Halo used to mean quality. Its campaigns were all heroic military sci-fi, full of brilliantly-designed levels and enemies. The multiplayer was some of gaming's best, supplying pulse-pounding firefights and thrilling victories. There was a time when a new Halo game was a guarantee of greatness. Since developer Bungie moved on and custom Halo house 343 Industries took the reigns, it has become clear that something is wrong. Halo is suffering from an identity crisis.
I don't think 343 Industries understands Halo, at least not when it comes to the campaign. This is a dangerous claim to make -- any time a new developer takes on a franchise, fans flock to forums to tell the world why this change or that artistic interpretation are mistakes. That's happened with Crystal Dynamics and Tomb Raider, Bethesda and Fallout, Ninja Theory and Devil May Cry, or, yes, even 343 Industries (also known as 343i) and Halo. The last thing I want to do is come across like an entitled fan who complains about the same few talking points. I'm going to make my case to the best of my ability. If, at the end, you're not convinced, then no harm, no foul.
Before we start, let's give credit where credit is due: after the missteps of Halo 4's attempt at a Call of Duty Jr multiplayer, 343 did the right things to help make Halo 5 multiplayer a satisfying experience (they even hired some pro gamers, which may have helped). By all accounts, Halo 5's multiplayer is a great step for the series as a whole. The production value for the series is off the charts. 343i employs some of the best artists, animators, and sound designers in the business. Playing a shooter at 60 frames a second on a console is a rare thrill.
When 343i's boss says she wants to run the series like George Lucas ran Star Wars, it sounds like a great goal; after all, Lucas managed to make six movies he had complete control over, multiple television series, and a massive merchandising empire. It's next to impossible to do that without a major corporation taking over, but Lucas managed it for over 30 years. Star Wars' cultural impact was massive. Truth be told, I think Bungie's version of Halo could have become like Star Wars, but I don't think 343i's can, because of some fundamental misunderstandings about what made Halo's universe so great.
We're going to be covering a bunch of Halo stories, including the events of 4 and 5, so if you haven't played those games, consider this a SPOILER WARNING.
It's impossible to talk about what Halo isn't without talking about what it is, especially when it comes to the game's campaigns. So let's get right down to that: Halo has always been about heroism.
In the first game, you play as Master Chief, a super soldier who crash lands on a mysterious alien artifact. Outclassed and outgunned by the alien alliance called the Covenant, you prevent them from unleashing a superweapon -- the biological monstrosity known as the Flood -- on an unsuspecting galaxy.
Throughout the game, you're always placed at a disadvantage. You're weaponless for part of the first level, and when you do get a gun, it's just a pistol. Later missions have you rescuing helpless marines from alien assault and imprisonment, attacking heavily defended alien positions, and fighting through nigh-impossible gauntlets. You're always going to win, of course, because it's a video game, but Bungie does a tremendous job of making the odds feel like they're stacked against you.
Halo 2 is all about how you, as Master Chief, attack the alien Covenant. This time, they have accidentally located Earth and are attacking it relentlessly. These levels are interspersed with you playing as the disgraced Covenant Arbiter, who turns against his alien overlords to free his people.
Halo 3 begins as an even larger Covenant fleet arrives to attack Earth, but then the Flood arrive, putting Earth in even greater danger. That ups the stakes. You, hero that you are, eliminate the Covenant and Flood for good.
Even the Bungie-made spinoffs put you in the position of the heroic space marine: as ODST's rookie, you help capture a Covenant creature, the Engineer, which helps turn the tide against the Covenant. In Reach, you bore the brunt of the Covenant invasion of the planet Reach, helping thousands of civilians escape and helping Master Chief and his ship, The Pillar of Autumn, escape.
Every single Bungie Halo is about heroism, and that's achieved through elements of the story, the context of your actions and the game's difficulty. The story says "hey, bad guys are attacking, but you're the good guy, so you take them on." The moment-to-moment play emphasises that: you have to assault a heavily-defended alien ship to rescue some comrades or rush through the hallways of The Library, with endless waves of Flood attacking you.
The difficulty, assuming you pick the one that's tuned right for you, reminds you that you have to earn your victory. Personally, I'm all about Heroic. It's tough, but it encourages a balanced mix of Halo's combat trifecta -- shooting, grenades, and melee -- while strafing, instead of hiding behind cover. It also has a nice level of churn. That's where you never have quite enough ammo to keep your favourite gun, so you're constantly switching with whatever's available, rather than resorting to one predominant strategy.
Halo, especially when played at Heroic or Legendary difficulty, is not a power fantasy. It makes you feel great because it puts you in a position of disadvantage and then demands you earn your happy ending. At its best, every moment in Halo feels earned.
