Let’s start with the positive. Halo is great at creating moments: daring escapes from collapsing spaceships or last ditch desperate offensives, sticking someone with a plasma grenade, the first time fighting a Hunter, the squirrelly controls of a Warthog, and the dogfights in a Banshee. Also, I still love the twisting paths of alliances and betrayals that makes up the narrative of Halo 3. However, there’s a reason that ODST and Reach remain the best games in the series. They’re both stand-alone games, self-contained stories with a beginning, middle, and end all in one campaign, complete with character arcs, narrative arcs, and mysteries that are introduced and then satisfyingly resolved.
Then there’s the Master Chief Collection, which for the purposes of this discussion includes Halo 4 and the new Halo 5: Guardians, which represents a series that has actually gotten worse in its storytelling over the years.
The first game worked as a standalone story mainly by virtue of being first. There were no guarantees of a sequel, so it had to tell a complete tale of its own, and it was a damn good tale. It was a surprisingly somber war story, with the humans desperately outmatched by multiple alien races, set on a genuinely mysterious ringworld with a catchy name: Halo. The ending was left open for a sequel, with Master Chief and Cortana left drifting in unknown space as the only survivors, but the game had a clear resolution for its central conflict. The evil Covenant aliens were defeated, and the Halo ring was destroyed.
Halo 2 is where everything started to go wrong. Since the previous game ended with the heroic pair adrift in space, the sequel naturally opened… with them receiving a medal of commendation? On a space station around earth? How they got there is never explained, that missing plot was left for one of the many novels based on the franchise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I like a franchise that crosses media, and I like exploring a world through different mediums, but those additional stories shouldn’t be a prerequisite for entry into the next game. Halo 2 was a sequel to the previous game, not a sequel to the novel, yet it refused to acknowledge the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor. It was still somehow confident enough in its serialization to label itself as a “part 2” of the overall Halo story. Then there was that infamous ending. One of the most unsatisfying surprise cliffhangers in the history of gaming.
To its credit, Halo 3 picked up right where Halo 2 left off and really did complete the story. It’s probably the best “Master Chief” Halo story for that very reason. It ends the war between mankind and the Covenant, it doesn’t resolve the war with a deus ex machina, and it takes a wonderfully twisty path to that ending. Funny enough, Halo 3 also ends with Master Chief and Cortana drifting in unknown space. That’s two good games out of three, not bad so far.
Halo 4 also picked up right where Halo 3 left off and really did tell its own new tale. Its new developer, 343 Industries, clearly learned from the storytelling mistakes of their predecessors. Unfortunately, that left them free to make all new, even worse mistakes because this is where the serialization of the Halo Universe fully fell apart.
The best thing that you can say about the Bungie-developed Halo games is that their failures at serialization don’t impact your understanding of each individual game’s story. Halo 2 had a terrible beginning and an even worse ending, but I could at least follow the plot from beginning to end. Halo 4, on the other hand, revolved around a villain that was closely linked to the complex political history of the Halo Universe, a political history that the games had all but ignored up to this point in favor of focusing on the more immediate war with the Covenant. Because of this omission, Halo 4 had to rush though some exposition that only left players with more questions than answers as to who this mysterious Didact baddie really was.
It would be one thing if he were just a poorly developed villain. There are plenty of those in gaming, and they can be disappointing, they’re hardly ruinous to a game’s plot. The larger issue with Halo 4 was that the Didact actually was a well-defined character… in the Forerunner Saga books set before the events of Halo 4. The game was literally handed a pre-made, pre-developed character and still failed to flesh him out as anything more than a generic “I hate humans” evil alien. Even worse was that the characters knew him by name as soon as he showed up, yet no one ever filled the player in. The characters, the game, and the developers wrongly assumed that players had already read that trilogy of books (yet even that doesn’t explain why Cortana knows who he is, that information is literally hidden in collectibles). Halo 4 effectively connected itself to previous games, but failed to stand on its own as a good story. Whatever lessons 343 Industries learned were overshadowed by their own mistakes.
This brings us to Halo 5: Guardians, a game that once again changes the status quo of the world without informing the player about it. When we meet Master Chief in this game, he’s running around with a crew of other Spartan super-soldiers. Quick back story: Master Chief was supposed to be the last of the Spartans. Quick update: He’s not. Spartans are everywhere now, whether it be the new team of volunteers or the handful of original Spartans that just happened to survive yet for some reason never appeared in previous games. Then there’s the now traditionally poor writing that has characters already up-to-speed on events, so no attempt is made to explain certain twists or developments to the player.
To be fair, Guardians does continue the story from 4, following through on the ramifications of the death of Cortana. However, just when you might think the franchise was improving its storytelling, the game ends with another cliffhanger that leaves its core conflict unresolved. It’s an interesting cliffhanger, admittedly, but if history is any indication, Halo 6 will follow this interesting story thread to yet another unsatisfying ending. Or another cliffhanger.
That’s two good games out of five, a less than stellar track record.
Halo is supposed to have an expansive universe, but the games offer some of the worst world building of any franchise in recent history. They refuse to acknowledge their own contradictions and seemingly can’t be bothered to tell a complete and coherent story on their own, consistently relying on outside media to fill in important plot points. A change in developer has only made things worse. If anything, Halo is unique in its refusal to change what’s broken. Its dedication to narrative failure would be admirable if it weren’t so depressing.