I Marathoned The Master Chief Collection. Here's What I Discovered.
During the seventh generation console wars, I was entrenched firmly on the side of the Xbox360. Admittedly, I was more a conscript than anything else; I didn’t choose to have a 360, it was just what my older brother had and I used by extension. Even then, I played games on my Wii and DS far more than on the 360. Either way, though, I would always side with Microsoft over Sony in the era’s many arguments over which system was superior. Nowadays, it barely even feels like the rivalry is still a thing. Modern XBox is often the butt of jokes for its complete lack of noteworthy exclusive titles (something that, as a primarily PC user, I’m totally fine with, but nevermind), while Sony sits around being constantly showered in accolades and rose petals thanks to God of War and The Last of Us and Horizon and whatever other mega-budget franchises they’ve laid claim to. These days, at least until those new Bethesda games that are meant to be not on Playstation come out, nobody’s going to argue that Microsoft is winning the exclusive-game-off. The same, however, could not be said back in the seventh generation, when the Xbox was riding high off the backs of 2 massively successful exclusive franchises: Gears of War and Halo. Halo, especially, has sort of become Microsoft’s unofficial flagship franchise in the gaming space. Halo: Combat Evolved was a launch title for the original Xbox, and both the XBox Original and XBox360 saw their fair share of outings with Master Chief. Despite the fact that Halo pretty much was the Xbox game franchise, and myself being an Xbox defender, I never really had that much of an attachment to the series. Something about Halo never really hooked me, and until recently, I’d never played more than a token amount of any entry in the series. That all changed when I went ahead and marathoned (heh… Marathon) the entire 6-title Master Chief Collection, From 2001’s Combat Evolved all the way up through 2012’s Halo 4, on Heroic difficulty. In brief, I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve been converted to a Halo superfan. I still don’t exactly find any title in that timespan particularly electrifying on a gameplay or story level. However, as someone with a pronounced interest in the development of the first-person shooter as a genre of video game, I found that the Halo series was really interesting as a sort of looking glass into the stylistic trends of the FPS from the start of the new millennium to the beginning of the 8th console generation, as it began to lose its position as the genre on top of the AAA gaming space. Halo is far from the most self-innovating franchise; almost every game feels cut from the same cloth, which can make them somewhat blend together, but it also means that the differences between them become even more pronounced and interesting. So, let’s take a quick look at Halo through the years, how each title distinguishes itself from the others, and what it could tell us about the state of the FPS genre at the time of release.
Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Halo the first is a landmark title, not just in the history of the FPS genre, but in video games as a whole. Microsoft’s opening statement and their entry point into the console market, Halo is easily the most prominent FPS title of 2001. However, the first Halo game, despite heralding a new era of console-centric shooter design, is also a game that is very entrenched in its roots. This game shares a lot in common with prior first-person shooters, most notably for me Quake II (1997). Though Halo 1 is now regarded as a classic title, with an astounding 97 on Metacritic, I personally have to take the stance that Combat Evolved kind of sucks ass and was pretty firmly outdone, not just by the rest of the series, but even by titles that came before it.
Let’s back up and take a look at Bungie, Halo’s initial developer, as a studio. They got their start, primarily, as a developer of Mac titles back in the early 90’s, known (well, “known” is a strong word) for dungeon-crawling RPGs like Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete (1992) and Pathways into Darkness (1993). However, these titles are much less relevant to our current conversation than the trilogy of Mac-exclusive first-person shooters that first saw the light of day in 1994: Marathon. This series is important to a discussion of Halo primarily because, in a lot of ways, Halo is a sort of retooling of many of the ideas that the original Marathon trilogy played around with; its significantly heavier focus on heady sci-fi narrative than its contemporaries, its primary antagonist being a loose federation of different alien species, and the player character being a lone badass, guided by an AI, in their fight against the hordes. This is what I mean by Halo being very entrenched in its roots; not only is the “you are a lone hero fighting aliens on a hostile planet” framing identical to that of Quake II (1997), but many of the finer details of Halo’s plot seem lifted almost point-for-point from Marathon. Those of you that have played the Destiny games may also note some similarities between that franchise’s story and these points. I think it’s safe to say that Halo wasn’t breaking wholly new ground with the sci-fi ground war premise. Additionally, while the Halo franchise is known for having a fairly extensive collection of lore and worldbuilding, it’s surprising how little Halo 1 explains what is actually going on in the story. Neither the Covenant nor the UNSC get any proper introduction, and the game is very much a fan of throwing proper nouns at you with little to no explanation and just kind of hoping you pick up on the connotations inherent in the words themselves, which is probably why nearly everything in the expanded Halo universe is named “the [noun that isn’t all that commonly used in casual conversation but still has a decently recognizable definition most people would be familiar with],” as a sort of narrative shortcut to hint at what exact role some actor in the game’s universe plays without actually spelling anything out explicitly. Halo definitely seems to care more about telling a serious story and building a coherent universe than Quake II or Duke Nukem 3D (1996) ever did, but it also lacks the carefully wrought environmental storytelling of Half-Life (1998). As such, I think it’s fair to say Halo is a slightly more narrative focused game than some of the preceding material, but the immersive storytelling revolution generally predated it by a few years.
