Halo Guardians is a slick, stunning, impeccably designed, interactive space opera — the video game equivalent of a blockbuster movie. The fifth major entry in Microsoft’s signature video game franchise, and the first of the series made for the company’s next-generation gaming system, the Xbox One, the game takes advantage of the system’s improved computing power to offer players a feast of gorgeously designed, battle-ready environments to explore and destroy, from lush green planetscapes pocked with giant neon flowers to eerie metallic interiors lining alien megastructures.
Like all the Halo games, Guardians is a first-person shooter, so you’ll spend most of your time with gun in hand, blasting your way through these spaces in frenetic, fun combat situations. Many of the game’s most memorable moments, however, come in the brief periods of calm between firefights as you navigate along virtual mountain ridges or through windowed space-station hallways that let you look out on the larger planets and space scenes you’re playing through.
As I worked through the game’s single-player storyline last week, I often found myself pausing to gaze out at the spectacular sci-fi vistas these transitional moments provided: The sheer scale of the game’s visuals is bigger than that of just about any movie, and the fact that I could choose to slow down and peer at them for as long as I wanted allowed me to appreciate the incredible scope and the massive galactic conflicts they often seemed to suggest.
The game’s flawless look and high-tech production values also extend to the cinematic cutscenes that break up the game’s missions and deliver its story. The computer-animated characters in these scenes still don’t look quite photorealistic, but at times they come scarily close, and the scenes are directed with the commercially stylish intensity of a major summer blockbuster. Indeed, the game’s opening cinematic, which ends with the introduction of the main characters in an extended, single-take battle sequence, reminded me more than a little of the similar opening to Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Meanwhile, the game's better-than-average voice acting (the cast includes well-known character actors like Keith David and Nathan Fillion) goes a long way toward keeping the scenes grounded, even when the lines themselves are hokey and ridiculous.
Which, frustratingly, they often are. And that’s the biggest problem with the game: The story makes almost no sense.
Halo Guardians' plot and characters are both underdeveloped
I’ve played every single Halo game since the first one was released in 2001, so I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the series’ complicated mythology — and yet Halo Guardians still left me scratching my head.
Part of the problem is that the characters are so dull. For most of the game, you play as Locke, a heavily armored space Marine, or Spartan, whose bland gruffness renders him virtually blank as a character. Locke is the leader of Fireteam Osiris, a small band of Spartans who also lack recognizable personalities outside of the fact that one of them looks and sounds like Nathan Fillion.
Osiris has been sent to track down Master Chief, a legendary warrior and the protagonist of the previous Halo games. Master Chief, in turn, is leading his own team of Spartans — none of whom has a memorable personality, either — on a quest to find Cortana, the beloved AI companion who supposedly died at the end of the last game. Cortana, meanwhile, appears to have gone nuts, and now seeks to use an ancient galactic weapons system in a quixotic plan to enforce peace across the galaxy. It's a plan that, somewhat awkwardly, will probably result in the death of millions.
Basically, Halo Guardians is a sci-fi version of Apocalypse Now, except you’re chasing the Martin Sheen character, and Col. Kurtz used to be a friendly intelligent hologram whom Martin Sheen was (maybe) secretly in love with.
But it doesn’t really play out like a story, with building tension and dramatic reveals, so much as a series of expository mission introductions. And it’s all weighed down with a decade’s worth of incomprehensible franchise lore — good luck understanding what’s going on if you don’t know what the Mantle of Responsibility is, or who the Forerunners are, or what the Domain is — plus some confusing new additions, like the game’s angry recurring level boss, the Warden Eternal.
By far the most interesting character in the game is Governor Sloan, a grouchy AI who has been made political leader of a mining colony and sometimes seems a little crazy. When Team Osiris encounters a giant holographic projection of him in the middle of a settlement, one team member worries that he may be "sacrificing logic for resolution cycles." That’s roughly how I felt about Halo Guardians itself, which looks great but really seems to have skimped on plot.
With weak characters and clunky writing, the story just never engaged me the way the environments or combat did. The massive battles and epic visuals meant that at times it was like playing a movie — but I couldn’t figure out exactly what that movie was about.
