Doesn't time fly?! A whole year has passed since 343 Industries released their first full Halo game, even longer since they assumed control of the series from its original creators, Bungie. To mark the occasion the old crew assembled last night, headed over to the Halo 4 servers for an extended session, and now, in the cold light of day, it's time to take stock of where we are.
Now I should first start by saying that Halo is my favourite gaming franchise ever. I've been on board since the very beginning. I was there for the twists and turns on the first Halo ring. I still remember the moment when a standard alien shooter transcended into something so much more with the introduction of the Flood in that level. I remember meeting the ODSTs and wearing the skin of the Arbiter in Halo 2. I obsessed over the multiplayer in Halo 3 (but still sucked), and replayed the campaign half a dozen times. Halo 3: ODST provided a nice distraction, much in the same way that Halo Wars had before it. Halo: Reach was where it all came together for me, at least from a multiplayer perspective. I actually started getting good at the game.
With that kind of experience under my belt, I'm exactly the kind of person that 343 Industries was pitching their take on Halo to. I've played Halo 4 quite a bit, but not as obsessively as I have previous iterations. I enjoyed the campaign, almost as much as previous entries. I think 343 did a good job, all things considered, and even if they never quite reached the high standards set by Bungie, their first effort at making a full Halo game isn't to be sniffed at. So then... if the campaign was good, the multiplayer enjoyable and the overall standard of the package decent, what went so wrong?
When I say "what went so wrong?" I'm referring to a mixture of the critical consensus (Metacritic has Halo: Combat Evolved at 97, Halo 2 at 95, Halo 3 at 94, Halo: Reach at 91 and Halo 4 at 87 - 4 was the only game in the main series to dip under the 90 mark), and the stats showing the online population still playing the game. This excellent post by FyreWulff on NeoGaf called Halo 4, One Year Later: What Happened? is well worth a read if you have any interest in the matter, but here I'll just look at the basic information that is covered in that post.
The most eye-catching set of figures that are posted tells us that roughly one year after the launch of Halo 3, it still attracted a peak of 1.1 million players per day. Halo: Reach, in the same timeframe, had 900,000 players on their servers. Whereas Halo 4, the first game in the canon that wasn't crafted by Bungie, struggles to maintain 20,000 players one year after its release. Another interesting factoid is that Halo 4 lasted two months in top three of the Xbox Live activity chart. Halo 3 managed to stay there until the launch of Halo: Reach (that's for three whole years), which itself remained in the top three until 343's first title update following the changeover of control.
One of the main culprits identified in the aforementioned post as contributing to the downfall of Master Chief and Halo 4, is Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. I'm going to further that suggestion by saying that this is true on two different fronts, and that it also underlines a much broader problem being faced by the Halo series.
Firstly, all shooters are getting better. Whether we're talking about Call of Duty or Battlefield, or any of the PS- or PC-exclusives, the bar has been raised and it's clear that Halo is struggling to raise its game in response. Halo 2 and later Halo 3 were, for a time, the pinnacle of the shooter genre. I'm not sure that can be said for any of the subsequent titles (even Reach, which was also dear to my heart - the reason why we'll get to later). Going back to Black Ops 2, it's obvious from the stats that the release of Activision's bombastic military shooter cut deep into Halo 4's user base. I saw many of my own friends leave Halo and head over to Black Ops 2, a microcosm of migration that accurately depicted what was happening on a global scale. The other reason that Black Ops 2 was able to wrestle so many away from Halo 4 was down to identity and influence.
Call of Halo
One of the things that drew in hundreds of thousands of gamers to the Halo servers was the unique identity of the series. In Call of Duty it was quick deaths and quick restarts. In Battlefield it was down to team-focussed combat and destructible environments. With Halo it was a dance between foes while wearing the metal skin of a genetically-modified superhero. Every online game started the same; two teams poised to scrap it out over an oh so familiar map. Each player took two things into battle with them; a standard weapon load-out, and their own skill. There were no perks, there were no advantages. You knew if you killed some player in a head to head battle it was because you were better than them in that moment. You had the better aim. You used the environment better. Your team secured the prize weapons first. Whatever the reason, each kill was a small victory, a celebration. For less skilled players, it meant that even kill/death spreads with negative numbers still contained several moments of joy. Even failure was littered with little successes.