One thing that Halo 1 did pioneer, however, was the regenerating health system and 2-weapon limit that would become standard for console shooters moving forward. Halo actually features an interesting mixture of regenerating and static health, with its distinction between health and shields resembling Bioshock Infinite (2013); that is, you have a shield that regenerates, but once it breaks, you start taking permanent health damage that can only be restored by a medkit. Halo would sort of bounce back-and-forth between using this system and only having regenerating health for the next couple of games. Personally, I prefer this system; especially since you could typically take some more punishment before dying after your shield broke in the future installments, it always felt like the game was kind of unclear at telling you how close to death you actually were, and whether it was a better idea to rush in madly for the kill or retreat and recuperate. Either way, I’m far from ontologically opposed to regenerating health systems; I just think Halo has always struggled to find a good balance with them, where it feels like you aren’t taken out of the game for like 10 seconds while you wait for your shield to recharge.
The 2 weapon limit, in contrast, feels a lot more limiting, especially in the Halo series. In general, Halo’s weapons behave fairly differently, but you can pretty comfortably divide the arsenal into “workhorse” guns and “specialist” guns. Workhorse guns are stuff like the magnum, assault rifle, shotgun, or plasma rifle – weapons that are reliable in most situations and you can carry a sizable chunk of ammo for. Specialist weapons, in contrast, aren’t really meant for moment-to-moment encounters, and are often quite limited in ammo capacity but excel at accomplishing something specific. The sniper rifle and rocket launcher are the primary specialist weapons in Halo 1. I’d also probably put the plasma pistol in that category, since the only real use for the weapon is the ammo-hungry overcharge shot, as its regular damage output is so pathetic. Since the specialist weapons are typically so effective in the occasional situations where they’re useful, you’ll often want to hedge your bets and pick one up when you’re given the chance, since they’re overall fairly rare (aside from the Plasma Pistol, which is everywhere). The rocket launcher, especially, is almost essential for dealing with otherwise extremely annoying enemy vehicles. However, since you can’t main specialist weapons due to their pitiful ammo capacity, you also need to keep your hands on one of the workhorse weapons. This, resultantly, means that it always feels like your loadout is a lot more structurally limited than it might initially appear, and also means that you’ll be doing most moment-to-moment firefights using the same one workhorse weapon you’ve been carrying with you this whole time. This isn’t quite as bad in future instalments, but Halo 1 has some serious issues with ammo balance and weapon selection. The only weapons that you feel like you have consistent access to ammo for are the assault rifle and the plasma rifle, and the plasma rifle is garbage, so it’s mostly maining the assault rifle (with a few exceptions, like during the Library, where you’ll probably main the shotgun instead). The issue is, assault rifle dominance aside, that Halo 1 simply does not have a precision weapon that you will have consistent access to ammo for. While later Halo games would give you the DMR, Battle Rifle, or Covenant Carbine as reliable weapons for mid-to-long distance engagements, the only real long-range weapon in Halo 1 is the sniper, which you barely get any ammo for and shows up fairly infrequently. This means that, during Halo’s many long-range engagements in wide-open spaces, you feel like you’re at an extreme disadvantage, ineffectually tap-firing the assault rifle at enemies combat rolling in and out of cover, regenerating all of their shields and making every spent bullet worth just as much as a round fired directly into the ground. The magnum is a solid enough ranged weapon, but it doesn’t really have the ammo capacity necessary to deal with the hordes of grunts. Either way, one of the other constant irritants in Halo combat is the fact that you’re automatically zoomed out of weapon scopes when you take damage, which makes it very difficult to return fire at long-distance foes. While this isn’t a problem that actually crops up all that often in Halo 1 (and not for a good reason, unfortunately), when it does, it’s really irritating. Most shooters prior to Halo didn’t have the same large, open environments that it does; the closest would probably be Unreal (1998), but even then, it wasn’t on the same scale. Most prior FPS games wouldn’t provide the player with a proper sniper weapon, with the possible exception of Half-Life’s crossbow. As such, this feels like kind of a new issue in Halo, one representative of the growing pains of video games as they started to increase steadily in scale.
However, most of your time in Halo 1 will not be spent in large, open arenas. In fact, the vast majority of it will be spent in what feels like the same 3 corridors copy-and-pasted into oblivion. Halo 1 is a game that feels astoundingly padded, especially in terms of its extremely barebones and boring level design. Most stages eventually devolve into wandering endlessly through a series of identical gray corridors, walking into the same blatantly copy-pasted rooms over and over again, and shooting the same group of goons from Halo’s fairly small enemy roster. The later levels, in particular, are really bad about this. There’s that one snow level where they very blatantly copy-paste the same bridge literally like 6 times back-to-back, and then, for good measure, has you play the level again backwards just to really hammer it in how insufferably repetitive this game is. Then, of course, there’s the Library, which is quite possibly one of the worst first-person shooter levels I’ve ever played, quite literally a half an hour of fighting overlarge hordes of extremely boring enemies in the same monotextured hallway ad nauseam. Getting through some of the levels in this game feels like eating an entire box of styrofoam packing peanuts. Some might argue that it’s unfair to criticize Halo for it’s lack of setpieces and repetitive design due to the game’s age; but this is an area where Halo has no excuse, because games that predate it by years completely wipe the floor with it. Half-Life, of course, has a much more entertaining and memorable campaign, which, while definitely having some rough points, is far more creative in its level and encounter design. Even Quake II, a game who’s contemporary reputation hinges almost entirely on being very dull, feels like a non-stop thrill ride in comparison to the miserable slog of Halo 1’s campaign – and it came out 4 years earlier. Even dating back to the most spartan (heh… spartan) days of the genre, with Wolfenstein 3D (1992), while Wolfenstein levels are far from individually thrilling, at least they’re short, and not half-hour long commitments. This is the main thing that makes me so critical of Halo 1; it’s just not a fun video game due primarily to the extremely repetitive level and combat design. If the game was gonna have a small enemy and weapon roster, they could have at least put more effort into making individual levels not feel like one 5-minute long level copied 8 times and then stapled together; see Quake (1996), which figured this out half a decade before Halo hit store shelves.