Then it all changed.
Halo 4 begins where 3 ended. Chief is floating in space, far from any allies. He suddenly attracts the attention of a massive alien artifact masquerading as a planet. He crashes, fights his way through the Covenant, and manages to alert some nearby human forces.
It's all too… coincidental. An alien planet just happened to be there, and an allied ship, the Infinity, just happened to be close by. Chief tries to alert everyone, but just so happens to wake up an evil alien who was in stasis. Every single moment feels like a massive Rube Goldberg machine of happenstance, and this is accentuated further by the seemingly-lazy plot progression.
The Infinity's captain doesn't seem to like Chief for some reason, but this is never explained -- the captain's a jerk, and it seems like the only reason he's a jerk is because, later on, he gets deposed. This is supposed to feel like some big victory, but instead we just have some dude who's a jerk being replaced by some dude who isn't a jerk, and, uh, that's… that's the end of that. Doesn't feel very heroic, does it?
Then there's the Didact, the game's main bad guy. He's all, "Hi, I hate humans, and I'm telekinetic, also I have a death ray, and you are my enemy, read my books, mwahahaha!" Yes, he has a death ray. They call it the Composer. It's supposed to turn humans into computer programs, but it turns them into skeletons instead.
Truth be told, nothing about the Didact makes a lot of sense. If you read the books, he's more interesting. But the number one rule about franchised media is that, while it all connects, each work has to stand on its own, too. If the answer to "this doesn't make sense" is "well, if you read the books..." then it's a bad answer. One of 343i's biggest problems is that they seem to be consciously ignoring this rule, so their characters tend to be pretty weak on their own.
The Didact isn't compelling or interesting, so beating him isn't either. It feels heroic to narrowly escape a crashing spaceship under attack by hundreds of alien forces. It doesn't feel heroic to fight a guy with unclear motives and a skeleton-making laser beam just because someone said The Fate of the Universe is at Stake. Halo 4's big mistake is assumed empathy. It says "the stakes are high, therefore, the player will care more."
Eventually, some threats just get too big for us to care about. A lot of bad stories make the mistake of assuming that the bigger the threat, the more the audience will care. That couldn't be further from the truth: we care about things the more personal they are.
How many people actually cared when the Imperials blew up Alderaan in Star Wars? Nobody. Sure, it was a whole planet. The scale of that event was a big deal, but we didn't care because it wasn't personal. We cared a lot more about Luke blowing up the Death Star because his friends were dying one by one, and because Luke had a personal stake.
So a dude going "mwahaha, I will kill all the humans" just isn't compelling to the audience, because there's nothing to empathise with. The Didact is like the bad guy in Transformers 3, who is so forgettable that I don't remember his name. There's no personal stake in Halo 4, which means there's no room for heroism.
Halo 4's co-op Spartan Ops mode is interesting because it has a story, but the story is also weird. Put simply, Dr. Halsey, the head scientist of the Spartan project, is now considered a war criminal, for some reason. ONI, the government is still portrayed as shady, just as it was when Halsey worked for them, so why they aren't protecting her or her work is unclear. All we're really told is that she's persona non grata around the military. Everyone treats her like she's the scum of the earth.
Halo 4 expected us to read external sources to understand some of its characters, but if we do that for Halsey, reading the earlier novels, playing Halo: Reach, and reading the journal that came with Reach's collector's editions, she's a far cry from the mad scientist Dr. Menengle-type she's treated as in Halo 4 and 5. It's a weird history revision that goes against both the character and the people who responded to her.
In Halo 5, Halsey is treated with the same disdain and disgust. Her characterization is different from every other source as well. She seems like an evil crone. So… why bring this up? Because the response to Halsey indicates a massive shift in the way the game perceives its characters.
Before this, Master Chief was a hero. Halsey was a brilliant scientist and a mother figure. Halo was strong military sci-fi, presenting the people who fought to save humanity as intelligent, capable, and resourceful. Rebooting Halsey as an evil mad scientist and Chief as the victim of her tinkering makes Chief less cool, less noble. Master Chief is, in Halo 5, the living embodiment of a war crime, which makes his whole epic war hero thing seem way less cool.
If that weren't enough, Halo 5's big bad is Cortana, your friend of several years. Everything you have been through together since 2001 is recontextualized. Cortana wants to be a dictator over the entire galaxy for some reason. Like Halsey, it's a massive character shift, and it kinda taints the memory of everything you've done.
