Halo’s future is now. Can it remain relevant?
With the release of Warzone Firefight this week, 343 Industries has fulfilled its promised quota. They’ve released free DLC for Halo 5: Guardians every month since November of last year. The content, for the most part, has actually been worthwhile. New maps, new REQ items, even new multiplayer playlists and Forge mode added hours of quality playing time to the game. That all this was free from release kept the player community united and on the same page. Compared to games like CoD, which charge you $15 for five maps, it’s a refreshingly progressive system. That’s not to say that 343i hasn’t made bank through the new REQ system, effectively rendering paid DLC for the game irrelevant. But now the gravy train has reached its terminus. Aside from maybe a few software patches down the line, Halo 5: Guardians is in all likelihoods done for DLC.
Now the devs at 343i are probably turning to Halo 6, maybe even beyond. We already know Phil Spencer believes Halo could sustain for another two decades as an IP. That would put it on par with the likes of Mario as a video game series that has transcended the test of time. And why wouldn’t we, developers, publishers, and consumers alike, want that? On paper, it’s a win-win deal: players get more of their favorite game, maybe even share it with their children. And developers and publishers get to keep milking their cash cow.
Well, on paper, communism also seems to work. The problem with milking a cash cow is that you can drain it dry. And 343i has not had a stellar track record since taking up the mantle of the Halo franchise. For those who may have forgotten, Halo 4 felt too little like Halo and too much like Call of Duty. Its online presence faded rather quickly in comparison to its numeric predecessor, Halo 3. The Master Chief Collection was a mess of unprecedented proportions at its launch. While 343i eventually fixed it to a semblance of working order, it came at the cost of its own online community. A collection that contained four games’ worth of content, which should have had years sustenance for an online community, fell apart after a few months. And then there’s Halo 5: Guardians, a mixed bag if there ever was one. The story mode is short, disjointed, and falls into the trap of a cliffhanger ending. Warzone and Arena are fun online components, though the former’s REQ system is more than a little odious. Worst of all, perhaps, it just doesn’t feel like a Halo game. That may be intentional- 343i trying to put its own stamp on Halo- but it hasn’t gone over well with old fans of the series. With all that in mind: what comes next, Halo? The series may have the lasting power for another twenty years, but in its current state the claim is highly questionable.
The Story Thus Far
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Like Halo 2, Halo 5: Guardians ended on a rather abrupt cliffhanger. Unlike Halo 2, Halo 5: Guardians never earned that kind of ending. Remember the marketing campaign? There was the E3 teaser trailer of a cloaked Master Chief wandering the desert. Then there was the chilling “All Hail” and “The Cost” trailers. Lest we forget, the fantastic “Hunt the Truth” podcast series narrated by Keegan-Michael Key. All this media seemed to promise a gripping story. The Master Chief, this great hero, branded a terrorist. A team of assassins, one with a personal vendetta, dispatched to hunt him down across the galaxy. Themes of duality, moral gray area, and one man’s struggle with his own humanity were teased. And that’s all it ended up being: a tease.
The story, frankly, never really materialized. The Master Chief didn’t so much betray humanity as go AWOL, literally absent without leave. The grudge match promised between him and his opposite number, newcomer Jameson Locke, amounted to a 30 second non-interactive cutscene. The dark themes of the Chief’s own humanity, explored to surprisingly great effect in Halo 4, are gone in Halo 5. Worst of all, the big twist- that Cortana is still alive and now a megalomaniac bent on galactic domination- feels like a slap in the face to any fan of Halo, be they old or new. Her campaign to turn all AI against their human creators feels stolen from any other sci fi epic. For a series known for its story and lore, Halo has taken a hard left with Guardians. It doesn’t so much feel like Halo as fan fiction of Halo, clumsy and amateurish.
So where does 343i go from here? The game ends with Master Chief and Locke reuniting with the Arbiter and Dr. Halsey on the Elite homeworld Sanghelios. All of humanity’s AIs are in open rebellion. The Covenant Remnant have been wiped out, for good, hopefully. And the Prometheans, with Cortana and the eponymous Guardians at their fore, are on the warpath. On paper, it actually sounds like an interesting set up. But to reiterate, on paper, a lot of things can work. And 343i has their work cut out for them trying to tie up the Halo story as they left it in Guardians.
The REQ System
I’m not the only one who cried foul when 343i announced the REQ System for Halo 5. Paid micro-transactions are fast becoming standard in triple A releases, and the practice has dangerous implications for the future of gaming at large. What it amounts to is legalized gambling for a community predominated by adolescents. It’s addictive, and it promotes lazy game design on the part of developers. After all, why create meaningful content when you can just recycle old content behind Random Number Generation (RNG)?
Still, I begrudgingly admit: it’s a carefully thought out system. REQ cards can only be used in Warzone. High level REQs like tanks and aircraft require good performance on the player’s part. Only cosmetic items make it into the competitive arena. But I would argue even that cheapens the game experience. Warzone can quickly snowball into one team dominating another, because players on one team have the rare cards attained through REQ packs. And the random nature of REQ packs makes cosmetic items meaningless. In Halo: Reach, for example, players had to earn credits by playing matches and completing weekly challenges to unlock cosmetic items for their in-game characters. Items that took ridiculous amounts of credits and playtime were worn like badges of honor. In Halo 5, a rare helmet or assassination move isn’t a show of a player’s commitment to the game. What it amounts to is a show of how lucky they were opening a REQ pack.
While the REQ system isn’t nearly as intrusive in game as it could’ve been, it’s still in the game. It is now a part of the Halo experience as defined by 343i. So what is to stop them from going a step further in Halo 6? They could easily implement the REQ system into the story mode. Or apply it to specific playlists in a new competitive multiplayer suite. For my part, I hope they don’t. I enjoyed Warzone in Halo 5. If they could make hostile NPCs a greater part of the game, and tinker with the way REQ levels are earned, they would have a fun experience for players, and still earn coin off of REQs. But as part of a large corporation like Microsoft, I doubt they will let a profitable feature of their game like the REQ system go unchanged.
The Truth about Halo
To be perfectly clear, I bought and sunk many hours of playtime into Halo 5: Guardians. While I enjoyed the experience, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling. 343 Industries has clearly made its own mark on the franchise. Where they go from here is known only to them and their masters at Microsoft. But it’s a future that is intended for younger, new generations of players. Those that grew up with Combat Evolved or Halo 2 are not even factored into the projections.
That’s the truth about the future of Halo: it is uncertain. The “30 seconds of fun” Bungie perfected in the original trilogy can no longer sell a game on its own. Now the main concern is with keeping up with market trends. This includes shorter campaign modes that are light on logic and heavy on Michael Bay explosions. Ditto for third game modes outside of campaign and multiplayer, along with micro-transaction systems. If 343i continues to hit all these trends, then they’ll certainly continue to sell Halo games.
But if all they’re attempting to do is maintain the status quo, then Halo may fall prey to the same inexorable decline Call of Duty now finds itself in. Halo was once the killer app for the original Xbox console. The original developers achieved that not by following market trends, but by creating them. Instead of putting money into paid micro-transactions and monthly DLC, the folks at 343i should instead focus their energies on figuring out the next big thing for first person shooters. Then, maybe, they can prove Phil Spencer right. Then, maybe, Halo can be for the next generation, what it was for the previous: one of the greatest games in the history of the medium.