Real quickly, let’s run over a few other notable Halo features that were relatively unique for the time. There were some prior first-person shooters with drivable vehicles; The Terminator: Future Shock (1995) and Shadow Warrior (1997) spring to mind, but the vehicles in those games were, uh… vestigial at best and hilariously poorly implemented and pointless at worst (at least in Shadow Warrior’s case; I haven’t played Future Shock). Halo, in contrast, provides the player with a selection of vehicles that feel far more integral to the game world, given the large scale of exterior sections. While I wouldn’t exactly say vehicles in Halo are particularly enjoyable to drive, they feel like a much more natural part of the experience, and I think this is one of the areas that Halo is important for innovating in. Vehicles, while still largely the domain of open-world titles like RAGE (2011) or the Far Cry games, would make a memorable appearance as a core part of Half-Life 2’s (2004) campaign, and I don’t know if we would have seen that if not for Halo providing a groundwork on which to base FPS vehicle sections – even if the airboat and buggy levels in Half-Life 2 are far more linear than Halo’s semi-optional vehicle arenas. In terms of the game’s combat more broadly, the addition of the dedicated grenade button and the dedicated gun-butt melee button are both two alterations to the classic FPS design formula that many other titles would copy in the coming years. Prior FPS titles largely relegated melee to a last-ditch option, like the axe from Quake, the nigh-unusable knife from Wolfenstein 3D, or the punch from DOOM (1993) when not upgraded with the berserk power-up. Some titles, like Quake II or Blake Stone (1993) would cut melee weapons from the roster entirely. In contrast, the melee attack from Halo is a powerful cqc option that can bring down even tough enemies in a few hits. Similarly, rather than being tied to a dedicated grenade launcher weapon like in Quake, being considered a full-on weapon like in Half-Life, or being tied in with a larger inventory system like in HeXen (1995), grenades are another combat option you always have access to (so long as you have some), used primarily for flushing enemies out of cover – something that is much more important in Halo due to how the enemy AI prioritizes avoiding incoming fire. Both of these features would become standard as limited weapon rosters became more and more prominent in built-for-console FPS titles. Both were also, on some level, necessary due to the reduced number of combat options inherent to the 2-weapon limit, and likely would have come about eventually, but Halo was the first really prominent example of them that I’m aware of.
Overall, I think Halo’s reputation as an all-time classic is extremely unearned. While the game itself was certainly innovative with the vehicles, regenerating health, and dedicated melee/grenade buttons, but the actual level design is so heinously tedious that the actual experience of playing through the game’s campaign just is not compelling whatsoever, even when compared to games that had come out years before. Despite this, the game has cemented itself as the FPS of 2001. Other major titles in the genre include games such as Serious Sam: The First Encounter (2001), Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001), and Red Faction (2001) – all titles that drift more into cult classic territory. It’s worth acknowledging that these titles were fairly innovative in their own rights. Serious Sam popularized the horde shooter, bringing back the absurd enemy counts that FPS titles had drifted away from with the advent of 3D graphics, alongside upping the size of arenas and levels even further than Halo did. Sam is definitely a title that gets exhausting and frustrating at times, but even though its level design is as generally featureless as Halo’s, at least the wide variety of weapons and enemies, alongside the over-the-top nature of the action, keeps the game exciting. I haven’t finished Return to Castle Wolfenstein or Red Faction, but they’re also two games I know through reputation. Castle Wolfenstein’s mixture of stealth and traditional action would become the standard for singleplayer AAA titles in the modern era, with almost all open world titles like the Far Cry games or even Dying Light 2 (2022) resembling it – not to mention the modern Wolfenstein reboot titles like The New Order (2014) playing similarly. Red Faction is mostly remembered for pioneering environmental destruction systems, something that would become a frequently advertised gimmick in the years to come (though I, admittedly, don’t know much about it outside of that). While these titles are far from bad games – many people swear by RTCW being the best title in the franchise – but they simply did not have the reach or acclaim that Halo had. Part of that is definitely its status as a launch title for market newcomer Microsoft, but I think it’s also fair to say that Halo was a genuinely important title in terms of the future of FPS design – it’s just not actually a very good game in hindsight.
Halo 2 (2004)
For Combat Evolved, I had a lot to talk about, since, as the first title in the Halo series, the mechanical template it boasted was something genuinely new. Halo 2, in contrast, feels more iterative than innovative, polishing up the systems introduced in Combat Evolved, refining the level design, upgrading the engine, fleshing out the narrative, and adding new weapons and enemies into the fray. It also has the misfortune of not being the most prominent title in its release year, unlike its predecessor. 2004 was a pretty big year for the FPS as a genre, with other major titles including the original Far Cry (2004), Call of Duty: United Offensive (2004), Counter-Strike: Source (2004) and DOOM 3 (2004) – though, of course, everything was completely dwarfed by the monolith that was Half-Life 2, one of the most legendary video games of all time, which sits squarely at the top of Metacritic’s top games of 2004 list (though somehow with 1 less point than Halo 1 – seriously?). That’s not to say that Halo 2 was poorly received or failed to make an impact – the game sits just slightly lower than Half-Life 2 at the #3 slot on that aforementioned list – but Halo 2 doesn’t have the privilege of being the highest-rated FPS title of its launch year this time. It’s a shame, too, because Halo 2 is a significant improvement over its predecessor, with significantly improved level design and gameplay, alongside a much more compelling story. However, it didn’t really bring all that much fresh to the table in comparison to the first game.
