The Year(+) of Halo – Part 5: To Infinite and Beyond

At last, we’re on the doorstep.

Surely now – a year on from its original planned release date – we are nearly in the presence of Halo Infinite‘s story campaign. The wheels are set in motion for a committed launch, and though the game’s release will be aping all manner of giant hulking spacecraft in Halo lore by crash-landing without some of its parts, at least it won’t be on fire. You know, metaphorically speaking. We can hope. I’ve been playing a lot of the game’s multiplayer “beta” that’s basically just final release code, and it’s fantastic, so that’s promising at least.

As you may recall if you perused any of this site’s 2020 output, I spent a decent chunk of free time last year playing through and writing about the PC ports of the Halo campaigns – most of them in co-op while weaving through connection errors, bugs and other technical hurdles – in an effort to get ready for an otherwise-intimidating leap of faith into a dense, lore-soaked story spanning (officially as of last month) decades – plural. As you may realise if you perused any of this site’s 2021 output thus far, I haven’t been spending a whole lot of free time this year doing any of those things.

On one hand, a break from the series was just what the doctor ordered; on the other, it kinda seems like the whole ordeal (and make no mistake, it did feel like an ordeal at points) isn’t really worth much if it isn’t finished. But at the time of writing, there isn’t much time left in the year; there has been a pretty constant stream of new things to play and watch throughout 2021 and almost nothing about Halo Infinite‘s launch has seemed set in stone until quite recently. So to finish this lengthy project, I’ve taken inspiration form – stay with me – the Kingdom Hearts series.

Yep, for all intents and purposes I’m packaging the three remaining Halo campaigns as if they were a twisted sci-fi gun-spraying version of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMIX or Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX, and the mental gymnastics required to get us to that comparison are surprisingly light. Both collections repackage three older games using the same formula: one headlining main-series title, one title with “spin-off” vibes (though this is no indication of lesser polish or quality) and one lesser-regarded title presented only as a collection of cutscenes. Spot the incredibly neat coincidence yet?

Basically, I set out to play the Halo 4 campaign to completion on my own time by myself, allowing the “spin-off” Halo 3: ODST to be a co-op side project as time and schedules permitted – with no pressure to finish the game because that’s the only Halo campaign I’d already seen through entirely long before this project began. That leaves Halo 5 as the stubborn outsider that I decided was best left experienced via cutscenes and/or story summaries on YouTube, for reasons including but not limited to:

  • It’s the only Halo game that still hasn’t come to the PC, and there’s still no sign of it doing so;
  • Though I loved Halo 5‘s multiplayer enough to lift it firmly into my top five games the year it came out (and that was a very competitive year), the campaign is almost universally panned as being short, repetitive and unsatisfying;
  • Perhaps more than any other Halo campaign, Halo 5‘s is designed around four player co-op, and there’s no way I can be bothered going through the hassle to get a fully-stacked willing team together given the above factors.

So that’s the setup. Got it memorised?

Halo 3: ODST

What a game! No sooner had I booted up the opening mission with my long-suffering Halo co-op mate Toby than I was hit with a wave of 2009 nostalgia I hadn’t yet experienced on this long PC campaign journey. This was one of my very first tastes of dark, moody Triple-A HD gaming back in the day, and the polished visual contrast between shadowy night-time city streets and funky alien weaponry is preserved superbly in ultrawide aspect ratio today. But the game’s art is certainly not the main reason why this campaign such a stellar reputation within the series.

The flow of the story is structured like no other Halo, placing the player in the considerably less-durable skin of a regular (highly-trained) human Orbital Drop Shock Trooper known only as “The Rookie” over a truly rough 12 hour period following the devastating slipspace jump right in the middle of Halo 2 (yay for understanding the opening scene properly after all these years). Upon waking from a bad concussion, he must hunt down clues under the cover of darkness as to what happened to his squadmates earlier in the day, all while much stronger alien beings stalk the roads. The night sections are shockingly open for a Halo campaign, while the flashback daytime POV missions provide your more traditional bombastic linearity.

I know it’s been a while since I started playing through the overarching Halo plot on PC, but it’s still an incredible breath of icy-fresh air to have such a break from the traditional level design scaffolding. The wide city plazas, courtyards and balconies of New Mombasa invite a bit of exploration to find audio logs and the like, but the 3D map UI and waypoint system (both hugely improved from previous Halo games) prevent any real sense of disorientation, allowing the intrigue of the atmosphere to take hold without feeling overbearing. The manual health pack pickups and colour-coded edge-lighting of the ODST-exclusive visor toggle complete the feeling that while you may be squishy, you’re armed to the teeth with cool tech to take on the Covenant.

