The Lack Of Master Chief Was The Least Of Halo 5's Campaign Problems

Video game sequels often fix the problems of their predecessors thanks to, among other things, the iterative advancements of technology. That's on top of the fact that making creative work in the gaming medium is still an exercise in being an artistic pioneer. So you at least hope that the people making sequels know what their last game did wrong. This was a week to wonder if the folks making Halo did.

A few days ago, quotes from Frank O'Connor, one of the top creative people at Halo studio 343 Industries, caromed around the gaming internet after running in the magazine GamesTM. O'Connor was explaining what went awry with the story in 2015's Halo 5 and, as ricocheted by Eurogamer and bounced once more here, told the magazine:

"We took some digs for storytelling in Halo 5, but they were absolutely merited… We very much realised that people wanted Master Chief's story of Halo 5.

"We definitely marketed [Halo 5] in a way that we hoped was going to bring surprise, but for some fans and certainly fans of Master Chief, it was a huge disappointment because they wanted more Chief. And that has been a big learning…

"The volume of 'give us more Chief' at the end of Halo 5 was significant and so I think if anything he's slightly more important now than he has ever been, certainly to our franchise."

You might not be able to tell from those quotes, but Master Chief was actually in Halo 5. You play as him in a few of the game's 15 missions — certainly not as many as in Halo 4, but more than you played as him in the nearly 100% Chief-free Halo Reach, which had a better campaign than Halo 5. (Halo Reach was developed by Bungie, the creators and original developers of Halo.)

You play most of Halo 5 as Spartan Locke, the guy featured in the promo art up top and retrofitted into the Halo saga via some new cutscenes added to Halo 2 when that game was remastered for Xbox One. Locke's quest is dull and the big confrontation between Chief and Locke amounts to a mid-game cutscene, rather than the epic climax that we were expecting.

Memory fades the faults of older games, but if I can quote one of my favourite experts, here's what I wrote about Halo 5 back when I'd just played through it:

Advertisements for the game have played up the drama of Locke hunting down a rogue Master Chief, but their rivalry is undercooked, their confrontation anticlimactic. The theme of a possibly rogue Master Chief was used far more effectively in the first season of the Halo 5 promotional podcast Hunt The Truth, which has a separate plot from the game.

Just look at this Halo 5 commercial. It must be for a really cool game, huh?

Marketing sometimes gets ahead of a game, and the game that is being over-hyped usually pays the prices. Purchasers of Assassin's Creed III know this, too (and this is coming from someone who likes that game!). But had 343 delivered the game the Halo 5 ads teased — Chief running for his life, maybe turned bad, Locke facing him down in an epic clash of super-soldiers — then 343 reps probably wouldn't be doing interviews in 2017 where they needed to explain what went wrong.

I'd normally just shrug my shoulders at something like this and move on, but O'Connor's comments about addressing Halo 5's campaign issues by going more heavily with Chief in the future didn't just suggest a misdiagnosis of a surprisingly flawed game but pointed to the continued hazard of sameness that so many of Microsoft's franchises are having, where the Halos and Gears of Wars and Forzas feel like so much of the same thing year after year and the spark of the new just isn't shining enough.

Now, I like where Forza is going, at least when it comes to the really fun Horizon series. And deviating from a series' main direction is not always the right prescription. See the chilly reception to the Xbox 360's Gears of War Judgment. But in a year where we've seen the Zelda series reinvent itself successfully and in the face of a talented heretofore-single-franchise studio like Guerrilla Games finding new life with Horizon Zero Dawn (after years of nothing but Killzone), something about 343 dusting themselves off and committing to making a new Halo that really, really focuses on Master Chief inspires me with less confidence than it normally would.

Halo game campaigns don't matter all that much, of course. The multiplayer is what keeps Halo's heart pumping and I can't speak to that. That's probably where they can really make improvements for Halo 6.

As for whether O'Connor's comments reflected an accurate understanding of what went awry with Halo 5's campaign, I asked Microsoft PR if I was missing anything. Here's a 343 spokesperson responding and demonstrating, thankfully, that he and the rest of 343 recognise that there were other flaws worth addressing, too:

"In our recent interview with GamesTM, we offered a couple of examples of learnings and feedback we've received from the community in response to "Halo 5: Guardians" — such as a desire for a greater focus on the Master Chief, the perceived disconnect between some of our marketing and in-game story or the effect splitscreen's omission had on our fans. These are clearly not our only learnings, and as with every game in the series, the lessons we learned — good and bad, are manifold, nuanced and elements we're looking forward to wrangling, addressing and improving upon in our next major release."

It will also help if Halo 6 doesn't repeat Warden Eternal boss fights a bunch of times.


Comments

    Hunt The Truth audio play has me so hyped up. The game just was boring and the twists were like seeing a tanker come into port.

    Personally it was always the story being told by the campaign that kept me coming back to Halo. But then, I have all the books to go with them, so I always enjoyed being able to link everything together. Maybe I'm just in the minority, but the multiplayer was always a bit meh for me.

      That's what kept me coming back to Halo too, the story. I thought the multi-player was fantastic too, but though I loved every second I played of it, I'm not that competitive a player. I don't have that drive to win games that most people seem to have, so it was only ever a fleeting thing for me. But man, the story was really neat. It's not suuuuuper deep or anything, but it's perfectly acceptable sci-fi stuff that I really found myself invested in. Enough to read the books too, and that's rare for me to go cross-media for a franchise like Halo.

