Halo is easily among my top five favorite game series. I have played every game multiple times, I’m very knowledgeable about its lore, and I’m prone to collect as much stuff based on the games as my income affords it. But in regards to my enthusiasm toward each new game release…that’s another story.
A few years ago, I would have been devouring everything I could learn about the newest entry, making assumptions and hypotheses. These days…it’s not like I’m not interested anymore, I just can’t play the expectation game with the publishers anymore.
This year’s E3, we finally got our first real trailer for Halo Infinite—the trailer is still kind of vague in regards to the plot, and previous announcements have disclosed that there is a new engine employed for the game as well. What exactly is going to change? I realized that I just don’t have any time for speculation; better wait until it actually hits.
What does trouble me is that the game has been officially announced as a launch game for Microsoft’s new console (codenamed “Project Scarlett”). There are two possibilities coming out from this: either the game is a pioneering on Microsoft’s new machine—pushing all the console’s capabilities front and center—or Microsoft Game Studios is pretty much tying the game release to the console’s launch date, causing this game to rush through development and dropping features along the way in order to meet the deadline.
Unfortunately, be it Bunglie, 343 Insdustries or Microsoft Game Studios, The Halo series—just like Master Chief himself—has a tendency of standing up to their promises and committing to their release date no matter what, and the franchise has a track record of that working against game quality.
This gives me a good chance to make a retrospective on the Halo series, in order to track how the developers have responded to the challenge of creating each new game in the series, with the pressure of a closing deadline looming over their shoulders.
Let’s start from the beginning…
Halo: Combat Evolved was a really influential game for me—I got engaged in this game real quick given that it has many elements that caught my attention: lots of action, smart (and even creative) AI in enemies and allies alike, and amazing vehicular combat. And even tough Halo: Combat Evolved poses a mostly vague story throughout the game, it’s just enough to keep things moving.
After Halo: Combat Evolved, each game of the franchise has suffered the lack of something due to its release date coming closer. Probably many of you already know most of the following facts, but I just need to say them out loud. My expectations for the game series I once adored keep plummeting after each new release, and I swear this tree will not fall in a forest with no one around to hear it.
Please note that this critique only addresses the game’s campaign mode because, yes, the multiplayer component has been (mostly) improved in every iteration, but no, the driving force behind this franchise, and the thing that sells books, toys, and whatnot is its story, and that always goes front and center whenever any game is advertised (and we’ll talk about the multiplayer in a future column, don’t worry).
Halo 2 is the only game in the series I can actually call an honest sequel to its predecessor. It not only added a ton of new content in the gameplay department, this game was the one that truly set the whole canon of the series, like most of the game’s characters as well as providing most of the lore we now associate with the main series.
Bungie understood that Halo 2 was not just a game, it was the flagship of the Xbox console and there were gargantuan expectations after it was announced in E3 2003. There is a fascinating read about the nightmare it was for the development team to meet the deadline and the game’s fullest potential, including this quote from Halo 2‘s engineering lead Chris Butcher:
There’s a famous drawing that someone did on a whiteboard in the team’s space that shows a plane on fire trying to land on a runway, and people are jettisoning cargo crates out the back of the plane in order to try and get it on the runway. Every crate has the name of a feature we had to cut… In the end, we ran out of room on the whiteboard for all the crates.
Bungie had no other choice but to wrap things up, scrapping a lot of planned stuff from the game; the most notorious omission was the game’s lack of a proper ending, pulling an Empire Strikes Back at us and leaving the plot in a cliffhanger.
Still, cliffhanger or not, one of the best things I can say about this game is that its TV commercial used to give me the chills every time I saw it, and the game actually stayed true to all those expectations.
Halo 3, on the other hand, isn’t all that great. I’m not going to lie. I loved this game, and a big part of me still does. I always knew that it had some issues, but I was too busy having fun that I could forgive most of it…most.
In retrospect, while Halo 3 does have good set pieces along the way, it doesn’t actually offer anything to the plot other than the ending we didn’t get in the previous entry (the developers in the article above stated that they didn’t intend to make a trilogy). The game pretty much only served as an extension of the events that were left behind; there were no new characters introduced on this game, but it killed most of the characters brought from Halo 2. No other game for the Xbox has been louder or more hyped than this one—hey, do you remember those pretentious trailers for the title? Did the final game look anything like that?
I mean…the game was good, but it wasn’t this awesome.
And how could we forget about Halo Wars? The only Real Time Strategy game of the series, developed by Ensemble Studios—the masterminds behind milestone RTS games like Ages of Empires and Age of Mythology. The game couldn’t be in better hands! (StarCraft fans, please sit down.)
But then once again, the release date was closing in, and instead of delaying the game a little bit in order to make sure that the game met the vision its developers had, Microsoft Game Studios rushed Ensemble Studios to close shop. Not only was Microsoft in a hurry to publish this highly anticipated game, but they already had announced their plans to close Ensemble Studios as soon as they were done with this project.