In Halo 2 we do start to see the beginning of another trend in FPS design that would get more pronounced a few games down the line – the prominence of NPC support characters. Especially in the first section of Halo 2, fighting to defend the Earth city of New Mombasa, you feel far more like a soldier among many, rather than the lone badass space marine that you were in the first Halo. Sure, there were NPC companions in Halo 1, but noticeably less of them than in the second game. This sense of being one soldier among many would become more and more prominent in linear shooter design, especially shooters in the extremely prominent WW2 genre, where the player character was often meant more to be just another enlistee on the battlefield. Of course, Master Chief is still Master Chief, so characters still generally treat you like the lone hero – its just that you feel more like you’re fighting with the rest of the human forces, rather than for them. At least early on in the game, anyways.
However, it’s important not to forget that Master Chief isn’t the only protagonist of Halo 2. You also get to play as The Arbiter, a Covenant elite, for a portion of the missions. I overall believe that the inclusion of the Arbiter levels was one of the best decisions Bungie made in this game. The Arbiter plays somewhat differently from Master Chief, having access to an invisibility power and energy swords, which is nice – but, more importantly, having a narrative that revolves around a member of the Covenant helps characterize them as more than just “the enemy aliens which you shoot in this video game.” The Covenant are far more compelling as an enemy when it seems like they have something going on beyond shooting you with plasma guns. Getting an idea of Covenant rituals and the text of their religion and learning about their hierarchy makes them feel like a far more developed entity in the game’s universe. The other thing that really helps the Arbiter sections stand out is the fact that the Arbiter’s storyline is one of the most interesting to watch play out in the entire series. As the game goes on, you watch as interspecies conflicts within the Covenant begin to boil over, leading eventually to the elites completely switching sides and fighting with the humans. This is a story beat that couldn’t have been executed nearly as well without having an inside perspective. The Arbiter, despite his status, gets constantly antagonized by Tartarus and his Brutes, which makes you feel the tension and helps sell the big twist. Master Chief simply doesn’t have this experience. I think Halo 2 is a good example of how multiple-perspective storytelling can be an extremely useful device for lore-dense universes like Halo’s. Allowing us to see this expansive world from multiple perspectives allows the writers to give the player information that would otherwise feel awkward to see from an outside perspective. Overall, the inclusion of The Arbiter is probably my favorite aspect of Halo 2, and I’m generally disappointed that later Halo games didn’t also play in this multiple-perspective storytelling space.
Overall, Halo 2 is a much more entertaining title than its predecessor. It’s still kind of rough around the edges – Bungie’s arena design would improve by leaps and bounds in the later installments – but the gameplay is generally better and the story is more interesting and feels as though it plays a greater role in the overall experience. There are some other features that would go on to appear in later titles, such as dual-wielding, another thing borrowed from Maraton; but, overall Halo 2 doesn’t do too much to innovate on the formula established in Combat Evolved, but it does refine it substantially, and the game would end up becoming the ground on which the rest of the franchise was constructed.
Halo 3 (2007)
Halo 3 was an important moment in the series history, where it transitioned from a 6th gen to a 7th gen console, granting Bungie access to more powerful hardware with which to realize the Halo universe. As evidenced by the issues with the endlessly repeating textures making interior sections in the prior 2 games feel crushingly drab and lifeless, a stronger technical core could be just the thing this series needed to bring itself some of the spark the earlier games were somewhat lacking in. Halo 3 is kind of that, but also kind of not. It feels very much like the final game in a preplanned trilogy, as it wraps up all of the series’s major plot points, deals with their antagonists, and closes on a moment meant to deliberately mirror the opening of the first game. As such, Halo 3, despite (sort of) heralding in a whole new era of hardware for the games industry, brings with it somewhat of a feeling of finality.
Part of that feeling of finality also comes from the general feeling one gets playing Halo 3 directly after the first 2 that the franchise is starting to repeat itself. I’m reminded of some of the lines from the ending of Bioshock Infinite; to paraphrase, “there’s always a man, there’s always a Halo, and there’s always the Flood.” Sure, Halo 3 ups the stakes substantially – the Covenant have gained access to the machine that controls all of the Halos, and the Flood have gained more and more ground, but a lot of the broad strokes of this game’s campaign feel lifted point-for-point from Halo 2. I mean, it opens in an Earth city, sends you off to a Forerunner artificial planet, and then you pay a visit to the Covenant capital. It’s not exactly difficult to see the similarities. Bungie’s genuine willingness to draw a line in the sand in regards to how far they were willing to take this series was a respectable move, in my eyes, as someone who isn’t a fan of serialized media with no end in sight; and I feel like Halo 3 was deliberately them saying “alright, we’re done (except for those other 2 games we gotta make, I guess).” That feel of finality works mainly for the Covenant arc, what with the downfall of the prophets firmly putting a pin in the Covenant narrative and basically ending their storyline. It doesn’t work quite so much for the Flood, who I’ve come to realize are just kind of a lame villain. It’s extremely easy to draw comparisons between the Flood and other sci-fi monster races – alien brain parasites aren’t exactly something Bungie invented – but the one I’d like to reference is the Many from System Shock 2 (1999), since they’re very similar in a lot of ways. They’re alien brain parasites, kinda-sorta the responsibility of some other actor in the game’s universe, and – importantly – sapient. The Many are represented by two characters in System Shock 2, the AI Xerxes and the voice of the Many itself. The voice of the Many, in particular, is an extremely strong and memorable villain. It’s echoed, overlaid voices give it the feeling of being a hivemind, a mass of innumerable beings united in purpose, and, when it talks to you, it sounds like it genuinely pities you for not being a part of its network. It’s memorability comes not from it’s amorality, but its unshakable belief in its purpose. Gravemind, the voice of the Flood, on the other hand, is one of the most lackluster video game villains I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t feel like the voice of an alien hivemind, it feels like some mustache-twirling James Bond villain reincarnated as a Venus Fly Trap. I’m sure there’s some deep lore reason that lines like “I am a monument to all your sins” exist, but devoid of any context within the game itself and coming from a character literally named “Gravemind,” it just feels like it’s trying way, way too hard to sound cool and comes off kind of puerile. It’s unfortunate, then, that the Flood end up being the big boss at the end of the story, with the Covenant’s elimination marking the beginning of the 3rd act. I feel like Bungie’s insistence on featuring two major antagonist factions just kind of detracts from both of them, especially considering the Flood are such a weak villain.
