Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let's do that thing where we rank Halo campaigns

Yesterday, Halo 5: Guardians was released. Yesterday, I finished Halo 5: Guardians. My new job hasn't started yet, in case you're wondering.

While I'm not even close to being finished with the game yet, given how much I'm enjoying its multiplayer modes, the simple truth is that I've been a Halo fan since long before I was playing console games online. Given that I've now played every campaign from beginning to end, I figured I'd put that expertise to use my doing that thing we always do whenever the latest entry in a long-running franchise is put on the market.

7. Halo 3: ODST

I'd call it unfair to hold this release up to the standards of mainline entries had Microsoft not charged $60 for it, an admission on their part that they believe ODST to be just as worthwhile a purchase as anything else on this list. Some seem to agree; I know people who were clamoring for this to be included in Master Chief Collection, disappointed when it initially wasn't and uplifted when it was later thrown in as DLC. I can see why, too, because this was Bungie's boldest experiment with the series, a sandbox game that dials back the space opera in favor of a more intimate, character-driven campaign exploring the aftermath of a major event earlier in Halo canon. (That the main characters were all voiced by Firefly cast members didn't hurt nerd cred.)

And yet this remains the only Halo game that I've never replayed (with the exception of Halo 5, which just came out yesterday, so give me a bit). In retrospect, I'm indifferent to ODST's open-world focus for the same reason I never took the bait with Destiny adding RPG elements and social play to the series' tight combat. The slower pace only gets in the way of what Halo does well, and still ODST has the distinction of being the shortest game of the franchise to date. It's a noble effort, but I'm not so enamored with these new characters that I'm happy chugging through a relatively inconsequential plot to get to know them better. This is the most forgettable title of the Halo series.

6. Halo 5: Guardians

My full review is on its way, but while I only just completed Halo 5 yesterday, I'm confident that no level of meditation on my part will push this latest release to a higher spot on this list. It's not just that Halo 5 disappoints in and of itself; it actually undoes much of the goodwill built upon in 343 Industries' previous game. In retrospect, the quasi-romance between Master Chief and Cortana in Halo 4, which was far more effective than it had any business being and established a level of narrative maturity that Bungie never showcased, now just feels like hollow setup for a bunch of schlocky, D-grade character twists that are only surprising in that they're irrational even by Halo standards. And the game has the nerve to end on a jarring cliffhanger, when the series should have learned the first time it did that.

Still, aside from some major lapses in judgment in the final two missions (the nadir being a battle against three overpowered bosses at once), Halo 5 can still claim to being generally fun to play. In fact, it's the first game in the series to natively run at 60fps, making this, to my mind, the best-playing first-person shooter on a controller to date. Seriously, I've become a PC fanatic since the last Halo game was released, and I'm still finding this thing silky smooth on thumbsticks. Unfortunately, while the polish is here, fresh ideas aren't; with Halo 5 somewhat lacking in new toys and new baddies to use them on, all we get is the same solid gunplay as always, in service of Halo's most disappointing story yet.

5. Halo 3

Typically in trilogies, the first entry establishes the basics, the sequel ups the ante, and the final chapter just sort of scratches its head and curses the previous entry for leaving the franchise with nowhere else to go. It's telling that after Bungie made us sit on such an infuriating cliffhanger for three years, the resolution itself was criminally uneventful. How is this situation resolved? Uh, through space magic, I guess. The gang gets together to essentially push a button that wipes out the Flood, ends the war and, sure, I guess strands Chief and Cortana in space just so things don't get too convenient.

I understand Bungie's desire to dial things back a bit after Halo 2 drew criticisms for collapsing under its own world-building weight, but Halo 3's nine-mission campaign essentially brought nothing new to the table while underlining some of the series' long-running issues and Bungie's refusal to address them. I'd often said that my ideal Halo game would be one in which the Flood never show up, and while that did eventually happen, that plot thread still dangles at the start of Halo 3, and the need to resolve it results in an endgame stage that very nearly rivals The Library for tedium. I'm glad that this wasn't the last we saw of Halo, partly because I just like the franchise, but also because this would have been a meager note to end on.

