On the hunt for Halo 5's spark
Hands-on with the campaign for Xbox's biggest game.
During the Enemy Lines level from Halo 5's campaign, which takes place around halfway through the game, Spartan Locke leads Fireteam Osiris into a huge goldfish bowl of an arena set on Sanghelios, homeworld of the Elites. Arbiter has formed a new alliance called the Swords of Sanghelios, and Osiris lends Master Chief's alien mate a hand in putting down the Covenant. It's all kicking off.
Muscle memory honed by years of similar setups in previous Halo games takes over, the "golden triangle" of shoot, grenade, melee is still as satisfying - and potent - as ever. 343 Industries' Halo has, shock horror, dared to turn that triangle into a square with the addition of new abilities such as sprint, and aim down sights, and a ground pound, and an air boost, but the famous Halo combat loop stands strong, like one of the statues of ancient aliens we see on Sanghelios, a testament to the purity that is Halo gameplay. Shoot, grenade, melee. Shoot, grenade, melee. 30 seconds of fun, calm down, ramp up, 30 seconds of fun. Brilliant.
In an effort to make a mark on the series, 343 has added a greater sense of verticality to proceedings with Halo 5. And nooks and crannies. So, upon entering said goldfish bowl, there are ledges to climb up to, rock walls to bust through, flanking positions up there and everywhere, and hidden paths in which power weapons may be found. Halo's always had huge levels complete with plenty of nooks and crannies, but with Halo 5 I felt like I was digging about more, hauling myself up, boosting onto a ledge that famous Spartan floating jump wouldn't otherwise reach, then ground pounding into a pack of Grunts from what feels like a mile up. There's plenty to do in a firefight beyond firing weapons - and invariably you'll find it if you look up. Remember, there's no fall damage as a Spartan (343 actually debated the rights and wrongs of this, creative director Tim Longo tells me).
And you're in charge. For so many years we Halo players worried about ourselves only. Sure, we'd have UNSC soldiers running alongside us for big battles, but they were expendable. It's obvious 343 has built Halo 5's campaign to be played co-op. Osiris is more than the player, or Locke. It's Buck (played by a suitably wise-cracking Nathan Fillion), Tanaka and Vale. Issuing orders is as easy as pointing the targeting reticle at something and pressing a button. You can order your AI-controlled Spartans to focus fire on a single enemy, move, revive others, take vehicles and even pick up weapons. It's super slick and sometimes useful. I played Halo 5's campaign on Heroic difficulty and found Osiris needed little instruction. Every now and then someone would go down, but after a while they'd be revived. The best thing about them is they don't get in the way, which, in my experience at least, can be a big issue for games in which you share screen real estate with AI partners. They're pretty useful with their guns, too, and pull their weight when it comes to kill count.
Then the Sanghelios level pulls out a big gun: a Kraken. This huge, monstrous Covenant machine tears into the the Swords of Sanghelios, smashing up the ground and destroying ancient buildings. Covenant Grunts fire turrets from within its bowels, Jackals snipe from behind annoying energy fields, and Elites lead the assault, darting left and right to avoid Spartan bullets as they've always done. As you make your way across the rocky landscape, killing all aliens before you, it's a spectacular sight to have in the background, and so Halo.
Eventually you're tasked with bringing the Kraken down, so into a Promethean Phaeton we go, blasting the turrets as we teleport to avoid enemy fire. The music ramps up, the Halo purple pew pews across the screen, then you board the beast, destroying it from within. You sprint out, jump back into your Phaeton and fly off as the Kraken blows up behind you. The level continues as you fly into a mysterious new alien installation, those black bars melting into the top and bottom of the screen. This is Halo at its best.
The Kraken battle rekindles memories of Scarab fights in Bungie's Halo games. It's hugely welcome to see Halo return to the kind of expansive, evolving and lengthy campaign mission fans love after Halo 4, a game that felt more constrained as 343's developers wrung out every last drop of power from the ageing Xbox 360. Here, with the Xbox One, 343 spreads its wings, and in the process gets back to what Halo fans want from the best sci-fi first-person shooter campaign in the business. If Halo 5 needs to reignite a spark inside lapsed Halo fans, this'll do it.
