It’s safe to say that the games industry would look entirely different today if not for Halo. Not only did the series launch Bungie into the stratosphere of legendary developers but without Halo’s success, the Xbox could have been a failure. Combat Evolved revolutionized First Person Shooters on home consoles, blazing the trails that series like Call of Duty, Overwatch, Battlefield, and, ironically, Destiny, would walk. Halo 2’s multiplayer suite kickstarted Microsoft’s online revolution with Xbox Live. The content-rich Halo 3 set a high standard by capping off the trilogy on a near-perfect note.
With Bungie at the helm, Halo was synonymous with gaming similar to giants before it like Pacman, Super Mario, or Pokémon. It was a juggernaut and a proverbial gravy train for Microsoft. One they had no intention of stopping. In 2007, Bungie and Microsoft came to the agreement to amicably go their separate ways barring the release of two more Halo titles, ODST and Reach. While both of those titles were in development, Microsoft was busy behind the scenes assembling the Avengers of developers to carry on the Halo mantle. Recruiting talent from the likes of Pandemic, Bioware, Dice, Rockstar, and id Software, Microsoft would bring life to its Halo dream team.
343 Industries would be founded in 2007 and would go on to be involved with or directly develop 11 Halo titles over the last 10 years. While the quality of each title would vary, none of them would reach the acclaim of their predecessors. Microsoft assembled a team to sustain and even surpass Halo’s prior success but instead, that team was responsible for its fall from grace. From botched releases, mediocre titles, and chasing trends, 343i damaged the Halo brand from the start to finish.
Reliving the Past
One of 343i’s first projects aside from aiding in Halo Reach’s development was Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. This from-the-ground-up remake of the original Halo was received well by critics. With updated visuals, audio, and controls, Anniversary was a good first step for 343i. It would serve as an introduction for the new studio into the world of Halo and get them familiar with where it all started. While Anniversary played like Halo, to some longtime fans, it didn’t feel like it. While the graphics were overhauled, they were done so in a way that sacrificed the tone and atmosphere that were key to the original. While certainly subjective, this criticism would only be the first of many for 343i.
While hardcore Halo fans took issue with the remake’s visuals, it was a significant upgrade from the original. With a very impressive ability to switch between the remake and the original’s visuals in real-time, Anniversary impressed the critics and the masses all the same. Overall, the package was a success for 343i and Microsoft as the title sold close to 2.5 million copies worldwide. Anniversary is still a great way to experience the original Halo game but, arguably, most of its groundwork was already completed in 2001. But even that stipulation would prove to be a hurdle 343i was incapable of vaulting.
With the Xbox One in full swing, Microsoft tasked 343i once more with bringing the Master Chief’s past adventures to modern consoles in the form of Halo: The Master Chief Collection. With a grander scope and ambitious scale, this collection would include all previous Master Chief Halo titles complete with visual and performance upgrades as well as each game’s unique multiplayer offerings. This proved to be a massive undertaking. Four games were to be ported to Xbox One including the previous anniversary remake of Halo. Halo 2 received its own Anniversary style remake as well, complete with updated cutscenes, visuals, and audio. Halo 3 and Halo 4 were both given visual and performance boosts. Servers had to be established and maintained for each game’s multiplayer suites. It’s a truly massive collection made even better by the later additions of Halo 3: ODST and Reach years late. Unfortunately, its ambition was also its downfall.
Whether it was dictated by Microsoft or 343i pushed hard to create it the way it was constituted at launch, the end result was a disaster. Halo: The Master Chief Collection was one of the worst launches of a video game in recent years. Crashes and freezes were prevalent. Matchmaking either didn’t function or it took ages to find lobbies. Ranks were reset at random. Players were unable to join friends in lobbies and even basic features like in-game chat or parties migrating from match to match flat out didn’t work. The laundry list of bugs is as impressive as it is sad. The launch was so abysmal, the head of 343i, Bonnie Ross, had to issue multiple apologies.
(Video by The Professional Gamer SS4444)
Giving credit where credit is due, Microsoft and 343i put out fire after fire, updating the Master Chief Collection over nearly the last decade to become the definitive way to experience the majority of the Halo universe. But for some, the damage was already done. What was meant to be the ultimate celebration of the Halo franchise ended up becoming a laughing stock across the industry. At the end of the day, these were legacy titles. Bungie’s titles. Regardless of questionable art design or the ability to match make, at their core, these games were still great. While 343i ran into trouble updating and porting Halo’s older titles, the real challenge was creating their own.
