I’d be a fool to say that the Halo series has fallen on hard times. It certainly hasn’t, and the series is enjoying the most success that it’s ever had. Halo is more than just a video game. It’s transcended that medium to have roles as a cult classic, deep sci-fi experience, and the name is synonymous with an entire console. If Halo continues to set records, then how could the series do anything wrong? Halo fans are disappointed, and it’s for a number of reasons that afflict the entire series. It’s been 2 years since Halo Reach, and Halo 4 needs to makes advances on these problems, lest it be doomed for more mediocrity. After seeing some gameplay of Halo 4’s multiplayer and campaign, the game seems to retain many of the issues that weakened the series.
Halo’s biggest problem has always been its storytelling in single player games. Before Halo became the multiplayer powerhouse that we think of today, it existed primarily as a single player game with some local multiplayer. This single player was amazing, but the narrative that Bungie presented in each game didn’t hold up to the rest of the series quality. Master Chief never became anything more than a cyborg that killed a lot of aliens. It’s an ironic situation, since Halo has an amazingly detailed universe of lore with plenty of amazing characters and stories to tell. It just never translated to any of the games.
I think that Halo: ODST was their biggest misstep, as the narrative was more convoluted than mysterious. There was little sense of urgency, or even a real sense of purpose to your actions. I was more impressed with the audio logs of ODST than the main story. On the other hand, I thought Halo 2’s change to the Arbiter’s perspective was quite interesting, and gave insight into the Halo universe that Master Chief’s character could not provide. Halo 4 needs to expand upon Master Chief’s character by a great deal, and investigating in the lore beyond a few terminals to read through. Halo has used larger and more open levels than most FPS games. Instead of the backtracking that the series is known for, why not have more exploration? The jokes about Halo 4 being ‘Halo Prime’ may be the step in the right direction, especially with the new designer from Retro Studios. If any FPS can further integrate story and gameplay seamlessly, it’s definitely Halo. The Halo 4 trailer showed hints of Cortana going off the deep end. This was also in Halo 3 to a certain degree, but they should handle it in a different way. The constant slowdowns and monologues from Cortana and Gravemind only served to annoy me after a replay. Perhaps Cortana is the ancient evil we’ve been hearing about?
My personal gripe that I love to harp on is where Halo has gone with the multiplayer. Halo took some cues from Call of Duty in this area, causing a major misstep for a previously excellent MP experience. Previous Halo maps were all hand-crafted, and made specifically for multiplayer. Most of the original maps in Halo: Reach were ripped assets from the campaign turned into multiplayer maps. These maps lacked the quality of their predecessors, and felt very shallow in design and originality. The maps from the previous games all had some sort of personality, they had secrets to find, and they had superior design for multiplayer.
Ranging from the previous 3 games, I’ll remember maps like Blackout, Blood Gulch, The Pit, and Guardian forever. The things that you could do on Sandtrap were endless. My mind draws a blank at Halo: Reach’s maps. I remember Powerhouse because it was in the beta and Sword Base because everyone just camps the gravity lift. Forge World is great, but it received no support after the launch. There never was another Forge World to play with, and every custom map has the same sterile Lego look. Vehicles were boring. You can’t drive around in a massive Elephant tank, or chase someone around with a Brute Chopper.
Weapon balancing has been strange in Reach too. I could talk about the DMR and Pistol for ages in how silly they could be. The semi-random reticule bloom in Reach made no sense, and it just made the game harder to play for skilled players. People realized that pacing your shots did nothing to increase your chances; it was best just to blast them as quickly as possible then hope for the best. So 343i just decided to be lazy and remove reticule bloom entirely. It made the problem of nobody using different weapons worse than it already was! Instead of the random spread, Halo 4 should have recoil that can be accurately predicted, like Counterstrike. Analyzing the Halo 4 MLG gameplay, I can’t see any actual recoil or bullet spread. The grenades physics are a bit less spastic, and have a smaller blast radius.
