Since the somewhat mixed reception to Halo 4, 343 Industries have been quietly working away to improve on everything fans disliked about their 2012 debut. From Halo 5: Guardians’ showing at E3 this month though, you’d be hard-pressed to have noticed.
It’s safe to say Halo 5: Guardians had something of an underwhelming gameplay debut at Microsoft’s press conference. Our first glimpse at the game’s single-player campaign – a tightly-scripted, explosion-filled six-minute jaunt through the narrow environs of the Covenant-held world Sunaion – wasn’t quite the gameplay reveal fans were hoping for coming off the back of Halo 4. That game saw the franchise’s trademark wide-open level design and huge set-piece battles scaled back noticeably in favour of a much shinier presentation – a move which became one of the major points of contention with 343’s handling of the Halo IP, and a trend you could be forgiven for thinking they were continuing after Halo 5’s E3 reveal.
Yet, as negative as some are towards 343’s stewardship of the series, this kind of focused, scripted demo was actually somewhat unexpected for fans. Building up to E3, there had been plenty to get excited about; the Microsoft studio began ramping up their marketing campaign with early live action trailers, ARGs and magazine blowouts, setting the stage for what to expect from the next instalment in their premier exclusive franchise.
Halo 4 saw 343 extending Bungie’s pre-existing fiction to support their own, creating a ton of new extended universe material to lead up to – and out of – their first Halo game. Halo 5, however, sees them drawing from the entire canon to create what they hope will be the biggest, most ambitious title in the franchise yet. Reaching right back to the birth of the extended universe in the run-up to Halo 5’s reveal at E3, a thirteen-part audio drama called Hunt the Truth explored the origins of the Master Chief and his fellow Spartan IIs. It also laid down some foreshadowing, with vague mentions of deep space anomalies and mysterious events happening in the fiercely independent, neglected outer colonies. The series also dealt with the idea that the Master Chief had gone rogue – a plot element introduced just before the start of Hunt the Truth – with two excellent, opposing live-action trailers.
With Hunt the Truth underway, fans were also treated to a small-scale ARG that teased the cover art for the game, and revealed something of a megaton for followers of the extended universe: the cover art featured Blue Team. It was later confirmed in a Game Informer cover feature that Chief would not only be accompanied by Blue Team during the events of the game, but they’d be playable in drop-in/drop-out four-player co-op. Fans have wanted to see fellow Spartan IIs Fred, Linda and Kelly appear in a Halo game since reading the first extended universe novel, The Fall of Reach, back in 2001. Indeed, when Halo Reach first debuted at E3 in 2009 with the silhouettes of an entire squad of Spartans, many of us thought we’d finally see the in-game introduction of the Chief’s closest comrades. We’ve had to wait a long time, but we’re finally getting our wish. It’s surely a surprise to some fans that it’s actually 343 that’s making it happen.
This four-person squad mechanic also feeds into the expanded sense of scale we can expect to see in Halo 5: Guardians. Those Game Informer features, echoed in previews from other media outlets, made mention of environments that offer multiple different routes, enabling players to tackle objectives in a number of ways. Combine this with the ability to order your teammates to attack specific targets, take up positions and activate objectives, and you can start to get some idea of the wider possibilities at play. If this all sounds just a little bit like Star Wars: Republic Commando, well, there’s a reason for that; Tim Longo, creative director on that game, now fulfils that same role on Halo 5, his predecessor Josh Holmes stepping into the role of Studio Head. Halo has long been ripe with opportunity to take the base formula, which has at this point been polished to a perfect shine, and try to expand that in interesting ways – who remembers thinking Halo 4 might take some cues from Metroid Prime after 343 took on some ex-Retro staff? – and these squad mechanics, coupled with more intricate level design and some new movement abilities, feel like they should be a perfect fit for the series.
This also extends to Warzone, 343’s new large-scale multiplayer mode that hopes to encompass all aspects of the Halo sandbox. Warzone stands in stark contrast to last December’s Arena beta – if that four-map test suggested that 343 were focused on recapturing Halo’s tight, competitive arena combat, Warzone is the developer pushing at the very boundaries of Halo’s beautifully elastic sandbox. Played on environments four times larger than any previous Halo map, Warzone takes some cues from the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre. It sees two teams of 12 Spartans battle it out to control strategic points on the map in an effort to weaken the opponent’s base, while also fighting off hostile AI. This includes spawning bosses that can either hold a spot on the map, forcing players to root them out to claim it for themselves, or roam about the map – even in vehicles like a banshee.
Players will also level up as the match progresses, gaining access to better weapons and vehicles as they go. The mayhem escalates until, by the end of the round, the enormous maps are crawling with players, AI, power weapons and fleets of vehicles. It sounds like it’s throwing everything Halo, including the kitchen sink, into one insane, over the top, carnage-filled mode, and it looks like it’ll be an absolute blast.
All of this makes their decision to show that tightly controlled, linear story segment as our first (and, so far, only!) glimpse at Halo 5’s single-player mode a little odd. Surely it’s the hardest of the hardcore that are going to watch E3 – the ones that have been following every little hint, every little breadcrumb, every cryptic tweet – the ones that are going to want to dive deep into the mechanics and systems at play? The reveal had the effect of feeling a little deflating after all the hype and build-up. To the casual observer, Halo 5 simply looked to be continuing 4’s path towards a more linear experience.
It was, then, a surprisingly lightweight showing for what will be Microsoft’s biggest game of the year. However, that’s not to say there was nothing to glean from the six-minute segment. Right from the start, we’re introduced to Jameson Locke, long since confirmed as a second playable protagonist, and his team of Spartan IVs, which includes everyone’s favourite former ODST Eddie Buck. We know they’re tracking the Chief on a Covenant-held world with the help of the Arbiter, who, embroiled in a civil war with his fellow Elites, is attempting to crush the remnants of that crumbling civilization. We learn that there are two new enemies – the Forerunner aerial Unit, called the Phaeton, and the agile new Promethean Soldier. We also see a new Covenant weapon in the Plasma Caster, and, perhaps most importantly of all, we learn that the grunts speak English again!
More difficult to pick out is the ability to order your squad around. In the demo we see Locke instruct comms specialist Vale to analyse a discarded MA5 rifle, and later tell Buck to fire on an attacking Phaeton, but if you didn’t know you were able to manually issue orders in-game, it would be easy to assume these were simply scripted sequences. This is compounded by how narrow and scripted the demo is as a whole, and why it would have been so much more illustrative to have a developer on-stage to walk viewers through the various additions in Halo 5. Instead of giving the impression that we’re in for Halo 4 Part 2, they could have amplified that pre-reveal excitement and ridden it all the way to release.
Of course, there are still a few months to go before launch, and those things that so excited fans prior to E3 are still there to look forward to. 343 Industries have been saying all the right things in the lead-up to the reveal, and we expected them to walk the walk at the biggest gaming event on the calendar. Gamescom is just around the corner, so here’s hoping we get an extended look at the game then. How about it, Microsoft?