We'll start this off on a positive note. My favourite Halo game, in terms of campaign exclusively, is Halo 4. I know that's a rather unpopular opinion to have, but all the same, I stick to my guns on it as the singular best game in terms of a self-contained story that follows a beginning, middle, end formula with a dramatic, tense and memorable plot.
But I'm not just going to say "Halo 4 is best, fuck you that's why". What I'm here to talk about are the elements at play that worked in Halo 4's favour, and how those elements were mis-handled or neglected for Halo 5: Guardians. (You are of course welcome to disagree with me, I am simply stating an opinion)
The Stakes: Or, "What You Fight For."
We all need a good motivation to keep us invested in a story-driven game. Especially in a linear game like Halo where you're just following along with the plot that's laid out for you rather than affecting it with decisions and RPG elements. Halo 1-3 always sort of struggled with this, as the threat was always right there in the title. The Halo's.
Halo: Combat Evolved had you discovering the true nature of the mysterious Ring-world, that it was in fact an ancient super-weapon built by a long dead civilization of Forerunner aliens who sacrificed themselves to wipe the galaxy clean of the all-devouring virulent parasite known as the Flood. Your objective is simple. Contain the Flood outbreak, Destroy the ring before it can be fired, or else all life in the cosmos will die.
The problem however, is repetition. Halo 2 and 3 did very little to vary up the formula. And that's partially the fault of the franchise as a whole. I mean when your first game has "universal death" hanging in the balance, how do you escalate things from there?
Now don't get me wrong. Halo 2 is an exceptional game in regards to breaking the mold. The decision to give us an insider's perspective into the machinations of the Covenant, their society and the political tensions at play was genius. But if you take the nostalgia goggles off, the story hasn't aged too well, with many glaring plot holes that aren't resolved and of course the infamous cliffhanger ending. But at the end of the day, the 'threat' was the same. Flood are bad, Covenant want to use Halo, stop them.
Halo 3 is, in my personal opinion, a brainless action movie compared to the other two. Half the game's plot is spent meandering about Earth wandering aimlessly from objective to objective, followed by a very bland and predictable race-to-the-finish-line in an attempt to wrap up the trilogy. And it too, fixates on the "stop the Halo's from firing" threat. Simply put, same old, same old.
Let's talk realistically for a moment.
(and I'll give you a second to stop laughing first, as I have asked for 'realistic' talk in a game series about power-armoured super soldiers, naked hologram ladies, squid-faced lizards and space zombies)
At the back of our minds, we all know 'the good guys will win'. A recent article on X-Men: Apocalypse talks about the issue raised in the article's title. "When the stakes are too high, the audience loses." Which is the crux of a threat as nebulously huge as the Halo array. If they fire, that's it. All life in the galaxy dies. Game over, the end.
The moment when Cortana reveals this to the player in Halo: Combat Evolved, is a game changer. You thought you were about to push a button and just wipe away the Flood, problem solved? Nope. You were one fuck-up away from universal genocide because you decided to trust the floating orb who's been chattering away like a derranged C-3PO the whole time. Nice job, moron.
That works once. One time. The shock value wears off sooner or later, it becomes mundane to the point where you KNOW the Halo's aren't going off, because that'd spell the end of the series. It's just that meta thing in the back of your mind that breaks the immersion and destroys any semblance of tension. So at that point, you're left asking yourself. How do we fix this?
Simple. You lower the stakes. Make the story personal. Sure, there's a threat. There's danger. But not to the same overwhelming degree. This is where Halo 4 is (in my opinion) an absolute triumph, and I'll explain why that is.
Halo 4 has all the hallmarks of a generic Halo story when broken down to its core components. You've got your big alien bad guy, you've got your Covenant, you've got your "Forerunner gizmo doomsday device", and some plucky human sidekick characters thrown into the mix. Business as usual, right? True. But a story can be more than the sum of its parts, which is where Halo 4 excels.
The plot is straightforward enough. Master Chief has been in cryo-freeze ever since the end of Halo 3, where he and Cortana were marooned in deep space aboard the drifting wreckage of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn after defeating the Covenant, stopping the flood and preventing the Halo's from firing (again...)
Nearly 5 years have passed, and the wrecked ship (or half of it anyway) drifts toward a Forerunner world called Requiem. Cortana wakes you from Cryo-sleep to warn you of an intruder alert, but not without a warm, welcoming smile and some witty banter to make you as a player feel right at home stepping into the familliar armoured boots of Master Chief.
Master Chief has always been a rather "silent protagonist", only speaking in cutscenes. Halo 4 drastically changes things for the better here, giving John a more active speaking role throughout the levels in first-person, which really works to its advantage. Steve Downes is an amazing voice actor who, in the original trilogy, only really got to spout the occasional zinger or one-liner. His chemistry with Jen Taylor is fantastic, and helps to carry the game. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the intruder alarm.
