"Hello, Master Chief" -Cortana
My journey with the Halo franchise did not begin on November 15th of 2001 like many others. I had dabbled with Halo 2 on my friend's Xboxes and been fascinated with the 20 minutes of the Halo: Reach campaign I had played. But that was it. That was the extent of my time in the Halo universe.
A lot of that has to do with having always owned a Playstation over Microsoft's console. I was never one of those people that thought there was some holy war being raged between Sony and Microsoft and that you were either on one side or the other. Hell, I owe it to one of my friends in high school having an Xbox that I was able to do a complete playthrough of Knights of the Old Republic. No, I had only ever owned Playstations, and that's the way it stayed...for a very long time.
My Halo journey started very recently. June 13th of this year, to be exact. When 343 Industries released the first look at Halo Infinite's free-to-play multiplayer, something awoke inside me that I can't quite explain. As a long-time Destiny player, I knew that Bungie's gunplay was unrivaled, but to put it as simply as possible, Halo Infinite's multiplayer looked like one heck of a party and it was a party that I desperately wanted an invite to.
Of course, that wasn't so simple...or maybe it was. Having already purchased a PS5, the longstanding issue here is the consoles are not cheap. But one night, I was randomly (Really Julian, randomly? You knew what you were doing) on Microsoft's website and noticed immediately that they had the Xbox Series S, the X's little brother, in stock. I knew I could sell my PS4 Pro, which would bring the price down of the Series S to a more reasonable number.
The decision was a no-brainer for a variety of reasons. For one, it would allow me to play with Matt and review more games for the pod. Second, it would finally let me play through the Halo franchise and explore some other Xbox titles I'd wanted to try for a long time. With the value of my PS4 Pro at trade-in being the final factor, I ran it by the boss (my wife Karyn), who shockingly didn't even question the decision. Two days later, I was plugging in my first-ever Xbox and starting what would be a fantastic journey with Bungie, and later, of course, 343 Industries.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
My journey begins...
One of the first things I did upon plugging in my Series S was purchase an Xbox Game Pass subscription, which gave me immediate access to 343's Master Chief Collection. With it, my adventures with John-117 and Cortana had begun.
I will preface my experience with Halo: CE by saying that I am not a retro gamer. No part of me likes going back and playing games that, as a whole, feel outdated and clunky. I know that this is not the case for many people, but it's just not my cup of tea.
My overall feeling of the first Halo was underwhelming when it came to the gameplay. Remember, this was my first time truly playing Halo for more than 20 minutes. The story and scale of the game were something to behold, especially in 2001, where nothing like it existed in the FPS (first-person shooter) realm at the time.
Even with its updated graphics for the Anniversary edition, I couldn't get past certain things that have become such an integral part of shooters. Not being able to sprint was maddening for me, and having no ADS (aim down sight) almost made me stop playing the game. The fact that the feature wasn't added until nearly ten years later in Halo: Reach still makes me scratch my head.
Repetitive map layouts also made my first full experience with Halo anything but a memorable one. I would text friends who overhyped the first game (yes, still hyping it all these years later), asking them what they saw in the game.
All that being said, I know that at the time, Halo was revolutionary. I also took into my account feelings on playing retro games and knew that they played a factor in my critiques of the game. I powered through and found some aspects of Halo 1 that I thoroughly enjoyed.
For one, up until the moment they showed up, I had no idea about The Flood. Having seen some youtube reaction videos after the fact, I'm glad that I'm not the only one who reacted with sheer terror discovering them for the first time and the genuine feeling of needing to run...fast. I don't think there's been a game that I've played that has given me quite the same reaction to such a literal game-changing villain.
More of my enjoyment of Halo came from The Flood and just how many of them would come at you. Sometimes, what would seem like a never-ending amount of parasites would come at you. Add on top of that that some Flood variants were tough to kill, making for some frightening and enjoyable gameplay.
Even with the aspects of Halo I enjoyed, I didn't come out of my first completion terribly impressed, making me nervous about what I was going to find when I fired up Halo 2, widely considered to be one of the greatest games of all time. I was so happy to have been proven wrong about my expectations.
Halo 2: Anniversary
Halo 2 still holds up to this day
It's easy to go into Halo 2 as a newbie after people overhyped its predecessor and think that there is no way it can be as good as people say. Let me tell you how wrong I was.