      I purchased Halo 5 a fair while back, and I can't rip it to pieces because I honestly haven't even played it yet. I should get around to it one day, but I feel like I know what I'm in for before I even wait for the install or the million gigs worth of updates... it doesn't seem worth jumping through the hoops to play.

      Halo game campaigns don't matter all that much, of course
      It meant everything to me. The single player campaign, and being able to play split screen co-op were always the major draw cards for me. I played multiplayer split screen or system link with friends sometimes, but it was always the campaign that kept me coming back to Halo. I'm playing through the original halo right now in split screen with my daughter. Let me play as a single protagonist, and make a compelling story with beautiful locations and a mix of stealth and epic battles and I will buy 6 in a heartbeat.

    I've always been a very casual Halo player, usually pick them up a year or so after release when they are dirt cheap, don't pay too much attention to the marketing as they are always solid games in my experience. Grabbed Halo5 as I was looking for a new split screen game to play with mates, genuinely shocked that they didn't do it, spent ages trying to find the mode in the game before googling it.

    The trick to enjoying Halo 5s story is to play Mass Effect: Andromeda first. Good god that game is disappointing!

    I actually didn't mind Halo 5. Not great but fun, and the sequel-bait ending was exciting I thought.

    Hunt the Truth I thought genuinely sparked interest in the "Chief gone rogue" pitch.

    However, there was so much scene setting that didn't end up extending into the campaign which was disappointing. Turning Chief from hero to villain was an interesting idea but inevitably fell flat on it's face with Locke's black and white take on the situation when in reality it's all shades of grey. When the confrontation eventually happened, because we've been on the journey with Chief for so long you just know he was going to say to Locke "bitch, please."

    Maybe if Chief was captured we'd have invested in the whole villain approach a bit more - if we had played Locke up until that point and then regressed back to Chief's take on what happened after he's captured it may have changed the whole dynamic of the campaign.

      Even if the marketting hadn't been really misleading, it still would have been as jarring to me as it was, I think.
      In Halo 4 they made a big deal about trying to make Chief human and you could see him as someone with a personality. Then Cortana died and it was sad.

      But then in 5, we barely see chief. Then Cortana is back and wants to kill people.

      It's like the creative team just sat down and said "ok, people didn't like Halo 4. What can we do to make H5 as different as possible?"
      "Well, Cortana has to come back to life obviously."
      "Oh, obviously."
      "And Chief has to be absent for most of it."
      "Obviously."
      "And the main character has to be as devoid of personality as possible and only thinks in black and white."
      "All great ideas; here are my keys, take my car and go fuck my wife."

    343 have never proven themselves capable of being the new stewards of the Halo franchise. With Halo 4, they managed to undo all the goodwill the franchise had generated up until that point. Halo went from a game I adored and was incredibly excited to pick up first thing on day one to something that I don't even pay attention to.

    They can't only look at Halo 5 to determine what went wrong for the next game, they need to look at everything they have done and failed to do thus far. Halo is a victim of the "me too" mentality almost all first person shooters have been guilty of since Call Of Duty's success. The problem is, now more than ever, COD is not the unassailable sales monster it once was, and even at its height (Modern Warfare, apparently?) it was still a middling and ugly FPS with a large budget and an addictive multiplayer feedback loop. People are sick of the same old franchises and games.

    What these risk-averse executives and publishers don't understand is that there's just as much, if not more, risk in the homogenisation of the industry as there is in being creatively daring. Sometimes you'll experiment and fall flat, but sometimes you'll soar. Whatever happens though, you can never be your best when you're following the leader.

    I find it hilarious they keep fucking up over and over and over again... they blame the fact Master Chief wasn't in the goddamn game for the disconnect...

    Yet Bungie released ONE game with Halo Reach where the Chief only cameo'd as an easter egg and it was possibly the most Halo'y game since part 1!!!!

      Agreed. And what about Halo 2? For parts of the campaign we play as the Arbiter. Bungee didn't fuck things up there either.

      I'm in the minority here but I actually enjoyed Halo 4's campaign narratively and gameplay-wise. I read the Forerunner Saga books though, which probably helped. I can definitely see why a lot of players and fans who didn't read the books felt lost when the Didact and other Forerunner characters/references showed up. That's where 343i fucked up in Halo 4: it was a success for the clued in gamers but left the vast majority scratching their heads.

        And therein lay the issue, which is actually, if you don't mind the segue, a problem with the new Star Wars films too. I REALLY enjoy them especially TFA on a whole other level due to the lore you can read surrounding them, but others, they watch the film, only getting the surface experience that's delivered. That in no way is their fault, it's just that to get the actual full, complete story you have to go above and beyond now *sigh*

    I've never understood how some people came to the conclusion that hunt the truth and halo 5 pitched the Master Chief as the villain. It was clear as day in the hunt the truth audio series that it was ONI labelling the Master Chief as a Rogue/Traitor. It's how the series ends. Halo 5's marketing was clearly from the military perspective, but the Master Chief has been following his and Cortana's own agenda since the first Halo game. So yes he has gone rogue but his goal has always remained the same. "Save humanity"

    The problem with Halo 5's campaign was that it was just boring. I had to force myself to finish it. I didn't care about any of the characters (except maybe Buck and probably because of ODST). By comparison Halo Reach had a great campaign. You did not play as Chief. You already know Reach will fall. But it was a fun campaign and I cared about the tragedy of Nobel Team.

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