-faced Yohnet from Nightfall) so stay tuned and I’ll report back soon with the latest on the Halo 5 front – oh, and happy new year too!