Sure enough, it's the Covenant. Perhaps a little uglier than usual, and outfitted in unusual gear, displaying unorthodox behaviour too. Something Chief quickly points out. Cortana brushes it off, saying they likely just came across a rogue scavenger party.
...Until the bridge blast shields lower, and you realise that is NOT the case, as a sizeable Covenant fleet comes bearing down on you. After much fighting, some technical jiggery-pokery and blowing up an assault frigate for good measure, the Dawn wreckage and the Covenant ships are sucked inside the hollowed out planet Requiem, (it's a dyson sphere of sorts, inside out planet? Google it.) by means of a gravity well.
Where am I going with this, you might ask? Most of you have played Halo 4, you know all this. Well it's Cortana's behaviour near the end of the level that is really the most noticeable shift in the game's direction. She loses focus during the attempt to flee the Dawn, she gets angry, panics and snaps at you. That's... not like her, is it?
Upon landing on Requiem, Chief notices her erratic behaviour again, and confronts her on it now that the dust has settled and they have a minute to catch their breath. Or, they have a minute where nobody's trying to kill them. This cutscene is pretty important, so I'll provide a link to watch it, if you're so inclined.
Cortana explains that she was put into service 8 years ago, AI's deteriorate after 7, succumbing to a condition known as Rampancy. The AI has accumulated so much data that they can't control the input/output of it anymore, they literally think themselves to death.
John quickly deflects this, insisting that if they find Doctor Halsey (Cortana's creator, and the woman who created the Spartans; John included) she can fix this. Cortana manages a half-smile, twisting the knife as she repeats the words we know her best for. "Don't make a girl a promise you know you can't keep." WIthout any of her usual optimsim or charm. More... grim acceptance of what's happening.
This moment sets the tone for the game, and is exactly what I'm talking about. The stakes are real, and they are personal. Cortana is slowly withering away into the recesses of insanity right in front of you, and you're powerless to fix this yourself. All you can do is soldier ahead and try to stop the insidious plans of the Didact and his Covenant / Promethean minions, in the hopes that Cortana will survive this in one piece.
It all feels very 'human'. This had the potential to go horribly wrong, they could've done as Halo 3 did, and made Cortana's behaviour an obnoxious, intrusive distraction that only serves to interrupt and slow down the pacing of the game. But they didn't. I have to give props to a handful of people for pulling this off.
Chris Shlerf, who drew from the personal experience of his Mother's dementia when writing Cortana's rampancy. Cortana never feels like a 'damsel in distress' as she did in Halo 3, just waiting to be rescued. She insists on accompanying you to the bitter end, performing her duties admirably, even in spite of her ever-worsening condition. Shlerf did a fantastic job of crafting a compelling and engaging story here, the fact that he's writing for Mass Effect: Andromeda has me eagerly awaiting that game's eventual release.
Next, the mo-cap actors, namely Bruce Thomas, who provided the motion-capture performance for John-117 / Master Chief, and Mackenzie Mason as Cortana. As I mentioned above, the game goes to great lengths to portray these two characters in a believable and human-like fashion.
While Steve Downs and Jen Taylor's voices are an essential part of this, the motion-capture is absolutely deserving of equal praise. John's subtle body-language carries through, allowing him to emote even underneath all that armour.
And Cortana's expressions and physical range as she goes across the full spectrum from calm and collected to raving mad and gibbering in dismay help to make her condition seem... 'real', like it's not something she just shrugs off after 5 minutes (Again, something Halo 3 struggled with...)
Lastly, The voice actors. I already mentioned this earlier, so I won't repeat myself, but Steve Downes and Jen Taylor are at their best here, and it shows. An outstanding script delivered flawlessly by an incredibly talented duo who play off each other wonderfully.
"HEY, ISN'T THIS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT HALO 5?!" I hear you ask. "I THOUGHT YOU WERE GONNA COMPLAIN, BUT ALL YOU'RE DOING IS BEING NICE AND COMPLIMENTING".
Oh, I know.
But the best way to get my point across is to compare and contrast. Which leads me to, what I think is Halo 5's ultimate failing. You all know where I'm going with this.
Halo 4 was a very personal story, the stakes were lowered, but the tension was very real. And at the end of the day? It was all for nought. You couldn't save Cortana, but she saved you. The Didact was defeated, the earth saved. But at what cost? With Cortana gone, the threat passed, the game concludes with John staring out into space, alone, remembering Cortana's poignant words about "which of them is a machine" almost haunting him in her absence.
Then along comes Halo 5... where within the second mission... Cortana is back. It's not a rampant copy, not a deception by the Didact or Chief's hallucination. It's actually her. But I'll save the majority of this discussion for the "how not to do a plot twist" journal I mentioned way back at the start, because I have so much to say about this monumentally bad idea that it couldn't possibly fit in here.
