Halo 5: Guardians attempts to take the series in a couple of new directions. Does it work, though? Now that the game has been out for almost a week, we can discuss what works and what doesn’t with the villainous twist and the addition of several new characters. This is a spoiler-filled article, however, so don’t scroll past the image below if you haven’t played through the campaign yet.
The Halo 5 story is getting heavily criticized on multiple fronts. Some fans and critics don’t like that Cortana is now the big bad. Others feel like not enough attention was paid to Master Chief and Blue Team. There’s also a contingent that feels ripped off because of the pre-release hype setting Master Chief up as a traitor being hunted by Spartan Locke via the Hunt the Truth audio series and commercials.
Some members of the Halo 5 community have put the blame for the story directly on the lead writer, Brian Reed, with multiple threads in the HaloReddit group focused on him. However, these issues all seem to come from the same place – 343 Industries tried to squeeze so many characters and plotlines into the game’s story that all of it felt rather shallow and rushed.
Let’s look at Cortana to start with. When we last saw her in Halo 4, she sacrificed herself to save Master Chief and the rest of humanity in spite of the fact she was breaking down due to rampancy. Her rampancy and Chief’s desire to cure her were the character story side of that game’s narrative.
Cortana survives because a fragment of her was sucked into the slipspace portal in the fight against the Didact. At the end of Halo 4, the part of her that was with Master Chief tells him most of her was “down there” with the Didact’s ship. This somehow led to her interfacing with the Forerunner Domain and curing her rampancy, or so it seems. Did becoming part of the Domain just prevent a fragment of Cortana from declining further into rampancy, but that fragment of Cortana wasn’t healed beyond rampancy?
These are all things barely touched on during the course of Halo 5’s campaign, as the overriding goal was to push the player to the next action set piece. The Legendary ending of Halo 5 reveals an extra scene of a Halo ring going active while Cortana sings a tune similar to 343 Guilty Spark in the original Xbox game. That at least suggests Cortana is rampant.
Still, it is hard to square rampant Cortana’s willingness to sacrifice herself to save Master Chief and Earth at the end of Halo 4 with the “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal” Domain Cortana in Halo 5 who is willing to murder millions of humans to reach her endgame of a completely peaceful galaxy under the thumb of her rule and other Artificial Intelligence.
Is Cortana evil now or just misguided due to rampancy? Franchise director Frank O’Connor hints at the latter in a Time interview.
“I saw a complaint online, somebody had been reading spoilers, they hadn’t played the game, and they said ‘Why is this character evil?’ And my question back to them is, ‘What makes you say they’re evil?’ Certainly a lot of our younger players are going to struggle with that subtlety, that nuance, because they’re expecting Darth Vader.”
Darth Vader at least had some sort of characterization that explained his turn to the dark side of the Force, even if it was a half-truth by Obi-Wan Kenobi. Meanwhile, Cortana’s turn to mass murder is left open for interpretation.
Cortana’s evolution as a character isn’t the only one to get the short shrift treatment. The addition of Blue Team’s Fred, Kelly, and Linda appear relegated to roles asking if Master Chief is okay in the few missions that have them involved. Fireteam Osiris is chattier and has some nice in-game conversations, such as Vale’s explanation of how she learned to speak Sangheili.
Fireteam Osiris’ sudden switch to hunting Master Chief to assisting him doesn’t help. The promotional lead up to Halo 5 was built on “Hero or Traitor” motif, and it ends quickly in the game. So quickly, in fact, that players are understandably left wondering what the deal was with the live-action commercials just before launch that had Master Chief reportedly dead.
The only character who has any sort of development over the course of Halo 5’s campaign is Dr. Catherine Halsey, as she is featured in many cutscenes. Even then, the ominous “Oni will kill us” opening scene goes nowhere over the course of the game. Additionally, how she knows what is going on with Cortana and what Master Chief’s reaction to her would be is left unexplained and turns out to be wrong for the latter.
Handling a multitude of major characters is a difficult task for any film. Developer 343 Industries should be praised for its attempt at an ensemble cast with a first-person shooter. There were nice touches, such as Fireteam Osiris’ walking around the Meridian camp and interacting with civilians, but it falls short with little narrative being driven from walking around the Arbiter’s camp twice. The Arbiter’s camp missions are largely missed opportunities, as they take two Halo 5 mission slots and are essentially fillers and do nothing action-wise or story-wise.
Overall, the Halo 5 story would have been better served with more of everything – more cutscenes, more in-game interactions, more narrative, more interactions. Developer 343 Industries took a big step in nailing and evolving Halo gameplay with this release. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for Halo 6 for them to nail the story aspect.
[Image via Halo Waypoint]