Not since 2001 with the release of the original Xbox has any console launched with a game so revered by fans and critics alike as Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved. The original game was a bold adventure, brimming with new ideas, an alien world and a killer soundtrack. Following it’s huge success, the sequel Halo 2 introduced online multiplayer, a feature the series would come to be known for. But Halo 2’s breakthrough matchmaking didn’t just solidify its place in the FPS hall of fame, it also made Xbox the leading platform for multiplayer gaming on a console via Xbox Live. If Halo: Combat Evolved was the rocket in which Microsoft launched their platform, then Halo 2 was the shuttle, the extra push they needed to propel themselves into greatness; not only from a console point of view, but as a platform for playing together and interacting online. This is where the industry was headed, and this one series was in at the ground floor before anyone else. Halo was set for greatness.
But where would it go next? By this point Halo’s creators, Bungie, were still contracted to continue the series and as Microsoft were poised to launch their new console, Halo 3 was already under development. Following on the immense excitement left in the wake of Halo 2 and the hope of bigger and better things on a new platform, gamers once again looked to Microsoft’s flagship franchise. This time, more than ever, Microsoft knew what was at stake. The marketing campaign for Halo 3 was an absolute beast that spanned several high budget CGI and live-action trailers, as well as a many E3 conventions and even a multiplayer beta. It was the grand finale of the Master Chief trilogy, topping off the story and bringing the multiplayer to a wider audience with more customization than ever before. It was The Return of the Jedi to Halo 2’s Empire Strikes back. And it paid off; once again Halo had secured success for a Microsoft console, but this time they were leading the pack. Reaching new dizzying heights, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 pulled way ahead of Sony’s PlayStation 3. These were the good times.
Halo was the crowning jewel when it came to online multiplayer and FPS was king. Yet the very same year Halo 3 rolled onto the scene, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare released to an exceptionally high reception. Another console-based, online-centric FPS that took the world by storm, not only on the Xbox 360, but on PlayStation 3 and PC too. Anyone with a current generation platform could play, and playing they were. Recently released stats show more than 125 million players have logged into a Call of Duty game since 2010. If you’re reading this you’ve likely played a modern Call of Duty game; you’ve felt the silky smooth controls that take moments to learn and hours to master. It’s easy to see why the phenomenon took such a short time to proliferate. The constant reward of each kill, each score streak, each level up and each unlock can be seen as shallow by some, but it’s seen as engaging, even addictive by many others. Each game grew and grew, drawing in new people from Halo’s previously huge pool of players. Knowing opportunity when they see it, publisher Activision wisely took to releasing a new iteration every year, with multiple development studios working in tandem. Halo simply couldn’t keep up with it’s core series releases.
In the coming years after Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4, the landscape of FPS multiplayer on consoles would change dramatically. The overwhelming popularity of the Call of Duty franchise brought with it a deluge of imitators, eager for a piece of the pie. Some sought to make their claim by cloning the modern warfare combat stylings of the initial games to varying degrees of success, though none came close to Call of Duty’s unstoppably force. Many developers, or perhaps more accurately publishers, looked to the success afforded to the franchise and used that as reasoning to add their own take on multiplayer to previously single player only games, in a vain effort to limit the number of trade-ins and therefore second hand copies of their games on store shelves. The profit driven decision, seen in games like Dead Space 2, ended up affecting reviews negatively and the games failed to accumulate a lasting player base.
The third, and probably most lasting effect Call of Duty had on multiplayer FPS came in the form of customizable loadouts. First introduced in Modern Warfare, these loadouts became not only a series staple, but a staple of almost every first person shooter in the post Modern Warfare era. So much so that to not include these mechanics put you in a whole separate tier of fps known as ‘Arena Shooters’, a genre mostly reserved for fast paced PC games. The basic concept is that rather than picking up weapons on the map, you are constantly unlocking and assigning new weapons to specific user created ‘classes’. It’s a neat idea that incorporates light RPG mechanics into a game otherwise about shooting your friends right in the face. Take a look across the FPS landscape in 2015 and you’ll see Call of Duty, Battlefield, Titanfall, Killzone, Gears of War among the biggest console FPS releases, all of which adhere to the notion that today’s shooters must allow for customizable weapon loadouts. To the uninitiated it may seem like a non issue, and for most games on that list there’s no problem. But then we come back around to Halo.
Now in the interim between Halo 3 and the inevitable Halo 4 (we’ll get to that), Halo’s original developer Bungie were contracted for one final Halo game before the development duties would be handed to 343 industries, a studio created under Microsoft for the sole purpose of shepherding the franchise forward. In 2010, Bungie put out Halo Reach; their last Halo game. Halo Reach was yet again a critical success and commercially it filled the pockets of many Microsoft and Bungie employees. It was however the first game to be released after the manic success of Call of Duty, and yes, it included loadouts. Skipping forward two years and we see the release of Halo 4 by 343 Industries that look the idea of loadouts in a Halo games and ran with it, allowing for not only full customization of weapons and grenades, but also special abilities in the form of so called armor abilities and perks. These were the dark times.
For fans, this felt like a dirty trick. This was not what made Halo so endlessly enjoyable in the first place and seemed to muddy the water for the series. It was a smear on what was a perfect track record, pandering to what FPS’ had become and not what had made Halo so wildly popular in the first place. While developing the original trilogy, Bungie Veterans like Frank O’Connor would refer to the the golden triangle; the three fundamentals of the gameplay. These were weapons, grenades and melee. By allowing for every player to start completely evenly, using only their own skill and items found on the map itself, Halo forged it’s own identity. By changing that up, it had become something different; new but not better. Whilst critical reception remained high, the core fanbase began to whittle, with Halo 4′s active player numbers dropping off dramatically compared to that of Halo 3. The series has started out stronger than ever on the Xbox 360, yet by the end of the consoles life cycle, Halo was looking a bit long in the tooth. Oh how the mighty had fallen.
And so that brings us to today, and to the Xbox One in 2015. For the first time in quite a while, Microsoft is on the back foot, chasing after Sony’s initial lead with the PlayStation 4. With Halo 5: Guardians releasing this fall, the industry will once again look to this old series to elevate the Xbox back to greatness. The series is so synonymous with the Xbox brand at this point it’s hard not to, but can it be done again? Last years Halo: The Master Chief Collection, a HD remastering of all four mainline Halo games launched as a buggy mess, and now lives in infamy despite having finally been fixed. Microsoft more than ever needs Halo to be huge, and the franchise itself can’t afford another misstep.
This is where things get exciting. Just before Christmas 2014, 343 Industries launched what they called an ‘Arena Multiplayer Beta’ for Halo 5. A real beta, designed to stress test the game’s online servers and provide vital feedback well in advance of the game’s anticipated release. What we played inspired hope. No more loadouts, a return to simple even starts for every player. Winning is again based on skill alone, with weapons placed purposefully and sparingly on the map. New additions to make the game faster-paced including a tactical boost and a versatile clambering ability make your Spartan more agile than ever, whilst never creating an unfair advantage for either team. And now the beta is over, the wait for Halo 5 in October just got significantly harder. This game is new, it is something different. But most importantly, It does maintain what made Halo, Halo. Should you be concerned? Of course. Should you be excited? Almost certainly.