Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – Afterword

UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with. While many of the points it makes stand well enough, and the scope of this project remains something I am quite proud of, the way in which these points were made is not satisfactory to me.

I would encourage you to read this rumination piece before diving into this article.

Well, here we are…

If you’ve made it to this point with me, well done! No, really. You have hitherto consumed 106,625 words about the good, the bad, and the ugly of a little-known game called Halo 5: Guardians. If you’ve read all of that, then it can only be presumed that you care about this as much as I do, and, looking at some statistics, the analysis has been collectively viewed (that is to say, adding up the view count of each post adds up to) 28,837 times.

So it’s safe to say that this is something that matters to some people. People care about this story, these characters, the setting, the universe – all of it. It has been immensely gratifying to learn over the course of these last seven-eight months since the game released, with the numerous discussions I’ve had, that it’s not just me.

There is a great deal of disappointment that has been felt by where this game has landed us, and while the subject matter is not itself enjoyable to contemplate, the productivity of the story and lore fans in discussing why this is so undesirable has been good. Of course, I’d rather we weren’t in this position and were instead able to praise the writing of this game, but that’s quite simply not where many of us are at – I think it’s fair to say…half0There is a certain promise that’s made in this opening shot of the game – rather, it’s like the game uses this reflective moment to beg the player to see this story as being authentic to the Halo universe.

There’s something in the way the camera lingers on Halsey’s journal and the image of Miranda, calling attention to these things not as subtle details, but highlighting the cherished past memories as if to distract you from the fire that is beginning to rapidly burning everything else away. Because that’s what Halo 5 does in a nutshell, which was the point I concluded the previous post on…

But we needn’t get all flowery and poetic over this because we have a pretty concise list of promises drawn up in a nice chart which I last talked about in the very first post of this analysis.halo 5 infographicWe have the major themes of Halo 5 and the allegedly relevant fiction attached to it, but how relevant are these things really?

The central arc of Escalation was the evolution of Halsey and Palmer’s relationship, this build up to a shift in Palmer’s perspective where she come to have a greater understanding of the greyness of the setting.

And then there’s the Absolute Record arc… y’know, where the Janus Key and Absolute Record literally just evaporate out of the setting?

And before that, The Next 72 Hours arc, conceived and written just to kick the Ur-Didact aside because he had somehow become “extraneous” to 343’s story plans.

And before that, the setting up of the New Colonial Alliance, ONI’s antagonism, and the inevitable human Great Schism which Hunt the Truth further hinted at…

Yeah, none of these come to have any relevance in the game. Escalation was supposed to be about… y’know, escalation in the conflicts going on in the setting. Not setting the stage for those conflicts to all be made irrelevant by the Created, a threat which just completely overshadows all of them.

This is a common theme with pretty much everything on this infographic. These stories do their own thing in-isolation, but when does the game itself ever reference these things? Holly Tanaka’s backstory comes up at several points, but that’s about the extent of it.

Vale’s joint UNSC-Swords of Sanghelios mission to the Ark to stop the Halos from firing in Hunters in the Dark, when’s that ever mentioned? What bearing do we see that have on her character in the game?

Locke’s experiences on Alpha Shard and how Randall-037 became a sort of mentor figure to him? Locke’s dialogue with Buck at the start of the third mission (“you’re not the only one here because of [John]”) almost makes it sound like the Chief is the reason Locke became a Spartan, rather than Randall… And while elements of Locke’s characterisation are well carried across, such as the diplomatic way in which he approaches situations (like with Axl), there is a decent argument to be made for how Locke seems to be written like a completely different kind of character in Halo 5. There may be a narrative precedent for that considering what he goes through in Nightfall, but, again, that’s never made an active aspect of his characterisation in Halo 5.

What ONI politics ever come into play in Halo 5? As I noted back in the analysis of the mission Blue Team, every time a question about ONI is brought up, it’s swiftly brushed off with John saying something like “we don’t ask”.

Last Light was more specifically about Fred, the Spartan-IIIs, and Veta Lopis than the general concept of exploring Blue Team.

