HALO became "safe", that's what

A fellow HALO maniac asks the question that is on the minds of a great many fans of the series these days:


The full video raises a number of interesting points about what I consider, still, to be simply the greatest franchise in the history of gaming.

Yes, I know, that statement will piss off a LOT of people- as will my equally outrageous claim that HALO 3 is, quite simply, the greatest FPS game ever made. (Play through the entire level, "The Covenant", and then tell me you think differently. It's OK, I'll wait. I've got some HALO 5 ass-kicking to do in the meantime.) And if you'd asked a younger version of me- say, back in my early- to mid-twenties- what the greatest gaming franchise ever was, I would immediately say that it was either the Mario Bros. or Zelda series.

But I haven't played a new Mario or Zelda game in... I'm actually embarrassed to admit how long it has been. HALO, on the other hand, has been a nearly daily part of my life since I first got myself an Xbox 360 back in 2009 and started blasting through all of the original games.

I have to admit that I STANK at it back then.

I couldn't even play all the way through HALO: Combat Evolved on Normal difficulty. I got frustrated with the repetitive levels and enemies, the goddamn Jackals with overcharged plasma pistols, the electric-sliding Elites who just dodged every single freakin' grenade, the Hunters who could kill you with a single swing- and, of course, the Flood, who freaked me the hell out the first time I played them.

I was so bad at it, in fact, that I stopped playing the game like 2/3 of the way through and shelved it in disgust. I didn't go back to playing HALO until about 8 months later, when, in a fit of boredom, I finally decided to give it another shot on the easiest possible difficulty setting. (Yeah, I know. What a n00b.)

And I was hooked.

Suddenly, I saw what I'd been missing right there in front of me. The epic story; the incredible vistas and locations; the hugely impressive enemy AI designs; the furious, heart-pounding battles that tested mind and nerve to the limit; the magnificent carnage wrought by rampaging through levels using a Scorpion tank- I saw it ALL. And I've been a raving fanboy ever since.

I saw HALO for what it truly was: the genre-defining landmark of virtual combat that basically every single FPS game since has tried, and mostly failed, to usurp. And I have played several of the more successful variants of those games; not one of them has ever come close to matching the joy and thrill of playing the HALO games, from first to last.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, for instance, was just... well, boring, quite frankly. I didn't see the point of it.

The very first Crysis game was, in my opinion, lousy; I found it more or less unplayable due to vehicle controls that just didn't make any damn sense. Crysis 2 was a giant leap forward and, in my opinion, remains the high point of that particular franchise; it is the only FPS game that I've ever played that I honestly believe can compete with HALO 3's status as the greatest FPS ever. But Crysis 3, while still being an outstanding game, was somehow not quite on par with its predecessor, and kind of took the franchise back a step in some ways.

As for Destiny... I think I've played it for maybe 15 hours in total since I bought it last year. I still haven't bothered with any of the latest DLC, because I just don't see the point. As a shooter game, I give it maybe a 7/10. The back-story makes no sense to me, and the campaign- such as it is- seems completely directionless. Bungie and Activision made Destiny almost too open, because they wanted to make it a vast MMORPG-FPS hybrid- but then they removed a lot of the social features that make MMOs so addictive. As a result, it simply doesn't know what it is.

These days, a weekend just isn't complete without at least an hour spent playing through one of the many HALO campaign levels on a minimum difficulty setting of "Heroic". ("Normal" is just too easy nowadays.) NOTHING says "PHUCK YOU!" quite like pulling off an epic headshot with a Battle Rifle or DMR while jumping through the air on one of those goddamn Elite Zealots, while tossing grenades into a pack of Grunts, on a cool and quiet Saturday morning.

So... what did happen to the HALO franchise? Why is it that the greatest and most respected FPS game of all time is increasingly looking almost like a lazy derivative of the very genre that it so completely changed in so many ways?

There are several answers to this question, many of which are referenced in the video above.

The first and most important reason is that the core focuses of the franchise have changed. With the original Bungie games, the focus was on gameplay, story, character- in that order, descending. Multiplayer was almost secondary to the core features of the single-player campaign, which is why the campaign modes of every original HALO game are so amazing to play. Multiplayer is great too, no doubt- I wouldn't know, I've never been a multiplayer gamer- but it was almost a secondary consideration in the eyes of the developers.

