This year’s E3 will most definitely announce the next game in 343 and Microsoft’s Halo franchise. The “6th” game and finale to the series’ post Bungie trilogy. The weirdest thing about this, nobody is really talking about it. There was a time that Halo was the biggest franchise in the industry, now it’s a languid shadow of its former self.
Back when the original Halo trilogy was in the zeitgeist, it was seen as the definitive game in the genre. The first game received near universal acclaim from all major publications, as did the second and third for the most part. Not only that, the franchise had a major guiding hand in the direction that, not only the FPS genre moved in on console, but had an impact on modern game design sensibilities and the approach to online play in general. It was certainly the first game I was really aware of playing online on console.
While that may sound a tad dramatic, I can’t really overstate the difference in the impact, reception and retention that the original trilogy, and its spin-off games, had in comparison to this new trilogy of games that is fast approaching it’s finale. So what happened exactly?
The Original Trilogy
There was a reason that the first Halo games was called “Combat Evolved”. Going back and reading reviews from the time it came out, it’s eye-opening that reviewers praise and point choices and designs from the first game that seem like standard functions of first person shooters today. Having grenades and melee on their own dedicated buttons instead of having to switch to them. The restriction of only holding two weapons at a time (giving a degree of constant tactical awareness and choice), the variety of vehicles and enemy AI that meant encounters were rarely the same on repeat play throughs.
It’s the kind of thing we take for granted these days, because it’s been ingrained into the language of the genre. It’s why console shooters all seem to have a universal style of button layout, give or take a few errant inputs. In the brief span of time between the first Halo and the finale of Halo 3, the series made itself one of, if not the biggest, western made franchise on consoles.
Halo was the introduction to playing games online for many of my generation. For those who missed out on the likes of Quake Arena and Unreal Tournament on PC. It was certainly the franchise that spearheaded the breaking through of Microsoft’s Xbox Live services. Halo 2 and Halo 3, on top of being more complete games with hotly anticipated story campaigns, added and then refined a new and robust way of playing online with people from other parts of the world. And then hearing them say the most horrific things about you and your loved ones.
Halo wasn’t just a trilogy of first person shooters back then. They were almost a culture. Bungie always added very deep customisation options, unlockables and extensive community features. Anyone who linked their account to Bungie’s own website could access a deep well of stat tracking from their history playing the game. Photo modes, recorded replays and even a forge mode that not only allowed people to create their own maps and game modes, but started a popular trend of Machinima that allowed people to use the game as a tool to create their own stories and animations.
All of this was tied together using a very pretty bow. Martin O’Donnell’s soundtrack for the franchise was amazing, adding a grandure and sense of epic scale to the conflicts and situations happening at any given moment in the game. The maps felt huge and expansive, we all know about Bungie and their skyboxes. Halo was ‘everything’ to a lot of people back then.
The Time Between
Bungie kept telling us that Halo 3 would be their last game in the series before they would move onto their next big idea. Then they went and made ODST, which was also their last game… Until they made Halo: Reach (which is my personal favourite game in the whole franchise) However, that was finally the end for Bungie and Halo, as they cut ties with Microsoft and moved to Activation to work on what would ultimately became Destiny.
As they moved on from Halo. Bungie had changed the landscape for FPS in their wake, changing the way everyone thought about the genre, both developers and players. Halo’s immense financial success, not even taking its influence into account, made developers everywhere hungry for a piece of that pie they never knew was there. There’s a reason so many other shooters of that era were referred to as “Halo Killers” leading up to their release.
Unbeknownst to most of us at the time, as Halo 3 was hitting the shelves, another franchise was just coming into its own. Taking what Bungie has laid down and adding their own sensibilities to it. Speeding it up, adding a level of pace to gameplay and streamlining the relatively plodding and deliberate pace of Halo’s multiplayer. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warefare came out less than two weeks after Halo 3 in North America.
I bring this up because Call of Duty felt like the next logical next step for first person shooters on console. There was still a lot about Halo that felt like it had been dragged along from the days of the PC arena shooter of the late 90s. For all its innovations, there were still things about Halo that felt archaic in its approach. Call of Duty brought around the next step of the genre on console and ultimately led to Halo falling out of the spotlight.
Modern Warfare’s multiplayer play style is: fast to kill, fast to die. Where an individual’s own reactions and skill at the game ruled supreme. This fast paced style of multiplayer made Halo feel sluggish by comparison. Map control still existed, but became a niche way of playing in comparison to twitch based multiplayer where it only took a single shot or punch to kill an enemy, making it so the battles of attrition that came from Halo were replaced with people going on 5 person kill streaks in a matter of seconds.
