“Halo 2” (2004) — the best-selling game on the original Xbox — helped establish Microsoft’s Xbox Live division, bringing online gaming into the living room. For PC players already used to playing online, “Halo 2’s” simple, intuitive matchmaking set the standard. To put into perspective how significant this was for Microsoft’s portfolio, consider that Game Informer recently reported that the company will be using Xbox Live membership, not console sales, as its principal metric of success.
When “Halo 3” debuted on Microsoft’s second-generation console, Xbox 360, it allowed players to edit and record their matches as well as make changes to the maps. According to Advertising Age, movie executives blamed its release on poor box office returns during the fall of 2007.
So when it was announced that Bungie would cease working on the franchise after “Halo Reach” (2010), it was difficult not to wonder if 343 Industries — the Microsoft studio created to handle the franchise — would be up to the task. As it turned out, “Halo 4” (2012) not only lived up to its pedigree in terms of its gameplay, it was one of the best-looking games released on the 360. Although I would have hesitated to proclaim this upon completion of “Halo 4,” after playing “Halo 5: Guardians” so close to Bungie’s latest shooter “Destiny: The Taken King,” it’s evident that, at least for now, 343 Industries is the better storyteller.
“Halo 5’s” campaign has the sleek, varied confidence of a guaranteed moneymaker. As I watched the brisk cinematic opening, which shows Fireteam Osiris — a two-man, two-woman group of super soldiers — prepare and initiate a rescue operation, I could imagine the envious stares of Hollywood executives as they noted the great economy with which the characters are humanized by way of their facial expressions and then thrown into a balletic firefight of invigorating, unmessy violence.
“Halo 5” is nothing if not egalitarian, even utopian, in its politics. Throughout the campaign, players switch between two human squads: Blue Team, led by Master Chief — the hero of the series — and Fireteam Osiris, led by Spartan Agent Jameson Locke. Both teams are composed of two women and two men. Because I couldn’t find anyone to play co-op with, I spent the majority of the game contently playing as Locke, a black character, which was a treat since minorities are seldom given leading roles in video games. Speaking of inclusiveness, the female characters in the game are as dignified and commanding as the men. I couldn’t fail to notice one of the female characters on Fireteam Osiris applauding our alien allies for their inclusion of female warriors. This idealistic sense is mirrored in the game’s overall plot.
Without straying deep into spoiler country, the threat hanging over Master Chief and the rest is that of a forcible peace. After a consortium of A.I., or “created” in the game’s lingo, acquire Death Star-like weaponry, they threaten their creators and other self-conscious beings with annihilation if they will not submit. Possessed by a liberal imagination, the A.I. are convinced they can radically curtail poverty, disease and other social ills if people will let the A.I. do what’s best for them. Because players cannot lay down their arms, the rhetorical point — explicitly stated by the main antagonist — is that human beings would prefer strife and misery over any loss of self-determination, even if such a loss would confer certain benefits.
“Halo 5” recognizes itself as mass entertainment. Ideological conjectures never derail the momentum of the action. Still, I noted how effectively the dialogue worked to sketch out empathetic characters. And with regard to my A.I.-controlled teammates, their combat performance — bar a couple of boss battles — was impressive, far better than the cannon fodder from earlier games.
Musically, “Halo 5” has one of the best get-hyped soundtracks this side of “Terminator.” Visually, it sticks to a conventional sci-fi look — though its cut scenes look incredible. What’s most noticeable about its environments is the wealth of tactical vantage points unlikely to be exhausted on one play-through. And as for the game’s alternating foot and vehicle sections, they’re more spectacularly integrated than in any other campaign in the series. Those Banshee spaceships and Warthog jeeps handle better than ever before. The developers were prudent to go with a 60-frames-per-second refresh rate instead of trying to up the visual effects since the added smoothness brought to the controls will feel apparent to anyone long-accustomed to the 30-frames-per-second gameplay for which previous entries in the series were known. (“Halo: The Master Chief Collection” remastered the earlier games, upping the frame-rate to 60 frames per second; however, many fans were left unimpressed by its multiplayer performance.)
The 60-frames-per-second gameplay will no doubt go over well with those drawn to “Halo 5’s” multiplayer. Because of the limited number of people on the pre-release servers, I didn’t get to play as many multiplayer matches as I would have liked. Of those that I did, Arena mode, which consisted of team death match, played out just like you’d expect. I quickly found myself more interested in Warzone, a 12 vs. 12 multi-objective competition which seems designed with eSports in mind. (I presume that it’s more interesting to watch people snipe at each other while performing tasks than simply to watch them running around shooting.)
As tired as space marine tropes are to video games, it would be mean-spirited of me to deny that “Halo 5” delivers a solid, blockbuster experience best enjoyed with friends.