Once genre-defining, the Xbox's premier franchise is in a rut
Once genre-defining, the Xbox's premier franchise is in a rut
The high water mark for Halo was probably right before it didn’t get made into a movie.
In June 2005, the series was ready to take on the world, starting with Hollywood. That month, a team of actors dressed as Spartan super soldiers were sent to the the offices of major film studios to hand-deliver sealed copies of a script Microsoft had paid Alex Garland – author of The Beach and screenwriter for 28 Days Later – $1 million to write. The software giant hoped to start a bidding war for the rights to make a movie of its Xbox-launching blockbuster. It worked. Despite seemingly outlandish terms (including a big chunk of profits and even first-class plane tickets to the premiere), Fox and Universal put forward a joint offer that would see Halo turned into a Peter Jackson-produced tentpole movie.
Only then it wasn’t. The deal came apart, Microsoft’s hot property not quite hot enough for all the concessions the publisher was demanding. In 2007, a month after releasing what’s still the best-selling game in the series, Halo 3, series creator Bungie announced the deal which would see the studio leave Halo behind and return to independence. Then, in 2009, the film Halo might have been – District 9, produced by Jackson when Microsoft’s deal fell through – earned an Academy Award nomination for best picture, while Halo fell from the annual top spot of most-played Xbox Live game for the first time ever. Gradually, as a commercial force and as an influential game, Halo was becoming less than it had been.
Today, the series is overseen by 343 Industries, a Microsoft internal studio created specifically for the job. Most recently it helped Creative Assembly to release the in-universe strategy game Halo Wars 2, which is both quite good and unlikely to stop the series’ slow slide to the margins. So what can 343 do to fix Halo? Is it already too late?
343’s major objective has always been to get the core Halo series back on track, and with Halo 4 – the studio’s first serious test – it got the the broad strokes right. Following up the opaque and forgettable plotting of Halos 2 and 3, Halo 4 re-established the series’ fictional foundations – a superman and his digital conscience taking on an alien army to save mankind. It’s the kind of urgent, nuance-free dash that suits shooters so well, and it also gave us back Master Chief, the comforting, authoritarian uncle missing in action for the last two Bungie Halo titles, ODST and Reach.
...while Halo’s original trilogy shaped the very structure of the games industry and helped usher in an age of connected console gaming, it also delivered only one campaign worth seeing through to the end and gradually accumulated a plot so convoluted that Bungie itself simply abandoned it in space.
But there were also problems. The game dealt directly with the Forerunners, expanding an area of the series’ lore that had previously sat, looming and mysterious, in the background. Playing Bungie’s original trilogy, the vanished Forerunners were knowable only through their extraordinary architecture and monstrous power. In Halo 4, they were over there, on a platform, looking like humans but bigger and without noses. Also underwhelming were Halo 4’s new alien species, the Prometheans, which echoed the three-tiered army template of the Covenant but, as beings made of robot parts and pure energy, felt somehow insubstantial and unsatisfying to fight. As a result, Halo 4 felt like a ghostly re-run of Combat Evolved, with the Prometheans taking the part of the Flood and the Covenant returning because, hey, there was a spare ticket. The result was a familiar highlights reel of pitched, three-way battles across lush off-world landscapes and inside polished alien installations.
Halo 4 might have played it safe, but in getting the series moving again, it was also a success. It’s tougher to say the same about Halo 5: Guardians, which arrived in 2015 and sold about half as well as Halo 3 – which was released at roughly the same point in the Xbox 360's lifecycle. Here, having apparently not been paying such close attention, 343 repeats the most glaring mistake of Halo 2 – it introduces a new character and makes us play as him, even though playing Halo and being Master Chief are one and the same thing. In fact, Halo 5’s deviations go even further than Halo 2’s Arbiter missions, setting us at odds with Master Chief and calling his (our?) motivations into doubt. The result is a stuttering campaign constantly undercutting its own momentum.
The problem, really, is that like all 343’s work, Halo 5 still feels like an act of interpretation rather than invention, caught between respecting the things that intrinsically define Halo, and building a future for the series. Faced by rival shooters filled with wall-running and double-jumping, Halo 5 tries to combine the series’ classic, elegant feel with a more modern maneuverability. And its multiplayer is literally split down the middle, caught between the past and a potential future, with an Arena mode that delivers the stripped down, loadout-free formula that old-school Halo players have long called for, offset by the more speculative Warzone mode, which mixes Call Of Duty-like microtransactions with an experimental, toe-in-the-Destiny-waters combination of PvE and PvP.