It would be like watching the new Star Wars this Christmas and discovering that Han Solo isn't a smuggler with a heart of gold, but someone who drugs people and puts them into slavery, and he's been this way since the first movie, but we just didn't know. Cortana's "I want to rule the galaxy" twist puts this massive damper on the game and robs a lot of past actions of their sense of heroism.
343i's final nail in the coffin is… that you don't even play as Master Chief for most of the game.
At the end of Halo 4, Cortana, your friend of fifteen years, apparently died. Halo 5 reveals that she's alive. It's a poorly done moment, but one might think: "Alright, so this is a story about how Chief gets his friend back." That would, after all, possess the personal stakes. Rescuing a friend is heroic and awesome. After three years of assuming Cortana was dead, now we hear she's alive! Not only that, but we've played as Chief for years. This is his goal, sure, but it's our goal too; we've played as him over the course or four games and fifteen years!
The motive should be great, so what do we do?
We play as the guy whose plot function, whether he realises it or not, is to stop Chief from saving his friend. For the majority of the game's missions, we play as Locke, a glorified hall monitor, a guy whose entire existence is defined by the fact that he needs to stop Chief from doing the thing he wants to do the most. Is there anything less heroic than being the guy whose job it is to stop the hero from being heroic? If Locke were as cool as Boba Fett, this wouldn't be much of a problem. But he's not as cool as Boba Fett. He's just some dude whose orders were to stop Chief from being badass.
So, to recap: all our friends are actually bad guys, we're the living embodiment of a war crime, and we don't even get to do the thing we want, because we actually have to spend most of our time trying to stop ourselves from stopping our good friend who is now bad from bringing peace to the galaxy by force.
Does it sound confusing? That's because it is. That's not even considering how there's this evil robot named Warden trying to protect Cortana from Chief, which is weird, because Cortana effortlessly puts Chief in an evil space egg like it's nothing. I'm not sure what that guy thought he was doing other than being a boss fight over and over again. Seriously, you face him, and only him, like seven times. He's the only boss fight in the game, and the only change to his formula is that sometimes you fight more than one of him. Why is Warden in the game? I don't know. Any good game designer knows you can't just repeat the same boss fight seven times in a row. I definitely didn't feel like a hero fighting him.
There's no reason to do anything in Halo any more, and that's in large part because there are no opportunities to be a hero. Nothing makes sense. There are no stakes. It's just a bunch of "what if the good guys were actually bad?" as if that mattered.
But, hey, the gameplay's fun, right?
The difficulty tuning is off. In Halo 4, Normal felt too easy and Heroic felt just… wrong. It was easy if I played it like a pop and stop shooter, but Halo's all about strafing and dodging and throwing grenades and melee. It's a game about movement, about dancing through the combat space. With Halo 4, your armour has the durability of wet toilet paper. It's easy to die, and worse still, the enemies are massive bullet sponges.
The same is true of Halo 5 on Heroic. I once unloaded half a clip from a BR, a shotgun round or two, and a punch into a Forerunner Soldier's face. For my trouble, I was downed instantly from a single punch by the Soldier. I've shot enemies 3 and 4 times with a sniper rifle before killing them, used an entire BR clip on an enemy with no perceptible effect. Once, I told three spartans to target an elite, then dashed back to get some ammo. When I returned, they hadn't even brought the elite's shield down. The much-touted squad system is useless.
I watched as the Warden repeatedly killed my entire team of AI companions with a single blow of his sword. I've seen a jackal take three or four shots from a battle rifle without dying, where previous Halo games would have seen him die with the first trigger pull.
Rather than feeling like I earned my victories, I felt like I couldn't play Halo to its strengths: instead, I was just hiding behind cover and popping out from cover to shoot enemies. In Bungie's Halo games running around punching aliens in the face made me feel like a champion. I don't feel like that in 343's games. I feel like I'm supposed to play it like Battlefield or Call of Duty, relying on cover and standing still.
It's like all the fun has been sucked out of the game, because strafing, which was emphasised heavily in every one of Bungie's games, is no longer a viable tactic on Heroic difficulty, and Normal still too easy. Sure, you have a cool dodge button, but I find that using it is more likely to get you killed than not. Reach's Heroic felt like it had been tuned for me specifically; it made me feel like I earned each and every victory.
Ultimately, 343i's Halo games just don't sit right with me. They look great, sound better, and have some of the best cutscenes in the business. Everyone I know loves Halo 5's multiplayer modes. But I was always in it for the story, and that's Halo 4 and 5 fall flat. Chief's friends -- my friends -- are now enemies. My victories feel unearned and uninspired. Bungie's games drew me to the series, but 343i just hasn't maintained the magic that made Halo.