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LONG BLOG

Halo 5: Guaridans, Or How to Fix What Isn't Broken

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I don't fear change. There are times when game design needs to move forward, and the end result pushes the industry to innovate in a meaningful way. Then there's the flip side of change: the homogenization of game design, the change for the sake of change to sell more copies to the lowest common denominator. We've seen this, we know what it looks like, and it ain't pretty. There's a line at which innovation ends, and game design starts to be built around a business model. Halo 5 doesn't just cross that line, it leaps over it and never looks back.

The Campaign

In past Halo games, you've had the solo campaign and the co-op campaign. They've always been separate things. You were never saddled with AI teammates who become playable in co-op, which helped pacing by giving you tense, isolated levels mixed with dense, AI filled ones. This has been a core tenant of the franchise. Most importantly, you never had to babysit the AI or depend on them to proceed. Solo and co-op were designed and balanced as two entities.

Halo 5 scraps that. Whether you play as Chief or the soulless Spartan Locke (we'll get to him), you're still always with 3 AI teammates. On higher difficulties they don't take cover, evade, or help you kill enemies. Their only purpose becomes soaking up bullets and distracting foes while you do all the work. Which would be fine, if the solo game was actually designed for you to never need them to progress.

Instead, Halo 5 has been balanced for a revive system where you and your AI teammates can be brought back when "downed". This works in co-op, but the AI is so dumb they frequently fail to revive you in time. They could have properly balanced solo as they always have: death means you restart from checkpoint. The current system makes watching your death from the ground, as the brain dead AI struggles just to run over to you, exponentially more frustrating.

What about the campaign itself, though? Maybe I'm just an old fart who needs to accept that single player games are dying. Too bad 75% of Halo 5 is spent playing as the worst character in this franchise: Spartan-IV Jameson Locke. There's a massive amount of dialogue in this game, and everything out of his mouth is painfully forced. He's not likable, he's not relatable, he has no arc, no backstory, no personality. I wish they would have just made him a quiet protagonist like the Chief used to be. I say "used to be" because... well he can't seem to shut the fuck up now either.

And this comes wrapped in a package that doesn't explain how the Chief reunites with his team or what happened since Halo 4, which forces a rushed return of the Arbiter (whose excessive dialogue is also cringe worthy), with a bunch of disjointed locations that serve no purpose beyond their visuals, and 3 levels where you do nothing but find in game collectables and talk to NPCs. Yea. Really. They put that in a Halo game.

Spartan Abilities

I could dedicate an entire post to Halo 5's single player, but that should hopefully suffice. What about multiplayer? The end results here aren't much better. The new Spartan Abilities, which replace the Armor Abilities from Reach and Halo 4, are probably the most egregious problem with multiplayer. Each player now has a set of recharging, infinite use special abilities in addition to their normal combat options. The first is sprint, which, in and of itself, isn't bad. The problem is sprint is unlimited now, which actively encourages players to blindly run around the map, hoping they get the jump on whoever they bump into. A problem many COD players have been familiar with for a while now.

When combined with the second ability, the Spartan Charge, this is a massive detriment to competitive play. Sprint reaches full speed shortly after you start. Once you do, a melee will lunge you at an enemy and kill them instantly. In many combat situations, there is no defense for this. Someone sprints around a corner, and before you have a chance to react, you're dead. This accompanies the third Spartan Ability, the Ground Pound. It too is a one hit kill. If you miss, it does significant damage and puts you in an easy position to finish your kill. It's also frequently difficult to defend against as Ground Pound starts you in the air, above most player's sight lines.

Give everybody a Thruster Pack, an Armor Ability from Halo 4, and you effectively put the nail in the coffin for everything that made Halo multiplayer work. If they're not doing laps with the Spartan Charge or hitting you from above with Ground Pound, they're frantically boosting to evade you. Halo's balance between strafing and jumping for evasion, and the balance between melee and gunplay for combat has been stripped away and replaced with a mediocre hybrid of whatever's popular right now.

ADS & Scoping

This couldn't be the only thing 343 Industries tried to "fix", right? Nope. In another move to homogenize Halo, every weapon has an aim down sights mode. For close range weapons which had been hip fire only, this doesn't impact much. The real issue is with the weapons which previously had scopes and now have ADS: the Pistol, Battle Rifle, and Carbine. Previously, they all had a dedicated 2x scope that let you aim, balanced by Halo's "descope when hit" feature.

Now, you've got iron sights and reflex sights. This tangibly weakens the usefulness of the BR and Carbine, the former of which has been a core part of Halo since the second game. Zoom is lessened, and your line of sight is obfuscated by the weapon itself. The Magnum has no "sight" of any kind, you just aim down the barrel. This makes it almost useless, and sends it back to combat irrelevancy after Reach rebalanced the Scoped Pistol from its Halo CE incarnation. The reticule is tiny, and everything below it is blocked by the weapon itself. It's easier to get a kill at range by letting aim assist compensate for your hip fire, which is what all games of SWAT Magnums devolve into. At that point, why bother giving it a scope at all?

Weapons Pads

In Halo 4, power weapons were delivered as Ordinance Drops: bonuses you got for playing well a la Call of Duty. 343 claimed this was to prevent power weapon camping, but in a complete 180 (and demonstrating how these guys have no idea what they're doing with this franchise) you now have Weapon Pads. What does this do? Well, it encourages a lot of fucking camping.

Weapon Pads put objective markers on the power weapons. When they're 30 seconds from respawn, a timer pops up to let you know. In previous games, a good team would have to balance map and weapon control, timing runs to the power weapons and using them to turn the tide in a game. This was even more important against enemy vehicles. Now, there's never a "shit, they got the tank, check if Rockets are up" moment. Because they never are. The second they spawned, somebody was waiting to grab them. Want to kill that Scorpion/Mantis/Banshee? Have fun camping the Weapon Pads until they respawn.

Conclusion

There's a lot more I could go into here, and a lot more I could say about each of these glaring issues with Halo 5's game design. But I wanted to keep this blog at a semi-reasonable length. If you still like Halo 5, great. Keep playing, it's of no consequence to me. My goal wasn't to bitch about a game I don't like and convince you to not like it with me. It was to take a serious look at how Halo 5 was designed, what was changed, how does it impact gameplay, and apply these lessons to where the gaming industry is headed.

This isn't the first major franchise in the last few years to see massive design changes in order to fit a mold or follow industry trends. But this is maybe the most egregious example this year. Gears of War, Titanfall, Call of Duty, Destiny. This game feels like a mish mash of ideas from all these franchises (and more), and in the process it completely loses its identity. By every objective metric, Halo 5: Guardians is not a "Halo game". Nothing about the campaign or the multiplayer is consistent with the core mechanics of what has made the franchise a significant and influential force in the industry over the past 15 years.

And for me, in my personal, subjective opinion, as a guy who's been playing since the original, who's poured thousands of hours into this franchise, this is incredibly disheartening. And yea. It hurts a little. So please, 343. Just give me Forge already so I can make the Halo game I actually want to play...

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About ctg867one of us since 2:47 AM on 11.29.2013

I'm a dude who plays games and comments about stuff. Been on Dtoid since the Jim Sterling days (2010-ish), though this account's a bit newer than that. Don't go on the FP anymore, but I'll throw the occasional post up from time to time.

I also stream on Twitch sometimes, if you're interested:

https://www.twitch.tv/ctg867