For a long period of time, perhaps longer than one would think would be necessary, there was a massive question mark (along with the proverbial sword) hanging over 343 Industries.
The studio had overseen the development of one moderately successful HALO game, HALO Wars, but it was far from the victorious rifle-firing Bungie had managed to unleash with its FPS entries. After taking over creative direction of the HALO franchise, 343 Industries didn’t exactly cast off critics’ doubts with a remake of HALO: Combat Evolved in spite of a largely appreciative fan base lapping it up.
HALO 4, on the other hand, seems to have done exactly that. Fans and critics have both reacted positively to a new story arc, the blending of online and offline player modes, and the small tweaks to gameplay that have their roots in other successful FPS franchises – namely Call of Duty and Battlefield.
But still there are mumblings of discontent and some of those mumblings state that the story wasn’t good enough or certain characters weren’t put to better use; gameplay imported from other shooter models compromised the ‘integrity’ of HALO; the campaign was too short; Firefight Mode was streamlined into Spartan Ops; some modes weren’t available to offline players. In short, HALO 4 was a good effort but there’s still room for improvement.
So where can 343 Industries take things with HALO 5? My personal theory is that it needs to learn how to let players experience a good story, rather than tucking it away in the shadows.
HALO 4 touches upon the nature of the Spartan super soldiers, specifically the Master Chief, with its opening sequence having the infamous Dr. Halsey – mastermind of the Spartan Program – being interrogated by a member of Naval Intelligence. “Do you believe the Chief succeeded because he was, at his core, broken?” the ONI agent demands.
This was a side of HALO we never saw before, not even in HALO: Reach where having a diverse group of Spartan characters was integral to the story, but it’s a side that vanishes as quickly as it appears. HALO 4 isn’t John 117’s story, it’s about his AI companion Cortana trying to escape the clutches of imminent machine death – not a bad thing in itself but when you look back at it after you’ve finished you do think, “Wait a minute, they never went into what all that Spartan stuff was about.”
343 Industries looks as though it is trying to set things up so that the Reclaimer Saga becomes the Master Chief’s story, and it would be silly of them not to follow this up with some uncomfortable plotlines in HALO 5 pertaining to the Chief’s own state of mind. It would be brave to try and tackle the nature of the human tank shooting everything in sight with awesome guns, but if 343 Industries attempted to do it and successfully negotiated the points of plot devices and storyline unwounded it would earn a phenomenal amount of respect, from fans and critics both.
While we’re on the subject of the story, would it be too much to ask for something everyone can understand regardless of their exposure to the comics, books, and other non-video game media surrounding HALO?
Much of what we learn about the Didact through simply playing the game, not bothering with any terminals, is minimal. He’s the Forerunner equivalent of a war time general, a military leader who went too far with his ideology and was (presumably) imprisoned for it, and that was interesting. A lot of people thought he was underused as an arch-baddie and I’d tend to agree with them. His entrance into the story was great, he was articulate, determined, and one ruthless bastard.
Some gamers complained that you never really got to fight the Didact, but on that issue I’m afraid I’m siding with how 343 Industries chose to do things.
The problem, in terms of FPS gameplay, was that there was no way you could pit the Master Chief against the Didact in a credible dual and expect humanity to come through with the win. The Didact towers over the Chief, he has superior technology, he’s the product of Forerunner genetic engineering and he could just pick up John 117 and hurl him across the room like a burly sack of pillows without breaking a sweat. In the end, Cortana steps up and saves the Chief’s armoured backside by restraining the Didact so he can be stuck with a fusion grenade. I’m not saying I was happy with the way the Didact went out; I’m just saying I couldn’t picture it happening any other way unless the Chief destroyed his flagship.
Still, if 343 Industries could introduce a villain we have a chance to sink our teeth into a little, maybe fight a couple of times instead of just hitting buttons when prompted, that would be another great step forward. Maybe one of John 117’s Spartan buddies goes ape-shit in HALO 5 and we get to see a little of the human element to Halsey’s work that ONI hinted at, that Spartans are essentially ticking time bombs.
If you bother to hunt down all the terminals in the campaign, you learn a little more about the Forerunners – especially the Didact and the mysterious Librarian – and things in HALO 4 start to make more sense than they do without those hidden story sequences. However, the terminals are an emphatic tool rather than a storytelling one; if you’ve got brains, the cutscenes from the campaign ought to be enough by themselves.
This is basically a long way of me saying that the hidden terminal system, while a good little addendum to HALO gameplay, is redundant as a storytelling device. If 343 Industries wants us to learn more about the universe, characters, motivations, and history, it will have to come up with another way to get us involved. HALO: ODST tried new things by having players find cutscene- and mission-triggering objects in a ‘hub’ region, which seemed to work well, and this demonstrates that the FPS model isn’t as rigid as one might think for constructing and experiencing narrative.
The big change 343 Industries has brought in for HALO 4, simultaneously a point of the game’s narrative strengths and its gameplay weaknesses, is Spartan Ops.
Forgetting the rather simplistic nature of the missions for the moment, Spartan Ops has players continuing the HALO story in a cooperative adventure, and there’s a new ‘episode’ being released every week for the next couple of months. We’re watching a new HALO story unfold even after the campaign has finished, a story that – like the campaign – appears to touch on uncomfortable aspects of the Spartan super soldiers but then quickly retreats back to familiar territory, with Covenant and Prometheans battling humans for control over the technologically rich planet ‘Requiem’.
It’s an entertaining way for 343 Industries to go, I’ll admit, taking the latest batch of Spartan soldiers and dropping them into fire fights with Promethean and Covenant forces, all the while peppering us with these high-quality cutscenes that tell a new story. The only problem is that the narrative and gameplay are somewhat quarantined from each other, divided from the outset by menus, and it’s hard to reconcile the two without feeling the latter is outshined by the former.
The bottom line is that HALO 5 can go to new and interesting places with its narrative; we got a glimpse of Master Chief’s human flaws in HALO 4, now we need to see them up close and under scrutiny. Take the helmet off, so to speak. 343 Industries must seize upon its presentational strengths and match them with a demonstrated ability to construct meaningful narrative devices that go beyond what we’ve seen before in HALO games.
If they can do that even the sternest of game critics will have to acknowledge them as the rightful heirs to Bungie’s universe, because if there was one thing Bungie did throughout its time as a HALO developer it was to take HALO to new places. 343 Industries should learn to do the same.