Much of the hype around the new Star Wars movies (perhaps the only space epic bigger than Halo) is fueled by rumors surrounding Luke Skywalker, the galaxy’s last remaining Jedi knight. Why don’t we see more of him in the trailer for the new movie? Why are Han and Leia crying? Hey, what about that guy in the mask? Is that Luke? Doesn’t Luke also have a lightsaber? It could be Luke. It’s probably Luke. Maybe not!
Like most good trailers, the promotional videos around Star Wars have generated more questions than answers. Likewise, one of the early advertisements for Halo 5: Guardians shows an unknown Spartan (one of the human super soldiers central to the series lore) walking across a blasted wasteland. The image strongly insinuated that the face of the series, the heroic Master Chief, has betrayed humanity—that he had, effectively, turned to the dark side.
It’s an intriguing proposition. What happens when humanity’s greatest hero turns into its most implacable villain? Or has the hero himself been betrayed by those he has sworn to protect? Either way, it’s a juicy plot, one that could send Halo in a dark and exciting post-Master Chief direction. If only it were so. Guardians is not that game. At least, not in the way we were led to believe.
When last we saw Master Chief at the conclusion of Halo 4, he had just defeated a survivor of an ancient alien race known as the Forerunners. (These are the cranky moon wizards responsible for creating the Haloes.) Chief’s victory came at a cost. Cortana, Chief’s artificial-intelligence companion and possibly the only thing in this universe he’s not inclined to shoot on sight, appears to have died. It’s a tragic love story between machine and man-machine. But if Halo 4 falls somewhere near the film Her on a scale of human-AI romance, Halo 5 feels more akin to Ex Machina.
As this latest installment gets underway, Chief learns that Cortana is alive and has apparently cured her terminal AI disease. She is, however, seemingly marooned on a Forerunner world. Chief and his team hotfoot it out of there, as he’s anxious to reconnect with his digitized lady friend. His superiors are not happy. Now, you’d think the Chief’s illustrious service record would have earned him a little trust back at high command. But another group of Spartans—Fireteam Osiris, your squad for most of the game—is quickly dispatched to bring Chief and his team home at the point of a gun, where they can face discipline for desertion.
To be clear, Chief didn’t slingshot an asteroid into a planet. He didn’t throw in with a gang of Covenant mercenaries. He certainly did not get blackout drunk, steal a Warthog, and go joyriding through downtown Sanghelios. Nevertheless, this is the conflict at the heart of Halo 5, more misdemeanor than mortal sin. Coupled with the underwhelming and repetitive nature of the game’s single boss, who shows up time and again, this campaign doesn’t make it to the medal stand of top three Halo campaigns.
The campaign is a less lonely affair than usual. Whether playing as Chief or Spartan Locke, you’re part of a unit of four, rather than a lone gunman making your solitary way across the galaxy. Teammates revive you, serve up some occasionally solid banter (thanks, Nathan Fillion), and serve as convenient distractions for enemies, although their actual combat effectiveness is negligible. It’s a heartening throwback to the camaraderie of Halo: Reach, despite Guardians’ failure to hit the same emotional notes as that underrated installment.
Despite the story’s shortcomings, Guardians looks and feels as vital as any Halo title to date. Spartans can now charge, clamber up walls, and execute melee attacks from the air. While smashing an enemy’s face from above is not quite satisfying enough to overcome the campaign’s stilted weirdness, it certainly adds something wonderfully personal to the new Warzone mode—a 12-on-12 Spartan fragfest that is everything Halo multiplayer should be. Two teams battle it out, securing strongpoints while fighting each other and alien forces that periodically invade the match.
Let’s be honest: There are few things worse than getting repeatedly blown up, stabbed, run over, and shot at while being laughed at by a random assortment of maniacal 10-year-olds. But even those of us who aren’t good at this kind of thing (ahem) can contribute in Warzone. If you kill no one else but the Forerunner Warden or any of the other AI-controlled bosses before the other team gets to them, points-wise, you’ll have done more than your share in helping your team achieve victory.
Does it even really matter that the single-player campaign is disappointing? Maybe not. Developer 343 Industries is still faithful to Bungie’s original vision, and the game has remained remarkably intact since Halo: Combat Evolved was released nearly 15 years ago. This continuity is admirable. That said, Guardians feels like a huge missed opportunity to evolve Halo beyond simple combat.
Halo 5: Guardians
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Games Studios
Platform: Xbox One