The Reclaimer Saga
Besides tackling side projects in the Halo universe, 343i was originally created to push the series forward and continue the story of the Master Chief for years to come. Looking back on it, Microsoft’s priorities and plan were ultimately Halo’s and 343i’s undoing. Continuing the franchise was a no-brainer and establishing a dream team of developers to deliver the best games possible was the right move. Where this plan went array was to continue Spartan 117’s story after Halo 3, at least initially. Halo 3: ODST and Reach we both well-received and sold relatively well compared to the rest of the series meaning Halo could be successful without Master Chief. But Microsoft must not have thought so.
Halo 4 sees Master Chief’s story continue in a dual narrative of sorts. While solving the issue of Cortona’s Rampancy, the Chief also has to take on a new threat in the Forerunner Prometheans led by the recently awoken Didact. Gameplay stays relatively unchanged to the layman as players fight their way through alien forces to save the day once again. Those intimately familiar with the franchise could feel the difference between Halo 4 and the titles that came before it. Less of a focus on AI-driven combat scenarios in favor of a more “onslaught” approach with the game throwing enemies at the Chief en mass. Enemy variety was severely toned down causing encounters to become samey and drawn out. New weapons felt inoffensive at best, leaving much to be desired with the introduction of a new threat and their armory. From a distance, Halo 4 looked like Halo but it didn’t feel like Halo.
The multiplayer side of things suffered from a similar issue. Emulating Call of Duty with aspects such as load-outs complete with a Specialization Perk system and “killstreak”-like Ordinances Drops, Halo 4’s multiplayer suite was a strange departure from classic Halo. Similar to the campaign, it wasn’t bad. In fact, it was quite fun. It just wasn’t Halo. It was an archetypical online shooter with a Halo paint job. For some this was acceptable, even preferred. But most felt that Halo 4 was drifting away from what made the series so special. Instead of forging a new path forward as the franchise had continuously done, 343i seemed to be chasing trends, assimilating Halo into a genre it once was the king of.
Much like all of 343i’s Halo titles, Halo 4 seems stuck between playing it safe and trying something new. It’s this confused assortment of recognizable characters, enemies, weapons, and vehicles draped in a busy art style that’s both familiar yet foreign. It’s clear 343i had an internal goal of setting their Halo apart from Bungie’s. A fresh art style with unique locations and villains, a more intimate and personal narrative, and a reserved yet no less beautiful soundtrack to set the tone for this new era of Halo. Even the gameplay, while objectively less intricate, is different enough to differentiate Bungie’s Halo from 343i’s. Halo 4’s need to be shackled to the past is what makes it a much less interesting title than it could have been. Having to continue a legendary series put 343i behind the eightball before they had even started. And Halo 5 wouldn’t fair much better.
Halo 5: Guardians is a mess. Plain and simple. Chasing the trend of the Advanced Movement craze, Halo 5 doubled down on its ever-divisive Armor Abilities while introducing dashing, clambering, and traditional Aim Down Sights. The pitfalls didn’t end there as Halo 5 had a bizarre focus on 4-player co-op without the option for local couch co-op, a convoluted and underwhelming narrative that barely featured the Chief along with a misleading marketing campaign. Add a fun yet unrecognizable multiplayer suite complete with Loot Boxes and Microtransactions and you have one of the lowest points for the franchise. Halo 5 is probably 343i’s most ambitious title meaning its disappointment was far greater than Halo 4’s. Because of that ambition, it’s easy to see 343i desperation in trying to break free from the past.
Halo 5 is like surgically fusing two opposite sides of a magnet together with its gameplay and the overarching series constantly at odds with itself. Alone, a 4-player co-op Sci-Fi Super Solider shooter with fast-paced online deathmatches seems like a winning formula, especially in 2015. With donning the Halo moniker, that formula feels more derivative and less innovative. 343i was given the unenviable task of keeping Halo relevant yet true to its core, something that came to a head with Halo 5. In hindsight, Halo 5 has aspects that should’ve been used from the start in order for 343i to forge a new frontier for Halo that was uniquely their own.
A more complex art style showcasing the power of the Xbox. A new protagonist in Spartan Locke. An emphasis on Armor Abilities and 4-player co-op. A new threat involving a rouge AI and Forerunner enemies. If 343i’s debut title featured all of the above with very little connective tissue to Bungie’s games, there’s a decent chance it would’ve faired much better. Or it would’ve at least been easier for fans to give 343i the benefit of the doubt, making a case for Modern Halo and Classic Halo to coexist based solely on their differences. Instead, Halo 4 and Halo 5 tried too much to cater to every demographic and ended up satisfying none of them. Something 343i aimed to change with their next title.
While Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians were both commercial and critical successes, they were polarizing entries to the fanbase that brought the series so much success. Halo Infinite planned to change that. With a new engine, a return to the classic art style and gameplay, a new open-world setting, and one of the best grappling hooks in gaming, Halo Infinite was 343i’s answer to fan criticism. While it’s unanimously regarded as 343i’s best outing, it shares some unflattering similarities with some of the company’s previous endeavors mainly the Master Chief Collection. While Halo Infinite is the best Halo has been in a decade, there’s no escaping its shortcomings.