I'd argue that the decline I'm talking about started before Halo 4. The armour lock and jetpacks of Halo: Reach were, for me at least, the beginning of the decline of the series. Even if armour lock was stripped out at a later date, the damage had been done. Purists and diehards had already began to walk away, disgusted that their game had been turned into something else. Many of those early Halo 4 adopters, the ones that left as soon as Black Ops 2 launched, were fans checking back in with the series to see if it was a return to form, or a continuation of the path started down by Bungie with Reach. What they discovered was their worst fears confirmed, not only had Halo 4 continued down that same path, but that 343 had embraced the change of direction wholeheartedly. The Halo brand was further bastardised, more and more ideas pinched from other franchises to supplement the ideas that were quintessentially Halo. The only problem was that this created a game that didn't do Halo as well as other Halo games, but equally didn't do Call of Duty as well Infinity Ward or Treyarch did Call of Duty.
One example of how this change manifested itself was in the way that players interacted with the maps. In Halo 3 the power-ups were static and on a timer. Getting to the overshield or the active-camo first was a boon for you and your team (you got the ability, your opponents couldn't use them to hurt your teammates). The introduction of armour abilities robbed the maps of personality. When you take your wildcard into battle with you there is less impetus placed on the battle for position on the maps. It became more about holding the higher ground, with team movement and timing ending up less important. Where before players would swing through tunnels at certain points hoping to be the first to grab the overshield, now it was more about holding the high ground. The back and forth between two teams slowly started ebbing away.
These are nuanced differences. Things you might not necessarily spot straight away. Nevertheless we find ourselves in a position whereby players are no longer flocking to Master Chief and his new custodians. It's not all 343's fault. The Halo formula was diluted before they took charge of the franchise, that much is clear to me. However, they're in charge of the series now, and its longterm health rests on the success of Halo 5, and on whether they've learned from their experiences in creating games for a demanding and passionate community.
The State of the Game
The hours I spent last night playing the game left me optimistic that 343 can turn it around. Halo 4 is a good game (here's our review for more in-depth analysis). The campaign is decent, with new enemies on board to freshen things up, and new weapons that look and feel fantastic and definitely add something new to mix. While I wasn't super keen on the way they added QTEs to the formula, they're just about bearable. There's a lengthy co-op campaign (which I must admit I've yet to complete), and the PvP multiplayer - which initially looked like it a genuine return to form - has all the playlists you'd expect to see. It's a well-rounded package.
While I was waiting for my friends to join me, I booted up the campaign. For some reason, my stats have been changed since last time I checked them. According to the numbers pulled from Waypoint, I have only completed three of the eight campaign missions, and those on normal. I distinctly remember rage quitting halfway through mission five on legendary, a lack of ammo and brutally hard enemies persuading me to tackle the rest of the game on heroic. Something's broken there, and I know others who's stats don't tally with their efforts in the game.
When my friends eventually turned up, it's no surprise that we immediately got stuck into the Swat playlist. There's still no sign of the "dancing" from Halos of old, a well placed headshot ends all encounters, but it's still the purist way of playing the game since baubles like holograms and invisibility were hung on the Halo tree. In Swat it's all about you and your gun. There's nowhere to hide and I like it that way.
Some of my online companions aren't as enamored with that particular playlist. So we drifted between Big Team and Team Slayer, and briefly visited the Rumble Pit so we could shoot each other instead of working together. The numbers are pretty low on many of the playlists, which makes getting a game on some of them a bit of a labour. Another complaint is that the newest maps - that came in the Castle, Crimson and Majestic map packs - don't appear in the rotation as much as perhaps I'd like. Even when they do, far too often the vote falls on well-trodden arenas like Complex and Haven. There's a nice selection of different environments out there now, but if they're not on the rotation then what's the point?
Another gripe is the recent paid-for DLC that came in the form of the Bullseye Pack (released in August). It wasn't particularly expensive, and included Pitfall (a remake of one of my all-time favourite maps from Halo 3) and Vertigo, but I found it particularly annoying that I had to pay again after splashing out for the War Games Map Pass. Whether or not it was included in the small print is irrelevant, the fact is that community is dwindling rapidly and 343 would be better off looking after their dedicated fans rather than irritating them. Why are those of us who paid extra to get all the content now being asked to put our hands in our pockets before a full year has gone by? Perhaps I wouldn't have minded if I'd got to play it, but once again it didn't even appear on a single rotation. It feels like a waste of money.
This sounds like a very negative article. I should stress that for four hours last night, and for many more before, I've enjoyed playing Halo 4. I'm hoping that 343 can finally step out of the shadow cast by Halo 4 and Halo: Reach when they release Halo 5 (likely next year). I hope they can rub some more Halo flavour into the mix, and bring back some of what makes the series so incredible and so unique. I hope that this time they're looking within instead of at the competition. Let Call of Duty and co do things their way, and let Halo be Halo. Last year's release, despite being accomplished, was like a very good forgery, aping the traditions of its forebears and pinching the choice ideas pioneered by the competition. If Halo is going to continue to thrive, perhaps even dominate once again, the next game needs to be a work of art in its own right.