Halo has always been a slow game, this can’t be debated. The framerate is capped at 30, and you move at the speed of a turtle. With Halo 4, I know the framerate cap will remain. 343i is drawing every last bit of power that they can from the Xbox 360. I would have preferred to wait for Halo 4 for a new console, with better hardware. But 343i can still make the game faster. Instead of giving a sprint function that feels nothing like Halo at all, they should just increase the base movement speed. The speed in Halo 4 appears to be the same in Reach, which was even slower than in Halo 3. Halo is still an arena shooter, and it doesn’t need a sprint button. In other Halo games, you needed to actually plan where you were going to move. Chances are, you weren’t escaping when you got caught by an enemy. Reach’s sprint mechanic made the game even slower, because every firefight was a game of “Catch-me!”.
Halo has also had problems with the very brand that it pushed to success. Staying locked to one platform can ensure success for the software and for the hardware. This is most obvious with Nintendo, where new Mario and Zelda games produce consoles sales in the hundreds of thousands. The same could be said for Halo and the Xbox. There wouldn’t be an Xbox without Halo. Yet the idea of a console exclusive game is becoming less attractive. Not only do you have to stay associated to the certain fanboys of one particular platform, your franchise is owned by one of the big three. The biggest games today are multiplatform. When was the last time that you heard “Halo Killer”?
I’d never expect to see a Halo game on the PS3, but why not come back to the PC? A PC port of the later games done by Microsoft could be good. I think that Microsoft is afraid to port again after the travesty called Halo 2 Vista. Halo 2 is one of the most popular games to ever be released, yet the population on PC hovers from anywhere to 70 to 12. Meanwhile the Custom Edition of Halo 1 has at least 2000 players at any given time. Microsoft could surpass the issues with framerate, antialiasing, sticky aim, and have updated mod tools instead of the lackluster ‘Forge’ editor. Halo 4 with real mod tools would be amazing. Keeping Halo 3 and Reach on the Xbox exclusively when there isn’t even any money left to tap is just selfish. I’d like to think that there are people at Microsoft that want to make a good port of the Halo games. They just can’t because Microsoft’s new strategy refuses to support PC gaming anymore.
Halo’s community has also started to decline as a result. In Halo 2, clan matches were easy to find and custom games were just as popular as the matchmaking. Halo 3 was more difficult in finding a good game, but there was a wealth of creativity and people that wanted to play. When my time with Halo: Reach was done, I came to the realization that I never played an enjoyable custom game. I don’t know if the game just stopped lending itself to forgers, or if the community just got collectively bored. There is much in Reach that is as interesting as Geo’s Journey or Duck Hunt. For the next Halo game, a custom game finder and a clan system are an absolute necessity. Most of the fun in Halo comes from these custom games, and to see the ball dropped in Reach is extremely disappointing.
Custom games are important, because I’ve never seen a reason to consider Halo as a competitive game. A lot of the more casual players have jumped ship to COD. People like me that are dissatisfied for the other numerous reasons have just stopped playing Halo. The numerous types of sticky aim only serve to restrict the player’s ability, while attempting to compensate for the lack of precision that a controller gives. The long range weapons in Halo have been notorious for having an insane amount of interpolation. Competitive Halo players talk about tactics used in other FPS games like camping, proper positioning, and aiming, yet all of these basic elements are found in every other shooter as well. Halo 4 is almost insultingly beginner friendly with the reworking of the weapon placement for Infinity Slayer. Instead of memorization of weaponry around the map, weapons will randomly fall from the sky. I can’t see 343i creating maps that are balanced for this mode and the rest of the gametypes.
Maybe Halo just doesn’t have a genuine place as a shooter anymore. Maybe the karmic injustice that Halo made on arena shooters is coming back full circle. You can get the ultimate fratboy experience now by playing COD. You can get your fix of moonman shooting with Tribes: Ascend for free. The arguments that Halo is nothing more than a bland console FPS is becoming truer than ever. The series needs to revitalize itself, and finally stop being held down by technical limitations and lack of tact for the story. Right now, Halo 4 looks like Reach 2.0. 343i has shown that they care about fan feedback, and now it’s time to ask them for a little bit more to bring Halo 4 to its true potential.