But what of Master Chief? 343's big idea for Halo 5's story sees the faceless Xbox mascot AWOL and Fireteam Osiris in hot pursuit, but we still get to play as him during some campaign missions. One I played is called The Argent Moon, the second mission of the game. Here Master Chief, as part of Blue Team, infiltrates an ONI research vessel on the search for, well, who do you think? The spaceship offers more confined, corridor-based gameplay (what 343 calls "hall crawl"), with large rooms featuring fights on multiple levels against Covenant forces. As the second mission of the game, The Argent Moon sees Halo 5's campaign still in tutorial mode, and teaches the player how to use Halo 5's new Fireteam Order System. At one point you're charged with defeating two Covenant Hunters - a tough fight in tight quarters. But by ordering your teammates to focus fire, you're afforded the time and room to sweep behind the enemy and shoot the fleshy weak spots. Still, despite the occasional flourish, The Argent Moon is a rather uneventful, uninspiring mission that I imagine won't linger long in the memory. I hope Master Chief gets more elaborate surroundings to show what he's capable of later in the game.
Which brings me neatly onto a concern I have with Halo 5's campaign: that we may not get to play as Master Chief as often as we'd like. Spartan Locke is the star for much of the game, hunting Master Chief for pissing off the UNSC in some unknown way, but I'm really not that interested in his backstory or his place in the larger Halo lore. For me, Halo has always been about the faceless Master Chief, a blank canvas I've always felt at ease painting on. Master Chief is a super soldier with out of this world powers, but we all have a shot at being the guy in the suit, leaping headfirst into insurmountable odds, saving humanity by being the hero the world desperately needs. When Bungie asked us to help Master Chief "finish the fight" back in 2007, the hairs on the back of my neck rose to attention. I'm not sure Spartan Locke inspires a similar sense of heroism.
I see what 343's doing here. It's trying to expand the Halo universe by adding characters who it's desperate for players to care about. That's what all the live action shows and books are designed to do. And I get that (Game of Thrones, with its sprawling cast, has a lot of answer for). But what we have leaves the player in the curious position of playing a game whose story revolves around Master Chief, but is viewed through the lens of another character who isn't quite as cool.
A part of me wonders whether my concern with the amount of time we're set to spend with Locke compared to Master Chief has less to do with Locke himself and more to do with the fact I have yet to be given a compelling reason to care about his motivation. Halo 4, despite its faults, is a more cohesive offering than Bungie's Halo games, even if it has more than a whiff of Saturday morning cartoon about it. It even carried a decent emotional hook with the events surrounding Master Chief's AI partner in crime Cortana. But it failed to set up a credible villain. I mean, who is the Didact, and why should we care? Only the most hardcore of Halo lore fanatics knew. At the end of the day, Halo 4 was about killing the evil alien and saving the galaxy. I hope for more nuance with Halo 5's story. Why has Master Chief gone AWOL? Why is Locke hunting him down? When the pair - inevitably, let's be honest - join forces later in the game, will I feel all that's gone before has had some kind of reason to be? In short, I hope for a villain I can get behind. Screw the Prometheans. And screw that Didact guy.
That Kraken fight, though. It has stuck with me. It gives me hope Halo 5's campaign will be what I want from a Halo campaign. I want co-op (the lack of split-screen still stings). I want those late nights messing about on Legendary difficulty with friends. I want shenanigans with Banshees and Warthogs and rocket launchers. I want huge levels in which the crack of Halo's sniper rifle reverberates off of the walls of alien structures before landing in the skull of an Elite half the world away. I want to stick a grenade onto a Ghost and watch it blow from halfway across the map. I want to leap into a firefight and make the goldfish bowl my own. Shoot, grenade, melee, 30 seconds of fun.
This is the spark I'm looking for. Halo 4 was a hugely enjoyable, visually-stunning first-person shooter that burned brightly before fading away not long after launch. I need more from Halo 5. This is Halo, after all.