In just a few months’ time, the greatest video game franchise of all time will be celebrating its twentieth birthday. But for Halo and the ever-iconic Master Chief, it has been anything but an easy ride since its humble beginnings in 2001. The Great Journey has had its fair share of bumps along the way, but nothing has been able to stop the stoic green juggernaut from steamrolling his way into the echelons of the great gaming halls of fame.
To commemorate 20 years of Halo in 2021, let us celebrate the past two decades of one of gaming’s most iconic and revolutionary franchises and remind ourselves exactly why the faceless, iron-clad John-117 is, in fact, the chief among all gaming heroes.
The Great Journey Begins
In November 2001, Bungie redefined the first-person shooter genre with its bold Halo: Combat Evolved, the title of which points to its main purpose and achievement in the industry. Before Halo, Bungie had only worked within Mac and Windows systems, no consoles. But after Halo: Combat Evolved was initially announced—at an Apple expo, of all things—in 1999, the game was snapped up by Microsoft, who also acquired Bungie, changing the development path and making it a launch title for Microsoft’s first console, the Xbox.
Part of this push to console also meant that Halo underwent a substantial overhaul, since before then the prototype was a mash-up of various ideas, including being an open-world, third-person shooter rather than a first-person shooter game.
By that point in 2000, console first-person shooters were somewhat of a rarity, but it was believed that with the Xbox’s innovative gamepad, a change to first-person may offer up a better level of control and more enjoyable gameplay for Halo. Of course, we now know Halo to be one of the most influential titles of the FPS genre, and it is odd to think that without this change, the franchise—and perhaps first person-shooters in general—would look a lot different now.
Halo: Combat Evolved’s development was a hodgepodge of hastily thrown together parts, changed ideas and scrapped components to fit in under the stringent and ever-shortening launch date, since Halo was promised to be Microsoft’s new killer app for their first console.
Aspects of that are clear to see in playing Combat Evolved. For example, many levels involve backtracking, reused environments, copied rooms and so on, and yet in the end, it all worked. Successful game development seems like a miracle at the best of times, but the pressure put upon Bungie and the speed required to piece together every part meant that the grand achievement of Halo was all the more impressive.
Halo released to great acclaim, with many attributing the success of the Xbox itself as being due in large part to the buzz around the game. Halo redefined what shooters could be, and its lasting legacy is the many innovations it spawned within the genre. The terms “Halo clone” and “Halo killer” became an endemic part of the industry conversation around subsequent shooter games. Whether they were borrowing from it or aiming to eclipse its legacy, Halo became the measuring stick for future first-person shooters. Its perfect gunplay, the fun variety of weapons, its vehicle range, the iconography of its characters and settings, its stoic armor-clad protagonist, its bellowing alien villains, its unforgettable soundtrack from Marty O’Donnell—every aspect of Halo worked to perfection to establish its place as one of gaming’s greatest ever, and its influence is felt still in shooters today.
Chief and the Original Trilogy
With the popularity of Master Chief, it was no surprise that Microsoft quickly put the green “Demon” to the forefront as their poster child for the Xbox and gaming division at large. As the sequel to such an incredible commercial and cultural success, Halo 2 was given every possible push to grant its continued franchise success.
With Combat Evolved being so stripped back, Bungie was determined to put everything to the mast and make Halo 2 bigger in every way. Complete overhauls of the gameplay engine were envisioned, including new ways of approaching physics and a huge build-out of the game’s universe and scope. But the Bungie team soon found itself overextended and burnt out, and once again Halo went through a frantic rush to finish line after a thorough overstuffing.
The result was still a ridiculous commercial, critical and cultural success, with Halo 2 earning great acclaim as one of the best shooters in gaming. But within Bungie’s struggle and loss of adequate time is one of the more bizarre aspects of the Halo franchise: Halo 2 does not have a complete ending and does not match up to how Halo 3 begins.
