Last month we finally, FINALLY, got our long-awaited peek at some Halo Infinite gameplay. I gotta say, I like what I’m seeing: that familiar, winding ring curving into the strata, a taste of some exciting new guns, a freakin’ grappling hook addition, and, best of all, Brutes throwing grunts at you like the most insane kamikaze EVER. At the onset, it appears developer 343 Industries has taken much of the criticisms of previous Halo entries to heart and put their money where their mouth is to deliver a promising return to form for the series. That tribal-heavy score, my dude, had me shedding nostalgic tears.
But color me cautiously optimistic. Because we’ve been here before.
The last and most polarizing entry, Halo 5: Guardians, enticed gamers with a return to the familiar. Whereas Halo 4 exiled Chief into the further reaches of space to fight newer and elusive baddies, Halo 5 seemingly brought us back to homefront, surrounding players with a roster of fellow Spartans like the prequel Halo: Reach did with its stacked ensemble. This didn’t make Reach the best campaign, but it made for a unique and unified one for a series that mostly rode on a sole hero.
Halo 5 promised quite a bit. A “turn-cloak” Master Chief, Spartan Locke on the opposing side like an interim civil war, and a delicious tagline, “Hunt the truth.” But fans were misled by a deceptive marketing campaign that Microsoft shockingly did not fine-tune even as 343 overhauled Halo 5’s “Chief on the run” narrative. (Halo: Overreach seems the more appropriate title, in hindsight.) It’s unclear if this was a matter of miscommunication, or the studios ultimately said “fuck it, these promos look badass anyway.”
Halo 5 was the straw poll for a fanbase that, like all fervent fanbases, have been described as toxic and entitled. Fair, especially when there are YouTube videos titled “Why I’m Done With Halo” or “How 343 Industries Ruined Halo.” Whether you’re a fan or not, there’s no denying that Halo Infinite is 343’s big moment— in which a recent launch delay to 2021 undoubtedly provides some wiggle room. Can they exit the shadow of Bungie once and for all? Or will Halo be remembered as a once great shooter lost in a sea of better shooters?
I know I sound like I’m hanging every one of Halo’s recent mistakes and missteps on 343. Surely, Halo Infinite is their shot at redemption. But if I’m being honest, the problems STARTED with Bungie’s Halo: Reach.
Reach’s campaign has carved out its own special place among Halo fans. It’s not the best campaign, but it’s far lengthier than Halo 2. (And to that end, tells a complete story while Halo 2 ends with a blue balls cliffhanger.) It’s also quite tragic – dare I say Shakespearean – because Noble Team’s last stand is written going in. The fabled Fall of Reach – Earth’s greatest military installation meant to be a buffer between humans and intergalactic threats, is besieged by the invading Covenant, an event that sets off the events of the first Halo and thus completes Bungie’s perfect campaign circle. Multiplayer-wise, however, the series encounters some serious bumps and bruises that linger to this day.
Armor abilities. You can sprint. You can set a decoy. You’re invisible. You have a jetpack, etc. At face value, armor abilities are cool additions to ramp up the action. But that’s it, they’re cool additions. Sure, armor lock is pretty badass. But you also become a bright beacon on the killing floor and suddenly everyone’s got their sights on you waiting for the lock to deplete. Jet packs are cool too, but if the map isn’t vertically accessible then it means nothing other than a cool perk.
Invisibility, too, means nothing when your enemies remember they’ve got radars on the bottom left of their screens. I literally don’t know anyone who ever used the hologram decoy, ever. And yes, sprinting may make you run full-tilt, but since you can’t fire like you would at regular pace, you’re left MORE vulnerable, making the perk ultimately hollow (the second it takes to exit the sprint and start spraying gunfire means life or death), which goes for all of Reach’s armor abilities. They’re tacked on deliberately to compete with Call of Duty and nothing more.
Halo 4, now at the helm of 343, doubled down on armor abilities then added gun loadouts and killstreaks, placing the series directly in line with rival first-person shooters. The joy of Halo’s multiplayer was that everyone spawned with the same base weapon. There were guns, grenades, vehicle and power pickups scattered across the map and it was a fight to claim these advantages as much as it was a fight to get out on top. Loadouts and killstreaks nicked a crucial aspect of Halo’s core gameplay. It wasn’t a COD rival anymore, it turned into a copycat.
