How Halo Can Define a Decade Again

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Posted December 6, 2013 by Mark-Anthony in Video Games

Halo 4 MC

It’s been just over a year since Halo 4 was released, and in that time the dust has settled and time has given us a clearer perspective on what the franchise is to become moving forward. The first 343i take on the Halo universe was a very good, if not great, game. The campaign was one of the strongest in the series, remedying the monotonous level design that had plagued the Halo series since Combat Evolved. The story, acting, dialogue, level design, and mythology were all strong but Halo 4 could never shake the feeling of being a bit bland. In this day and age, amongst competing shooters like Battlefield and Call of Duty, the visceral feeling of combat is sorely lacking in the Halo series in comparison. But how can 343i reinvigorate the franchise without alienating the Halo faithful? How can Halo remain a strong AAA franchise for the next dozen years? Let’s examine some potential ideas.

Go Open World?

A few months ago a rumor was circulating that 343i was abandoning the linear nature of Halo in favor of a more open-world gameplay. Apparently there would be seven or eight planets Master Chief could travel to, and each one of those planets would be fully explorable. One of the reasons the rumor didn’t seem credible is that that sounds almost exactly like what Bungie is currently working on with Destiny. Multiple worlds (our solar system) being open to exploration.

But ignoring the dubious nature of the rumor itself, what if this was the direction 343i went in with Halo – could this type of gameplay work for the series? Well yes and no. Traditional linear gaming isn’t as interesting as it used to be. Open worlds have become much more sophisticated than they were when GTA III first came out. And games like Mass Effect represent a hybrid of open-world RPG and linear shooter that gamers are responding to.

For purely linear, chapter-based, experiences to remain relevant they must have exceptionally great storylines, characters, and mythologies with impeccable gameplay mechanics. Linear games work if the goal is to be as cinematic as possible, like Uncharted. However, the old adage of 30 seconds of fun that defined Halo doesn’t quite cut it anymore for linear shooters. Those sequences should be there, but building an entire experience out of them feels hollow.

The one significant advantage that linear games have over open-world games is pacing. GTA games can become real slogs to get through because the pacing gets interrupted constantly by having to travel long distances to continue a storyline. Assassin’s Creed is a series that many point to with the same problem, AC4 possibly being the exception. The tasks required to move the storyline along can also just get monotonous and tedious only a few hours into playing those games so most players just give up 20, 30, 40% of the way through.

Open-world games are just not always conducive to good storytelling. And in story driven franchises like Halo, disrupting the campaign would be disastrous. Pacing is of paramount concern for a series like Halo; and it’s one of the things 343i handled almost perfectly in Halo 4 – but it’s still not enough.

Go RPG?

What about going semi-open world, in the vein of Mass Effect? Mass Effect brilliantly incorporates the element of mission-choice in open world games, with the great linear action sequences of first person shooters. Of course they do all of this as a game that has pioneered the action-RPG genre on consoles.Would this action-RPG mold work for Halo?

The short answer is yes, to an extent. Semi-deep weapons customization and gear customization could do wonders for the franchise. 343i, and Bungie before them with Halo Reach, have been trying to move the franchise in that direction with loadouts. But those are primarily for multiplayer games. Introducing gear and weapon customization, and optimization, wouldn’t take away from the Halo experience, but add to it.

While 343i should not exactly copy what Bioware has done with Mass Effect, it would make sense to borrow certain elements from the other premier sci-fi franchise. After-all, Bioware improved the action/shooting mechanics over the course of their series, clearly taking ideas from successful third-person cover shooters. It just makes creative sense for the Halo franchise to introduce some popular elements from other games in order to evolve the gameplay.

Abandon Multiplayer?

Should Halo give up the multiplayer game in the face of stiff competition? Of course not. Halo’s bread & butter, for many gamers, has always been its’ multiplayer experience. But the Halo CE multiplayer experience came out of no where in the early 2000s. It was the first FPS that solidified consoles as a method of enjoying shooters on par with PC gaming. And the Halo CE multiplayer experience, whether on PC or Xbox, was leaps and bounds better than the other top tier shooters of the day. Quake, Unreal Tournament, and even Counter Strike didn’t quite capture the imagination of most people like Halo did (Quake, UT, and CS fans feel free to leave your hate in the comments).

But that was then, this is now. Times have changed since those glory days. First person shooters on console have become a dime-a-dozen. Call of Duty lured many fans away from Halo, Battlefield lured the other fans. And this coming March Respawn looks to blow up everyone’s expectations of what a fun multiplayer experience should be with Titanfall – CoD and Battlefield are certainly going to take a hit themselves.

With such a bevy of great multiplayer FPS choices, to speak nothing of third person, what place does Halo have? What does Halo bring to the table nowadays, and what should it do to compete?

343i does need to continue to improve on Halo’s gameplay. They shouldn’t just turn the ship around back to the Halo 2 multiplayer days as some hardcore fans have been clamoring for. Frankly, nostalgia shouldn’t guide important design decisions, and I’m sure 343i understands this. The typical “airy” feel to Halo’s multiplayer may need to be tweaked just a bit. The combat feels a bit too cartoony in the face of the other massive shooters on the market. Weapons don’t feel like they have any weight, or impact, to them. The days of needing to unload an entire clip into someone else with an assault rifle should come to an end; although they shouldn’t embrace twitch shooting CoD style either.

But the overall truth is that the Halo multiplayer should no longer be the focus of the franchise. Halo’s strength was always its’ mythology, its’ universe, its’ story, and the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana. Working on those elements is what will reinvigorate the franchise for the next ten years (anyone that tells me Cortana will remain dead, I just shut my ears and say lalalalala). The Halo TV mini-series coming to Xbox One is just the type of cross-media ventures that will keep fans engaged with that universe.

Halo in the Next Decade of Gaming

Halo is a franchise that should exist in perpetuity. Microsoft realized this from the start and has never abandoned it, even when Bungie themselves grew tired of it. Star Wars will always exist; Mario and Zelda will always exist, and the same is true for comic book superheroes. Master Chief, and the Halo universe, is the more modern iteration of timeless storytelling. It’s the only, more adult oriented, video game universe that can say that.

While Commander Shepard became popular as Mass Effect grew, his story ended, and s/he was never the iconic character that Master Chief was. Ditto for Nathan Drake, Marcus Fenix, Gordon Freeman, Solid Snake, and Kratos. All of these protagonists, and the franchises they helm, never became the pop culture phenomena that Master Chief and Halo became in the aughts (again, leave the hate in the comments). Some of the hardcore gamers have been tired of the series since before Halo 3 even came out, but they represent a minority. But what the hardcore gamers have right is that some changes need to be made to the series to keep it relevant for the next decade.

This editorial probably asked more questions than it answered; it’s sort of the nature of where the Halo series is right now. Halo is a completely wide open canvas for 343i now that they proved they can do that universe justice. Finding out how they will make Halo their own, how they will emerge from the shadow of Bungie, is one of the most interesting questions in the entire gaming industry right now – as a fan of the franchise it’s damn exciting.


About the Author

Mark-Anthony

If it involves Superman, Justice League, or anything Sci-Fi you've got his attention. As much a sports fan as a superhero fan. If only the Jets could draft Victor Stone.