There are many games contained within the disc — or the download — of5. Let's list some of them.
There is the actual game of Halo 5, the minute-to-minute act of playing. The picking up of weapons and the shooting of enemies.
That aspect of the experience is amazing, especially when played in co-op. There's a reason we gave the game a 9.0 in our official review; if you like big, beautiful games where you shoot things in the head with friends you're going to have a great time. Spend your $60, pick it up. You're not going to be sorry.
Then there is the narrative experience of Halo 5, wherein the game tries to tell you a story with characters and emotional arc and that is a dismal failure. What's frustrating isn't that the story is bad, it's the fact that you can see the ghost of an amazing story in there. There are some interesting moments and characters who could have been leveraged to show us something, anything, that would have connected on a cohesive or even emotional level.
It never happens, which is a shame.
Be warned: We're headed for things some would consider spoilers
What happens after the credits roll
There is a way to tell a chapter of a story in a satisfying way without finishing the story. The easiest example is The Empire Strikes Back. We know Han is out there somewhere, and characters we care about are going to look for him. Luke gets a piece of information that changes his life. The climactic battle doesn't settle anything. But by the end of the movie you feel like you've been told a complete chapter. The story will continue, but this particular journey has come to an end. This ending is one of the few times the Star Wars series ever feels graceful, in fact.
Halo 5: Guardians, on the other hand, ends with the equivalent of the air being let out of a tire. We'll discuss the ending in more detail soon, but for now I'll say you won't get a satisfying conclusion to this particular chapter of the story. Nor are many, if any, of the primary conflicts of the game addressed in a way that makes me believe the team behind the game knew where they were going with the story.
When the credits rolled I wasn't just let down, I was physically angry. There were so many interesting ways the story could have gone before the game was over, and so much tension in the relationships between these characters that could have been explored in a more honest, real way. Instead the sequel is set up, very little closure or resolution is offered, and in a few years we'll spend another $60 for a story that will do little else but set up Halo 7.
I spoke to Arthur Gies, who was handling our review of the game, to share my complaint. His advice was to wait 48 hours, the sting would fade faster than I realized. And I did so. And in the meantime I played much more Halo 5. And the sting receded.
The reason why is simple.
Halo 5 is amazing
The game is a great showpiece for what the Xbox One is capable of from a graphical point of view, but the feel of the weapons and the combat of the Halo series is nearly impossible to top, even after the reins were transferred to 343.
I finished the game on Normal to see the story, which left me bitter. Then I moved onto Heroic and I'm right back to enjoying the hell out of the actual game. After that I plan on getting the old band back together to tackle the game on Legendary.
After so many games of nearly incomprehensible stories and lore that requires terminals and study outside of the core gaming experience I've decided to give up on the story of Halo. Not that it ever showed anything interesting outside of a few neat, big ideas that no one seemed to know how to develop into a working narrative. If you want a great story and interesting characters let's stop pretending the game starring a faceless, gravelly voiced super-soldier is going to provide it. Even Nathan Fillion, who punches well above his weight class when struggling under bad scripts, only makes a slight impression here.
It's not that I'm not upset Halo 5 couldn't deliver a workable story with a beginning, middle and end. I am. It's just that between the fun to be had in the pure expression of play within Halo 5 and the many multiplayer options the lack of story is a very small detail in a very large package that's being sold for $60. You're going to get your money's worth, and my personal journey with the game has only begun. I can't wait to play more, and to master the higher level tactics and the interesting Warzone mode.
I've just made my peace with Halo. It's going to deliver a lot of what I want, and we're going to remain good friends as long as it delivers on most of its promises. A story just won't be numbered among the things it's able to do competently.
I doubt many people, when faced with Halo 5 as a package, will care. I don't.