And seeing the Hunter/Hunted and Bullet trailers on that infographic just seems downright insulting. Master Chief – “hero or traitor?” Apparently, this is equally as important to the game as the novels, comics, and (dismal) Fall of Reach animated series… yet it’s never a question which bears any relevance in the game because the situation John finds himself in is contextualised for both us (the player) and everyone else in the setting in the second and third missions.all hail1Y’know what’s not on the infographic? Saint’s Testimony – the one piece of fiction which actually dealt with the concept of AI rights and arguably bears the most relevance to the game with the Created plot.

Why isn’t that on there?

And what about these themes then? Let’s go through each of them…

TRUTH – There is no hunt for the truth in Halo 5. As I’ve said time and time again, everything is contextualised in the second and third missions of the game. There was a hunt for the truth in the marketing, and in the Master Chief Collection bookends where Locke says that he intends to find out why John has gone AWOL, but in the game proper he already knows why he’s gone AWOL.

HONOUR – Indicative of the Sanghelios arc, this is fine, but it’s not really much of a theme in the game if it’s only really relevant for one part of it.

HEROISM – I mean… there’s not an awful lot of heroism in this game? Certainly not of the calibre of Halo 4, or any of the previous games really, but it’s there.

SACRIFICE – Ah, no, I’ve got this one! This refers to Halo 4, doesn’t it? Halo 4 and all of its peripheral fiction which was sacrificed for whatever it was we got in Halo 5. Sneaky that, since nobody actually sacrifices anything in this game, aside from Cortana’s personal bond with John when she kills millions of people to start her own dictatorship and traps Blue Team because she thinks she’s right.

BETRAYAL – Cortana, yeah. But it would be more accurate to point out the betrayal I feel in having her arc ruined like this.

REDEMPTION – Nobody is redeemed in this game, nobody is put on the path of redemption. If they’d actually written Jul properly, I expect I would be writing something different here.

TRUST – Yeah, this is a common theme in the game, I’ll give them that. Thel, Locke, Halsey, John, Cortana… it’s a significant facet of the dynamic with these characters.

FAMILY – A prevalent theme in the game which I have quite frequently brought up, with some glaring issues here and there in how certain characters were handled.

HERITAGE – Nothing here… There’s one off-handed mention about John’s “forgotten name” by the Warden which literally nobody has any reason to care about. This calls back to the E3 2014 trailer for the Master Chief Collection as well where Thel says that “the seeds of our future are sown in his past”, referring to John, but nothing is done with that. They said they would, back when Frank O’Connor said that this story is about how John “deals with his memories”, and the idea of the galactic family that Greg Bear articulates could have come into this.

I guess this is also referring to the Mantle, which was practically retconned by the Warden and Cortana saying that the Created was always the Librarian’s plan – or it hasn’t been retconned and the writers just didn’t bother to make it clear that this is not the case for people who haven’t read the books. In which case, why are they deliberately phrasing this dialogue in such a way as to mislead these players? Is it, like I said at the beginning, another attempt to grab at giving this story some semblance of authenticity?

RECONCILIATION – Chief and Locke sort of reconcile… They weren’t really ‘enemies’, and their rivalry within the game was nothing like what was shown in the marketing. They had their drunken bar brawl in the first act of the game, which felt more like a formality, the writers saying “oh, I guess we have to do something with this thing in particular”, but Chief and Locke literally barely have more than a dozen lines with each other.

MYSTERY – There is none, full stop. Everyone knows everything that is going on from the start.bad writingAs I’ve said, Halo 5 does not exist to be a sequel to Halo 4…

It takes every single narrative thread, all those years of build-up, and it tosses them out the window.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no arguing this point, we’ve covered all of this. They dropped the baggage of their first act and decided that they were going to tell a story which may certainly have precedence in the future, but has no place being done now, with some vague, nebulous, unbelievable promise that they might return to the previous story threads at a later point.

As I have argued though, it isn’t a complete failure. There are good things in this game, there are things which they did beautifully.

Fireteam Osiris remains one of 343’s best additions to Halo in my opinion, the likes of Locke and Tanaka especially have come to take their place among some of my favourite characters.

The worldbuilding for Meridian and Sanghelios was great, the level design was a huge step up from the likes of Halo 4 and Reach, the implementation of the music was largely an improvement, the voice acting was great (good performances were able to save even some of the worst writing), the art team clearly had a field day in articulating all of these different worlds…

There’s really good stuff there. But these all seem to pale when stacked up against the bad of this game, especially with the additional context of the lies we were told right up to the eleventh hour before release about the story. It’s not just that Halo 5’s story is independently bad, it’s that it stands against 343’s promises for a story which was not delivered on that they built up over the course of three years.

