"Halo 4" made me a believer. "Halo 5: Guardians" has shaken my faith.
By the time "Halo 4" was released in 2012, the war-in-space franchise had already made a hit out of Microsoft's line of Xbox consoles and helped popularize online multiplayer gaming. Yet as a more solitary player I admired "Halo" more than I was addicted to it.
That changed with "Halo 4," a game essentially about a technologically enhanced super-soldier, known as Master Chief, and Cortana, the almost-human woman he loves. It was a sci-fi romance, with lots of guns, transforming a series that had long been designed to be played with others into one with a rather personal narrative. Making us care so much about Master Chief's emotional well-being was "Halo 4's" great achievement. The stuff about the warring alien factions felt like a subplot.
So what's a solo player to do with "Halo 5: Guardians," the series' most multiplayer-focused title yet? Released this week for Microsoft's Xbox One, the game's core campaign is now designed and optimized for four-player cooperative play — teamwork. But there are casualties with this move, and not just Covenant alien forces.
The story in "Halo 5: Guardians" suffers. This is a "Halo" created for those who already live and breathe "Halo" and are well-steeped in the series' decade-plus lore, stuff that's largely impenetrable to new players. The laser-like focus of "Halo 4" on Master Chief is gone, and in its place is a big, often messy game, but one with high ambitions.
If you're looking for an interactive world in which to shoot things, few digital spaces are as grand and show-stopping as some of the planets of "Halo 5: Guardians."
One planet looks like a virtual Grand Canyon. Marvel at ancient carvings in ruddy stones. Jump down a waterfall and gaze at glistening structures on the horizon. If ever a world should be too pretty for explosions, this one would be it.
It's diverse too. Women and men, and living beings of all races and colors, share the battlefield. What a shame, then, that so much of this game doesn't make any sense.
When last we saw our hero Master Chief at "Halo 4's" end, he was in emotional tatters. A question lingered: Is it better to have loved and lost, if having lost means you may be less equipped to be a super-soldier on distant planets?
"Halo 5: Guardians" does not waste any time on the grieving process. When we meet up with Master Chief, he's ready for battle — space blaster in hand and slimy and robotic space creatures in its crosshairs.
So is everything all better now? Not quite, but "Halo 5," a game Microsoft is counting on to sell home consoles, immediately shifts attention away from the more intimate storyline of "Halo 4." The cast of characters has swelled, perhaps to accommodate the emphasis on team play.
As far as Master Chief goes, he's still stoic and husky-voiced, but this time around he's maybe a little hasty in his actions. Without his almost-human artificially intelligent female pal Cortana, the Chief is preoccupied and convinced she's out there somewhere. She is, but before we find out what form she's taken there's an assortment of intergalactic wars to get all muddled up in.
The core drama that drove "Halo 4" — questions surrounding one's attachment to an unnervingly sentient artificially intelligent being — do crop up here, but they're pushed to the side. Instead it's war, and war all the time.
"Halo 5" teases a one-on-one showdown between Master Chief and fellow soldier Spartan Locke, but when Master Chief goes rogue to search for Cortana it never really feels all that reckless. That's why we're here, after all, but the game contorts itself into one about the whole universe ending rather than a pair of lives changing.
With our heroic Spartans landing on one inhospitable planet after another, there's frankly too much going on. There's a civil war here, a skeptical alien ruler over there, a humanoid-like bodyguard figure over here, and those who aren't up on the "Halo"-verse will soon lose track of which outer-space species is being targeted. No matter, they all pretty much die the same; just adjust your aim to different weak points.
At times, players control Spartan Locke and his team, which is hunting Master Chief. The latter has his own mini-squadron to boss around — which is great news for those who game online, but it doesn't entirely work as a solo experience.
There are nice touches — stop and enjoy the scenery, and the characters will talk among themselves — but I never got to know the three soldiers fighting alongside Locke or the three obediently following Chief. They're avatars in search of human companions.
Meanwhile, "Halo 5" has its heart set on more mechanical concerns — fine-tuning the game's multiplayer capabilities, for example, or adding more free-form movement to our Spartans. Early on, a large new online battle mode dubbed Warzone has occupied much of the release-week hype. For competitive "Halo" players, Warzone will likely be enough to justify the purchase.
As for getting new players up to speed, Microsoft and its developer, 343 Industries, seem content to let the expanded "Halo" universe — books and digital series — fill in the story's blanks.
It feels a bit like a throwback to the days when games didn't have cinematic goals in their sights and were instead obsessed with technological prowess. On the latter, "Halo 5" succeeds. The game worlds are massive, full of horizontal and vertical spaces to explore, and commandeering a squad of four people is an achievement.
Still, "Halo 4" raised bigger questions about where games could take us. Efficient shooting wasn't enough, it seemed to say, as the game went out of its way to forge deep relationships among its core characters. And this is why I've struggled with "Halo 5." The series is still my space-shooter of choice, but as the only dedicated game player among my group of close friends, I had to ignore "Halo 5's" push to play with others. Is this one simply not for me? Maybe, but more troubling is how the game buries its themes, its characters and its heart.
As my team of Spartans entered a giant ancient ruin of a cave, there wasn't a moment to wonder why I was here or what the objective was. "Let the guns talk," one of the Spartans said, and although I can enjoy pulverizing aliens as much as the next player, I like "Halo" better when it has more to say.
'Halo 5: Guardians'
Developer: 343 Industries
Platform: Xbox One