Discovering The Halo Series

Outside of MMOs, I don’t think I have any other game that I put as much time into as Halo 3. I played through the Xbox 360 classic numerous times, got every achievement, wasted away entire days in multiplayer, and crafted my own levels in Forge mode to subject my friends to. It was a blast and I look back fondly on the game to this day.

However, this passion for Halo 3 never extended to the rest of Bungie’s famed sci-fi franchise. I didn’t even truly know what the plot of Halo 3 was about, as I never played the games before or after it. So… let’s change that.

Combat Devolved

Starting up Halo: Combat Evolved was a strange experience. This game is lauded as a classic of the original Xbox. Critics at the time praised it to high heaven and, for many gamers, it was THE game to get if you were getting an Xbox anyway. Its long shelf life combined with this acclaim made Halo a true success story that elevated Bungie to a household name. So why is it this shit?

That’s mean. For a console FPS, Halo CE was at least dense in features. It offered a variety of interesting weapons on top of a selection vehicles—both ground-based and flying—to control. Its setting felt imaginative yet very approachable for sci-fi, and the co-op mode made it a favorite game for many. While watching a Games Done Quick speedrun of the game, I couldn’t help but smile at all the donators recounting memories of playing the game with their friends or siblings.

Looking back on it now as a man spoiled by far robuster shooters, it doesn’t hold up well. For example, the game’s enemies are quite fun to fight, but encounters against them aren’t crafted in any way that makes them shine. Most fights that stand out will have you locked into an area as waves of enemies keep spawning in, until the game is satisfied and lets you move on. These wave-based encounters often go on for far longer than ideal, to the point that I sometimes wondered if they were spawning endlessly and I should be doing something else entirely. Investigating those suspicions could get you killed, however, forcing you to restart the lengthy process all over again.

The game also suffered from an exorbitant amount of backtracking. A lot of the story sees you delving deep into ancient ruins, getting to see your next plot development at the end, and then backtracking the way you came. Many rooms you’ll be fighting through are copy & pasted several times throughout a level and then strung together with series of grey corridors. Hell, sometimes entire levels just get shamelessly revisited. It reeks of a game trying its hardest to pad out the already-scarce runtime and the boring aesthetics take away from the cool sci-fi setting that Combat Evolved tries to establish.

The game did have its fun moments, but the lackluster story, overtuned enemies, and boring level design ultimately left me rather bored with it. In both it and the sequel, Halo 2, I got so tired of the game that I started avoiding encounters just to get it over with. Usually, that’s not a good sign.

Something about rings

Combat Evolved dampened my eagerness to explore the series further, but I was at least determined to finish up the Master Chief collection. In particular, I was curious about the story. Halo is often held up as one of the most gripping sci-fi tales of the medium, to the point that Cortana was brought into the real world as a virtual assistant developed by Microsoft. Not to mention spawning a range of supplementary materials ranging from book and comics to entire anime.

Yet from Combat Evolved all the way to Halo 4, I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by the plot. Humanity is at war with an alien theocracy known as The Covenant and we are losing HARD. Our final hope is series protagonist Master Chief; an armored warrior with no equal, backed up by the most sophisticated AI humanity has ever developed. The titular Halos are ring worlds scattered across the galaxy, left behind by a mysterious, long-extinct race. The Covenant worships the rings and believes that activating them will trigger a spiritual awakening of sorts, whereas Humanity soon learns of a dark truth behind their actual function.

The plot is serviceable, but draws heavily from well-known sci-fi tropes given only the lightest of twists. Alien forerunners, ringworlds, zombie-like parasites, treacherous AI, hiveminds, even stylistic elements like how all the Human vehicles are bulky and military-colored compared to The Covenant’s rounded, purple vehicles. Such inspirations aren’t bad, but the game does very little to iterate on these ideas.

One issue I noted is that the series feels indecisive about its plot. Story is initially kept light and deliberately steers away from giving anything more depth than it needs. The Covenant is just an evil theocracy and the alien species within it are given names based on their combat function. The little cannonfodder enemies are Grunts, their elite commanders are Elites, and the brutish powerhouses are Brutes. This even applies to characters, like Master Chief and The Arbiter. You can probably see how this is a lot lighter in writing compared to Mass Effect, where you might run into a race called The Quarians.

