Caution: Spoilers ahead.
Halo 5: Guardians is the first iteration of Microsoft’s flagship franchise on the Xbox One, although it is the middle chapter of a loose trilogy. Considering the Halo franchise’s relationship with the Xbox brand, it’s no wonder that the game looks great. As a matter of fact, it plays really well too. The improvements to the movement mechanics add a whole new dimension to the gameplay. That being said, there are some real problems with the game.
I won’t spend too much time on it, since it’s not the focus of this website, but the online only co-op and multiplayer is really disappointing. However, the biggest problem with Halo 5 isn’t the lack of a local multiplayer option, it’s actually that the entire narrative is a mess. Ironically, many of the problems with the single-player campaign can be pinned on a shoehorned implementation of four player co-op.
Essentially, the premise behind Halo 5: Guardians is that Master Chief and his team have gone off to save Cortana, but the UNSC wants him back. To that end, they have sent Locke and his team to bring Master Chief’s team back in. Conveniently, each team has a total of four members and throughout the campaign, the player switches back and forth between playing as Locke, and Master Chief. If you have three online friends, you can have them fill out the teams as you play through both points of view throughout the campaign.
It’s fair to say that if you played most of the Halo games, you probably have a fairly good understanding of Master Chief’s relationship with Cortana. Despite some minor plot inconsistencies throughout the years, essentially Cortana and Master Chief love each other in their own, strange way. After everything they’ve been through together, they really only have one another. Now, that’s a little weird because Master Chief is a person and Cortana is basically a computer program, but okay, Master Chief is somewhat inhuman, and it’s all science fiction anyway, right?
In Halo 5: Guardians, all of that weirdness gets ratcheted up a notch by creating a love triangle of sorts. It seems that Dr. Halsey cares for Master Chief, now mostly referred to as John, a little more than just professionally. The origins of their relationship can be found in The Fall of Reach animated series, or the book it was based on. Of course, you have to buy those separately unless you bought the Limited or Collector’s Edition of Halo 5, which includes the animated series. If you haven’t seen or read The Fall of Reach, it basically explains how Master Chief was recruited as a six year-old to join a new super soldier program called Spartan-II. Dr. Halsey ran the program and eventually created Cortana to assist the Spartans.
That leaves us with Dr. Halsey as essentially Master Chief’s school teacher, and his surviving classmates as the “Blue Team.” The Spartan training was pretty brutal. These former classmates, unremarkably named Kelly, Fred, and Linda, are given surprisingly little dialogue throughout the campaign. Except for some generic affirmations of support, there is no revelation at all of their personalities or history with the Master Chief. The only way you would know who these Blue Team characters are is by watching or reading The Fall of Reach. To be fair, Locke does mention to Buck that “they grew up together” during a cutscene, but other than that, they might as well be “Spartan Sidekick One,” “Two,” and “Three.”
While Halo 5’s Blue Team might as well be generic space marines along for the ride with Master Chief, at least half of Locke’s Team Osiris is somewhat familiar. Best known as the main protagonist in Halo: Nightfall, Jameson Locke was also included in cutscenes in the remastered Halo 2: Anniversary. The other member of Team Osiris that fans should recognize is Edward Buck, who was originally introduced in Halo 3: ODST. As any respectable science fiction fan should recognize, Buck is modeled after and voiced by Firefly and Castle star, Nathan Fillion. On the other hand, the remaining members of Fireteam Osiris, Holly Tanaka and Olympia Vale, are relegated to background chatter. As with Blue Team, I suppose they allow the box to be checked for token female representation.
Now, the trailers for Halo 5: Guardians allude to Master Chief and Blue Team totally running rogue, and Locke and his Fireteam Osiris trying to save humanity from the reckless abandon Master Chief has left in his wake. As mentioned before, however, there is actually almost no conflict between the two teams, though there is one non-lethal altercation between Locke and Master Chief. Of course, Halo 5 is a shooter, so there is conflict. Unfortunately, almost all of it seems pointless and arbitrary. It certainly doesn’t lead anywhere.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out what 343 Industries is trying to do with Halo 5 and Master Chief. On one hand, it seems as if they’re trying to humanize him. They gave him a back story, Dr. Halsey pines after him and calls him John, and for his part, he’s obsessed with saving his AI companion, Cortana. Honestly, that’s the only part that really makes any sense. With all of their shared experiences and the two of them to evolving together, Master Chief and Cortana on their own is actually a believable arc. The rest of it is just nonsense. For better or worse, he’s a weapon of the UNSC. That’s what Dr. Halsey made him and for her to be all mushy over him is honestly a bit icky.
Besides the strange Dr. Halsey affection for Master Chief, the plot of Halo 5: Guardians really just treads water. Halo 4 ended with an already-dying Cortana sacrificing herself to save Master Chief during their fight with an ancient Forerunner warrior, known as the Didact. It turns out, however, that Cortana didn’t really die. What she did was tap into an ancient technology and, in addition to finding a way to counteract her dementia-like “rampancy,” Cortana finds a whole new set toys.
The eponymous Guardians are essentially Forerunner versions of Galactus, and there are a lot of them spread around the universe. With her new “perspective,” Cortana has decided that the universe needs saving, and has the tools to do it. While the Guardians are an effective hammer, she has also converted most of the active AI systems to her newfound purpose of peace through annihilation. Unfortunately, a game of tag between two arbitrary teams obfuscates the intended storyline and as the middle story of a trilogy, it fails on almost every level.
So, throughout Halo 5, Master Chief’s Blue Team is looking for Cortana. In turn, Locke’s Fireteam Osiris looks for Blue Team and eventually finds them. Blue Team escapes and continues looking for Cortana and eventually find her. Then, Fireteam Osiris catches back up with and rescues Blue Team after they are put in stasis by the misguided Cortana. There are some big, nice looking environments and amusing banter between Locke and Buck but otherwise, the whole game is really about as interesting as those three sentences I used to summarize what is the effective plot.
The only reason why there are two four-person teams is so Halo 5: Guardians can have four-player co-op. There’s absolutely no purpose to Kelly, Fred, Linda, Holly, or Olympia except to serve as placeholders. Again, I guess 343 Industries deserves some credit for including women on the teams, unlike Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but to what end? Are token playable female characters really better than none? I suppose, but it seems more like appeasement than anything else. I mean, after playing through the campaign, is there any incentive or reason to play as one character over the other? With that being the case, why were they created and even a part of the campaign? I’m sure they could have saved a few million dollars by leaving them out of the narrative completely.
Sadly, Halo 5: Guardians, is really just a bunch of half thought out concepts that muck up the entire franchise’s narrative. I confess, I enjoyed the narrative of ODST and Reach better than the core Halo entries. To me Master Chief is a monolithic, unrelatable character, but after 14 years, it’s really too late to change it. His story can still be interesting without adding a score of half-baked characters to distract players from the fact that Master Chief is essentially a one-dimensional character. He’s never going to be Booker Dewitt from Bioshock: Infinite or Joel from The Last of Us, and that’s okay. Introducing a bunch of pointless companions to the single player narrative to give co-op players characters to play, however, is certainly not.