As Call of Duty became the biggest name in first person shooters. Other developers started to copy their designs instead of Halo’s. It’s when similar franchises such as Battlefield and Titanfall started to pop up. It posed the question toward the future development of Halo games of whether they were going to move with the times or double down on what they were already doing.
The New Trilogy
When Bungie got out, you have to wonder if they knew that the landscape would change again. The new game they wanted to make for so long was ahead of the curve once again, but I’ll get to that later. Microsoft handed the Halo franchise off to 343 Industries. A developer, formed and named specifically for continuing the Halo series were given the unenviable job of taking what Bungie had done, and continuing to make it a success.
Halo 4 was actually met with a warm reception. It continued a lot of the things that made the original Halo franchise so popular. As other shooters seemed to focus more and more on their online multiplayer, 343 endeavoured to keep the whole “Halo experience” intact in their debut original game. They continued to focus on a strong campaign; full of collectables, they continued Bungie’s work in making the online community an actual community, with support sites and custom modes. They even added the Spartan Ops mode, which I liked a lot.
Halo 4 was a good game. But it never had the impact of the originals. You can’t really blame them though, the old Halo trilogy came out when there was not much else like it. They created a new landscape that opened up for more games of the same type, one that found itself quickly saturated with competitors, copycats and innovators. Aside from the, now huge, Call of Duty franchise, Halo 4 had to compete with the likes of Borderlands 2, Dishonored, Far Cry 3 and Mass Effect 3. All series that, at least in some way take some direct inspiration from the original Halo games.
Then we got Halo 5: Guardians. I was unsure of my feelings of Halo 5 at the time. But ultimately, it never got its claws into me in any way like the original games did. This was partially due to the game’s weak story, it was also partially thanks to the game’s unsavoury, micro transaction driven Warzone mode. But if I’m completely honest, it was mainly because the game had come out after the release of Destiny.
Bungie, intentionally or not, had yet another hand in changing, or at least popularising in this case, the genre once again. Shooters have been a constantly evolving genre and have changed at an even faster pace after Halo made us realise the popularity of the genre on console. Game’s like Destiny, The Division, Warframe and Overwatch gave players a new way to perceive and interact with the genre. Something Halo never left like it was keeping up with.
So What about Halo 6
Previously, we had a campaign and and online competitive multiplayer to tide us over, this eventually stopped being enough. The genre grew and started to focus more on perpetual, constantly changing online experiences. Games like The Division and Warframe let you play in larger, player occupied spaces that allowed for variable, repeatable content that would generate random rewards. It gave players a goal while mixing co-operative and competitive play modes, sometimes fluidly.
Games like Overwatch gave us a constantly updating and changing landscape based around a graded competitive curve. Giving people the goals of being the best around. Coupled with a development team that seems to stay with a game, rather than move onto their next project after one has been send to print. We, as players, started to expect more from our games, we expected them to do more to retain our attention with the landscape being so saturated with games of all genres.
Halo, under 343, has stayed relatively unchanged since way back in 2001 when Combat Evolved shook the gaming world. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say the franchise has stagnated. The developer walks a treacherous tightrope, one that needs them to stay true to the franchise’s roots to avoid alienating and frustrating the old faithful fans, but also needs to succeed in an environment where their competitors are doing everything I just stated above.
Nobody seems excited for Halo 6 because they’re in an impossible situation. Unless they do make something drastically different than the franchise has ever seen before, then I can’t see it being anything but a decent game that will hold the attention of Xbox owners for only a few weeks, maybe months, before they move on.
Faith in Microsoft’s old franchises is pretty worn right now. The new Gears of War was, by no means, bad. But it felt safe and uninventive. I have that same worry for Halo. When they tried something new in the form of their MOBA inspired Warzone mode in Halo 5, that never became more than a badly balanced curiosity and ultimately never had the e-sports legs they seemed to want it to.
I don’t know if Halo has a place of reliventce in today’s gaming world when the industry as a whole has grown an incredible amount in the few years since Combat Evolved. Microsoft will still make a big deal about Halo 6 during their press conference, if it is announced this year. Halo is still a big name, despite the lack of retention it has in comparison to its past mainstream relevance. I just hope that 343 can pull something out of their bag and make the finale to their trilogy something worth getting excited about.
Because otherwise, what future does Halo have anymore.