Mechanically, Halo 3 resembles in structure the prior games, to the point where it almost doesn’t feel necessary to talk about the gameplay. It follows a mission format closer to the second game, but with more setpieces, which was a reasonable direction to take the series in, since it makes individual levels stand out more from the other ones. Some locations, like Flooded High Charity, don’t feel like anything that I’d seen before in the series (even if it does feel like a bit of a rip-off of the body of the Many from System Shock 2, only furthering the comparison from the last paragraph). Mostly, though, it kind of feels like the same as always, though the Halo burnout wasn’t quite as severe here as it would get later. Narratively, there’s an even stronger character focus than in the previous two games, with non-Chief soldiers getting a significant amount of screentime and development. This paved the way for the next two games, in particular, which focused on non-chief characters; but that’s not important right now. The character focus was becoming more in style in FPS titles; System Shock 2’s successor, BioShock (2007), was a more FPS-flavored of its forebear’s immersive sim formula with a similarly intense focus on narrative and side characters; Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (2007) expanded on the increased focus on intercharacter relationships that started to play a greater role in the story during Episode 1 (2006). However, it’s extremely important to mention what is definitely the most important game of 2007, in terms of the console FPS games, and the second best selling in that year (behind Madden): Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. In 2007, we saw the birth of the Modern Military shooter, its “squad-based war story” narrative structure, and its setpiece-driven campaign, filled with total mechanical switchups from chapter to chapter. Though Halo 3 is more setpiece focused than the earlier titles in the series, it doesn’t hold a candle to Modern Warfare, which would go on to set the standard for first-person shooters in the forthcoming year and put the Call of Duty franchise on top of the world. Halo 3 was the strongest entry in the series so far, with the most polished gameplay, but it wasn’t quite as much of a landmark title in a year often remembered as one of the best in the medium’s history. It remained, then, to be seen – would Halo join the rest of the AAA space in aping Call of Duty, or would it forge a new path?
Halo 3: ODST (2009)
The answer to the question posed in the previous paragraph is: Bungie marked a course for that Call of Duty money, dropped a brick on the gas pedal, and never looked back. What I’m saying with that extremely sloppy metaphor is that Halo 3: ODST feels extremely uninspired. Which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the game wasn’t also bafflingly terrible. Following Halo 3, it seemed like Bungie had set a very strong baseline for quality, but ODST feels like a genuine disaster. It’s a hellish tonal mishmash, weighed down by one of the most vestigial open worlds I’ve ever seen in any video game, extremely boring level design, and some of the most insufferable characters I’ve ever had the misfortune of watching over the course of a story. ODST, apparently, grew out of the leftovers from the results of the canned Halo movie that was in the works at the time – and if this is what that was gonna be like, thank goodness that never got finished, because it would’ve been heinous. Like most things that grow out of leftovers, you probably shouldn’t get too close to them if it can be helped.
That above “tonal mishmash” statement is rooted strongly in ODST’s decision to include a sandbox. The open world segments of ODST take place in the city of New Mombasa, a setting returning from Halo 2, as you wander the desolate streets in the wake of the Covenant’s successful invasion during a dark and rainy night. ODST takes a jeering leap into a neo-noir, Blade Runner (1982) type aesthetic, something that feels very sudden compared to the mood of the prior entries. It isn’t an inherent issue – there’s nothing wrong with taking a spinoff title in a new direction. The issue is that it’s tied to the open world itself. There is literally nothing to do in it but go to the next objective. It feels like a loading screen you have to play. There’s like, one collectable you can find between each mission. You can fight some enemies exclusively for the satisfaction of having fought them, but it’s way easier to just ignore them completely. The open world adds literally nothing to this game whatsoever. It’s one of the most genuinely ridiculous cases of “we need to have an open world to show off” syndrome I’ve ever seen, even worse than RAGE. What makes these segments even worse is how starkly they contrast with the game’s actual missions, which wear the Call of Duty influence very plainly on their sleeves. They’re huge battles, taking place in broad daylight, often revolve around gimmicks – in this game, mostly dedicating large sections of the level to using a particular vehicle, and are linear to a fault. The missions also take the perspective out of the head of the silent protagonist and put it into the eyes of various different ODST soldiers, every single one of whom is completely insufferable. All of them talk almost exclusively in obnoxious quips and big-dick action movie quotes. There’s a horrible romance subplot between two of them, which felt to me like the most incomprehensibly shoehorned intercharacter conflict in the history of storytelling. I cannot stress enough how genuinely terrible the writing in this game is. I wouldn’t call Halo 3 profound, and it suffers from the aforementioned Gravemind issue, but it’s fuckin’ Doestoyevsky compared to ODST. They even brought in some of the infamous visual ugliness that seventh gen games are often lambasted for. I swear that there is a level in this game that is so overwhelmingly piss-yellow I thought they just straight up placed a low-opacity yellow rectangle over my vision for the entirety of the stage. It’s such a gross looking game. The previous Halo games were pretty visually sterile, but this is not the step in the other direction the series needed to take.