With shipment fast approaching, the game’s final act was pulled completely, meaning that rather than having Master Chief and the Arbiter reuniting on Earth to fight the Covenant and Prophets, as initially proposed, Halo 2 ends on an ambiguous cliff-hanger with Chief launching himself up to a Covenant vessel to “finish the fight,” a tag that became a popular marketing line for the trilogy’s conclusion.
When recalling Halo 2, however, it generally isn’t the campaign we remember most fondly. Combat Evolved was huge on local co-op play and local system link multiplayer play. Bungie recognized the popularity of this aspect and put a lot of time into building out Halo 2’s multiplayer functionality. Around that time in 2004, Microsoft was also pushing its online multiplayer platform, Xbox Live. The result was a perfect marriage between a platform getting to its feet and an incredible multiplayer game that surged to popularity. Halo 2’s multiplayer feature is a legacy in its own right because it helped to popularize online console gaming, which was still in its relative infancy, and laid the groundwork for how subsequent multiplayer arena shooters were based. The likes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer success owes plenty to Halo 2’s “couch-like” multiplayer play.
Halo 3 only furthered such grand legacies. By that point in 2007, Halo was a cultural sensation, so the launch of this final instalment in the trilogy was treated like a grand global event, the likes of which were rare at that point in gaming. It was also Master Chief’s first time on Microsoft’s new hardware. With the Xbox 360 proving far more popular than the original Xbox, Halo 3 was a chance for many to experience what they’d missed previously.
Marketing went into overdrive for the supposed conclusion to Master Chief’s story. All manner of tie0in campaigns were launched, including viral video ads, documentaries and live events. Halo 3 was billed as something not to be missed, and Chief more than rose to meet the demand.
Halo 3 broke records upon its release. It pushed sales of 360s way up, and it made for the biggest day in Xbox Live history, with over 1 million players in its first 20 hours. It earned all sorts of critical accolades. This was a gaming behemoth in every respect.
The ending “warthog” run to Halo 3’s final chapter is one of the most thrilling conclusions in gaming history. Chief’s story receives a perfect end that entrenches him as one of gaming’s greatest icons. What’s more, Halo 3 draws together every excellent aspect from previous instalments to make for an overall campaign that is exceptionally fun and satisfying to play, even today. Once again the multiplayer function was a standout by itself. With the new addition of Forge map creation and widely shareable community-made custom games,Halo 3’s multiplayer function is another cultural moment that lives long in the memory.
For these reasons, the rerelease of the original trilogy in the Master Chief Collection is still hugely popular and finds itself well populated on multiplayer servers. The legacy of Master Chief’s original trilogy is too great for most other gaming franchises to contend with, and its influence upon its genre is even more powerful. The original saga laid down by Bungie is still endlessly playable, and I implore anyone who hasn’t experienced its delightful fruits to go back and “finish the fight.”
343 Industries, the Reclaimer Saga and Beyond
Though Master Chief’s story was finished (at least as far as Bungie was concerned), the Halo universe still had more stories to tell. Extended-universe stories had helped build out the galaxy by detailing stories such as The Fall of Reach and John-117’s rise to being a Spartan. But in terms of game expansion, it was Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach—the last two Halo titles developed by Bungie—that pivoted to different characters and told their tragic narratives in the fight for humanity. These prequel and interstitial stories provided the coda to Bungie’s time with the Halo universe as they broke away from Microsoft to pursue new independent endeavors, which resulted in the game Destiny.
Not about to let their flagship product die, Microsoft formed 343 Industries to take direct control of the franchise and reignite Chief’s story with what they called the “Reclaimer Saga.” The goal of this saga was to dive far more deeply into the biblical lore of Halo. In fact, the extensive development of an official “Halo Bible” was made before game work began, pursuing new aspects of the galaxy’s history and the lives of the Forerunners and their fight with the Flood.
