When the Xbox launched in 2001 no one had any idea it would bring with it one of the most loved and successful video game franchises of all time. Halo: Combat Evolved seemed as if it came from nowhere to stun the masses and win the hearts of Nintendo/Sony fanboys worldwide. This momentum only grew as Lan parties became more common and the anticipation for an eventual sequel was building. Halo 2 launched three years later to critical acclaim. It was truly remarkable the franchise managed to keep its quality, build on what was already established and win over even more new fans. It wasn’t long before Halo 3 was on everyone’s minds. The cliffhanger ending of Halo 2 left people desperate to see Chief finish the fight, Bungie had a very tall order to fill. Halo 3 was released on September 25th, 2007 built upon unprecedented levels of hype. Defying all odds Halo 3 met most of the community’s expectations, received universal high scores and became the most played Xbox Live title. The future was bright for Halo. The franchise had endured six successful years dominating the market of first-person shooters and delighting legions of fans. It seemed as if the franchise was immune to failure, little did we know the path forward was going to be rockier than any of us had hoped.
For those all to familiar with the legacy of Halo you might think this is where I start to clamor on about the apparent mishandling of the franchise under 343’s leadership, but that would be disingenuous. I believe the slow drip of disappointment with Halo started very shortly after Halo 3’s release. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare released less than two months after the Halo trilogy concluded, introducing the ability to start with your own loadouts, a perk system, sprint and have much quicker combat engagements than people were used to. People were used to playing Halo for a generation and the ability to customize your play style combined with the satisfaction of much quicker kills and ability to drop right back into the action were welcomed with open arms. Quickly Modern Warfare became the most played Xbox Live title, a third-party Activision published game that was also available on several other platforms. This certainly wasn’t a criticism on Halo’s quality, but it was definitely a sign of its relevance in modern day gaming.
No matter the impact of Call of Duty, Halo was still extremely popular. With the finality of the ending of Halo 3 many were anxious to see where the franchise would take them next. Halo 3: ODST was released two short years later. Originally conceived as an expansion pack to Halo 3 the game grew beyond what the team thought constituted a game of that size and it quickly became a full retail release. While lore fans like myself were very pleased with the ability to play another story set in the Halo universe that’s not from the Master Chief’s perspective many were less than thrilled, they wouldn’t be receiving the giant space opera we’d all come to know and love. It certainly didn’t help that ODST had no competitive multiplayer mode of its own, instead including a second disc that launched the multiplayer of Halo 3. While multiplayer has never been where my interest in the series lies, there’s no doubt if Halo wanted to maintain being the top dog in the online FPS genre they needed something big to overcome the looming success that was Call of Duty, ODST failed to scratch that itch.
Halo 3: ODST may have been a quickly developed (albeit outstanding) title but that wasn’t all Bungie had in the cards. Halo: Reach, a prequel set before the events of the first game released September 2010. Unlike its predecessor this was a full three-year development cycle entry into the series complete with its own original multiplayer. This is perhaps where the first noticeable decent into irrelevance began as Reach introduced a new gameplay mechanic called Armor Abilities which heavily altered the tried and true gameplay of the Halo formula. The ability to have players flying around with jetpacks, while others sprinted and some managed to lock their armor up to avoid certain death left a bad taste in players mouth. This was coupled with the introduction of loadouts, different but similar to Call of Duty’s. There’s no doubt Halo: Reach was a fantastic game with its satisfying campaign and slew of different game modes/features, but it seemed as if the hardcore competitive community was starting to grow further distant with each release. I’ll have it be noted that while this is the end of the tale for the Bungie developed titles it was evident that Halo’s success and relevance was already in decline.
The future now seemed rather uncertain. Halo 3: ODST and Halo Reach, while outstanding entries into the series on a critical level put the franchise on a downward spiral. 343 Industries had a very steep hill to climb. Many like myself were concerned a new developer may not have what it takes to make a quality Halo game, 343 had the task of creating a new Halo without having ever done so before and trying to regain that competitive multiplayer crowd that was already on its way out. Halo 4 launched November 6th, 2012. Reviews for the game were overwhelmingly positive with many stating the franchise was in good hands. The campaign continued the story of Master Chief, awakening over four years after the events of Halo 3. While the story had its fair share of criticism the majority regard the campaign for Halo 4 as a success. Once again, the shortcomings were in the competitive multiplayer which descended further down the path of armor abilities, loadouts and unlocks. If I had to wager, I’d say this is the point where many were worried for the future of Halo as a competitive multiplayer franchise. The series had been stumbling for years and by this point there was many other alternatives on the market. I’d like to mention that I’ve always enjoyed each Halo entries multiplayer including Halo 4, but I’ve decided that doesn’t really count for much being as I primarily play the games for their story offerings. This was definitively a low point in Halo’s legacy as the active multiplayer numbers continued to drop to abysmal levels. While many like myself remained vigilant it did seem like the future of Halo was in the air.
343 Industries was hard at work on their next mainline title Halo 5: Guardians, but that wasn’t all they had in store. E3 2014 blew us all away with the announcement of Halo: The Master Chief collection, the first four Halo games and their multiplayer in its entirety all on one disc, a Halo fan’s dream collection to be certain. If there was one product that could win back the goodwill of the Halo community this was it. Unfortunately, we all know what happened next. Halo: The Master Chief Collection released in a comically broken state. It was bad enough the campaigns were so buggy with menu’s overlapping and checkpoints not occurring, but the multiplayer didn’t even work. Minutes turned to hours as fans across the world failed to connect to even one matchmaking lobby. The game was quite literally broken and in no state to be released as a complete product. While extremely disheartening at the time I do look back with hindsight and realize that what the team was trying to achieve with this collection was truly out of this world. In reality a collection like this probably needed its own sole three year development cycle and since we know that kind of time was never going to be given to a side project it probably would have been preferable to instead just release a Halo 2 Anniversary. The team tried to release as many updates as possible to fix the plethora of issues at hand but there simply wasn’t time. Halo 5: Guardians was just a year out and the time needed to be spent on it, not a collection of old games. Halo: The Master Chief Collection was largely abandoned until 2018 when it was revamped entirely.