Halo 4 made the Didact's plan to wipe out humanity the driving force of the game, it's the 'plot', but the motivation was personal, namely, to save Cortana. Halo 5 does the total opposite, with John shunted into the background, playable for a grand total of 3 missions of the total 15 ingame. The primary plot is that of Fireteam Osiris, the mis-matched bunch of newbie Spartans who've been assembled to chase after the AWOL Master Chief.
So essentially we go from a grounded plot with personal stakes that focusses on the series' leads and how they play off each other.... to a plot full of totally new characters we barely know dealing with a threat we know nothing about and have no real investment in.
I'll get into detail about this more during the "Hunt the Truth" journal (I'm saying that a lot, aren't I?) but really the plot of Halo 5 boils down to "you have to stop Cortana from using the Guardians".
What are the Guardians?
Good question, because unlike the Didact, who had an entire trilogy of novels worth of buildup, and his super-weapon "The Composer" which was mentioned and appeared in one of those novels before Halo 4 came out....
... the Guardians are generic alien death machines that have never once been mentioned in over 15 years of Halo fiction.
Besides the abillity to set off EMP's (a talking point I'll get into another time) we know next to nothing about their capabilities. Just that "they're powerful". They do more damage WAKING UP than actually actively looking to cause trouble, simply because they were buried.
The Guardians are nothing but ambigiously evil-ish chrome death-bots that the writers plucked out of thin air and made no effort to explain or justify in the fiction. Which is just plain sad when you remember Halo 4 justified the presence of the Promethean minions in a very satisfactory way, when you discover their horrific origins, and how it relates to what the Didact has in store for mankind.
But there's no Didact here. Instead, we have the Warden Eternal, the antagonist who you spend most of the game fighting. Like the Guardians, he is also a complete nobody that came out of nowhere, has no backstory or foundation in the fiction, no discernable motivation besides being british and a long-winded bastard who angrily goads you because he is a villain.
And when he's done away with by Cortana, nothing of value is lost. It pains me that, as one of the "hardcore" fans, I'm left shrugging in confusion when a casual asks me "who is this Warden guy?" because I don't know, and I'm guessing we never will know. His motivations are so at odds with Cortana's that his only role in the story is to padd it out with lame boss fights and psuedo-cryptic ramblings that try to trick you into thinking there's anything going on in this complete joke of a story, when there just plain fucking isn't. He's a british bot-guy who got friendzone'd by Cortana and is all bitter about it, far as I can tell.
After the emotional powerhouse of Halo 4, we get a generic by the numbers "stop the big bad forerunner thingy" plot that pretends to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but is really just a bland planet-hopping co-op shooter with no depth or storytelling consequences.
The first two levels of this game told me everything I needed to know on my first playthrough. Hell, the opening cutscene being a visually impressive but ultimately pointless action sequence should've been a big neon warning sign that this game was gonna be nothing but brainless popcorn spectacle of the worst caliber.
They started off by killing a well established character for no reason in a completely unsatisfying cop-out death, then by immediately UN-killing the character whose death was built up to, well executed and left a lasting impression on me and many others.
Believe me when I say this is a common trait in Brian Reed's writing style, the "I'll just piss all over someone else's better story because I can't write my own one worth a damn", school of bad comic book writing because he'll do this a good 3 or 4 times more in the journals I have ahead of me.
If I'm summing up this journal with anything.... it's this.
Halo 4 was a fantastic starting point for a new trilogy of games. It and the related fiction showed a clear and discernable plan for the universe going forward. The Didact's presence was masterfully built up throughout the Forerunner trilogy of novels, whereas Cortana's resurrection was ret-conned in via a FORUM POST 18 months after Halo 4's release, and her AI rebellion only hinted at in a tiny E-book that was shat out mere DAYS before Halo 5's release at the last minute in a shallow attempt to justify it.
Halo 4 was a masterpiece IMO, where all the pieces fight together just right.
Halo 5 is a floundering mess of cliché's and tired, worn out twists designed to "shock" the player and generate attention.
Nothing that happens in this game has lasting impact, not even the resolution of the Sangheilios civil war, which was the best part of that game, was a total red herring because of a get-out-of-jail-free card Reed snuck into the ancilliary media. I wouldn't be this mad at Halo 5 if Halo 4 hadn't set the bar so high, and Hunt the Truth hadn't hyped the game's story up so well.
Halo 4 had the narrative equivelant of Empire Strikes Back's "I am your father" moment, an unexpected move that left a lasting impression and paved the way for what was to come next. It wasn't a happy ending, but it was a memorable one.
Halo 5 is like Darth Vader saying "Just kidding, you're adopted", before being removed from the story altogether without anyone ever mentioning him again and having Obi-Wan Kenobi come back from the dead as a Sith Lord to be the new villain.
Join me tomorrow for a look at "Hunt The Truth", the marketing campaign and radio play written by what appears to be the only people at 343 who are any good at crafting a narrative.