Upon my research, Halo 2, released November 9th, 2004, is on multiple best games of all time lists, breaking the Top 20 on IGN's Top 100 Games of All Time list. The praise, the lists, the hype: as Han Solo would say, "It's true. All of it."
Despite Halo 2 still not having key FPS features like ADS and sprinting, there's something about the game that just feels good. Add the complete remaster and cinematic cutscenes for the Anniversary Edition, and you genuinely have a masterpiece of a game. I cannot say this about any of the other games in the Master Chief Collection; Halo 2 is as playable now as any FPS, including Destiny and Call of Duty, that I've played over the past year. It was only in the interest of time and getting through all the games before Halo Infinite came out that I didn't go back and immediately play it again.
I'll never forget moments like the Scarab battle on Earth, battling through ruins on the Delta Halo, and the exhilarating firefights as you push towards the gondola. Halo 2 creates memorable moments, rivaled only by some great battles in Halo: Reach.
As I had previously mentioned, the second installment in the Halo franchise still lacked simple FPS features. Still, the gunplay and variety of weapons, along with the ability to dual wield, almost made me forget about the fact that they were missing in the first place. Blowing grunts away while dual-wielding the very satisfying M7 SMG is some of the most fun I've had in a shooter.
Getting to play as the Arbiter was a treat, and getting some fresh perspective as a member of the game's villains, the Covenant, was refreshing. I liked going from Chief's mostly brute force tactics to using more stealth as the Arbiter.
Yes. Halo 2 is a no-question Top 50, if not Top 20 video game of all time. It's a campaign that I will definitely play a few more times, and while I was not around the game's multiplayer in its heyday, I know just how special it was for people. Halo 2 was so good that I made the mistake of psyching myself out for what I thought would be an incredible third chapter.
Maybe it was starting the game fresh off of finishing Halo 2, or perhaps it was being thrown off because, for whatever reason, three wasn't remastered, but the third entry in the Halo franchise didn't do much for me.
Going from two's incredible remastered graphics to three's blocky aged graphics was not a fun transition. Halo 3 is by no means a "bad" game. There was a lot I liked. But I just wasn't prepared for it to look and feel so dated. It threw me off just a little bit because the game had been developed and released on the then brand new Xbox 360, which had some pretty spectacular graphical capability. And as much as I hate beating a dead horse, for a game released in 2007, not having ADS or spring at this point was simply criminal.
With Halo 3 being Bungie's last go around with Master Chief (Reach would be their final game in the series) as they switched their focus to Destiny, the game was a forgettable letdown, only really becoming entertaining near the game's conclusion. It's fitting that Halo 3 should conclude with Chief in stasis, as the next entry in John-117's story wouldn't be released for another five years.
Bungie didn't end up letting me down, though, because upon completing Halo 3, I dropped into what would become my favorite game of the franchise Halo: Reach.
Reach is a special entry in the Halo franchise
A lost cause, a suicide mission, and a band of brothers and sisters going on that journey together: I live for games like this. The story of Halo: Reach is a tragedy, but that doesn't mean it can't be a wild ride.
If you're not familiar with the history of the planet Reach, here's a quick history lesson. The fall of Reach in Halo lore is significant as being the most significant defeats humanity suffers at the hands of the Covenant despite the UNSC defending the planet valiantly for several weeks.
Any video game that throws you into a significant historical event, whether fiction or non-fiction, is almost always a fun ride. You know, dropping onto the planet for the first time, all of Noble Team will die, including the Spartan you control, Noble-6. That doesn't make the events that unfold any less fun to play. In fact, it almost makes it better.
It also doesn't hurt that Reach adds a form of sprint into the game, albeit three entries too late. While ADS is still missing, the gunplay is just as fluid as it felt in Halo 2.
Part of the reason I enjoyed Reach so much, and this will become a common theme as I talk about the two games after this, is the squad-based aspect of it. Having other characters around you that weren't just placeholders; contributing to and shaping your gameplay was a unique new way to play a game in the Halo franchise.
Highlights from Reach's campaign were the stealth-heavy Nightfall mission (was this mission title Bungie's inspiration for Nightfall strikes in Destiny?), and New Alexandria, as you provide air support for escaping vessels and strike different locations in the city on foot.