We have now arrived at the most perplexing point in our Halo journey. Halo 5: Guardians released October 27th, 2015 to once again mostly favorable scores. Halo 5 sported a beautiful art style, buttery smooth 60 frames per second and a fully functioning multiplayer suite. Not only that, the multiplayer was simply fantastic. Halo 5 removed all of the superfluous junk like loadouts and armor abilities fans of the series weren’t fond of while building further on movement and the competitive nature that has always been in Halo’s roots. To this day over four years later it’s not uncommon to see even the most die hard Halo fans state that Halo 5: Guardians is the best Halo multiplayer in the series. Hats off to 343, they had done it. The real struggles then came with the campaign which featured a dizzying amount of characters we didn’t know and a plot that was rather generic. This was a real problem. The multiplayer had struggled for years but the story, the campaign always maintains a consistent quality. This may come off as a hot take, but I think this mistake effected the Halo community more than any Halo controversy prior, including The Master Chief Collection. When people who play Halo exclusively for the multiplayer are uninterested, they migrate to other games that are more able to satiate their desire, but a fan of Halo’s lore is completely different. The fans that play the games for the story of the Master Chief and the world around him are there for the long haul, they’re die-hards for this universe. Whenever the series stumbled the Halo lore fans were the ones there to prop up the weakened community, the ones who kept breath in the lungs of Halo as a franchise and now for the first time ever it was extremely hard to do so. Halo 5: Guardians had sacrificed so much good build up from not only Bungie’s stories, but the new ones created by 343. Wonderfully written characters, background reveals about the Forerunners and a wide selection of engaging novels all seemed to be jettisoned by a plot that just wasn’t that interesting. This is the moment where Halo as a franchise descended into darkness more than it ever had.
Let me set up for you what early 2016 looked like as a Halo fan. Years of following this series through books, comics, games, movies, toys and any other type of story telling device you can imagine culminated in Halo 5’s story, which unfortunately turned into a something less than average. The Halo fan’s dream collection still did not function properly, was full of bugs and other technical issues and there was no longer anything left to look forward to. Many fans of the series left or grew silent as the months turned to years. Things were all to quiet. I think a lot of fans just moved into the phase of acceptance, remembering what was great and trying to forget what wasn’t. Was there any hope?
A few things started to happen as time went on, small things but good things. Halo Wars 2 was developed by Creative Assembly, the amazing talent behind Alien: Isolation and was released in 2017. If you’re like me Halo Wars doesn’t really satisfy that desire you get when you want to play Halo but as a fan of the lore I was more than willing to oblige. I think most regard Halo Wars 2’s story as pretty decent if not good, I certainly had no issues with what I played. The big take away was Halo Wars 2’s art style which looked far more in line with what you’d expect out of an old school Bungie Halo. It was a delight to see something like this in a time when you weren’t expecting current day Halo to bring much joy. The joy continued however, as we started to receive very sizeable updates to The Master Chief Collection. These updates improved the UI and actually made the multiplayer work, okay 343 I see you. Some traction was starting to build, not enough to say things were good again but a glimmer of hope did exist. It was E3 2018 when we saw the first announcement of what the next Halo game would be. Halo Infinite was announced showcasing a brand-new engine titled “slip space” that showed off the beautiful vistas of a Halo ring in a very familiar yet new art style. There wasn’t much to see in such a short tease, but it was enough to feel excitement. 2018 went on with continued updates to The Master Chief collection, releases of new Halo novels that weren’t required reading for the next game and radio silence on Halo Infinite. At this time, you can start to feel the Halo community coming back, not in full force but enough to feel its presence growing. This brings us to where we are now.
It’s fall of 2019 and were several months passed the latest Halo Infinite trailer which many would agree showcased everything you’d want in the future of Halo. A stunning, faithful art direction coupled with a new character fastened with a surprising amount of personality and a mystery inducing reveal of the Chief and whatever exploits led him to the predicament he’s in. The people at work behind the scenes for this trailer should be praised, I can only imagine the happiness 343 felt with the success of this trailer. It did everything a trailer needed to do for a franchise that’s had an identity crisis for close to a decade. It made you feel things you used to feel while giving you a taste of the things you haven’t, and it respects it all. The Master Chief collection continues to improve and receive updates as 343 keeps the community dialed in tight. Halo Reach is due to release on the platform in glorious sixty frames per second later this year and the hype for Infinite is building. You can see the way 343 has managed to position themselves over the last year or so and it’s very impressive. The community is more alive and vibrant than it has been in some time, youtubers are rallying around Halo content with more energy than they have in years and anticipation grows feverishly. Were all ready for more Halo, even more so for it to succeed. 343 Industries is positioning us for exactly that, a Halo renaissance. With Halo Infinite being a spiritual reboot, The Master Chief Collection working and being updated and the fans creating content with more renewed vigor they have had in years it’s a better time than ever to jump into the series. Halo isn’t just your average video game, it’s so much more than that. Only a fan base like this one can endure so much and still find their way back. It’s not because the games don’t deserve criticism, it’s not blind fandom, it’s love and pure joy for a universe we’ve grown passionate about for almost two decades. There’s nothing wrong with moving on, but I have a feeling some of us will be around regardless of where this universe take us, because it’s simply a part of who we are.