However, that depth is actually there. The races, characters, and factions do have names, they’re just not used in the text at all. In Halo 2 I found an optional info terminal that gave me a cutscene where the real names were suddenly used. This caused confusion because I’d never heard those used before and thus didn’t have a clue what the lore video was about. While browsing the wikia I also found a bunch of interesting articles about the setting’s backstory, which the game skims over or doesn’t even acknowledge at all. It made me wonder if some developers wanted to do more with the story, but ultimately had to dumb the plot down for the sake of mass appeal.

Games don’t need intricate lore for their stories to be good, but this constant flip-flopping got on my nerves.

Another example of indecision is how the games sometimes contradict themselves or retcon events. For example, by the end of Halo 2 there is schism in The Covenant. You actually play as The Arbiter, who leads the Elites on a rebellion against The Covenant alongside other Allies. Then Halo 3 happens and Master Chief teams up with the Elites that broke off from The Covenant, but ONLY the elites. All the other races remained 100% loyal, whereas not a single Elite remained in The Covenant. Then Halo 4 happens and the Elites are back in the Covenant, though now with 0 Brute presence whatsoever.

Sometimes this even happens within a single game. Halo 4 kicks off on a bunch of waffle about how Spartans are devoid of real humanity, just before players embark on a 6-hour campaign where Master Chief takes on a new mission out of sheer empathy.

When Halo does try to tell a story, it’s often embarrassingly poor. Halo 3 constantly interrupts your gameplay with visions of Cortona, which slow movement down to a crawl and fill the screen with special-effects. It’s super intrusive to gameplay and much too frequent, as well as completely useless. 90% of her dialogue is just shallow nonsense meant to make the game sound emotional. A lot of it you won’t even be able to hear on account of audio distortion and the series’ ardent refusal to include working subtitles.

ODST and Reach are also hilariously bad. Both of them have you play as a rookie of an elite squad that they try to characterize, but Bungie evidently had no clue for how to handle so many characters. Their personality doesn’t extend far beyond constantly arguing with each other and what their single defining skill is. You end up with the argumentative tech lady, or the argumentative sniper, or the argumentative demolition expert. I basically already forgot about them the moment I started playing anything else. Except for the romance scene in ODST which was just so embarrassingly forced that it stuck out like a sore thumb.

Out on campaign

Each Halo game has a campaign mode with about 6-8 hours of content to it, though I hear that Halo Infinite changed that around for the sake of open-world tomfoolery. However, even ignoring the regrettable state of Halo‘s storytelling, the gameplay offered by these campaigns is quite meh.

Battling your way through hordes of aliens is usually good fun, but Halo never found a sweet spot for itself where the gameplay is consistently fun. The main FPS gameplay is held back by a combination of two issues:

  1. The weapons don’t handle particularly well, so it doesn’t feel cathartic to use them.
  2. Enemies are often VERY specific about what weapons are effective against them.

This is especially obvious in Halo 2, where you can fire a shotgun point-blank into a Brute and it’ll just turn around and instant-kill you with a slap. However, these problems linger throughout the franchise. Combat Evolved has The Flood that feel way overtuned, specifically because they’ll shrug off your automatic weapons like they’re nothing. In Halo 4, Elites and the new Promothean enemies can tank an entire clip of single-fire weapons straight to the head, before darting into cover to let their shields restore. Hell, even Grunts could sometimes take way too much fire (or punches) if you didn’t land a straight headshot on them.

Enemies being weak to specific weapons is nothing new for FPS games, but this isn’t Doom or Blood where you can carry an arsenal of goofy weapons on your back. Halo gives you two guns to carry around, which will oftentimes be whatever you happen to salvage off corpses.

And the weapon feel? Don’t get me started. Shotguns that are ineffective beyond point-blank range, grenades with a pitiful explosion radius, extremely-rare melee weapons that don’t always guarantee an instant-kill, automatic rifles with ridiculous spread to them. This gets particularly infuriating in Halo 4, where the enemies are exceptionally skilled at punishing you for trying to cope with the downsides of any weapon. I don’t think I managed to kill a single significant enemy with grenades in that entire game.

