Picture it: It’s November, 2001. The country is still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought everything to a screeching halt. On weekends, you watch Nickelodeon cartoons instead of doing your math homework, and to try and forget about what “war” is and why everybody keeps talking about it. You think strutting around school with your Walkman and headphones makes you look cool. You love playing Super Smash Brothers on N64 with your buddies after school. Life is good.
This may not be a perfect recreation of what the scene was like when Bungie’s landmark shooter Halo burst onto the scene with Xbox in 2001, but pretty close. In truth, it was my brother that was more hyped about the coming Xbox than I was, though I was still eager to get my hands on the controller as soon as I could get a turn. That Christmas we opened our presents and found a shiny new Xbox among the gifts, complete with a copy of Halo, in all its shrink wrapped glory.
I talk a lot about how Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us was the game that jump started my academic career around video game storytelling, but the truth is, my interest was first piqued more than 20 years ago when I played Halo for the first time. I’m no stranger to shooters and I certainly wasn’t at the tender age of 13. I’d spent many hours in front of my N64 playing GoldenEye with the neighbors, or any of the various monster and zombie shooters in the arcade at our local skating rink. But all those games lacked something that, while fun to play with friends, made them mostly forgettable to me. And that missing piece was a central story.
Halo completely captivated my teenaged imagination. Yes, I was still doing a shooty shooty against the big bad guys, but now I knew why I was doing it. There was context for the violence, urgency, a mission that needed completing. We were in the middle of a war, with clear aggressors, the fanatical religious alien collective known as the Covenant, against the sorely outnumbered, outgunned human alliance under the banner of the United Nations Space Command (UNSC). The characters were interesting, if a little flat. The vistas were varied and interesting, if a little graphically underwhelming. And then, of course, there was the music, which would stick with me for the next two decades and leave me awash in nostalgia, even to this day.
Halo is one of those games, hell, one of those franchises that most gamers can think back on with fondness for the early aughts and a childhood with your best friends, a bunch of Xboxes crammed into a room with as many TVs, several boxes of pizza, and a weekend of all nighters on LAN. It was the foundation upon which the modern day military shooter would build to what it is today. The Call of Duty fanboys can cry and moan all they want, but their beloved little shooter wouldn’t exist in its present form without the work Halo did to legitimize the competitive shooter space.
So what happened? Unfortunately, there isn’t really a short or easy answer to that question.
In 2010, developer Bungie released their final original installment in the franchise, Halo: Reach. From there, they sold the creative rights of Halo to Microsoft and went on to develop the Destiny franchise (which still feels a lot like Halo in basically every way story-wise, but I digress). Microsoft developed its own in-house team called 343 Industries, or 343 for short, which was tasked with exclusively creating further Halo games. And that is where many would say the horrors began.
343 has since developed and released 3 original titles, and re-released remastered favorites like Halo 1 and 2, respectively. They’ve also compiled the original trilogy, as well as Reach, ODST, and Halo 4 into a bundle called The Master Chief Collection, which also includes tons of multiplayer content and firefight modes to keep the nostalgia churning. But their 3 original titles, Halo 4, Halo 5: Guardians, and Halo Infinite is what has garnered the most criticism, both for their departure from core aspects of the world’s lore (such as ret-conning key elements surrounding the fall of the planet Reach, for example), and “out of character” personality traits that the Master Chief had suddenly developed.
In Halo 5: Guardians for example, Chief suddenly decides to go AWOL after hearing Cortana’s voice in his head, long after the AI had seemingly sacrificed herself following the events of the fourth game. It doesn’t fit for a character that, until that point, in countless books, games, animated shorts, comics, etc, had been the beacon of what it means to be “the perfect soldier.” 343 failed to plant any sort of meaningful character evolution or change that would make Chief’s decision to forego all of his military training and instincts on a hallucination in any way believable. And don’t even get me started on how the game was marketed, leading everyone to believe this was another story in the Chief’s saga, only to realize upon playing the game that the Chief is only playable through maybe a quarter of the game’s 12 hour campaign.
But it’s been the fallout from Halo Infinite that has finally driven the community into a rabid state that even I don’t want to mess with. The campaign itself was actually fine; the story was interesting if a little convoluted, and the open world direction this time around was actually a cool departure. The setting is gorgeous to boot, so credit where credit is due. The issue has been almost exclusively around the multiplayer element of the game, and 343’s complete ineptitude in responding to and acting on the community’s concerns. A brief scroll through “Halo Twitter” is all you’d need to get a cursory understanding of the frustration that plagues the community surrounding the game, and 343’s seeming inability to actually correct anything.
Probably the most glaring issue is surrounding playability on the game’s servers. It’s completely hit or miss whether you will have lightning fast reaction time and immediate effect when firing your weapon, or if you’ll empty a clip into the enemy and see no damage taken, only to be one-shot killed after seemingly being hit once. In fact, the disadvantages that many players experience hinges on where they get their Internet service; digital providers like Xfinity or TimeWarner tend to suffer greater instances of lag than for users in Texas that enjoy high speed fiber optic connectivity. In the competitive scene, many pro players have called this out as a major disadvantage as they train for tournaments, or even compete in online tournaments against players in Texas. The amount of times I’ve found myself in a 1-on-1 fight I should have won is enough to make me want to pull my hair out, and plenty of times I’ve just stopped playing the game out of frustration. It isn’t helped by the fact that the game has virtually no anti-cheat to speak of, and cheaters run absolutely rampant in game, especially in higher-ranked lobbies. It’s no surprise then, that an average day on Halo Infinite sees less than 16,000 active players, just a year and a half after release.
This isn’t something that can be fixed overnight. 343 has said as much, and honestly, I believe them. They’re not monsters intentionally trying to make the game less fun. Many of them are former Bungie developers who have been working on this franchise since the beginning. Many are fans that played the game as kids and are now getting their shot being part of its development. They’re good people, constrained by the whims and greed of big shot Microsoft executives that don’t care about a quality product, or simply don’t know what it takes to create and sustain one. Halo Infinite needs a fully staffed, well paid team of developers across multiple disciplines. They need to revamp the ranking system and create a system that doesn’t punish players who get dropped from matches due to faulty servers. They need to create a full fledged anti-cheat scheme and ban players caught cheating. They need to make all armor colors and parts available across all cores. And they need to improve matchmaking so that a player on one side of the country isn’t matched with someone on the other side, which will inevitably lead to lag for one side and an unfair matchup.
The first step is a meaningful timeline for at least one of those changes. We know it can’t happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Even if it’s just to communicate a timeline and ultimate goal, it goes a long way in restoring the faith of a wavering community. And for someone like me, who desperately continues to cling on to Halo for all it has been for me over the years, a little goes a long way.