Friday, 18 March 2016

Halo 5 - Gamertroll Review - Xbox One Exclusive

The review notes for this game have been languishing on Gamertroll’s hard drive a good while now. A detailed, almost forensic investigation of every aspect of Halo 5 was duly prepared, but no satisfactory conclusion could be made from it all: so I shelved it. Quite unlike every past Halo game Gamertroll finished the campaign, played a half-hearted week of PvP and never returned. It’s now high time to dust this game off and give it the grilling it deserves.
Gamertroll has racked his brain over the past months for an explanation as to why 343 Industries keep failing to hit Bungie’s previously high standards. The answer presents itself once you closely examine 343’s new aesthetic priorities. Compromise, there’s way too much of it and in all the wrong places.
To those graphics: much has been made of the clever dynamic rendering techniques used to achieve the rock solid 60fps (frames per second) found in the game, but even so, there is an obvious cost in terms of detail and effects. That is not to say the game's visuals don’t look great, they just don’t make the striking impression the older, 30fps Halo games always used to do when set against their contemporaries.
The series staple of masterful artistic design and direction does return, making a fine job of plastering over the technical cracks, but just like an annoying visitor arriving after you’ve had some expensive building work done to your home, it’s only the eagle-eyed, long-term gamers who’ll spot the issues. All sorts of corner-cutting has gone on and it’s obvious when you know where to look for the evidence.
Some developer wisdom currently holds that high frame rates are more important to gamers than detail, probably due to the ongoing success of the frame rate prioritised Call of Duty series. Gamertroll is not so sure they are correct however, let’s not forget that all previous Halo games won their massive acclaim and established fan bases whilst aiming for a 30fps threshold, making themselves synonymous with fantastically described open sci-fi environments. 
Whatever your personal gaming preference, be aware that the decision to compromise that detail has been made for you. Framerate won: textures, shadows and effects lost. The natural result is that while Halo 5 might have the edge when in motion, any closer scrutiny of environments between campaign firefights will reveal all kinds of sneaky texture pop-in, shadow-pop-in and any number of the close-up draw issues you’d expect when chasing 60fps on a machine that can't properly handle it. You will find areas where you can rock back and forth and witness shadows being built and unbuilt before your very eyes. Discover short distances where texture aliases and character shadows instantly cease to exist or flip jarringly. It’s not what one expects from a game of Halo's graphical heritage.
Whatever you think of the result, few would attempt to argue the defining theme of Halo 5’s graphics is not one of compromise purely to achieve a 60fps standard for smoother competitive play. It’s the reason another beloved series staple of local splitscreen ended up on the cutting room floor too. A mistake so big that you can fully expect the feature to be reintroduced for Halo 6.
343 Industries have made questionable decisions in other areas of the campaign too. There are issues with storyline, pacing and the introduction of new ideas.
Gamertroll is not going to tell you Halo 5 has a poor story line as many pundits have already stated, only that the exposition rides comparatively flat set alongside what has gone before. There's just not the grandeur and simplicity of intent here that made the early games such a success.
The game is broken into sections where you play the cat or the mouse, Agent Locke with his Team Osiris and The Master Chief backed up by his faithful entourage, respectively (yes, I forgot what they are called, Blue team?). The pacing and distribution of these sections feels poor. Playing Locke is just not as fun as being the Chief and as a result it feels like more of the game is spent playing as the tiresomely self-righteous Spartan hunter. Just think Buzz lightyear without the comic relief.
Worse, the friendly fire teams are so inconsequential to gameplay, that sometimes they seem less entertaining than the random accented human troops The Chief has always played alongside throughout the series. Their only purpose seems to be radio chatter exposition and constant Gears of War style revive functions. On lower difficulties, those teammate revivals now make the game far too easy; at any difficulty in fact, the gameplay mechanic simply doesn’t lend itself as well as it does in Gears. The mechanic is a respected and intrinsic part of Gears of War, hardly a candidate suitable for a quick cut and paste effort as seen here.
On the subject of the story, the misdirection used during the pre-release trailers and TV ad campaigns is particularly notable for its dishonesty. It’s one thing to cut together scenes from a game in a misleading fashion to get people going, but entirely another to push scenes that don’t remotely exist in the finished narrative. The staged standoffs and the suggested conflict between Locke and the Chief was utterly misrepresented. So much so, that there surely is a minor question of legality to be answered. Imagine a movie trailer containing such skulduggery, featuring scenes that are not in the film at all? It’s unprecedented.
Having said all of this, for Halo fans the game is still a must. For people who like Sci-fi shooters it's a must too, being as it is, pretty much the only one out there. In the last two years, the nearest thing we've had to a quality Sci-fi shooter that includes a campaign was Killzone Shadow fall. This is 20 full spades better than Guerilla Studios truncated, invisible wall strewn effort.
