Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
The Halo series has always held a special place in my heart. Halo 2 always makes my top 3 favorite games of all time. But ever since Bungie left, things haven’t quite been the same. It’s hard to really put your finger on it, especially since the new Halos look so beautiful and amazing. They’re certainly great games in their own right, but while I was playing Halo 5: Guardians, I realized what felt so different: the weapons.
Why I Love Halo 2
The Reclaimer trilogy (4-6) is in many ways a mirroring of the first three. Halo 4 was about the Master Chief landing on some alien planet, discovering a super spooky secret, and making everything explode when he leaves. Exact same setup as Halo: Combat Evolved.
So I was naturally excited for Halo 5, since I expected it to be a mirroring of Halo 2 which I consider one of my favorite examples of narrative through gameplay. The plot itself was forgettable, but the really important thing was the perspective switch between the Master Chief and the Arbiter. Plenty of games have you going into alien worlds to kill things. Fewer of those games have you wielding the alien’s own weapons. And even fewer of them have you actually playing as the alien.
Halo 2 was largely a game about discovery. The elites discovered that the prophets were lying to them. The brutes discovered their new place in Covenant society. The humans discovered that the halos had an extended purpose. The Master Chief and the Arbiter discovered that the flood were being controlled by a conscious, intelligent entity. And most importantly of all, the player discovered all the new weapons, mechanics, and environments to reflect each situation.
Take the energy sword for example. At the end of the Master Chief’s first chapter, you’re boarding a Covenant machine and killing the enemies inside. One of those enemies is wielding an energy sword. This transitions perfectly into the next chapter when you play as the Arbiter and he takes out his energy sword. For the first time, you’re actually able to wield one. You’ve fought against enemies with swords, and suddenly you’re actually using one.
Most Covenant weapons are completely unique from their human counterparts. The Covenant plasma rifle doesn’t reload like the human assault rifle does. The Needler has no counterpart whatsoever. All of these differences add up to immerse you into the mindset of a Covenant elite.
I’m a big fan of narrative through gameplay, and the way Halo 2 does it leads into one of the strongest beliefs I hold: that everyone is the protagonist of their own lives. Enemies are more than just faceless cannon fodder. They’re individual, living, thinking entities who deserve as much attention as the heroes. The Arbiter is just as heroic as the Master Chief, but in a different way.
And all of this comes through in the weapons. When you pick up a Covenant weapon, you’re forced to put yourself in the mindset of a Covenant. You can’t do the same things that you did with human weapons. This really makes you think about the different cultures and environments behind each race, and ultimately you grow to respect and accept these differences. By the end, you’re just as proficient using alien weapons as you are with human ones. Everything happens because the weapons are all unique.
Why I Don’t Love Halo 5 Quite As Much
But as it turns out, the Reclaimer trilogy chops out a lot of the uniqueness associated with each weapon. You pick up a new gun you’ve never seen before from an ancient alien race and it does the same thing as your normal human weapons. Oh, here’s the suppressor… it’s just the Forerunner assault rifle. Here’s the scattershot… Forerunner shotgun. Lightrifle, Forerunner battle rifle. Incineration cannon, Forerunner rocket launcher. Binary rifle, Forerunner sniper. It just goes on and on.
Just look at the suppressor. It looks so cool. All the pieces snap together and it glows and it looks completely different from anything that the humans or the Covenant use. So why did the Forerunners build such an awesome looking weapon, and then decide that it would work exactly the same as the assault rifle? (Disclaimer: this clip is from Halo 4, but the suppressor works pretty much the same way in both games).
There’s nothing new to learn. No special mechanics. Every weapon you pick up in Halo 5 is something you’ve seen before. I refuse to believe that a post-singularity alien civilization would still use the same kind of magazine-fed projectile guns that we use today. In Halo 5, no matter where in the universe you are, all you have to do is look for the localized version of your favorite loadout and go to town.
Let’s put cross-species weapons aside for a moment and focus just on human weapons. Why did they add the DMR when it serves the same purpose as the battle rifle? How about the SMG, assault rifle, and SAW all filling the short-range automatic suppression role? Or the railgun and the spartan laser? What’s with all of these duplicates? Yes, they’re different, but not fundamentally.
It reminds me of the Call of Duty style of weapon balancing, where they create a ton of weapons that all share the same functions but just have small statistical differences from each other. “This one fires 10% slower but has 5% more range”, and so on and so forth. That’s an entirely valid direction and it’s certainly proven to work, but Halo’s tradition was to have a small amount of weapons that are all fundamentally different.
I know that I’m looking at Halo 2 through rose-tinted glasses. The carbine is just the Covenant battle rifle, the fuel rod cannon is just the Covenant rocket launcher, etc. Same thing, same problem. It wasn’t a perfect game in this regard, but it was still a lot better than Halo 5. They wanted to make sure that the player always had access to a familiar set of tools, which is a noble goal if you’re thinking about traditional game design. But it loses out on all the delicious symbolism associated with unique weapons.
The result is that while Halo 5 is a perfectly acceptable and very fun shooter, it doesn’t have the same kind of soul that the series had in the past. While the elites and the Covenant in Halo 2 were part of a dynamic, engaging, and interesting society, the Forerunners in Halo 5 are just bland antagonists with equally bland arsenals. Which is a real pity, because I really wanted to see their side of the conflict.