Photo: Halo Waypoint
Halo is one of the key franchises that brought first-person shooters to the mainstream when Halo: Combat Evolved launched on the original Xbox, essentially driving sales. Since then it has branched into real-time strategy with Halo Wars and top-down shooters like Halo: Spartan Assault, on top of maintaining a solid series of core first-person shooter titles. Originally a Bungie property, the Halo games were loved the world around, and millions of gamers like myself have fond memories of blasting Covenant with a pal in co-op or ploughing hours into multiplayer squeezed onto a couch with four mates and swearing to not screenwatch. Halo is a staple franchise of gaming, and has since moved from its original home at Bungie to its new shiny digs with Microsoft as 343 Industries, after everyone’s favorite floating orb 343 Guilty Spark.
Led by Bonnie Ross — one of Fortune magazine 2014’s “10 powerful women in video games” — 343 Industries has really upped the ante when it comes to the ‘games studio+’ (as I call it) model of development, where the in-game universe is seamlessly interwoven with its peripheral mediums, such as books and video to form a broad reaching entertainment bonanza. This tight narrative spanning a range of media is something Bungie did well (with the books), but never worked its way back into the games in the same way as 343i have managed. To put it another way: 343 has managed to weave Halo’s complex universe back into playable content in a way Bungie’s titles never could (the addition of Halo 4‘s Lasky from the Forward unto Dawn promotional show, and upcoming Spartan Buck formally an ODST in Halo 3: ODST are great examples of this). The franchise has further branched under Ross, with more games than ever and serious technical jumps with the new capabilities of new-gen Xbox One.
I have stacked praise here but 343i have not had a smooth ride of it all, and have earned a lot of their past criticism. Many critics, despite its 87 score on Metacrtic, felt Halo 4 diverged from the series, and its Spartan Ops, the games part DLC mission-based cooperative set in the post-game, had a less favorable reception than the main game. This, coupled with a launch failure for the annals in Halo: The Master Chief Collection, has made the industry and consumers rightly wary of the studio (though buggy releases are not in short supply in gaming, see Batman Arkham Knight’s disaster PC port). I was personally late to the game and most of the issues had cleared up by the time I invested in my Xbox One MCC edition, but I followed the launch closely and have to say it has factored into my decision to not pre-order Halo 5 Guardians, despite being a massive fanboy. I guess you can also put that down to no split screen or LAN in Halo 5 Guardians, which peeved fans like me, among the other reasons. Some of the fondest memories Halo fans have are of LAN parties and split screen multiplayer, and it was a strange move by 343 to not at least make a gesture to address the palpable outcry from the community.
Don’t let this deceive you though; I am extremely optimistic that 343i have got it down pat. With excellent performances at conventions and an unprecedented early beta, from which they extracted a huge amount of community input (chiefly the return of the M41 Rocket Launcher), has led me to be confident they will release an excellent— fully functioning game.
343i do have a lot working for them when it comes to Halo Wars 2 and Halo 5 Guardians, namely the Xbox One. The Halo Channel, which they used to tell Agent Locke’s story in Nightfall and enhance the in-game terminals; dedicated servers for multiplayer; 1080p and 60 frames per second; Windows 10/Xbox cross platform (for Wars 2) and the return of long missed characters such as Buck and Blue Team (in Guardians) looking better than ever with next-gen graphics and awesome motion-capture. However, they aren’t just running with what they were given due to the ‘Xbone’ — they are ramping it up. Halo 5 is looking to be the biggest Halo yet, with a non-linear campaign, a huge million dollar prize arena championship, incredibly rich and interwoven lore, the all-new Warzone game mode, and a great injection of new talent (chiefly in the cast of Fireteam Osiris).
343 Industries seem to be learning from their past trials in a way that rivals, if not surpasses the Bungie stewardship of Chief and Halo, exploring creative new avenues to keep the over decade-old franchise alive. We will need to wait for October 27th to see how Halo 5 Guardians pans out, but to me, things are looking up for the studio.
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