To vary up the run & gun gameplay, Halo often relies on vehicular combat or timed driving sequences as gimmicky alternatives. Since this has been a focus of the game since its inception, these vehicles actually control really well. In fact, I’d argue the vehicles are some of the most iconic elements of the game and often the highlights of the campaign. However, not all vehicle segments are made equal and, as a result, they can also be very painful.

Warthogs are a good example. They’re great if you’re playing together with a competent friend. In singleplayer, you are bound to braindead AI or just have nothing at all. The AI can’t hit anything with the turret and drives so poorly as to border on sabotage. I have literally had the AI shut down and refuse to move the car at all, then drive over me—killing me instantly—the moment I get out to take over.

Other vehicle-centered levels are just poorly-designed, like mission 8 from Halo: Reach. You’re just flying between high-rise buildings in an incredibly slow chopper, occasionally dealing with a turret or enemy patrol. The level takes forever and has no exciting highs to offer at all, unless you have a fetish for escort missions.

Innovation by side-stepping

What I couldn’t help but notice as I played every game in the Master Chief Collection back-to-back is how little these games changed over the course of 11 years. Graphics get better and concepts are fleshed out more, but new additions are few, far between, and often temporary in nature.

The same cast of enemies is rolled out for every game with many of the same vehicles, with new additions often being retired after the game that introduced them. Weapons get varied up a little or swapped out with new alternatives, but ultimately play largely the same when you really get down to it. It makes the franchise feel samey.

A particularly glaring example are boss-fights. Halo CE only had hordes of enemies to mark peaks in difficulty, so Halo 2 added in boss-fights to spice things up instead. These were okay, though they felt a bit glitchy. Especially Tartarus who usually gets killed without my intervention. Boss-fights then regressed in Halo 3, where the only encounter approximating a boss is a slow-moving circle that you shoot a few times to win. ODST and Reach didn’t have any bosses at all. Instead you usually just run away from the story’s antagonists or they get killed in a cutscene, like the final boss of Halo 4.

Speaking of Halo 4, that was prominent a moment for the series. Bungie had to hand over the reins to their successors, which had people worrying whether the franchise was in good hands or not. Halo 4 mostly plays it safe, but does introduce an all-new threat with new enemy behaviors, new aesthetics, and weapons. I commend 343 Industries for the breath of fresh air they brought to the series, but I also have to be perplexed at some of their decisions.

Halo 4 adds cinematic climbing sequences and quick-time events to the series. That boss-fight I mentioned? You beat him by way of QTEs, which is incredibly disappointing after having listened to his taunts for the entire game. Halo 4 also retained Reach’s mediocre changes, like cinematic take-downs and the underwhelming powers you can equip to your suit. I am glad that they removed running as a special power, but that makes it even stranger that this legendary space warrior can only run for 4 seconds before needing a little rest.

Multiplayer fun

Some might argue that I am being unfair judging these games solely by their singleplayer experience. From the outset, Halo was designed with multiplayer in mind. Both as a cooperative experience in the campaign, as well as online with friends and strangers alike. I myself put an ungodly amount of hours in Halo 3‘s online mode and it’s time I don’t regret spending.

Halo‘s multiplayer also left an incredible impact on the gaming community. The game itself was already big and socially-oriented, but thanks to fan videos and machinima it spread out into entirely new genres of online media. When I wasn’t playing Halo 3 back in the day, chances were high that I was watching some machinima of it instead. I don’t think I could stomach an episode of it today, but for the time it was really good fun.

However, multiplayer has a shelf life that usually ends when the next game comes out. Even if ODST and Reach failed to mirror the success of Halo 3, their sheer existence forced people to migrate and split communities. I strongly recall quitting Halo multiplayer entirely pretty much instantly after ODST dropped, only to pop in (briefly) for the Reach beta that I uninstalled after 2 games.

In this new era of live services, even these nostalgic memories can be corrupted. Playing the Master Chief collection came with a constant barrage of messages about exclusive deals, unlocked cosmetics, and desperate pleas for me to try multiplayer mode instead. Word of mouth on Halo 5: Guardians and Halo Infinite is not particularly reassuring either. Halo was once a titan of multiplayer and a must-have game for the Xbox, but now it has become just yet another live service that demands unending, constant attention from its players. And frankly, the games are just not up to par with other available shooters to be worth that attention.

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