Unlike with movies, players can affect a video game's story flow. That makes it difficult to write a cohesive plot.
Telling a story, as in a movie, requires controlling the narrative. Stories are driven by authors, who decide what to tell and how to tell it.
But video games are all about player choice. The player decides what to look at and for how long, where to go, what to do, and how to do it. That’s even true in a relatively linear game like Halo Guardians, which funnels players through an experience that is largely predetermined. (Unlike open-world games, Halo’s missions always follow the same essential path, resolve in the same major showdowns, and feature the same interstitial cinematics.) Yet the player is in control throughout the bulk of the experience, making minute-by-minute decisions about precisely how it all unfolds.
It’s not impossible to tell a strong, compelling story in a game like this. Games like The Last of Us, which features a surprisingly moving plot about family, friendship, and survival after the zombie apocalypse and comes complete with a twisted, morally complicated ending — or like Bioshock: Infinite, a first-person shooter that doubles as a dark steampunk satire of American history and immigration politics — prove that it can be done.
But that’s a rarity in the world of video games, where stories tend to serve as loose connecting material layered on top of the action. Movies tend to start with scripts —the story and characters — and then the rest of the production is built around them. Even in a movie with heavy visual effects, the story almost always comes first.
By contrast, video games tend to start with gameplay mechanics and level designs, perhaps some visual concepts to establish atmosphere. The story comes later, and is often secondary to the other core game elements.
And that can lead to vague, muddled narratives and characters that don’t draw in players. That appears to be what happened with Destiny, a major online shooter from Bungie, the studio behind the first few Halo games (343 Studios took over the game starting with Halo 4). Destiny has been tremendously successful since it was released last year, but fans and critics have complained bitterly about its weak narrative and poor writing — especially since the game is reported to have cost $500 million to make.
Destiny's story feels half-baked because it is half-baked: An extensive investigative article published by Kotaku last month reported that after years of work, the game’s original story was scrapped not long before release. The designers then rushed to cobble together an entirely new, less coherent story, trying to find ways to make it work with the gameplay they had already designed.
There’s reason to suspect that something similar may have happened with Halo Guardians. Many of the scenes, character beats, and storylines depicted in the many ads for the game over the past two years don’t show up anywhere in the game, and don’t seem to have anything to do with the story found in the final game, suggesting that early in the development process the story was very different. It certainly feels that way. As I played the game, the story moments, despite high production values, often became a chore to get through — a thin and unconvincing series of excuses to move the player from one game mission to the next.
But is truly necessary for video games to have plots in the first place?
All of this raises a bigger question: Do video games like Halo even need stories? In recent years, a handful of big-budget shooters with competitive online components —most notably Titanfall and the upcoming Star Wars: Battlefront — have decided to forego single-player story campaigns entirely.
Halo 2 helped pave the way for the modern-day competitive online shooter scene, but the franchise has continued to place a heavy emphasis on world building and backstory, even going so far as to produce cartoons and short films set in the Halo universe in order to set up the stories and characters in the games.
However, those projects mostly serve to reveal the limitations of Halo’s sci-fi narrative. Halo: Nightfall, a series of live-action short films produced by legendary movie director Ridley Scott and intended to set up Guardians, debuted to decidedly mediocre reviews and fan disinterest.
Years of efforts to turn Halo into a big-budget movie, where the story might have taken center stage, have failed as well, as culture clashes between Hollywood and Microsoft eventually resulted in a broken deal and no movie. Tellingly, the straightforward techies, wrote Jamie Russell in the book Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood, didn’t understand the personality- and ego-driven negotiations of the movie industry. They didn’t grasp the human factor.
The best thing to come out of that failed project was a short reel of gritty test footage for the unmade Halo film, put together by District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. It’s bloody, brutal, and evocative, but one of the reasons it works is there’s no real plot to speak of.
Maybe that’s for the best. After all, the most memorable moments in Halo Guardians didn’t come during cinematic scenes where the story was told to me, but rather from the interactive sequences where I stopped, looked around, and took in the vast and fantastic sights the game had to offer. To put it another way, the story Halo Guardians tried to tell was terrible; what made the game great was the story it allowed me to imagine for myself.