I think it’s fair to say Halo isn’t what it used to be. I remember a time when Halo was a system seller and when it was THE reason to invest in Microsoft’s foray into the console market. I’m also positive many reading this article will have their own stories of how they first experienced Halo as well as lots of fond memories playing the multiplayer. So what exactly happened to the series? Well, the most obvious answer is that Bungie moved on to work on Destiny while 343 Industries struggled to ground their continuation of the franchise. For a long time, it’s felt like Halo has been trying to recapture its glory days while also chasing industry trends, and it’s just never fully worked out. And yet, nevertheless, I still find myself no less excited about the future of the series with the recent announcement of Halo Infinite. There’s just something about Halo that sucks me in, something more than nostalgia, and I’d really like to understand what that is.
I first saw Halo at a friend’s house – a friend whose dad was a PC technician and someone who scoffed at the very idea of a games console. I was basically a gaming peasant whenever I visited, and no matter how much I tried to make a case for the PlayStation 2 being a legitimate platform, my argument always fell on deaf ears. You can imagine my surprise then when one afternoon I came to visit and saw a game being played on their TV. I was shocked. I’d never heard of an Xbox before then, and my friend’s dad proceeded to educate me on why this console was different, and how it embraced PC sensibilities, like the inclusion of a hard drive. I wasn’t going to argue. Up until this point, the only shooters I ever played were when I visited my friends’ houses – typical titles like DOOM, Heretic, RotT, Unreal, etc. – and I liked them fine, but something about Halo grabbed my attention more than any other shooter had before.
What’s important to know about me as a gamer is that I generally prefer single-player experiences. I like couch co-op and local multiplayer on occasion, but online multiplayer isn’t really my thing. I prefer to play games in my own time and in my own way, and if I do engage online, it’s mostly in games which also allow me the flexibility to make progress on my own – I’ll almost always hard pass on competitive juggernauts like Overwatch and Fortnite. What’s ironic in all of this is that I’ve never had a lot of interest in the Halo campaigns. I played them, of course, and I think they’re a good time when played co-op with friends. But, overall, I never developed any great love for the Master Chief and Cortana, or their story. And certainly not for Agent Locke. I hate that guy. What drew me to Halo was specifically the multiplayer, and I know I’m not alone in this. That’s where I feel the magic of Halo stems from, but what’s so great about it exactly?
Some of my fondest memories growing up are of playing Halo with friends. Playing one-on-one matches of Halo CE against my best mate after school, hosting LAN parties with all my friends after Halo 2 launched, and playing Halo 3 with my housemates against other players online when I first moved out of home. And I mean LOTS of Halo 3. For me, it was the pinnacle of the series, and there is no other game since that I have invested more time into playing. I played it daily after work with friends for months, and perhaps what might seem unusual by today’s standards, is how I’d almost always play with others physically in the same room. Split-screen was an essential part of our enjoyment, not to mention a drop of alcohol if it was a weekend. We knew it was a technical disadvantage sharing screens, but the resulting teamwork and coordination gained well and truly made up for it, and it’s often how we played at our best.
There’s a lot I like about Halo 3, in particular, as I feel it was the tipping point before industry trends set by Call of Duty started to have an impact on Halo’s core design. Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of Halo 3 I could pick apart, but as a sequel, I think it was a fantastic culmination of everything that came before. The maps were memorable and well designed, the pacing was spot on, the weapons and vehicles felt balanced and unique, and equipment integrated well with the gunplay. There were no loadouts to alter the balance of gameplay or XP bars to grind for arbitrary levels earned over time instead of re-enforcing a need to win. Everyone was matched on an even playing field, on maps you had to learn, and you wanted to keep on winning in order to hold your rank and push forward. The Trueskill ranking system wasn’t perfect, especially if a teammate dropped the ball, but it did necessitate consistency to make progress.
I think what I liked most about the original three games is how they combined arena sensibilities with a sandbox style of play. Compared to many contemporary shooters, the slower pacing of Halo’s multiplayer allowed for a wealth of strategic options, as well as the breathing room necessary to actually group up and work alongside a team of players instead of getting bogged down in chaos. There was also a good variance in the size and layout of the maps, as well as careful thought put into how the weapons, equipment, and vehicles were placed. It may be a simple pleasure, but I also think the announcer was a huge part of what made the multiplayer great. It’s a borrowed idea, sure, but it worked so perfectly to highlight and enhance the moment-to-moment gameplay. I still recall striving for months to get my first Overkill, as well as the exhilarating feeling of earning other rare accolades like Invincible, Extermination, and Perfection.
