Once a genre-defining gaming superpower, the Halo series feels like it has been treading water in recent years… should Microsoft let its flagship franchise die with dignity rather than trying to force it to remain relevant?
All good things must come to an end, and boy, has Halo had a good run. Bungie came out swinging with the genre-defining Combat Evolved as an Xbox launch title, a huge leap forward for console shooters and the beginning of something genuinely special. The years that followed would see sequels take the franchise from strength to strength, with the second and third games standing as the online shooters to beat on console, and the poster games for Xbox Live as a service. But shortly after the launch of Halo 3 in late 2007, news broke that would change the path of the franchise massively — Bungie split from then-parent company Microsoft to become an independent studio, although it would still turn in another pair of great Halo titles (Reach and ODST) as part of its publishing deal with Microsoft, which itself was in the process of setting up the new House Of Halo, 343 Industries.
Is it time for Microsoft to pull the plug on Halo?
It’s important to emphasise at this point that I don’t want this to come across as a 343 hit piece, but it’s surely fair to say that Halo hasn’t been the same since Bungie stepped away from the franchise to pursue its own Destiny. Again, that’s not intended as a slight against the modern Halo team, merely an observation that sometimes, the developer is the game — would anyone really want a Burnout game without Criterion behind the wheel, Metal Gear sans Kojima, or a new XCOM from a studio other than Firaxis, for example? I’ve heard Halo described as ‘created by Bungie and maintained by 343,’ and that speaks volumes. Under Bungie, innovation and creativity were what helped Halo become the household name it became; under 343, we just haven’t seen that same kind of spark, and it’s pretty telling that the best thing the team has put out to date is a celebration of former glories in The Master Chief Collection, mostly retreads of the Bungie-era classics, and even that was a state at launch.
From its inception, 343 was put in an extremely difficult position, charged with taking the reins of a series created by a different team and living up to the legacy of the premier Xbox franchise. While the studio was created for that very purpose, it’s still a Herculean task, perhaps even Sisyphean, and you have to wonder whether any team would have been capable of maintaining Halo’s upwards trajectory in such a situation, or perhaps whether it wasn’t even about the developer behind the series but more the state of the game itself or the market around it. Bungie had refined Halo’s mechanics and loop to perfection over the course of its five-game tenure, leaving the new devs with little on which to further iterate without taking risks and fiddling with elements that were established and successful. Meanwhile, the very same year that 343 was founded saw Call of Duty cement itself as the new undisputed FPS king with the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, with Activision’s brand dominating the shooter space in the years that followed until the scene would once again be shaken to its core by the battle royale uprising led by the likes of Fortnite and PUBG. And the more the market and player tastes changed, the more Halo stayed the same… at least until a couple of years ago.
December 2021 saw the much-delayed launch of Halo Infinite, originally planned as an Xbox Series X|S launch title but missing its Pelican by over a year and still releasing incomplete, with multiple series staple features absent. Infinite’s ambitious dual-prong approach split the game into its main campaign component and a free-to-play multiplayer suite, with even this basic structure causing issues from the get-go. Halo games had long had a reputation for being feature-rich packages loaded with modes and options, but spinning out multiplayer into its own F2P product would see the main game’s $60 price tag only getting you a relatively short, single-player-only campaign missing mission replay functionality… pretty steep, even with the promise of added features and content down the line. Fighting on two fronts like this would also pull resources away from each side of the game, with ongoing work to improve the multiplayer experience meaning delays for features like Forge and campaign co-op, while base game improvements and additions led to a very slow drip feed of new content for multiplayer and excruciatingly long seasons.
Don’t get me wrong — I actually really like Infinite, and said as much in my Halo Infinite review back when it launched, but it has always felt like a case of 343 biting off more than it could chew. Global situations slowing the world to a halt during its development won’t have helped, of course, but even under ideal conditions, it’s hard to see how things could have gone a whole lot better. The free-to-play space is fiercely contested, and you need only look at our weekly Xbox Gameplay Chart to see that, with six of the games in the top ten this week being F2P titles, and they’re all playable on more platforms than Infinite. That’s one of the biggest draws of free games — you can play with friends across a bunch of systems and they don’t even need to drop any cash to get involved, so getting them to try something out becomes much easier. Infinite’s smaller user base across just Xbox consoles and PC (and Cloud, but you probably don’t want to be using a streaming service for competitive multiplayer shooters) already puts it on the back foot compared to the market’s leading names, especially considering Steam numbers from a while back that showed Infinite falling off completely there. Just look at how many free games struggle to make it past their first year and you’ll see how cutthroat a space this is, even for big names — MultiVersus sits well outside the top 100 in this week’s chart data despite its cast of beloved, world-famous characters, while Konami’s successor to revered football franchise PES couldn’t even put one past FIFA after being made completely free.
Our chart data also shows how far Infinite has fallen in recent months, with this week’s numbers being almost 90% down on the game’s peak in launch week despite season 3 only having kicked off recently. On paper, seeing something massive like Fortnite ‘only’ having triple Infinite’s player count in the last week seems impressive, until you realise that the Infinite numbers cover everything bar the Steam version, while Fortnite’s count is purely Xbox, with millions more players on other platforms. This shows just how much work 343 still has left to do if it wants to compete in the F2P top flight, and after such a shaky first 18-odd months, you genuinely have to wonder if it can even realistically get there at this point. The foundational gameplay is great, but the tempo of new content still needs to improve vastly in order to get players to stick around, and as mentioned, the team still can’t fully commit to the live service aspect of the game while some are still busy making changes, improvements, and additions to other aspects of Infinite.