Halo: Reach also succeeds at being a prequel done right. Think Rogue One. You don't realize the enormity of Noble Team's mission until the game's final moments and see how close the game's events take place to the opening of the original Halo. I appreciated that the game connected itself so fluidly to the franchise's already established lore and canon.
One final flare...
As I concluded Halo: Reach, I bid farewell to the Bungie era of the franchise and said "Hello, Chief" to 343 Industries. The fanbase would heavily criticize the next two games developed by the new Halo team. I couldn't have disagreed more.
There's a good chance that after playing the first 30 minutes or so of Halo 4 that I had similar feelings to everyone else. The Covenant, again?! I won't lie; I nearly didn't play through because of this. I went into all these games blind, so I had no idea what was to come. Then I met the Prometheans and the Didact.
So much of what I read from fans who had negative things to say about Halo 4 pointed the finger at the Prometheans not being an interesting enemy. That they were generic and felt like "fan-fiction." I thought they were a breath of fresh air. Their look, their weapons, oh their weapons! My favorite Halo gun remains the Literifle. A scout rifle/sniper hybrid, I wish I had this gun the entire playthrough and nothing else. One of my major complaints about Halo 5 is 343's changes to the Literifle. It's almost a completely different weapon.
Many of the reasons I see people not liking Halo 4 are the same reasons I ended up loving it. Haven't you guessed by now? They added sprint and ADS 11 years later! I understand entirely why lifelong Halo fans were thrown off with these additions. Had I been playing since 2001, I may have felt the same way. But for me, in 2021, these are just gameplay mechanics that I need in an FPS.
Then some people didn't like the focus being on Cortana, but if I've taken anything away from these games, it's that this franchise has always been the story of John and Cortana. Their bond, and their relationship. Starting the game knowing that Cortana has limited time left as she succumbs to rampancy, and later, her ultimate sacrifice at the end of the game. It made Halo 4 one of my favorites in the franchise.
With Halo 4's conclusion, I had one game left in the franchise before Infinite's release: Halo 5 Guardians, widely panned by gamers and fans and considered the worst of the Halo's. Hmmmmm.
Halo 5: Guardians
Many Halo fans had thought that the franchise had lost its identity by this point. Add to this what many people thought was a false advertising campaign, and Halo 5 never stood a chance.
On the false advertising front, it's hard to blame fans for thinking this. In fact, they had every reason to be upset at the time. I remember the ad campaign well. #HuntTheTruth. That was the hashtag. Master Chief was being hunted by Spartan Locke, being labeled a traitor and not the savior and hero we've known him to be in four previous Halo games. It fascinated me, and it was the first time I flirted with buying an Xbox.
Up to three days before Halo 5's release, ads like this were still being shown, painting the game in a very different light than the one that shipped out.
What Halo 5 did give us was a very watered-down, near non-existent version of what was advertised. Master Chief is never labeled a traitor but does go AWOL with Blue Team to hunt down the now rogue Cortana. Spartan Locke and Fireteam Osiris are tasked with finding Master Chief and locking down Cortana. Locke has a distinct hatred towards Chief during the ad campaign, pointing a gun at an already downed John-117. In the actual game, whenever the two come face-to-face, they're, for the most part, very civil with each other.
If the ad campaign had been more truthful about the game, would people have reacted differently to it? I think so because, despite some story issues, I thought it was a mostly enjoyable campaign. I agree with most people that I was not a big fan of Cortana being the big bad. At the same time, I think a lot of Halo Infinite's excellent storytelling is lost without this development. And seeing Chief struggle with his emotions and realizing that he has to stop her by any means necessary (and fails) was an excellent bit of growth for a character who is typically a man of very few words.
Spartan Locke and Fireteam Osiris
The other major complaint about Guardians that I have heard is that you barely play as Master Chief. This is true, but not a bad thing. Once again, being a newcomer to the franchise gives me a unique view of the series, but getting to play as a new Spartan once again was fun. Not to mention the return of squad-based actions from Reach, which I had already thoroughly enjoyed. Flipping back and forth between Locke and Osiris and Chief and Blue team made for something we hadn't gotten in a Halo game, and whatever the complaints, I was a huge fan.
With the fate of the galaxy in limbo, I, like many others, now waited for what was possibly the most anticipated game in the franchise's history, Halo Infinite.
