This month marks the 11th anniversary of Halo: Combat Evolved. It was the game that launched a franchise that has not only spanned two console generations, but spearheaded a whole company to the head of the video game industry. It launched with the original Xbox, and is hugely responsible for the success of the console. Halo: Combat Evolved was hailed a revolutionary when it released. In a console generation characterized by small anthropomorphic animals performing the infamous “double jump” and a love of the third person perspective, Halo brought a mature, immersive, action filled experience that manages to captivate its players with a powerful story and engaging gameplay. In fact, it could be considered the game that spawned the first person shooter phenomenon that, for better or worse, has defined the video game industry during the last decade. Yes, games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake brought the started the genre, but it was Halo that brought the genre to consoles and caused that wave in the popularity that is stronger than ever today.
Halo 2 brought something new to the series, something that, to this day, remains one the most important part in the minds of millions. Halo 2 introduced multiplayer to the franchise. Utilizing Microsoft’s powerful internet gaming service, Xbox Live, Halo 2 allowed players to compete online. This service was so popular that when Halo 2’s servers were shut down on April 15th 2012, many players figured out that by keeping their Xbox’s on and logged in, they could continue to play Halo 2 online. In fact, their dedication was so great that the final player to leave the game, Apache N4SIR, was online until May 10th. Aspects of Halo 2 can be seen all over the shooter genre even today: regenerating health, map and gametype playlists, and skill based player grouping. Halo 2, just like the original Halo is a masterpiece of a game that will remain a landmark of the industry for many years.
Halo 3 was received with mixed opinions. While it was bashed for it’s confusing story and self importance, it was difficult to argue that Bungie had taken the core experience from it’s first two entries in the franchise and done wonders. From a purely visual standpoint, the game was stunning, with bright colors, detailed environments, and fluid animations. It’s gameplay was smooth, simple, and exciting. The implementation of Forge mode provided a creative outlet for Halo fans all over the world, and the map editing mode produced so many incredible creations that Bungie even featured playlists of fan made maps in its matchmaking service. Nevertheless, as Bungie’s last game to feature the series iconic (and bland) hero Master Chief, John(or Sierra)-117, it disappointed with its ending. Instead of killing off their character, ending the franchise, Bungie simply had him drifting off into space. There was no closure, and by keeping the possibility of another game featuring Chief alive, Bungie failed to cement their name permanently to that of Halo. Microsoft is now proving that very point, releasing Halo 4 without Bungie. But of course, that was not the next game in the franchise to be released.
Halo Wars does not count. No, shut up, it was a totally different genre, made by a different developer, published because Microsoft’s wallet needed more stuffing, and it was an insult to Bungie. Plus, real time strategy games belong on the computer, not the Xbox 360. Stop arguing with me, you are wrong.
Halo 3:O.D.S.T. was little more than an expansion to Halo 3. It featured Firefight mode for the first time which brought a refreshing, non-campaign, co-op element to the franchise, but the campaign was short and disappointing. The game did not even have a dedicated multiplayer mode, instead it included Halo 3’s multiplayer with all of the D.L.C. content packaged on a second disc. Bungie had a chance to show us their brilliant Halo universe from an entirely different perspective. They could have given us a gritty, deep and heart wrenching story with fresh characters and a multiplayer with an entirely different tone from Halo 3. Instead we got a group of stock characters in our O.D.S.T (Orbital Drop Shock Trooper) squad. A squad so bland that I had to actually go to the Halo Wiki to refresh myself on their identity. We had Buck, the clean cut soldier, Dutch, the big loudmouth with a big gun, Romeo, the angry sniper, Mickey, the overly excitable demolitions expert, and Dare, the woman(who’s only defining feature was her gender. Yet Bungie’s worst transgression was the playable character, the Rookie. He never spoke, we never saw his face, and we never even got his name. There was a time when a silent protagonist was a good idea, but O.D.S.T. wasn’t set in Black Mesa. Bungie went from having a flat main character with little personality to no main character at all. O.D.S.T. should have been a soldier’s story, instead it struggled to even make its story worth remembering.
Bungie’s last hurrah was Halo Reach. This one went back to the classic Spartans, but only featured Master Chief for a brief moment. The characters of Noble Team were more memorable than those in O.D.S.T, but that might be because of Kat’s accent and robotic arm, Jorge’s pure size, Emile’s skull engraved helmet.
Buck Carter, the squad leader, was just as much of a standard, dedicated as Carter Buck from O.D.S.T., but Noble 6, the playable character had a little bit more personality than the Rookie (read “actually had the basic traits of humanity”), and being compared to Master Chief(“Noble Six. The team’s most recent addition…. Hyper-lethal: there’s only one other Spartan with that rating… “-Catherine Halsey, Halo Reach) at the beginning of the game was a fitting salute to the quiet, loved hero of the original trilogy. Despite the gimmicky additions to the multiplayer, Reach was a strong improvement to Halo 3. The story showed fans that even the great John-117 needed help stopping the Covenant threat, and the inevitable death on the last mission, that lasted as long as the player could survive was a wonderful touch. Forge mode, Halo 3’s signature creation tool, came back with precision tools, larger environments, and more objects and options to use. It brought about even more fan creations and sharing of maps and games that the developer had no hand in creating. The only flaw was the idiotic “armor abilities.” They interrupted the solid, balanced gameplay that Halo 3 was praised for, and only served to give an obvious example of why Reach was different from 3. Bad move there from Bungie, but all in all, a game to be proud of.
Bungie, the brilliant developers of the Halo series, left after Reach, but Microsoft, ever the lover of profits, was not done with Master Chief. They recruited another studio, one dedicated to Halo, 343, to remaster Halo: Combat Evolved. The game was release 10 years after the original, and allowed players to (less than seamlessly) switch between the dated, previous generation graphics and the modernized ones that 343 implemented. No mechanics were changed, and even the multiplayer was just a port of Halo Reach’s using maps from Combat Evolved. It was not a promising start for 343, and left many people, myself included, scared of Halo 4, the blockbuster title that released two days ago from 343. We thought that it would just be another derivative attempt at pulling as much money from fans as possible. In fact, when Microsoft registered domain names for Halo 7, 8 and 9,that idea was solidified. The game was not developed by our beloved Bungie, and appeared to be nothing more than a way to extort fans of the franchise and genre. We were wrong.
Halo 4 was launched to massive critical acclaim, with some touting it as the best entry in the franchise. It has a compelling story, an updated Forge mode, and most importantly, a multiplayer that takes elements from every halo game to date, and combines them in an unobtrusive, compelling and, most importantly, fun way. I got a short opportunity to play the game at a tournament at a midnight release. It blew me away. 343 has done to Halo 4’s multiplayer what Bungie should have done with Reach. It provides a balanced experience in which every feature feels useful. (Also, if you ever have the chance to play one on one competitive Halo in front of a crowd, do it!)
In eleven years, it is amazing how little the series has changed, and yet how different it feels. In Halo 4 and Halo 1, picking up the controller, equipping a Battle Rifle, and shooting a dozen screaming Grunts in the head is so technically similar that it is almost startling, but the series has added so much over those years, and contributed so much to so many games that every game (not Wars), should be honored as one of the most iconic franchises of the millennium so far.