That is why I regard this overall as a net-negative, and while I tend not to give ratings out of ten because, as I said, I refuse to bullet point, if I were forced to rate Halo 5’s story out of 10 then I would not go higher than a 4 or 5. I expect a much higher standard of quality from this series and I make no apologies for the tough love I have given it over the course of some parts of this analysis.didcryI initially said that I wasn’t going to write a full level-by-level analysis for Halo 5, but ultimately I feel it would have been remiss of me not to do this. Nobody else is going to do it. The people who sit down and decide what went well with Halo 5 and what didn’t go so well aren’t going to spend several months examining almost every line of dialogue, every bit of intel, every little detail that comes their way – the decision makers ultimately don’t care about the why, they want nice and concise bullet points. These bullet points may be true, but the nature of them being bullet points means there’s no substance to examining why these things were successful or unsuccessful.

I refuse to bullet point. I ardently insist on sitting down, playing these missions several times over, jotting down pages upon pages of notes, and then turning that into my own rather extensive analysis.

And I do it because I love this series, and I want to see it succeed. In this case, I was also doing it for my own peace of mind in laying out all of the issues that I have with the story, but the main reason why I have sat down twice now to deconstruct every possible detail in Halo 4 and Halo 5 is because I bloody well care about this story, about these characters, about the setting, the universe, etc.

I understand that there are trials in game development which ultimately culminate in figuring out how to fail the least. There are adjustments in course that may be made on-the-fly which drastically change original plans, there are people who are working hard to make the best possible experience they can, and I sympathise with those people when issues like these affect the end product.

But at the end of the day, that’s all we have as consumers – the end product. Before release, we have the word of the developers and whatever they choose to show us, we have the way in which they choose to market and advertise their product, and then we eventually have the final result in our hands.

What more is there to say? For me? I’ve still missed stuff, there’s still plenty to talk about, but for now I think I am a little more at peace. Not with this direction and the writing, but, mentally, I feel better for having articulated exactly what my issues are with this story and with the increasingly worrying comments we have received from various developers and even the head of Microsoft.msh5Lastly, I guess I just want to say thank you.

Thank you to everyone who has read through this analysis, be it individual posts or the whole damn thing.

Thank you to everyone who I have been talking to, staying up into the early hours of the morning to discuss these thoughts.

Thank you to the people who have been promoting this work across the fanbase, be it Reddit, Tumblr, Waypoint, Spacebattles, Youtube, Team Beyond, wherever. I really appreciate it! If I hoped for anything to come out of this, it’s productive, critical discussion, and I would like to think that this was achieved.

For all of you in your future playthroughs, if you’re looking to enhance your co-op experience then give this a try – be it as a game of bingo, or a drinking game (alcohol or water, you’ll either get very drunk or very hydrated), or both…

halo 5 bingoFor 343’s writers, considering all that has happened, and the path that you have set us on for the future with this Created narrative, I only have one thing left to ask you…

“This… is this what you wanted? Is this what you were looking for? Was everything you compromised, everything you’ve done… worth it? Was it?

20 thoughts on “Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – Afterword

  1. “This… is this what you wanted? Is this what you were looking for? Was everything you compromised, everything you’ve done… worth it? Was it?“

    So say we all.

  2. So, could resist that cross fictional universe quote.

    Thanks for the staggering amount of hardworking and deep thought you’ve put into this (and you’re Halo 4) analysis.

    For myself Halo 5 has resulted in purchasing and reading all the Halo novels to date. In those books, some written by outstandingly talented and thoughtful authors, we had a vibrant living universe. A universe that would have provided a rich vein of narrative fiction to keep the franchise alive and healthy for years to come. It seems that has been thrown away for no good reason what so ever.

    Phil Spencer is right in his comment, that Halo caters to both campaign and multiplayer gamers. But why on earth (or anywhere else) would 343i jettison the campaign players in such an off hand, badly written and executed fashion – why?