The one redeeming quality of Halo 4 was its campaign, which told an emotional story about Chief and Cortana a.k.a. the guiding dynamic for every Halo game thus far. Cortana’s A.I. was crumbling, and this made her strangely, compellingly human. I may not have dug the Forerunners as villains, but there was unexpected emotion between these two machines, one who was but a vehicle for gamers and the other who was a charismatic voiceover. Chief and Cortana’s relationship evolved and reconciled in a way that only an ending chapter could provide.
Then came the promise of a holy grail in The Master Chief Collection. Halos 1-4 with ODST and a Reach remaster all part of one epic collection for the Xbox One. It sounded too good to be true, and it was.
Part of the collection’s draw was that each individual Halo multiplayer would be playable with “dedicated servers” to make the transition from one Halo game to another supposedly seamless. What we got were numerous dropped matches, uneven teams, an inconsistent party chat, among others; matchmaking queues that were like winning the lottery, and if by chance you landed in a lobby, the games were buggy as hell, so the only compromise was to host private custom games like the good old days except a friend or two would occasionally get booted for reasons that still boggle the mind.
MCC’s release would go down as one of the most disastrous releases of the current generation. Admittedly, it was a great collection for those who wanted the remastered campaigns. But Halo is known in greater respects for revolutionizing the online multiplayer experience, and when that falters, you’ve lost your core gamers who wanted to relive those glory days.
There’s so much I absolutely did NOT like about Halo 5 – a campaign that required knowledge of the tie-in novels and expanded lore (you had homework, essentially), or Spartan designs that made them look like damn Power Rangers, or a microtransaction “REQ” system that allowed players to buy their way through tier progressions rather than earning it through old-fashioned guts and glory.
But when it was announced that Halo 5 wouldn’t have split-screen play, it was confirmation of what we already knew. The series changed in ways that some of us couldn’t reckon with or recognize anymore. How could this be the same franchise attributed to fond memories of LAN parties and system linking at dorms and sleepovers? How is this the same franchise that sent modern shooters scurrying for ways to reinvent themselves, and now Halo is the generic run-of-the-mill shooter?
I don’t fault Halo for pushing boundaries when a franchise like Call of Duty or battle royale games like Fortnite and Apex Legends have colonized the market. Therein lies Halo’s existential crisis: where does it stand now when other shooters have innovated the fore?
Admittedly I’ve gotten a lot of pushback on this over the years. I’ve been told that I’m a whiner stuck in the past, that I can’t appreciate something new, or that I’m not a “true” Halo fan.
Through high school and college, I’ve garnered a reputation as being “an Xbox guy.” This, despite first playing on my brother’s SNES, Playstation, Dreamcast, N64, PS2, then my brother and I splitting a PS3 and Nintendo Wii. More than anything, I’m a gamer. I’m less a one-console devotee than a devout fan of certain franchises, and that’s never been truer in the case of Halo. Because I would never have been into this whole gaming thing had it not been for Halo: Combat Evolved.
So when I say that Reach, Halo 4, The Master Chief Collection, and Halo 5 sorely disappointed me, I’m not saying it to be a hater or to rile people up. I’m saying this as a genuine fan who will show up for this thing no matter what— as someone who loves this series and wishes for it to be better.
There was and still is nothing more momentous to me than picking up a Halo game. I was buzzing when I picked up Halo 5 just as I did when my friends and I nabbed Halo 3 at the midnight release where we skipped classes the following day so we could marathon the campaign with multiplayer matches as “breaks” in between. I may have my stance on each game in the series, but the excitement to play another Halo chapter was always at a fever pitch.
And that’s where I find myself now with the dawn of Halo Infinite. I’m so stupidly, hilariously excited for this next chapter. Not everything in that gameplay footage impresses me (the assault rifle looks terrible, and the warthog sounds more ATV than Humvee) but there are improvements and additions that make me feel heard and seen as a fan. So as bummed as I am about its delay, I’m hoping this is a conscious step to avoid previous gaffes, to reign in resources and get this thing polished to a chrome finish rather than settling for a half-baked game due to be repaired by an ongoing series of patches years and years later.
I know I can’t go back to those sleepovers when my friends and I would run mock Halo tournaments all night long, and thank goodness for that. Bagel Bites don’t taste quite like they used to; I don’t think any of us have our old Xboxes anymore, and 6 grown men piled into one friend’s living room and hurling obscenities at 3AM would be very disconcerting. Perhaps Halo Infinite doesn’t have to be about the past.
A complete and thrilling new chapter would be enough.