At this point you may be wondering why I’ve neglected to mention Halo: Reach, which was also developed by Bungie. While I admit I enjoyed Reach when it first launched (albeit not as much as Halo 3), I feel I’ve grown to resent it over time for introducing systems which fundamentally altered the pacing and balance of the multiplayer. Loadouts were the biggest addition, and from the moment players could sprint and jetpack across the map, matches played out in an entirely different way, and with a more “run, gun, die, and repeat” mentality influencing player behaviour. Further to this, Reach also abandoned the Trueskill ranking system for a progression-based system that allowed players to rank up over time, regardless of whether or not they won. This style of play and progression would ultimately culminate in Halo 4, which, while not a “bad” game, felt more like a product of present-day shooter staples wrapped in Halo packaging.
While I didn’t enjoy Halo 4’s multiplayer, I do acknowledge that it had a few good ideas; in particular, the dual-ranking system. Spartan Rank, a progression-based system, was still at the forefront of the online experience, but Halo 4 also introduced the Competitive Skill Rank (CSR), a new ranking system based on individual performance, which was the type of evolution of Trueskill I’d wanted from Reach. In theory, it was a step in the right direction for series; it’s just that everything else about how the game played didn’t feel like Halo, and it ultimately couldn’t hold its player base. Halo 4 was a huge blow to the public’s perception of Halo, and what should have been a return to form with the Master Chief Collection on Xbox One only created even more negative stigma because of its endless technical issues. For the first time, Halo had gone from being arguably the best multiplayer shooter to just another shooter, and that hurt most of all.
Coming into Halo 5, I was starting to question if Halo simply didn’t hold the same relevance anymore. However, to my surprise, I really enjoyed its take on the multiplayer, especially with the Arena mode which aimed to deliver a balanced playing field like in the earlier games. Halo 5 also modernised gameplay components in ways which didn’t just feel like trend-chasing. For example, shields would no longer regenerate while sprinting while clambering added a whole new verticality to the playing field. It wasn’t everything I had hoped for, with the more sandbox style of play being relegated to Warzone and its controversial REQ system, but, overall, the multiplayer was the best it’d been since Halo 3. So why didn’t it gain traction? Ironically, I think it was the campaign. It received a lot of criticism, and given the already negative stigma surrounding Halo 4, TMCC, and also the Xbox One, I believe interest in Halo 5’s multiplayer suffered as a result.
I’ve put a lot of thought into working out what exactly it is about Halo’s multiplayer that appeals to me, especially given my lack of interest in other online shooters, and the answer I’ve come to is not what I was expecting. Having reflected on the series as a whole, there’s admittedly some level of nostalgia at play; certainly in holding my investment as the series has gone in directions I didn’t enjoy. But then I recall my feelings being much the same towards the genre when I first got interested in Halo, so I don’t think that’s it. The more I think about it, the more I realise my affinity for Halo is essentially the same as how I feel about certain sports. I asked myself, why would someone enjoy soccer more than basketball, or vice versa? They’re both games played with balls, and objectively one isn’t “better” than the other, but people will often love one and have no interest in the other. Call it obvious, but I guess it’s just a case of personal taste.
When examining Halo’s multiplayer more like a sport rather than a conventional video game, a lot of my feelings start to make sense. This wasn’t intended as a statement on the validity of esports, but much like my favourite sports, I see now why a balanced playing field is so important to me. It makes sense why I want to see all gameplay systems self-contained to the playing field, and with all players having an equal advantage every match. It’s also why I want to see the merits of each player’s skill and performance being rewarded, and not as some form of linear progression used to hook players into playing the game. It only just happens to be my personal tastes as to why Halo’s arena sensibilities and sandbox style of gameplay appeals to me more than other shooters, and it’s also clear now why Halo still remains uncontested from my position as many contemporary games embrace systems I personally believe are compromising.
While Halo may have gone in directions I didn’t like, and it’s suffered in recent years because of those choices – not to mention technical issues and the general negative stigma surrounding the Xbox One – I still believe Halo holds the potential to be great again. Halo 5’s Arena mode was a true return to form for the series, with all the bearings of an excellent multiplayer shooter, and it gives me hope for the future. I honestly think Halo just needed a break, as despite taking steps in the right direction, I don’t think it was possible for it to gain traction where it was at – especially when it soured fans with its handling of the latest campaign. Halo Infinite looks to be that much-needed refresh, delivering a new engine, a new art style, and a fresh approach, and I for one can’t wait. If Halo continues to embrace a balanced, sports-like approach to multiplayer, in conjunction with its iconic arena and sandbox style of play, I know I’ll be playing.