But there are problems on the other side of Infinite as well, and it’s these more than anything else that lead us to question whether Halo as we know it might have outstayed its welcome. Earlier, I lamented 343’s lack of innovation with Halo, and while Infinite definitely did buck that trend and change things up to a degree, it could also be seen as evidence that tampering with the tried-and-tested Halo formula only makes for a worse experience. Previous 343 games had made some relatively minor changes, often with some pushback even then, but Infinite took things a step further by altering the campaign format to set it in a fair-sized open world map. This reworked format added little in all truth, and arguably even detracted, leading to story missions not being replayable since some portions of the map couldn’t be accessed once the level was done. It just feels as though every time something is tweaked or changed, it actively makes things worse, like Halo had already been effectively iterated to be pretty much as good as it could get. And if there aren’t any tangible ways for it to improve, keeping the series going will only serve to frustrate players with repeated failed attempts to reinvent the wheel, or wear them down with game after game that just feels like going through the motions while the wider industry moves on around them. And we’re already seeing that start to happen.
Forging a fresh future
In multiple aspects where Halo was once a front-runner in its field, advancements elsewhere are seeing the series made to look more and more outdated. VR tech is allowing games like Half-Life: Alyx and Horizon: Call of the Mountain to take first-person experiences to new heights, for instance, while even Infinite’s belated addition of its (admittedly excellent) Forge mode, which has helped give the game a second wind via user-generated content (UGC), could now be in jeopardy. Epic recently unveiled its new Unreal Editor tools for Fortnite, offering creators a much richer tool set with which to create content that will reach a much wider audience than Forge, and even with “engagement payouts” letting folks who create popular content earn from the wonderful things they build for others to enjoy. As a result, we’ve already started seeing some big Forge creators state their intent to move across to Fortnite, and with UGC being a big driver in keeping Infinite alive via new Forge content between official drops, this has the potential to seriously damage the long-term life of the game.
Where it once led, Halo now follows, and the series seems reluctant to make the kinds of big plays that would be needed for it to recapture the relevance and respect it had in its heyday. Just look at how other long-running franchises have evolved, some almost beyond recognition. Sony’s angry man simulator God of War has matured in tone and design massively in recent years; Resident Evil has been through multiple major metamorphoses in the last few decades; Final Fantasy, once the foremost turn-based RPG around, is now basically an action franchise after a series of games pushing it ever closer to what it has become. Halo, meanwhile, is… well, it’s still Halo, only now you have a little grappling hook and have to walk between missions. Yes, that’s rather reductive, but the fact remains that it hasn’t seen nearly the major evolutions of some of its peers. And sure, the games were already in a great place to begin with, but it’s not as if that isn’t also true of all of the examples mentioned above.
Evolve or die
This is why I think that Halo — in its current form, at least — has got to go. The longer the series goes on like this, the more it sinks into the shadow of the early games and how important and influential those were, feeling less and less relevant each time it goes back to the well… and no, a small open-world hub between missions with a bit of Ubisoft-style busywork scattered around isn’t the kind of evolution that is going to change that. We already have examples of what kind of form that could take, one of which comes from the franchise’s founding fathers. Destiny might not be to every Halo fan’s tastes with its RPG elements and grind-heavy progression, but play through the new Lightfall Legend campaign and you’ll find some amazing encounters that feel like peak Halo, balancing world-class gunplay with inter-faction combat to produce memorable moments. However you feel about Destiny, it is an evolution of Halo, and this has allowed it to produces the same kinds of unforgettable gaming experiences that Halo did in its prime. Delving into the six-player combat puzzle Raids with a bunch of friends and emerging with some top-tier gear after besting the very worst the game can throw at you, especially for the first time, is an amazing feeling, but format stagnation just means Halo will struggle more to create similarly satisfying moments the longer it plays things so safe. I’m not saying Halo should be more like Destiny, not at all — this is but one example of adapting the basics of the game to help it feel fresh and modern, and there must be many, many more possibilities out there.
Maybe you look to keep Infinite’s multiplayer alive for the long term, with a full team going all-in on giving competitive fans reasons to keep coming back to the online scene while another team is freed up to take the core games to more interesting places where solo and co-op players can experience Halo in new ways. Perhaps you lean more heavily into other media to delve deeper into the well-established universe, allowing the games to venture even further afield in what they present. Or is the proposed nuclear option the best and most respectful way to go, letting a gaming legend rest after all its undeniably valued service rather than constantly trying to make it a thing years after it had anything truly meaningful to contribute outside of fresh narrative beats for lore fans? I don’t know what the answer is, nor what the future of the franchise looks like, but it feels like it will take quite the play for Halo to once again reach those historical high points, so might it not be better to just let it die with dignity?
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of the Halo franchise? What kinds of changes would you like to see, or would you be happy with just more of what we’ve come to expect from the series? Let us know down in the comments!
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