It’s really a shame when you consider all the potential that this title had. The control is really intuitive and engaging—actually, it’s one of the best Real Time Strategy games anyone can play on a console—but it’s not enough to hide its glaring flaws. Its units are poorly designed, the game tends to be too simplistic, and there are not that many units and factions to choose from.
Ensemble had planned to include a Covenant and Flood campaign in the final game, but they were cut in order to meet the deadline. Graeme Devine (lead developer of the game) during an interview said with a laugh “If we sell enough copies, perhaps you’ll get to play Covenant in the sequel’s campaign,” and awkward silence ensued; it would take a decade and another developer for the series to have a proper sequel.
Then there’s Halo 3: ODST. First announced as a DLC for Halo 3, the scope of the game was later broadened as a complete game that would cover the Covenant’s invasion on Earth. I found the new setting for the game refreshing; the inclusion of more humanized characters, and an exploration-oriented gameplay—but the biggest issue about this game was how little it actually offered for a $60 price tag: A shorter campaign with mostly recycled elements from the previous game.
I said that I was not going to cover multiplayer on this article, but the fact that Firefight—the multiplayer co-op mode introduced in this entry—didn’t offer a matchmaking feature was a staggering omission, which made many of us unable to find enough players to enjoy this to the fullest.
Then I can only imagine how much more awesome Halo: Reach would have been if it had a longer development cycle, but we couldn’t dodge this one. Reach was going to be the last game developed by Bungie.
I mean, I loved the new gameplay additions, the new game visuals (including the new—now old—armor designs), and the grittier mood of the plot. On the other hand, there are things that just don’t feel right. My main complaints are how the AI of your allies feels a tad undeveloped, how every battle seems confined to small skirmishes, and vehicle battles feel less inspired this time around.
Yes, the multiplayer component was better than ever (Invasion was my absolute favorite), but what I’d been looking forward to was living that epic battle on Reach that the legends had talked about since the birth of the series—but apparently that fight was being fought elsewhere.
Halo 4—the first game in the series developed by 343 Industries—had one of two possible outcomes: it was either going to replicate the same formula from past iterations, or it was going to run with something new and different for a change. Unsurprisingly, the developer went with the former instead of the latter, and the end result was…adequate. The world and those of us following the series could rest knowing that the new people in charge could do just that, “another” Halo, nothing more, nothing less.
In all fairness, 343 Industries had a monumental task on their hands. Not only did they have a big game on their hands, but they also had to create a whole team to take care of this game as well—according to this insider article foound in Gaamasutra. This new studo grew from 12 to 350 people, each one in charge of different elements that would become part of Halo 4, and this led to many mistakes that caused the production stages to reach bottleneck situations—situations they had to address nine months before the game release.
What else could they have accomplished with more time in development? Halo 4 did have some great ideas, but the execution was lacking. Would we have gotten a proper boss fight against the Didact, instead of the lousy quick-time event we got? I guess we can only dream about that now.
And finally, Halo 5: Guardians arguably could have used some extra time as well. While it did some action set pieces right (at least I’m going to say, better than what Halo 4 did), it became evident that they were trying to do something new, and the issue is that…they just “tried”.
The most jarring thing is the huge disconnect between the trailers and the final release. It seemed like they were aiming for some kind of new narrative that would place the two group of protagonists (Blue Team led by Master Chief, and Team Osiris led by Spartan Locke) against each other, but in the end this supposed conflict between them was rarely explored.
Of course it is easier to blame the marketing department for hyping this false narrative into the final product, but I have the theory that that was yet another one of those things that had to be dropped late in development due time constraints. Remember those sections where you had Team Osiris walking around and chatting with people? I believe the developer intended to have some sort of exploration-oriented gameplay planned which in the end turned out just…weird.
There are two versions of this trailer…they’re both bullshit.
Also, this game will be the one that infamously came out without split-screen functionality. That was a hard decision they had to make, and the only silver lining on this is that they learnt the terrible mistake they made which they are commited to correct moving forward. This is something they surely needed some more time to ponder on; the main reason behind it was to preserve the frames per second that they wanted to make the game run smoothly, but if that was the case…well, they should have spent more time trying to figure out how to work this out before removing something that has always been part or the series.
We can always find a way to defend a good game that looks bad, but it is hard to defend a bad game just because it looks good.
I’m just saying that I’m done with the hype. Every Halo game builds these huge expectations upon itself, and then they rush whatever they have in order to meet the deadline.
Yes, I’ll be excitedly anticipating Halo Infinite, but I’m not wasting my thoughts wondering what it will be—and I sure as hell don’t want to talk about whether the game has any missing features, or a shorter campaign. I want to have it complete when it’s released, and I’d like to wait it out until it’s actually done, not before.
You know what, guys? There’s nothing wrong with a game being delayed.
P.S. I didn’t include Halo Wars 2 in this list, because that’s a different thing that needs to be addressed separately—we’ll talk about that later.