But with HALO 4 and HALO 5: Guardians, the focuses shifted in subtle but critical ways.

With both of those games, the order of importance was changed. With those games, the order became: story, character, gameplay. And that has had a profound effect on the way that the franchise itself has evolved.

HALO 4 was, I will admit, a difficult game to love. When I first played it, I found the story impossible to follow. That was because 343 Industries made a deliberate, and risky, decision to remove the self-contained nature of the storylines of previous games and turn the story into a more expansive- and therefore lucrative- universe that could only be fully understood and appreciated by buying a lot of extraneous books, comics, and portable mini-games. All of which, of course, translated to MOAR MOOLAH going to Microsoft.

But HALO 4 won me over eventually, because of the fact that the core mechanics of the gameplay hadn't changed. The focus was still on giving players intense, hair-raising, challenging, and incredibly memorable battles against tough, determined, and disciplined enemies. I love the Scorpion rampage in the latter third of the mission "Infinity", or the storming of Ivanoff Station in the mission "Composer". And the final fight against the Didact (hey, that's me! Or I should say, the Ur-Didact, technically speaking...) has a sense of desperate urgency about it that is unique to this game; nothing else in any other game in the franchise matches it.

With HALO 4, though, we can see that in retrospect a lot of the problems that the franchise now has to overcome were rooted in the decisions taken with that game. And we begin to see the pattern that 343i will either follow for all future games of the series under their aegis, or will have to break away from in order to restore HALO to its top-tier glory.

The basic pattern that is detectable these days is that the franchise is now ruled by managers, not innovators.

Think about this carefully, and you will see how this is so. Innovators are interested in taking big risks with big potential payoffs- which is what Bungie did, repeatedly, with the HALO franchise. The original HALO: Combat Evolved was actually supposed to be a third-person Mac-based shooter. (Seriously.) Then it was changed into a console-based FPS, and, well, the rest is history. (Speculation that Steve Jobs actually died from being poisoned through choking on his own rage-induced bile after letting HALO get away like that remains, at this point, unconfirmed.)

They did it again when they created a split campaign in HALO 2 with permitting dual-wielding and setting the Arbiter as a deuteragonist. (Terrible decision, by the way.) And then again, in HALO 3, by removing Cortana as a direct presence in the story. And yet again, with HALO 3: ODST by changing the focus completely from the legendary Master Chief to some nameless grunt on the ground working his way through a non-linear detective story. And once again with HALO: Reach, their swansong, by putting the focus on a nameless SPARTAN whose heroic efforts end in death but still leave the player with a feeling of accomplishing something great.

But managers are interested only in taking the safe course, in not rocking the boat, in making sure that their quarterly profits are in line with expectations.

Compare those huge gambles, and huge payoffs, that Bungie made back in the day, with the way that Microsoft has changed the formula of HALO.

By switching from a largely self-contained, easy-to-follow story of the original franchise with the more immersive (and expensive) broader universe of the current games, Microsoft basically went the way of Mass Effect.

By implementing Aiming-Down-Sights (ADS) using the left trigger, and completely throwing out what I felt to be one of the best things about HALO 4's aiming mechanism, whereby you could depress a thumbstick and stay zoomed in until you chose to do otherwise, Microsoft basically copied the Call of Battlefield Honor Killzone Far Crysis franchise.

By switching the focus to insanely awesome multiplayer- and everything that I have seen about both HALO 4 and HALO 5: Guardians indicates that most fans LOVE the multiplayer setups- Microsoft basically went a long way towards imitating the Call of Duty franchise in particular, where single-player mode is actually much of a muchness and everyone only ever cares about blowing shit up but good in epic multiplayer slayer deathmatches.

By adding a team-based AI dynamic into the game for HALO 5: Guardians, Microsoft basically ripped off one of the most criminally underrated and brilliantly executed FPS games ever made, but in so doing also dialed the difficulty level way down even on the harder settings. Somehow, playing through H5 on "Heroic" just isn't nearly as challenging as playing through H3 on the same setting.

