Video game sequels often fix the problems of their predecessors thanks to, among other things, the iterative advancements of technology. That’s on top of the fact that making creative work in the gaming medium is still an exercise in being an artistic pioneer. So you at least hope that the people making sequels know what their last game did wrong. This was a week to wonder if the folks making Halo did.
A few days ago, quotes from Frank O’Connor, one of the top creative people at Halo studio 343 Industries, caromed around the gaming internet after running in the magazine GamesTM. O’Connor was explaining what went awry with the story in 2015’s Halo 5 and, as ricocheted by Eurogamer and bounced once more here, told the magazine:
“We took some digs for storytelling in Halo 5, but they were absolutely merited… We very much realized that people wanted Master Chief’s story of Halo 5.
“We definitely marketed [Halo 5] in a way that we hoped was going to bring surprise, but for some fans and certainly fans of Master Chief, it was a huge disappointment because they wanted more Chief. And that has been a big learning…
“The volume of ‘give us more Chief’ at the end of Halo 5 was significant and so I think if anything he’s slightly more important now than he has ever been, certainly to our franchise.”
You might not be able to tell from those quotes, but Master Chief was actually in Halo 5. You play as him in a few of the game’s 15 missions—certainly not as many as in Halo 4, but more than you played as him in the nearly 100% Chief-free Halo Reach, which had a better campaign than Halo 5. (Halo Reach was developed by Bungie, the creators and original developers of Halo.)
You play most of Halo 5 as Spartan Locke, the guy featured in the promo art up top and retrofitted into the Halo saga via some new cutscenes added to Halo 2 when that game was remastered for Xbox One. Locke’s quest is dull and the big confrontation between Chief and Locke amounts to a mid-game cutscene, rather than the epic climax that we were expecting.
Memory fades the faults of older games, but if I can quote one of my favorite experts, here’s what I wrote about Halo 5 back when I’d just played through it:
Advertisements for the game have played up the drama of Locke hunting down a rogue Master Chief, but their rivalry is undercooked, their confrontation anticlimactic. The theme of a possibly rogue Master Chief was used far more effectively in the first season of the Halo 5 promotional podcast Hunt The Truth, which has a separate plot from the game.
Just look at this Halo 5 commercial. It must be for a really cool game, huh?
Marketing sometimes gets ahead of a game, and the game that is being over-hyped usually pays the prices. Purchasers of Assassin’s Creed III know this, too (and this is coming from someone who likes that game!). But had 343 delivered the game the Halo 5 ads teased—Chief running for his life, maybe turned bad, Locke facing him down in an epic clash of super-soldiers—then 343 reps probably wouldn’t be doing interviews in 2017 where they needed to explain what went wrong.
I’d normally just shrug my shoulders at something like this and move on, but O’Connor’s comments about addressing Halo 5’s campaign issues by going more heavily with Chief in the future didn’t just suggest a misdiagnosis of a surprisingly flawed game but pointed to the continued hazard of sameness that so many of Microsoft’s franchises are having, where the Halos and Gears of Wars and Forzas feel like so much of the same thing year after year and the spark of the new just isn’t shining enough. Now, I like where Forza is going, at least when it comes to the really fun Horizon series. And deviating from a series’ main direction is not always the right prescription. See the chilly reception to the Xbox 360’s Gears of War Judgment. But in a year where we’ve seen the Zelda series reinvent itself successfully and in the face of a talented heretofore-single-franchise studio like Guerrilla Games finding new life with Horizon Zero Dawn (after years of nothing but Killzone), something about 343 dusting themselves off and committing to making a new Halo that really, really focuses on Master Chief inspires me with less confidence than it normally would.
Halo game campaigns don’t matter all that much, of course. The multiplayer is what keeps Halo’s heart pumping and I can’t speak to that. That’s probably where they can really make improvements for Halo 6.
As for whether O’Connor’s comments reflected an accurate understanding of what went awry with Halo 5’s campaign, I asked Microsoft PR if I was missing anything. Here’s a 343 spokesperson responding and demonstrating, thankfully, that he and the rest of 343 recognize that there were other flaws worth addressing, too:
“In our recent interview with GamesTM, we offered a couple of examples of learnings and feedback we’ve received from the community in response to “Halo 5: Guardians” – such as a desire for a greater focus on the Master Chief, the perceived disconnect between some of our marketing and in-game story or the effect splitscreen’s omission had on our fans. These are clearly not our only learnings, and as with every game in the series, the lessons we learned – good and bad, are manifold, nuanced and elements we’re looking forward to wrangling, addressing and improving upon in our next major release.”
It’ll also help if Halo 6 doesn’t repeat Warden Eternal boss fights a bunch of times.