More than any other game in the series, ODST‘s campaign felt like a breeze to play in 2021. The Pulp Fiction flashback structure and lack of pressure for individual levels to outstay their welcome is still fantastic 12 years on, there’s a goofy sense of humour and comradery on display that can be hard to find in other Halo stories (helped by the debut of Nathan Fillion’s fan-favourite side character Buck), and the two exclusive weapons to this game – the mob-shredding silenced SMG and the deliberately overpowered throwback Auto-Mag pistol – are a dream to use in tandem. It wasn’t long before I was ducking around cover, popping grunts and far deadlier enemies alike from afar with the momentum and flow of the old Firefight days. I’m glad I got the chance to fit this one in, if only to hear that wonderful stripped-back piano score from Marty O’Donnell / Michael Salvatori again.

Halo 4

I don’t have a big history or throwback tale around this one; I only remember the big fuss around its status as the first Halo game developed by current handlers 343 Industries, rather than original team (and current Destiny masters) Bungie. I also remember the game looking absolutely stunning in trailers thanks to just about every optimisation sleight of hand trick in the Xbox 360 handbook; that’s about it. On PC that strong visual reputation not only holds true, but Halo 4‘s campaign is now my favourite one starring Master Chief – and by some margin.

From the opening second, Halo 4 kicks into gear with purpose and momentum like few first person shooter campaigns I’ve ever played. As already-strained sentient AI Cortana awakens twice as old as she was in Halo 3 – which is apparently a hugely significant and ominous detail – she kicks our main man out of his long and icy slumber thanks to the rude appearance of a Covenant scouting party onboard their cosy half-ship floating lazily through space. From there it frequently feels like you’re stepping (sometimes barrelling) into pure concept art, as you feast your eyes on one breathtaking vista after another.

But Halo 4 does not waste that intimate intro: For the rest of the game Jen Taylor and Steve Downes proceed to act – and interact – more than they have in any previous game in the series. As the decaying AI Cortana and the broken-in career super-soldier Master Chief respectively, the two begin to dig into the strange co-dependence between these two iconic characters on a level usually reserved for the series’ bountiful spring of supplemental novels and associated lore. It’s shockingly effective at adding heart (alongside many, many psychological questions) to the narrative, especially after playing all the other main Halo campaigns so close together.

Taylor naturally does most of the heavy lifting, conveying an increasingly-painful burden that is thoroughly fantastical but eminently believable – and almost entirely through audio during the run-and-gun gameplay. She is assisted by a bombastic – if slightly inconsistent – score from brave Marty O’Donnell successor Neil Davidge, the highlight of which is a powerful orchestral finale that swells with strained urgency as Cortana’s “rampancy” shatters her personality and ultimately shoots her consciousness into oblivion. Doing so does dispatch the game’s primary villain, the Didact, who I must say I found far more interesting than either of the Prophets in the previous games.

On that note, the orange-streaked Promethean enemies he leads are an absolute joy to fight. Each one requires its own conscious approach to defeat, and some even implement symbiotic relationships with one another that make breaking such partnerships a massive priority in each engaging encounter. The Promethean weapons are also positively delicious to fire, and even their reloading animations are cool; any FPS weapon that disassembles and/or transforms in your hands is a win in my book.

But it isn’t just art, story pace and weapons that Halo 4 nails – there are also some doozies in the memorable vehicle level department. Though I struggled at multiple points in the desert canyon level, the idea of returning to a gigantic mobile base on wheels to restock is a winner; then there’s the two instances of power-tripping armoured mech shenanigans, and the penultimate approach onboard a starfighter as you weave through half-closing doors and energy turrets that look like the Eye of Sauron from head-on. Great stuff.

I’m honestly quite stunned at just how much I enjoyed Halo 4‘s campaign – its mistuned multiplayer and very late Xbox 360-era release timing ensured it didn’t stick around long enough in the series’ conversations to make much of an impression back in 2012. Of course that only meant I went into my video-only consumption of its sequel with newfound trepidation…

Halo 5

It’s weird talking about the most recent mainline Halo story after watching a bunch of YouTube clips; but hey, it’s also weird the game still isn’t on PC.