You all know the story by now. Halo Infinite was due to launch Holiday 2020 alongside the brand new Xbox Series X and S. At E3 2019, the game's first full trailer debuted, and with it, the first look at Infinite's gameplay. The reaction was one of anger, worry, and frustration.
For a game that was supposed to be launching on state-of-the-art Xbox Series X in a mere four months, the game's graphics looked like something that came from the previous generation...at best. At the time, I gave the reveal the benefit of the doubt. Who knows when the footage for E3 was compiled, and did it look as bad as people said? I didn't think so.
Once again, I was wrong. Just days later, 343 announced that they were delaying Halo Infinite to 2021 due to the pandemic. This delay, just months from launch. Still, 2021 wasn't too far away...right? Wrong. Not only was the game delayed until the new year, but it was also delayed a whole year and some change from its initial release date. And those graphics? Yeah, they were as bad as everyone said.
And that leads us to the top of this story and Halo Infinite's multiplayer reveal. The excellent advertising that pushed me over the edge to get my first ever Xbox. I was able to take part in one of the "flights" 343 pushed out as betas that let you get a feel for the multiplayer experience. Here I was, in my first Halo multiplayer match, and I was sold.
The icing on the cake? Out of virtually nowhere, on November 8th, 2021, with 343 celebrating Halo's 20th anniversary, Halo Infinite's free-to-play multiplayer made dropped. It was like Christmas came early, and I immediately started to level up. It was a smart move on 343's part. The early release gave Halo fans a couple of weeks to get all the multiplay they wanted in before the campaign dropped.
I can safely say that in these last couple of weeks, I've had some of the most fun I've had playing a multiplayer FPS. Sure, there have been some issues with battle pass progression and lack of game-type playlists, but to 343's credit, they've been quick on the trigger to remedy those.
No multiplayer game ever feels the same, and the variety of weapons keeps things fresh. There's nothing quite as satisfying as blasting a fellow Spartan with your rifle, then grappleshotting him before breaking the nose of that Spartan with said battle rifle.
Finally, the moment everyone was waiting for came around. On December 8th, Halo Infinite's campaign dropped and quickly went into my top three of the franchise. Dropping Master Chief into an open-world sandbox for the first time is simply genius. Getting to explore Zeta Halo's vast peaks and long valleys, all of its secrets on my terms, was not only fun but highly addicting.
Halo Infinite is a completionist's dream. With UNSC and Spartan audio logs scattered around Halo's massive map. Forerunner artifacts? Grunts spewing propaganda on 40 towers spread out on the map? Those are there too. Some of the most fun I had during the Halo Infinite campaign occurred when I was flying around looking for these hidden treasures in a wasp. And it's fun when happy accidents happen, like glitching out of the main map into the underbelly of the game's development. Pretty neat.
Once again, my journey begins
One major complaint that I didn't think would end up being a big deal is Infinite's head-scratching omission of being able to replay story missions. 343 has promised this feature is indeed coming, but right now, it's preventing me from getting the one UNSC audio log that I missed, and that's maddening.
Finally, the main story of Halo Infinite is also quite good, if not sad. You find out very early on that Master Chief and Dr. Halsey had sent a new AI to Zeta Halo to lock down and delete Cortana, a mission that proves successful. Even though Halo Infinite has a main antagonist in Escharum and the Banished, along with the Harbinger, a member of Halo's newest villains, the Endless, fighting and stopping their forces isn't the focus of the campaign missions that you go through.
Instead, you feel throughout Infinite's roughly 20-hour campaign Chief's sense of loss, anger, and regret when it comes to Cortana. This comes full circle when it is revealed that the Weapon, the AI sent to "kill" Cortana, is an exact copy of Cortana herself. The dynamic between the Weapon and Chief, and later the reveal, makes for one of the best stories ever told in a Halo game.
To conclude, my four-month journey with Master Chief and Cortana has been one hell of a ride leading up to this moment. And I have to say, it's bittersweet. As I'm sure has been the case with many a Halo fan after completing the latest entry in the franchise, I've been left desperately wanting more. I can't wait for this story to continue, whether through the upcoming DLC or the next entry in the franchise. Luckily, I have lots of multiplayer hours ahead of me to help me get through the next three or so years of waiting.