Revisiting the Halo Franchise: Consistency and Surprise

Halo 4 will mark a shift for the beloved franchise, handed over to a new development team to cast their own story on space marine Master Chief. Bungie had five games to make it right: Halo, Halo 2, Halo ODST, Halo 3, and Halo Reach. Halo Wars carved it’s own niche (unsuccessfully as a studio closure would indicate), and it wasn’t via Bungie’s hand. Revisiting the five game saga has surprises, and certainly unexpected bright spots.

Halo is a bit of a mess despite great highs. Halo 2 is vastly under-appreciated for its scale, but bogged down by Arbiter runs against the malformed Flood. Halo 3 is the best of the series despite some also woeful Flood levels. Halo ODST happened, and Halo Reach botched an opportunity to supersede what came before.

Out of all of this shines Halo 3. There’s no question it’s a title at peak energy, refinement, and scale. Mesmerizing music beckons the player into grandly scaled battles with multiple Scarab tanks, a battlefield with opportunity for choices. Despite being linear, Halo remains the most open of any FPS franchise, a series that allows for fresh looks and attack patterns only destroyed when the AI becomes unpredictable. Halo 3 does it better than any of them while capping a narrative emotionally with the hook that Chief is still out there.

But, it’s important to not overlook what the entire series does. It’s consistent. No, not in the vein of Call of Duty, wherein a single engine is shared, retooled, and slapped with a new skin. Halo’s weapons all have the right feel, the right sound, and the right look, even as they shift into different war torn venues (and of course, game engines). The Needle Rifle from Reach is the replacement for the Covenant Carbine, and in all aspects, it’s a logical evolution of weaponry. UNSC assault rifles grow bolder, tighter, and deadlier. Pistols evolve, vehicles improve, and Warthogs are still physics-defying disasters. Every element, from level design, interiors, to inane chatter, is instantly identifiable as Halo. Nothing does it better.

That’s what allows materials like the black sheep, Halo 2, to survive in an ever expanding gaming environment. Here’s a game developed at a break neck pace to meet a set-in-stone release deadline, and it still comes together as a peak of Xbox technology. Few games appear any smoother, better lit, or sharper last generation. Halo 2’s bad rep comes entirely from a handful of levels – and they do hurt – but that’s ignoring how much scope is achieved on limited hardware.

We’ve lost the ability to play Halo 2 online over the years on consoles (April 14th, 2010 to be exact), and the original Halo was only partially retooled with a remastered Halo Anniversary. What’s stunning is how much these games have lost, and yet still endure. For years, Xbox Live was held together by Halo 2, and even Halo 3 until the beast that was Call of Duty stole the titles, sort of a shock-and-awe campaign of leaderboard supremacy.

Halo Reach tells the story of a dying planet, doomed to be glassed by invading Covenant forces, and none of that material comes through in the design. Picturing Halo 3-scale levels as the world burns below was left to be a pipe dream. Even ODST, with gloomy style, filtered lighting, and moody score better conveys the crushing effects of catastrophic invasion. That was a mere gap filler expansion, not the full hyped product was Reach was developed to be.

Has Halo lost appeal? Almost certainly. Modern real world wars have shifted eyes towards glamorized, pseudo-real summer movie fare acting as recruitment tools. Despite a change in location, whether it’s the future scenario or glistening ring worlds, Halo still has those elements. That’s why it’s still alive for a lot of people, still in the embroiled in war, but beautiful escapism with the warmth of humor. That’s a summer movie. That’s Halo.