I absolutely love Halo 5, and I have since the day it launched six whole years ago. But, as I’ve touched on a few times in this series, I was a multiplayer-only Halo guy for most of my life – and Halo 5‘s multiplayer was a blast to play in 2015. I’m not sure I could go back to it now that Infinite plays so well without all the superfluous mega-scale tactical elements 5 introduced, but I still remember the game fondly. I even played a couple of the game’s campaign levels in four-player co-op for a brief hour or so that year; I remember thinking it was so great that there were eight different playable characters each packing a different starting weapon set and visor design.

Now that I’ve experienced the story beyond that opening hour, however, I think I understand the widespread disappointment.

I watched easily a dozen different summary videos: some focusing just on 5, some inclusive of all the games, and some spanning much more of the series’ rich side content. I also threw in some individual pivotal cutscenes from the game itself for a slight anchor effect. After taking in so many interpretations with recurring complaints, I can conclude that Halo 5’s poor campaign reputation is likely due to a few significant failings:

  • The game hits the ground running expecting players to be familiar with the story of the Spartan Ops co-op missions from Halo 4 – and arguably to have watched the Halo: Nightfall series if they want any proper introduction to co-protagonist Spartan Jameson Locke;
  • The same can be said for the other members of Master Chief’s Blue Team co-op squad – all of which come from older Halo novels and comics. Cool touch for longtime fans, sure, but hardly helpful for new ones;
  • The story builds up a major villain only to kill him in a cutscene – which is hardly new for this series – but then also has you fight the same boss three times throughout the story with slight differences each time (only to properly off him in a cutscene too) – not exactly a win for variety;
  • There’s also an entire gameplay sequence where you just have to walk around a settlement talking to people (I remember playing that part), which combined with the above paints the picture of a game mighty confused about how to tell its story;
  • Buck is still cool, and the game mechanics of Halo 5 are crunchy, but a main-series Halo campaign where you only play as the Master Chief for less than half the time is always going to rub fans the wrong way.

I still get the feeling that if I had been on the campaign train with a full four-player squad when this game came out, I would’ve ended up defending it; the game’s just that much fun to play. But it wouldn’t have been my favourite Halo story by any stretch.

To continue the Star Wars comparisons that seem inevitable throughout this series, Halo 5 has an Empire Strikes Back ambition to it that leaves humanity in a distinctly scary position by the end. As plenty of filmmakers have discovered in recent years, it’s really difficult to execute a story that ends this way. At the very least, casting a reborn Cortana as the new Big Bad of the series is a magnetic concept that casts her absence from all of Infinite‘s trailers in an excitingly mysterious light – especially given the ominous ending of Halo Wars 2, which also happens to introduce the new game’s headlining villain. Hopefully it won’t be required playing to understand Infinite.

And on that note, Cortana really is the Chris Redfield of Halo. She looks wildly different from game to game and I have to wonder if it’s an in-joke at 343 by now.

So what have I learned now that I can consider myself “up to date” on the Halo campaigns for the first time in my life, just in time for the series’ 20th anniversary?

Well, it’s now clearer to me than ever that Halo was never immune to the challenges of being a trailblazing franchise with staying power: They all eventually go through crises of identity as they pass through different creative hands while the industry changes around them.

But while it may be easy to say Halo is always at its worst when it chases trends rather than trying to set them – and to line that up with 343 Industries’ time in charge – Halo 4‘s campaign (and Infinite‘s multiplayer, while we’re at it) suggest that argument doesn’t quite hold water. If anything, playing all the Halo campaigns in 2020/21 has shown me the series has always had its inconsistencies; I’ll play The Library from Halo: Combat Evolved again in a heartbeat, for example, but I can live without most of the other levels.

As I finish writing this, we are mere days away from Infinite’s full campaign launch. Let’s just say the structure of the single-player adventure looks to be taking its own creative risks, and I doubt it will please every Halo fan. But for the first time in my life, I am properly, gleefully excited to experience it on day 1.

Halo 3 < PREVIOUS

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by ajuric on Dec 4, 2021 at 5:05 pm

    DO IT, just DO IT! Don’t let your dreams be dreams. Yesterday, you said tomorrow. So just. DO IT! Make. your dreams. COME TRUE! Just… do it! Some people dream of success, while you’re gonna wake up and work HARD at it! NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE!You should get to the point where anyone else would quit, and you’re not gonna stop there. NO! What are you waiting for? … DO IT! Just… DO IT! Yes you can! Just do it! If you’re tired of starting over, stop. giving. up.

    #ThePeopleWantALiveStream

    Reply

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