It’s apt that Halo 5: Guardian’s “Swords of Sanghelios” exhibits what may be the most vertical terrain of any mission in the series. 343 Industries, the new vanguard of the Halo property post-Reach, has an even steeper climb before them now than with the polarizing Halo 4.
Put aside the fact that Halo will, reception aside, always be in the black (it’s essentially gospel, at this point); the franchise is still, in many ways, an unenviable inheritance. As a studio, 343 was not commissioned but lab-grown by Microsoft for the express purpose of shepherding Bungie’s creation over the hills of a new console generation, and far away. No one said the task would be easy, but the property is of such renown that players are unlikely to go easy if at all crestfallen.
Halo is not Call of Duty, despite appearances: the burden of its legacy is shared in equal parts between its campaign and multiplayer, whereas most of the Call of Duty community regards the solo offerings on a lam, if at all. Guardians is tasked, like 4 before it, with delivering stellar “sandbox”-shooter level design in campaign while also providing an online suite which both preserves and evolves combat mano a mano.
Opinions vary on the success of Halo 4’s campaign, but where multiplayer is concerned, the facts do not. Player numbers plummeted, and the game likewise from Xbox Live’s ten-most-active titles in just weeks. It’s clear something about the game didn’t inspire players to invest time over time, whether out of distaste for map-layouts, weapon balancing, or any one of its other arrangements. That intangible, compulsive character effective multiplayer suites have, which marshals daily exercise from players en masse, must for many have been absent.
Halo 5 cannot afford this absence for several reasons. First, it’s the Xbox brand’s flagship IP and the Xbox One is still a young platform, meaning Halo has to calcify its presence while competition (Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Rainbow Six: Siege, Titanfall, Bungie’s own Destiny: The Taken King) is still relatively modest. This to say nothing of Sony and the Playstation 4, which, while lacking a “Triple-A”-exclusive threat this fall, is still enjoying a liberal lead in units-sold. Sony is also courting publishers like Activision to position their Call of Duty’s and Destiny’s as pseudo-exclusives with exclusive in-game content and chic console-bundles. Halo 5 has to capture and keep newcomers, as well as convince 4’s detractors and skeptics generally that its developer has found solid purchase on Halo’s makeup, online and off. Unenviable indeed, but only if they fail.
Those who seek Halo out for its campaign, specifically its cooperative package, may already think Guardians a failure, however, as the game breaks series precedent by only allowing this mode online. As if not enough was riding on the game heretofore, this creates more pressure than ever for the remaining landings to be stuck. The multiplayer must flourish, and the story not fall flat, so to speak. (By which I mean, if it misses the mark in one area, it better have impact in another, or will leave no mark at all.)
While I didn’t find Halo 4 particularly memorable mission to mission—I can only isolate a handful of its scenarios from memory—I thought 343 handled narrative beautifully. The ending was unexpected and poignant, humanizing John 117 (the name even reads like a machine’s) for the first time, inasmuch as the games are concerned. Or perhaps it dehumanized him, rather, given that 343’s edict on the Chief-Cortana relationship for Halo 4 was its futile irony, the human less human than his anthropomorphic A.I. conscience. His twilight with Cortana may also have been that of the series: the only Halo whose focus was every bit on the personal, even the private, as on its universe both at present and in history.
In the lore, the “Swords of Sanghelios” is a splinter group of the long-established “Covenant” which seeks to continue established traditions, but reimagine them under new contingency. Sound familiar?
343 isn’t in danger of immediate blue ruin upon Guardian’s release, it should be said, but instead the same kind of nuclear winter Halo 4 so quickly entered and never recovered from. This largely depends on how multiplayer is received, how compelled players are to make laps around the same environments a year from release, or two, or three. And as mentioned, it is every bit as important that we remember the journey we take by ourselves with the game; alone, at least, in our respective living rooms. Bungie’s campaigns may not have been timeless—their greatness frustrated either by plodding flood encounters or, in the case of Halo’s 2 & 3, their finales—but there was and remains a timelessness about them. That same intangible, enervating quality of their competitive sides which, upon replaying, has one’s memories from long past occasions—many of which one didn’t know one had—flooding in.
It worries us when a torch this emblematic and seemingly self-sustaining is passed because we know, in the end, how evanescent the flame really is, how unmoored even from its progenitor’s grasp. Halo 4 began what was originally christened “The Reclaimer Trilogy”, a title which was later amended to “Saga.” For 343 Industries, the scope might have changed, but the epithet still stands.