Come to think of it, Good FPS campaigns have been thin on the Ground pretty much period. Wolfenstein, Farcry 4 and (at a push) COD Advanced Warfare and now COD Black Ops 3 are the only ones that come to mind. Am I enjoying Halo 5 better than Farcry 4? Eeeeeee.. I suppose I'd have to say yes, because it's the Chief, isn't it? You’ve Gotta know what happens to the Chief! Sadly, in all truth the curiosity is becoming less and less with every time 343 take a swing at this cherished franchise.
The Online multiplayer was the clear priority for which all other sacrifices have been made
and it is suitably outstanding as a result. A deep attention to game balance is evident. Player agility also, has reached hitherto unseen standards in any MP shooter seen previously. There is Vaulting, subtleties like crouch jumps that negate the vault animation, perfectly implemented dash and splash moves, intermixed with Halo Reach-esque abilities: all of which leave players with vast options to be unpredictable in firefights.
The Christmas 2014 Beta was pretty damned slick, but even so, the build has been improved upon further. The accuracy of gunplay and the sheer agility of combatants arguably represents a new standard for online shooters.
Although competitive play may well be the most impressive part, Gamertroll doesn’t like all of it. Whilst arena play is smooth as butter and those quickfire swat levels that look like Tron are spectacular fun, it's really hard to find anything to like about the massive Warzone battles so far. They feel to be extremely unbalanced and confused affairs, undoubtedly the result of fisting a nonsense micro transaction economy into it. It’s hard enough to make huge PVP battles work fairly without the added consideration of a bastardised penny-pincher shoved into the mix. 
We should be thankful that req system is limited to the Warzone mode. If all the other MP games had been sullied by it, Gamertroll reckons Req could have ruined them all. Perversely, some reports have suggested that a significant amount has been pimped-in from fools buying into this pointless bloody game-ruining currency, Gods preserve us from Reqs future inclusion in Halo 6 being encouraged by such virulent stupidity!
In better news, the music and presentation are excellent, the slight misstep of Halo 4’s OST has thankfully been avoided this time.
As a huge fan of Massive Attack and Neil Davidge, Gamertroll is sad to say that his contributions and themes introduced in Halo 4 have been utterly removed from Halo 5. The previously second in command Composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, has taken the reigns proper and surprisingly, the score is actually much better for it.
It obviously helps greatly that you can now finally adjust the sound levels in the options screens, meaning one can at least hear the music this time round, but Kazuma’s success here is down to more than that. As an experienced game composer, he has far better grasp of how to pace tunes for gameplay, not to mention being in-house makes all the difference. After some research Gamertroll discovered that Davidge had little communication and instruction from 343 as to what he was in fact supposed to be doing with Halo 4’s OST. They just signed a big name and crossed their fingers. Hence, his OST was great, but it simply didn't fit melodically. What a squandered opportunity.
After the stuttering shambles of The Master Chief Collections 4 player campaigns, it’s with some relief that the 6-8 hour campaign 4 player Co-op works smoothly, just without the option for local co-op players. That’s quite frankly a step back from Halo 3 which managed to accomplish both with flying colours.
Whilst we're talking of areas that haven’t seen advancement, another notable observation is that the Warthog driving of NPC soldiers is still exactly the same demented monkey simulator that it has been since the features introduction in Halo 2. Come on 343, time to retire that funky old code! It was fun once, but the world has turned since then. Let’s have some more realistic behaviour. A shade less red hot bonkers and suicidal would be a start.
Despite its obvious quality, it’s hard not to be slightly underwhelmed by Halo 5. The hurricane of excitement and hype that surrounded the release of Halo’s 2nd and 3rd installments seems to have downgraded to a mere gale. Will those glory days of the series ever return?
343 are clearly aiming to emulate Infinity ward’s success with their annual Call of Duty games. Which is kind of disingenuous when you realise Halo 2 (2004 Nov 9th) heralded the explosion of FPS online multiplayer games back when COD was floundering in relative obscurity, not even seeing it’s fairly shitty and ignominious console debut until (Oct 25 2005). 
A Halo title should make waves, not flounder in other game's wakes.
In truth, Gamertroll hasn't been really blown away by a Halo since those crazy guitar solos were playing while kicking arse as the Arbiter in Halo 2’s massive vehicle fights. And nothing, nothing in Halo has ever matched the first play of Flawless Cowboy and the Silent Cartographer from Combat Evolved.
343 Industries definitely has the enthusiasm, but do they have the talent and invention required to eventually do this series justice? Not at this rate.
Even after all these criticisms Halo 5’s situation is still thrown into sharp relief once you realise that it’s competing against nothing else on Xbox right now, that in terms of Purebred FPS Sci-Fi Shooters, neither the PC, nor PS4 has anything closely comparable in quality. Despite all Gamertroll’s nitpicking and cries of mediocrity, the sad fact is that Halo 5 currently rules the Sci-Fi shooter niche simply because in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.

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