4. Halo: Combat Evolved

There is absolutely no getting around the fact that Halo, for all of the ways in which it revolutionized console FPSs, hasn't aged well. It's such a shame given how much the first half of the campaign is still exemplary of all of the things that Halo does well: the AI, the vehicles, and the massive outdoor battlefields. Had Bungie kept that momentum going, the game's status as a classic wouldn't constantly be second-guessed as it is today. But then the Flood shows up and everything goes to hell.

It's not just the Library, either. While that level is the series' most maligned moment, the entire latter half of Halo, with its repeated interiors and huge stretches recycled from earlier in the campaign, feels like the product of Bungie being pressured to get the game finished in time for the original Xbox's launch. And maybe that was a good thing, because who can say that whether the Xbox brand would still be around today had Master Chief been representing from day one? Regardless, we're left with a shooter that, despite all of its advances for the genre, feels frustratingly imperfect.

3. Halo 2

While Halo 2's influence in online console gaming is irrefutable, its campaign tends to be the least popular of the series, and I can see why. It's overlong, the ending is a crash course in how not to write a cliffhanger, and it delves too deep into its own self-serious mythology, with around half of the campaign told from the Covenant's perspective. But it ranks among my favorites simply for correcting the big issue with the first Halo in that it's consistent. Even when the Flood shows up early on, its appearances are staggered in such a manner that it never becomes tiresome to the same degree that it drowned out the entire second half of Combat Evolved.

So while none of Halo 2's best moments quite feel as liberating as, say, taking to the beach of the Silent Cartographer in a Warthog for the first time, it moves swiftly and to many places, holding my attention more firmly than its predecessor despite being considerably longer. And I actually like the Arbiter; he's a far more fleshed-out character than Master Chief, and his timed invisibility trick lends his missions an additional layer of strategy, particularly on higher difficulties when you need every advantage you can get. That's another thing - if you're the sort who likes to play these games on Legendary, Halo 2 offers the toughest (and thus most satisfying) challenge of the entire franchise. It's a terrific and very replayable game, and if that puts me in the minority, well, more for me.

2. Halo: Reach

This was the Halo game that I always wanted, one in which we never fight the Flood and never set foot in a single piece of monotonous Forerunner architecture. It sounds weirdly non-progressive to say that Reach is great for removing more than it adds, but this was the game in which Bungie finally addressed longtime series issues and gave us the best, most consistent Halo experience of their decade-long run with the license. When we play Halo campaigns, we want sprawling battles against intelligent Covenant AI, and that's exactly what Reach gave us, no strings attached.

And while I certainly wouldn't call Reach's storytelling a masterstroke by any stretch of the imagination, it earns points for its straightforwardness while still feeling like a vital component of the Halo equation (compared to ODST, a story that didn't need to be told). Since the original game began with a single human ship fleeing after the invasion and destruction of Reach, we already know how this prequel will end - not happily - but Bungie still wrings some surprises out of the manner in which Noble Six's story is concluded, and the level of participation that players have in closing this chapter. This was Bungie's last Halo game, and in my mind, they went out on the highest note realistically possible.

1. Halo 4

But embarrassingly enough, whereas it took Bungie a full decade to truly grasp the strengths of their own franchise, 343 Industries got it right on their first try. In jump-starting a new trilogy, they've wisely kept the aggravating Flood out of the equation, opting for a new enemy faction in the Prometheans, who are utterly fearsome but also organized enough that their presence doesn't turn Halo into a mindless shootfest. Halo 4 stands as a terrific example of how to breathe new life into a series without robbing it of what made it popular to begin with. It has no real lulls. It's outstanding.

Most impressively, though, it's the first Halo game that makes Master Chief and Cortana out to be more than simply a player avatar and an exposition machine, respectfully. In fact, I'm convinced that the only reason Halo 4's emotional payoff doesn't quite stick the landing is that we're already so used to these two characters being so one-note; for them to suddenly experience conflicts and express feelings is almost hard to grasp. But that's Bungie's fault, not 343's. Despite the many wrongs committed by the next entry's plot, Halo 4 stands as an excellent standalone experience and the series' finest hour.

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