ODST brings back medkits from the first Halo game, which makes sense, given that you don’t get to rely on an energy shield like Master Chief does (despite the fact that you still have a regenerating overshield. They just renamed it “stamina” in this game, because I guess if you try hard enough you can just shrug off bullet wounds?). It’s a minor change, given how these games are paced, but one that can demand that you switch position more in the midst of firefights in search of health, something that I appreciate. The actual arena design in this game is probably the best in the series so far; it makes strong use of verticality and gives slightly more spaces for cqc weapons to shine (though the carbine/DMR still reigns supreme among this game’s weapon roster). There were moments in the ODST campaign that I was actually having a lot of fun, on the edge of my seat, fighting off overwhelming odds in well designed arenas – and then there were levels where I had to tediously drive a nigh-invincible tank down what felt like 50 straight miles of highway. It feels like Bungie was getting steadily better at Halo combat design, but also stretching into super stepiece-driven level design, which they just did not know how to do well, and the gulf in quality is staggering.
Overall, I think, ODST is in kind of a weird place as a game. It’s a spin-off title of one specific other title in a decade-spanning franchise that wasn’t quite a big enough game to warrant getting classified as its own thing separate from Halo 3, but it also needed to be substantial enough in terms of content to be a full $60 retail game – hence, presumably, the empty open world’s runtime-padding inclusion. I feel as though this title would’ve worked better if it was just sold as a DLC expansion for Halo 3; I’m not sure that was really the style back in ‘09, as classic large scale story expansion packs in the style of Half-Life: Opposing Force (1999) had gone somewhat out of style by this point, but even then, ODST just does not feel like a full-price game. Resultantly, it’s kind of the most vestigial and least important game in the entire Master Chief Collection, and probably the franchise as a whole (excluding random spinoffs like Halo Wars), especially given the title that would follow it a year later.
Halo: Reach (2010)
For many, Reach is the pinnacle of the Halo series. It always seemed that way to me; whenever people were talking about Halo, they were talking about Reach. That is, admittedly, mostly to do with its 2010 release year, meaning that this would have been the most contemporary Halo title for me around the time I was in elementary and middle school. This was the game that the Halo fans were playing. Though one might anticipate that the praise heaped on Reach would’ve lessened as the years went on, but that isn’t the case. This is still the game I see people playing the multiplayer for. This is the game that gets video essays like this one written about it. This is the big one. Do I agree with that sentiment? Well, yes and no. I do think Reach is probably the best Halo game, but it’s also still not really anything more than like a 7/10 for me. Reach is a well choreographed, highly polished, perfectly functional title – but, in my opinion, it fails to ascend beyond that.
In a lot of ways, Reach is a bit of a retread of the concepts first explored in ODST. It’s another shift in focus away from Master Chief and towards the “common man,” albeit still through the lens of a super-elite military squadron. Yet again, this allows the franchise to give itself some breathing room to flesh out the universe without it bogging down the pace of Master Chief’s heroics. However, unlike ODST, which is a sort of side story to Halo 2, Reach takes place before Halo 1, finally showcasing the disaster which befell the titular planet, which had been referenced a few times before in prior titles. It also grants us an opportunity to see more Spartans in action, something that I’d always wanted to see since Combat Evolved. For as much reverence everyone seems to hold for the Spartans, it always felt odd that we only ever really saw one of them and never got much of an explanation as to what a Spartan actually is or does. Now, we’ve got a whole team of them to explain that to us. However, I believe the main reason Reach stands out from the rest of the franchise narratively is that it’s the only Halo game to feel ultimately tragic. Previous Halo games had featured major character deaths and calamitous events, but there was always a sense of serious distance to them. They always felt, on some level, obligatory – occurring only at moments when the dying character had served their narrative function. Either way, the games could never really end on a downbeat note. Master Chief’s survival was all but guaranteed, since he was basically the only persistent human character from entry to entry. The Noble team doesn’t have such plot armor, and their deaths come suddenly and without warning. Kat’s death scene, in particular, felt sudden and genuinely impactful – it felt like a character death that more appropriately captured the unpredictable and wanton violence of war the Halo games had always struggled with. There is a sense of, in the words of an old Zero Punctuation review, there being a “noblest death competition” between the cast members, but I don’t think it detracts too much from the experience. While I wouldn’t exactly call Halo: Reach a tear-jerking war drama for the ages, it feels like a more successful and less lifeless story than the rest of the series tends to engage with.