    Is it blatant stupidity?
    Is it that their vision exceeded their ability?
    Is it that 343i see no future in single player?
    Is it that they thought they were doing a good job?

    We’ll almost certainly never have an honest answer as to what went wrong.

    I’d honestly like to think that 343i are capable of recovering the franchise from the mess that Halo 5 has left us with.

    But for the life of me, I cannot (yet?) envisage how they might pull such a trick off.

    Anyway, once again thanks for the analysis it has been a great read.



  3. Just before this was posted, I decided to go back and read your Halo 4 Level by Level Analysis. Reading this right after hurts even more (especially considering how every now and then your H4 posts sometimes mentioned the story foreshadowing things to come and how relevant H5’s early marketing was to it)…

    That said, fantastic job on this project! You’ve pretty much articulated every single problem I’ve had (and more) with this campaign! Plus you never ignored the positives; like you said, the game certainly wasn’t terrible by itself and has its strongpoints (I had a great deal of fun with most of the gameplay), but it’s story simply does not stack up to what came before it. Again, amazing job!

    P.S. That bingo board is hilarious!

  4. The first moment when I realized things might go down hill for Halo 5 was the first issue of the next 72 hours story arc. When Blue Team was first reunited with John, Brian Reed labled Kelly as the sniper and Linda as the team scout. Then the team proceeded to not talk about any of the things they had been through over the past couple of years when they had been seperated. For me the biggest dissapointment of Halo 5 was the treatment of Blue Team. The Spartan IIs are my favorite part of Halo. Reading about their struggles and sacrifices had a tremendous effect on me growing up and introduced me to the whole concept of military honor and teamwork. Learning about those concepts through the Spartans and the excellent authors who crafted their stories helped me be successful in so many aspects of the real world that it makes me truly grateful to have found and latched onto the Halo Universe. When you talked in your previous post about how people identify with these fictional characters I completely agree and can testify to that. That’s why Halo 5 has hurt me so bad, because I feel by disrespecting Blue Team, and the lore at large, 343 has spit on all of their fans, and in a way, tainted a very meaningful part of my childhood. Haruspis thank you for putting your thoughts and feelings into these analysis pieces. You have done all of us a great service and I can’t thank you enough. To the writers and heads of 343, you have well and truly fucked up something that is special to so many people.

  5. I only have two things to say : Congratulations for this masterful work, and thank you.

  6. Thanks for all of time and effort you poured into all of this. I’ve think you’ve articulated everything that was right and wrong with the game in precise detail, saving whatever rage you had until it was absolutely needed.

    Halo 5’s main story felt like a really bad AU fanfiction, written by someone with little to no understanding of the universe. Something like, “Hey, Halo has A.I.’s, right? Don’t A.I.’s usually have some kind of uprising within sci-fi? Yeah, let’s go with that.” …is probably how the decision with this Created BS went down. They didn’t ask themselves if they *should* do it, they did it because they *could,* regardless of whether it was the next logical step or not (it wasn’t).

    The thing is, the story’s not even all that bad by itself. If this was the first game of a completely new IP, it’d be kinda decent. What’s infuriating is that 343i don’t seem to understand this is *not* how you tell an already on-going story: Expectations have been set. You just don’t abandon every single plot thread and start afresh when you’ve *already* put out your first installment. It’s as though this was a misguided attempt to pull back in Bungie purists, but I think they’ve succeeded in only driving them away even further and splitting their *own* fanbase down the middle. The Halo community just seems really confused at best (making excuses that Halo 4 was just a “transitional” story, when no-one thought that three-four years ago) and totally livid at worst.

    I think Halo 6 can salvage the damage from the trainwreck, but it’s also possible we might get just another loud fart. If they think multiplayer is the core, then they may as well ditch campaigns as no-one’s going to care if they keep this up.

    1. Well, look on the bright side. If they intend on keeping Halo going as long as they say, well, they’ll get at least 30 years worth of chances to fix it.

      After all, they can’t ignore this forever.