Where does this leave us? It leaves us two-thirds of the way through what was originally planned as a Reclaimer Trilogy (it’s since been expanded into a Saga) with very little reclaiming having been done. And it doesn’t help at all that, since leaving behind the series it created and returning to independence, Bungie has created Destiny, a key competitor for Halo which, while not without its own problems, is so obviously and completely new, geared to how first-person shooters might be played in the future rather than how they were played on the original Xbox. How can Halo’s fortunes possibly be revived, a pessimist might argue, when its original masterminds are working with the enemy, and its fate is in the hands of steady curators?
But being clear-eyed about the problems Halo faces also means being realistic about its past. The fact is Bungie’s games were often more important than they were good, at least after the initial thrill of Halo: Combat Evolved. Launched along with Microsoft’s new Xbox console in November 2001, Combat Evolved was the system’s standout hit, a showcase of technological muscle and science fiction design that resonated triumphantly with the new machine’s aesthetic. The Xbox might have finished a distant second to PlayStation 2, but Halo made sure Microsoft was still in the race when the generation ended. Even more importantly, it gave the company famous for Windows and Excel spreadsheets instant credibility with an audience that looked at Bill Gates as a mostly unwelcome guest at the gaming party.
But then things got hazier. Halo 2 arrived on the same machine three years later with a disappointing single-player campaign now largely forgotten thanks to a groundbreaking online mode which provided Xbox’s new Live service with its first must-play game. Halo 3 was more of the same, a victory lap that doubled down on Halo 2’s multiplayer dominance, but served up another flawed instalment of Master Chief’s adventure.
In other words, while Halo’s original trilogy shaped the very structure of the games industry and helped usher in an age of connected console gaming, it also delivered only one campaign worth seeing through to the end and gradually accumulated a plot so convoluted that Bungie itself simply abandoned it in space. The studio’s final two Halo games – ODST and Reach – have the feel of contractual obligations, as though the only way the departing studio could to bear to deliver its last couple of Halo games was to ditch Master Chief and focus instead on prequels and alternative perspectives.
This at least helps put the task 343 faces and has faced into perspective. It’s not true that Bungie was brilliant and 343 is simply unable to match them. It might be true that Bungie has an uncanny, ambitious knack of breaking new ground and that 343 has a creative culture based necessarily on careful conservation. It might also be true that Bungie bailed before the problems its ambition helped create needed fixing, and that 343 has struggled to find a solution. But this is the nature of the two studios – Bungie, clearly, never wanted to oversee a global entertainment property and churn out variations on a theme every three years to service it (this Penny Arcade cartoon was, at one point, framed on the wall of the developer’s Bellevue headquarters). But that’s exactly what 343 Industries was custom built to do – and it has done so, with remasters, and twin-stick spin-offs playable on Windows-branded mobile devices, and live-action web series which expand the lore even past the over-ambitious convolutions of the Bungie era. And none of it has made Halo great again.
So what can it do? What can be done?
Here, it’s worth coming back around to Halo Wars 2, if only to say, respectfully, “not this.” Halo Wars 2 is a fine achievement but not, ultimately, the future of Halo. It is a sideshow, an ancillary perk that, like the never-made movie, is a measure of Halo’s standing rather than a contributor to it. A phenomenon like Halo stands or falls on the battlefield, testament to the power of first-person shooters and the violent thrill they offer. With its co-op card being played by Destiny and its multiplayer arenas ably bettered by the all-conquering Overwatch, 343 will need to do more than reinvent the core experience – something we know it has struggled with – to make its blockbuster matter once more.
If Halo is to rise again, it will be through Halo 6. And to that end, 343 needs to make Halo 6, firstly, a game about Master Chief, and secondly, different. It is, of course, all very well pointing vaguely towards the future and saying “Invent this!” But 343 must try something significantly new or risk Halo continuing to feel like a museum. Whatever the final verdict on Halo’s would-be-usurper Destiny, the fact is it was so innovative it took months for most people to work out if it was any good or not. Halo needs this sense of daring, of structural experimentation – otherwise, caught between creativity and conservation, 343 Industries looks set to steer Halo into a slow obscurity.