Along with Chief himself, the game was given an extensive overhaul in Halo 4 to provide a new type of overall experience that proved divisive among purists in the Halo community. Though Halo had once ruled the genre, forcing everyone else to change with it, Halo 4 seemed desperate to catch up to and imitate its competitors. With the fast action of games like Call of Duty now ruling the roost, 343 sped up nearly every aspect of Halo’s gameplay and also brought in multiplayer loadouts and kill-streak rewards to match other leading shooter titles. Halo followed in Modern Warfare’s footsteps with cinematic sequences, bland quick-time events and fast action.
This was a fairly drastic shift away from what made Halo so good in the first place. The multiplayer aspect of the sci-fi shooter was centered around strategic map and weapon control and picking your fights carefully. Now with the fast-action and kill rewards, Halo 4’s multiplayer function geared itself more toward the growing e-sports’ demands. This went even further with Halo 5, with so much of the multiplayer development catering to official competitive play and livestream action. The result for Halo 4 was a multiplayer legacy that did not last long as the online population quickly dwindled compared to its earlier counterparts.
So many aspects of Halo 4 worked magnificently. The audio was significantly beefed up, the weapon action was more visceral, the graphics were considerably more polished and character and weapon animations were glossier. But the new Promethean enemies lacked the same fun combat that the Covenant had previously, and the story was so wrapped in lore that it often became a struggle to stick with—nor did it entirely make sense, truth be told.
However, while Halo 4 can be rightly or wrongly applauded and criticized, Halo 5: Guardians was a far bigger misfire.
Guardians continued to diverge from the classic Halo formula, which is fine; games need to change with the times. But Halo 5 ended up with so much counting against it that few might still argue in favor of its changes. Prior to its release, Guardians had a huge marketing campaign building up its new secondary protagonist, Locke, and an embittered rivalry with Master Chief, who was on the run.
However, Halo 5’s story campaign was ultimately disappointing. This hyped-up rivalry and ex-communicated Chief narrative was merely a quick kerfuffle and a swift move on to an even more depressingly poor plot as the AI Cortana finally pulled the unstable heel turn and declared computer war on the galaxy for, um, reasons . . .
With a generally poor game AI, hastily cobbled together RPG elements (which add little), a new extremely boring mini-boss and a disheartening lack of much Master Chief action, Halo 5: Guardians was a new low point for the series. Perhaps most worryingly is that this continued a notable downward trend since 343 took the reins. With the upcoming finale to the Reclaimer trilogy, Halo Infinite, also now seemingly having development problems, one wonders whether Chief should have been allowed his well-earned rest after all.
The Lasting Legacy
For a series now approaching its twentieth year, the lasting legacy of Chief and Halo is extremely impressive, even with a few recent bumps in the road.
The original trilogy spawned all manner of spin-off books, comics, fan-made shows like Red vs Blue and the growth of “machinima” videos, series animations, TV series and the long-rumored Halo film. Such is the strength of this game series that it has become a cultural touchstone in its own right. Microsoft still values Master Chief as its prime poster boy and even pushed Cortana into their other Windows products as a voice-controlled AI helper akin to Apple’s Siri.
The success of Microsoft’s biggest consoles has been closely intertwined with the cultural success of Halo as a franchise and the massive cultural events that its game launches became. The release of Halo 3 pushed the sales of the 360 higher, and Microsoft was probably hoping to benefit from the same effect with the initial plan to release Halo Infinite alongside the new Series X and S consoles. The Master Chief Collection—a late rerelease collection of all of the main Halo games—is still hugely popular today and demonstrates how timeless these games are, with its online play continuing to match anything else on the market.
The influence that Halo once held over the shooter genre cannot be understated. It defined how console shooters function, as we understand them now. It also led the way for AI interaction and control, and it paved the way for the popularity of Xbox Live, online gaming and how arena-style multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty work.
There is no contest; heavy is the crown of gaming’s greatest of all time. But hail to the Chief, who still reigns supreme 20 years on.