Unlike previous Halo titles, Infinite was approaching its release differently. Its campaign and multiplayer launched separately with the latter launching first while being Free To Play, implementing Crossplay between Xbox and PC. This drove the hype for Infinite through the roof as early player counts were somewhere around the 20 million mark. That hype was quickly wasted as Infinite proved to be in dire straights. Even though it had already been delayed several times before, it became apparent Infinite was anything but upon launch.
Key features were entirely missing from the start. With the multiplayer being Free To Play, it also adopted the Live Service model. Using this as a crutch, Infinite’s multiplayer lacked variety in its modes and maps while simultaneously nickel-and-diming its player base with its overpriced in-game store and grind-heavy Battle Passes. The base game didn’t fair much better. While the core gameplay was a return to form, the narrative was almost non-existent while seemingly ignoring past titles. Mainstays like Campaign Co-op and Forge mode were absent at launch, promised at a later date down the road. The former would end up being canceled months later with the latter still in active beta.
For as good as Halo Infinite is at its core, it couldn’t escape the same pitfalls that befell other recent titles. What could’ve been Halo’s resurgence back into the mainstream ended up being another blunder by Microsoft and 343i. Its lackluster performance is reportedly responsible for layoffs throughout the company. Even so, Infinite is far from dead. Season 3 just recently launched and was well received by fans. Forge’s beta is a truly impressive leap forward for the mode. A good game is slowly but surely becoming great. But the fact that it didn’t start out great is the issue many fans have. The handling of the Halo franchise from 343i has led many to call for the company to distance itself from the series. Something Microsoft seems to refuse to do. But it might be the best thing for both 343i and the Halo franchise as a whole.
Continuing the Fight
While 343i was created for the single purpose of developing Halo titles, that doesn’t mean they were the only ones doing so. While Bungie coming back home to save the franchise they once pioneered would be one hell of a story, it’s most likely impossible this would occur. Not only did Bungie leave on their own accord but their new venture in Destiny is one of the most popular and successful franchises in the industry today. That’s not even mentioning the fact that Sony purchased Bungie in the summer of 2022.
Saber Interactive has helped 343i with Halo along the way. They co-developed Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and helped port it to Xbox One in the Master Chief Collection. They were responsible for the Halo 2 Anniversary campaign remaster as well as aiding in the PC port of that collection. Speaking of PC, Saber also headed up the odd Halo Online which was only available in Russia. Needless to say, Saber has experience with Halo, some might say more than 343i did before they took over for Bungie. While they helped with development and ports, Saber being tapped for a brand new Halo title seems farfetched. Saber, who is the overseer of dozens of studios, was purchased by the Embracer Group Company back in 2020. Having a corporate conglomeration contracted out for the next installment of Microsoft’s most important Intellectual Property seems as complicated as it is unlikely.
Similar to Saber Interactive is Certain Affinity. Primarily on the multiplayer front, Certain Affinity is responsible for maps and game modes dating all the way back to Halo 2. They created Forge for Halo 4 while also helping 343i with the Master Chief Collection as well. While they may know Halo multiplayer like the back of their hands, translating that knowledge and expertise to the single-player side of the franchise could prove to be difficult. It’s far more likely they take over multiplayer development in a new title while one of Microsoft’s shiny new studios takes on the hypothetical campaign.
Since 2020, Microsoft has acquired a plethora of Triple-A development studios some of which specialize in the First Person Shooter genre. Studios such as id Software, Arkane Studios, Machine Games, Treyarch, Infinity Ward, High Moon Studios, Raven Software and so much more. While some of these acquisitions are still in flux and these development studios have ongoing projects, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to allow these developers a shot at their version of Halo. A studio like Toys For Bob, which currently is aiding in Call of Duty development, was responsible for returning Crash Bandicoot to his former glory. Maybe Sledgehammer Games or the Overwatch team at Blizzard could give Halo a go with their unique perspectives.
While this piece has certainly been negative towards 343i, that doesn’t reflect badly on them as a studio. Every game they’ve produced, at their core, are well-crafted video games. They’re just not great Halo games. And that’s not even really their fault. Microsoft set up them up for failure by having them try to continue what Bungie had started. 343i moving on from Halo might be just as important to the franchise as it is to the studio. Untethered from this mammoth series, 343i could finally spread its wings creatively, developing the game they want to make as opposed to the game fans and Microsoft wants. It’s not so much that 343i needs to be fired but more so that Halo needs a new home. A new developer with fresh eyes and innovative ideas on how to push the series forward into the future. And a new opportunity for 343i to show the world what they can really do.