However, I’d be hard-pressed to say that Reach was a particularly innovative game in the mechanics department. In general, you know what you’re gonna get, and the small changes to the combat mechanics – like having a swappable special armor function – don’t really help differentiate the experience from Halo 3. The level design is a little bit more linear and setpiece-focused, with many levels attempting to have distinct mechanical characteristics; for example, there’s the dedicated sniper level, or the dedicated space-combat flight level. I believe that, at this point, the full effects of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) was being felt by the games industry, hence Reach’s insistence on dedicated level gimmicks and a “military squad drama” style of narrative. However, there’s still a sort of naturalism and lack of choreography that defines Halo’s design. Sure, the sniper mission implies that you’re supposed to be playing the stealthy long-distance role, but if you want to dive into the fray and slice the Covenant to bits with an Energy Sword like you’re in Katana Zero, you can do that. In fact, you probably won’t be able to do the sniper thing the whole time, since the game is still rather stingy with reserve ammo capacity. There’s no game overs for getting spotted, no extended sequences where you have to creep through the tall grass or get sent back to the last checkpoint. This doesn’t always hold true; sections like the dedicated space-combat flight section feel somewhat out-of-place as tightly scripted segments that leave little space for forging your own path, and there are rarely situations that the game plops a vehicle in front of you where it’s not the correct choice to take it; but, in general, Reach maintains a balance between the unscripted stages of Halo 1 and the more tight choreography of Modern Warfare. ODST tried to do something similar, but it felt as though it struggled with balancing the tensions between the two modes a lot more than Reach did.
Overall, however, Reach doesn’t depart all that much from the traditional Halo formula. The game still plays basically the same as the previous ones, with basically the same weapons, enemies, etc., that we’ve seen before. This is the thing that stops me from really feeling the same sense of adoration for this title that a lot of other people do; for all of the things it does well (and it does plenty well), it still feels just like another spin on the same increasingly tired Halo routine for me. Reach’s position as the last Bungie-developed game in the franchise leaves it feeling like a sort of swan song for Halo, one last, particularly polished trek through the old ground, done as well as possible given all of the experience the studio has gained over the last decade. Reach, despite being a prequel, is a game that brings with it a strong sense of finality.
On that thought, it’s impossible to talk about Reach without bringing up it’s legendary final mission – the death of Noble Six. This is by far the most iconic scene in the game, and possibly in the whole franchise. If you’re unfamiliar, the final level of Reach places you in the middle of a desolate battlefield, surrounded on all sides by encroaching, endlessly respawning Covenant. As you take damage, your visor becomes more and more cracked, until the shattered glass totally obstructs your vision. The mission only ends when you finally succumb to the horde, closing the book on Noble Six, the Noble team as a whole, and the Reach storyline. It’s one of the few gameplay moments in the series that subverts expectations. Despite their differences, different entries across the Halo series are fairly mechanically formulaic. Sure, one might have some different weapons, one might let you switch out your sprint for deployable cover, some may have medkits and some don’t, but the general loop is the same – you fight enemies to push forward to the end of the stage. Reach’s final mission uses those expectations against you by completely stripping the possibility of progress from the equation. It’s a subversion of five games’ worth of expectations, and it feels like the excellent payoff to them. Given that I marathoned all of these games back-to-back, the difference was emphasized for me, but the game itself does a solid enough job of getting you in the rhythm that the time-shift is effective. Of course, the scene loses a little bit when you’re keenly aware that it’s going to happen and are basically counting down the moments until it does, like I was, but you can appreciate it for its choreography, if not its surprise factor. It feels like the perfect conclusion to Halo as a series – a final moment of tragedy that dispenses with the series formula to be effective, a sort of shirking of expectations to finally draw everything to a close. Unfortunately, just because Bungie was done with this franchise, didn’t mean Microsoft wasn’t.
Halo 4 (2012)
I find myself in an awkward position with Halo 4. It is, in my opinion, the most mechanically satisfying game in the franchise. Combat arenas are dense and layered, always giving both you and the enemies the opportunity to move. The weapon balance is far less skewed than in prior titles, and I actually found myself using automatic weapons out of anything other than grudging obligation. The enemy variety is higher, with the Prometheans generally creating more interesting combat scenarios than the Flood. However, as I wrote in my Backlog review around when I first finished this game, I spent most of the time asking myself: “this is so much better than before; why is it less fun?”
For all of its little changes that refined the Halo formula into something that finally totally felt like the sort of massively polished AAA product that it was, Halo 4 generally feels like a game that simply does not need to exist. With Bungie putting the series behind them to focus on ruining the entire AAA games market by pioneering the live service business model in the Destiny games, Microsoft slapped together a new studio, 343 Industries, with the express goal of “oversee[ing] the future development of the Halo franchise.” In many ways, Halo 4 feels reflective of that origin. The whole title has an air of obligation to it; it feels more like something that must exist in order to maintain Halo as a money-making entity, rather than as a piece of inspired art. Halo 3 was the deliberate end to much of the series’ story, up to its release; it was an outright admittance that the series had mostly done what it needed to do, and Reach was a closing statement that reiterated all the franchise’s major points as eloquently as possible. With only a 2-year release gap between itself and Reach, Halo 4 doesn’t feel like the triumphant return of Master Chief, so much as it feels like it’s trying everything in its power to be business as usual – making the whole thing feel almost desperate to not make too much of a splash.
A lot of this can be felt in the game’s infatuation with treading old ground. The story, taking place after Halo 3, brings back the Covenant – who pretty much ceased to exist as an entity during Halo 3 since their whole religion, you know, got proven wrong – as major antagonists for seemingly no well-explained reason; the best you’re gonna get (that I saw, at least) is Cortana handwaving it away and saying “eh it’s been like 4 years or whatever, who knows what could’ve happened?” I’m sure that, somewhere, there’s a 350-page novel that describes exactly what happened, but the actual game itself seems extremely uninterested in actually conveying that information. Halo 4 also introduces yet another ancient alien species into the mix – the Prometheans – who serve as the new antagonist to replace the Flood… which begs the question, why not just have the Prometheans as your villains? The answer, I think, is obvious: Prometheans aren’t iconic. They don’t have the Needler. The Covenant’s inclusion is necessary for making Halo 4 still feel like a Halo game, when the actual Halo universe, to be frank, doesn’t have much unique going for it outside of its iconography. This is an area where Halo 4 feels caught between the new and old – where it feels like they simultaneously wanted to take the series in a new direction, but also didn’t have the ability to deviate too much from the Platonic ideal of what “Halo” is.