And by expanding the games from just console-based FPS to a possible MMO, a sequel to everyone's least favourite RTS version of the game, not one but two tabletop games, and at least two separate mobile-geared games, Microsoft is basically milking the franchise for every last drop that it can squeeze out- and in so doing, is essentially reducing the HALO franchise, once the most respected in all of gaming, into basically a more teenage-friendly version of whatever the hell it is that Nintendo is doing these days.

You'll notice, by the way, a pattern here. Most of the blame for the decline in the HALO franchise's relative importance is being put squarely on Microsoft, not on 343 Industries. That is deliberate on my part.

As far as I can tell, 343i is doing their absolute best to carry the (crushing) burden of fan expectations on their backs. They're doing their level best to make games that are both great fun to play and true to the spirit of the original franchise. They are headed by someone who is practically marinated in HALO lore- hell, he wrote quite a lot of it. And I have to say, on balance, I actually think that 343i has done a tremendous job of carrying that incredibly important torch.

I think that Microsoft, on the other hand, has done what any typical giant corporation run by managers instead of innovators would do: it's done its level best to strangle the heart and soul of the franchise and turn it into a reliable, but boring, cash cow.

Don't get me wrong, I still LOVE playing HALO. I just finished playing through the last Spartan Ops mission today (for like the fifth time) and will probably start playing HALO 5: Guardians, yet again, just for kicks. The franchise is alive and kicking, and every time I play it, I experience something new and amazing. I get a thrill and a buzz from playing HALO that no other game can match.

But there is no question in my mind, and in the minds of many other fans, that HALO 5: Guardians was not the game that it should have been. The franchise has gone from being one of the most consistent and bold innovators in the FPS genre, to being an imitator of the very franchises that used to imitate HALO itself.

That is never a recipe for future success. What is needed now is for 343i to take some serious, bold, and scary risks with the next game.

In my view, that means restoring the focus on gameplay rather than story, and restoring the MASTER GODDAMN CHIEF to his rightful place as the central focus of the storyline. It means DITCHING all of these stupid, useless, pointless affirmative action characters like Olympia Vail and Holly Tanaka. (But please, please, please keep Eddie Buck. He's a BADASS.) It means focusing on the fight against galaxy-spanning evil empires and existential threats to humanity, not some AI-gone-bonkers who goes on a mad power trip.

It means restoring split-screen co-op play. Come on, man, we have the technology with modern networks. If that means downgrading the resolution from 60fps to something just a little bit lower, fine- the loss of fidelity is more than made up for by allowing people to play the campaign and multiplayer modes alongside the people that they love.

And above all, it means putting the focus back on crafting the greatest single-player FPS gaming experiences ever made. That is what the HALO franchise is about, and that is what I want to see in HALO 6.

I will still buy HALO games no matter what. I am one of those hardcore fans who will never abandon the franchise- well, unless Microsoft does something galactically stupid, like turning Cortana into a transgender AI, or turning Master Chief into an emasculated girl. (Which, I am very sorry to say, are distinct possibilities in the current environment.) I am, in fact, the very kind of fan that Microsoft can always rely on.

But people like me are not going to sustain and expand the HALO empire. We are hardcore gamers. We love this shit. We spend ridiculous amounts of our free time on these games that we could otherwise spend on things like... oh, I dunno, girls, friends, or shooting actual targets at the gun range.

The people who are going to build and expand upon the HALO franchise are in fact casual gamers who will be hooked by the ability to play a great, immersive game with their friends.

And those are the exact same people that Microsoft has insisted on alienating. All in the name of making the HALO franchise "safe".

If they carry on much farther in this vein, HALO will become like Windows: boring, buggy, sold to the lowest common denominator, slow, bloated, and frankly stupid compared to the alternatives.

And I never, ever want to see that happen to the games that I love.

Comments

  1. Crysis 2 and 3 are garbage.

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  2. Damn, lost a long comment! Shorter version, completely agree.+ ms blows chunks.
    If you try Destiny again, search for rACKetmEN5ch. On every night 8 to 12. Would love a friend older than about 13. Warning - I'm not very good...

    ReplyDelete

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