Halo 5’s Winter Contingency

Photo credit: 343 Industries

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.

Photo credit: 343 Industries

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: SiegeTitanfall, 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 Halos 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.

Photo credit: 343 Industries


  1. Back when I was playing Halo 3, Halo 4 used to be something that we joked about. Halo 3, ODST, and then Reach would all drop the curtain on the series in one way or another. I never thought that Halo 4 would actually ever materialise. Naivety I guess. Why would MS ever cast aside their most profitable IP?

    Halo games have always told brilliant stories, but a large part of their success can be clearly attributed to multiplayer. It’s why I still consider Halo 3 to be my favourite ever game. It had everything in equal measure, and left little room for improvement. Nights spent culling the Flood, chasing campaign Vidmasters and stringing together successive wins in multiplayer rank as some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had gaming. By the time that 343 had given us Halo 4 though, it felt as though a little of what made Halo special had disappeared, and I’m not specifically talking about Bungie.

    The campaign was okay. Not a rousing, almost biblical triumph like the others, but okay. Promethean’s were uninteresting to fight. The architecture of the world, although visually pleasing, felt hollow and rather lifeless. And, as the primary antagonist, I felt as though the Didact left a lot to be desired. He seemed to be a villain for villains sake. His position in the lore was absolute, but his execution in the game was flat. A quicktime event death was perhaps his most fitting end.

    The multiplayer left a bigger mark on me, though. Halo 3, with its emphasis on learning map layouts, on levelling-up only through winning and of a ‘one for all’ mentality had spoiled me. Reach fell drastically behind, but Halo 4 wasn’t even on the same scale. When I think back to Halo 4 multiplayer, I think of predictable map layouts with limited pathways, and of matches generally consisting of teams of individuals fighting for themselves rather than to win as one. Skirmishes in Halo 4 tended to be small fights for score rather than for victory. The core of the original trilogy wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The population drop-off was steep, I was there for that, and I hope that Halo 5 doesn’t befall the same fate. Yet Halo 4 left such a bitter taste in my mouth that I can hardly see myself every coming to play it. At least for now, ‘Bungie’s Halo’ is all there is for me.

    Your article brought back a lot of great Halo memories, even if that hadn’t necessarily been the intention! In a perfect world, I’d be an Xbox One owner uneasily rocking back in his chair waiting for Halo 5’s release, but right now, my calendar is firmly fixed on another exclusive in the form of the Uncharted Collection. It’s interesting how you mention that Halo 5 has to ‘calcify its presence’ too. I guess that’s the truest admonition of the Bungie/343 divide. 343, two games in, are still feeling their way into the role, still trying to truly make Halo theirs in ways beyond aesthetic design. I hope they do. I’ll always have a soft spot for Halo in all of its forms.

    This was a fantastic article man, an absolute joy to read. I haven’t been following your blog for too long as far as I remember, but I’ve checked back regularly since and have really enjoyed all of the gaming stuff you’ve put out, even if I haven’t played the game in question, such as the ‘Bloodborne, Dark Souls’ article. Will undoubtedly keep coming back, too, you’re a killer writer.

    1. Thank you so much for supporting my writing Ash. I appreciate each and every one of your visits and I’m glad you’re enjoying my content. Likewise, I have been enjoying your work quite a bit as well; I’ve even recommended a few friends check it out recently.

      For whatever reason, although I do think Halo 3’s multiplayer may have been more balanced, Reach’s mechanics were a sweet-spot for me. I just loved the way that game felt. I also was never a fan of “abilities” in Halo 3 being pick ups, honestly, so making them loadouts was a wise choice in my view.

      As for Halo 4, although I didn’t mention it in this article, I was very much among those who abandoned ship pretty early, though I did buy the game a couple months late – so by then it was becoming pretty sparse already (relative to how it began). I didn’t play the multiplayer enough to form very concrete criticisms, honestly: something about it just wasn’t working for me, and it was no mistake that I mention the “intangibles” of games more than once in this piece. The maps didn’t seem to route players in such a way as to keep engagements frequent enough and concentrated, and the weapons were probably my least favourite of the series (in multiplayer; I liked some of them in campaign). Add to this the fact that matchmaking was inconsistent, and players were much harder to corral for matches than they should have been. So I left it be and never returned (I even dropped into Reach every now and then after this, but never 4).

      Halo 5 to me looks like it has enormous potential in both campaign and online, and I’m eagerly awaiting the response to it. I don’t own an Xbox One currently, but plan to within the next year, so I’ll find out for myself soon enough. Thank you again for visiting, and thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m looking forward to your next piece!

      – Ky

  2. That’s absolutely no problem man.

    It was strange being one of the last ones left playing Halo 4 MP. As with Halo 3, I frequented the Big Team Battle playlist, and it wasn’t too difficult to find yourself against a few familiar names on the opposite team again and again over the course of a few days. Matches always reached the same end though, and based on your conclusions, I’d imagine that you may have noticed this too. Maps were simply not cohesive with the more direct and faster approach the gameplay that 343 were going for. Like you said, it was either fragmented skirmishes or the entire lobby congregating around the same impassable choke point. Halo 4 MP was like a Halo MP antithesis.

    Again though, great stuff dude, I could read about Halo impressions for days, such was the series’ impact on me. We’re not agreed on everything, but it seems like our opinions parallel somewhat, so when you do finally get some hands-on time with Halo 5, it’d be great to read your opinions on it.