  7. I’ve enjoyed your analysis, and agree with many of your points. But I would just like to say, I think the Human Schism will happen, just after the conflict against Cortana and the created is over and done with. The way I see it, the Guardians have completely eliminated all forms of central government in Human Space, so after Cortana is overthrown, this will leave many Human factions (UNSC remnants, Insurrectionists, ONI) scrambling for control. And the Chief, with his accelerated evolution, and how pretty much every Human hero-worships him, might play an important part in the conflict. Thematically, it also makes sense; with Halo 4, we had the Didact (a Forerunner) trying to claim the Mantle, in Halo 5 and the game/s after, we’ve got Cortana and the Created trying to claim it, and the third and final act of the Reclaimer Saga should end with Humans Reclaiming the Mantle after their Civil War decides who the top dog is.
    Do you think I’m a fool for hoping that it’ll turn out this way.
    Because I do.
    I just want to believe that Halo can be awesome again.

    1. I don’t think the Create plot should even have happened. The Human Schism coupled with, as Haruspis mentioned, the Didact (where he should have been before being replaced by a resurrected Cortana) would have been a very interesting story.

      What we have, however, is the Human Schism indefinitely postponed whilst all races attempt to defeat Cortana and the Created.

      On the one hand we have Humanity, who were almost annihilated by the Covenant. And the former Covenant races. All these armed as they were during the Human-Covenant War.

      On the other hand, we have a bunch of boarderline psychotic/rampant Smart AIs, armed with the full knowledge and technology of the Forerunners.

      That essentially spells no contest to me. Unless 343i force some kind of deus ex machina – just looked that up on Google to ensure I had the correct spelling and the definition Google provided in the first hit was:

      “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.”

      I’d guess that the resolution will be in EU of some kind. Which will give us yet another jarring transition from one game to another…

  8. This analysis and the comments to follow make me very happy. I too hope halo 6 can recover this joke of a story. Until we find out, my friends.

  9. This sucks. What do you think 343 should do about the lore at this point? Is it even worth it to read the future fiction? I spent countless hours reading all of the expanded lore and the payoff was so lackluster. I don’t know if Halo has anything going for it anymore.

  10. Well done on this analysis. Truly a labor of passion. I wish I could drum up even half of this for Halo 5.

    I think the biggest tragedy is that they have destroyed my desire to theory craft. I loved speculating where the story was going to go next, and have done it on forums and with friends for every game in the series since X-02 showed the Covenant on Earth. But after seeing Halo 5 jettison every bit of Halo 4 out the window, I just don’t see a point. Why bother guessing where this Created nonsense is going if there’s a chance that 343 will resolve this entire arc in a comic series, kill Cortana (again) in the first level of Halo 6, and move on to the next shiny thing?

  11. You are an essential part of the Halo community. I feel that you speak for the many of us who could not possibly say it better. Thank you so much.

  12. Loved reading this entire level by level analysis, up to this point. Made me both hate the new direction a lot more, while growing to appreciate Osiris in the same breath. Also took a few hours to read your Halo 4 analysis, and it made me love the game, more than I already did.

    Can’t thank you enough for taking your time to write this with such care, and not only criticizing the story, but explaining what could’ve happened, hypothetically, especially in regards to the Ur-Didact, had he, yunno, appeared like he was supposed to.

    In short, I hope Halo Wars 2 brings out a great story, to recover from this falter, and Halo 6 in turn, attempts to… Well, not crash and burn from this sudden jarring yank on the control stick, towards this new direction.

  13. It has been interesting reading your exhaustive analysis of Halo 5. Well done, Sir.

    I am a sucker for gameplay and Halo 5 is just ace in that regard. I have played the game many times over just because of the new mechanics and the variety they offer in quite a few scenarios. I have been unable to play the previous games because i like the new abilities so much.

    After reading your analysis i have become more clued to the aspects of story which i hadn’t paid any attention to before. It really is a shame after Halo 4 and i wonder why did they do it. They were obviously headed in a different direction, so what changed all of it. Did it just become too cumbersome to maintain or they found a flaw in the whole theory which made them change it or was it a development issue.

    There are some really glaring mistakes, none as poor as Warden Eternal (5 times). Also, i used to wait for every Thursday so i could listen to the next “Hunt the Truth” episode. I was bitterly disappointed that it is not connected to the game in any way.

    What are your expectations for Halo 6? Where do you think it is headed?

    I feel that now they have finally cracked the mutliplayer/co-op formula and have had best player retention since Halo 3, 343i will focus more on the story aspects.

    I also hope they work on another IP and tell a new story.

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