While Halo 4 fails to feel as though it does much unique, I have to acknowledge that it has my favorite combat in the franchise. The arena design is dense and multilayered, and while the large amount of gray alien temple levels aren’t exactly visually stimulating, they play extremely well. There is actually one really fun and unique level, where you’re riding on a massive vehicle through a desert destroying Covenant weapon emplacements. This level has it all – a gimmick and flow of play that feels different from what’s come before, a unique visual aesthetic (Halo’s natural landscapes have largely been dominated by tundra, forest, and jungle settings, so the painterly orange desert is a big breath of fresh air), and a strong core concept. Unfortunately, while the arena design is at its best, I seriously struggle to actually remember what any of the other levels in this game even were. This, admittedly, isn’t a problem unique to Halo 4, but its one that I started to feel the most at this point in my marathon. The general aesthetic blandness of the Halo series feels at its worst when its original creators aren’t there to lend even the slightest element of authenticity to it. Halo 4 is the dullest the series has been since Halo 1 – and while Combat Evolved’s jagged edges made the game kind of miserable to play through, at least you can grab onto them, even if it hurts. Halo 4 is a slab of ultra-polished granite – prettier and less painful, but, in the end, you slide right off of it.
Halo 4 is a well-made video game that isn’t really worth playing. It’s fun enough while it lasts, but is overall extremely insubstantial and struggles to find its own voice. I don’t doubt that 343 Industries was trying to make something good here. This game is so visually striking I genuinely couldn’t believe that it was a 360 game. But the artificial, corporate-produced nature of both this game and the studio behind it leaves it feeling soulless and drab. It’s an unfortunate place to end the MCC experience on – an insubstantial afternote that feels generally kind of out-of-place among the rest. The 5 Bungie games, as much as their respective qualities could vary, at least all felt like they belonged together. Halo 4, in the end, feels like a postmortem fan-work; another attempt to wring some juice from the well-squeezed orange. Halo 4, when lined up alongside the games that preceded it, is an afterthought at best.
I’ll be honest – I’ve been working on this piece off and on for quite a while now, and I really shouldn’t have, because I’m having a lot of trouble remembering anything about these games. Halo, overall, strikes me as a remarkably sterile and flavorless franchise. It’s a galaxy-spanning space opera that sets all of its gameplay in dull gray hallways and environments that barely differ from stuff you can find on Earth. It’s a series that cares far more about developing its lore minutia in outside sources to make any of the games feel genuinely compellingly written (aside from a few moments in Reach and 3). It’s a game series that may have pioneered the regenerating-health two-weapon console-shooter formula, but it didn’t really have much profound to do beyond that. It’s a series that, as it went on, began to imitate its imitators. I know that most people who are big Halo fans are into it primarily for the multiplayer – but, as someone with a huge interest in the development of FPS games over time, I felt like Halo really didn’t have much to offer. The most innovative title has aged extremely poorly (and, I’d argue, isn’t even that great compared to titles that came before), and the stuff that followed it feel fairly rote, so what does this series actually provide that’s special? That might sound excessively harsh, and it kind of is, but I really just don’t see why I still see people obsessing over this series. To each their own, I suppose, but I genuinely just don’t get it.
For anyone who’s wondering, here’s my ranking of the games in this franchise, worst to best:
6. Halo 3: ODST – bad writing and a pointless open world drag down a game that would have otherwise been boring at best.
5. Halo: Combat Evolved – to quote one of my friends, “hallway simulator looking ass”
4. Halo 2 – the Arbiter and campaign variety help elevate this game, but the arena design still wasn’t there.
3. Halo 4 – the gameplay is at its best but the boredom is at its worst.
2. Halo 3 – a solid 7th-gen console shooter with a strong ending.
1. Halo: Reach – edges out Halo 3 due to its more interesting story and stronger ending.
Overall, though, I really don’t think any game in this franchise is more than like a 7/10 for me.
I still think it was worth it to go through this little journey. For as tedious as it was at times, to see the minor differences which characterize each game in a fairly samey franchise, to trace the development of FPS genre tropes over the years by watching their development in action, was a compelling time – but I don’t get much out of these games as individual titles. I’m far more interested in what they represent than what they are, and, because of that, I struggle to list them as especially compelling experiences on their own. The Master Chief Collection is still a solid deal for its $40 price tag – you get 6 games, at least 2/3s of which are pretty solid, and they’re still actively supporting the multiplayer for all of them, which is pretty wild. Having both the remastered and original graphics is always a great feature (even if I personally think the remastered visuals are kind of butt-ugly). Strictly as a purchase, I think the MCC is worth it. But I’m not sure the games themselves are.
Yes, I know I haven’t written anything in a while. It’s hard to find motivation to write stuff like this when you’re in college and every hour spent writing something like this for fun is an hour not spent writing something that you actually need for an assignment. But I do have a lot of thoughts on some games that I’ve played recently, so maybe I’ll get around to putting pen to paper at some point in the near future. But no promises.