It seems like it wasn’t so long ago that I got home with my new Xbox and fired up one of the best first person shooters of all time. I may have bought Microsoft’s console gamble for the promise of Elder Scrolls and Star Wars RPG’s, but I’d been hearing great things about this Halo: Combat Evolved game. And sure enough, Bungie’s epic military space opera lived up to the hype.
American gamers came out in droves to play the next big thing in gaming. The Xbox had a lot of great games to recommend it, but not nearly as many as the heavyweight console champ, Sony’s PS2. It’s pretty much agreed upon that Microsoft has Halo to thank for giving it a strong foothold in the console gaming industry.
So, fast forward some thirteen years and we’re now on the third iteration of the Xbox console. The Xbox One is supposed to be the next step in gaming. The problem is it doesn’t really have many games to play that aren’t also available to play on its predecessor, the 360. But no sweat, the PS4 doesn’t have much either. Then again, Sony’s got a heady lead in hardware sales due to its lower price/higher power death combo as well as its worldwide popularity.
How to win this?The obvious answer is games, games, and more games. Microsoft is offering dis-Kinected consoles to folks like myself who want no part of it at this junction and kicking the price down in the process, but GAMES, man! Gamers want games! Titanfall didn’t turn out to be the new killer app everyone was hoping for. Any guesses as to who Microsoft is looking to next to save their system?
You’re damn right, Master Chief. Halo 5: Guardians is slated for fall of 2015 and at this point it seems to be Microsoft’s only hope to get gamers excited about their new console. But is this still a valid strategy? History shows it may be. How long has Nintendo been cruising on Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon love at this point? But then, Nintendo has a full stable of classic characters to draw from and rotate in and out as necessary to keep their fans appeased. Since the last Gears of War crashed and burned Xbox has only Halo, and that well may not be bottomless.
Halo was among the first games to utilize the trilogy storytelling format, and its deep lore and iconic sound effects, music, and imagery make it the closest thing we’ve got to a gaming equivalent of Star Wars. The first game blew away the competition with realistic AI, amazing set pieces, an epic feel, and gameplay that revolutionized the FPS genre. It was a perfect storm of awesome. The sequel added online multiplayer, more complex storytelling, and plenty more to become a true classic and arguably surpass its predecessor.
Everybody’s got their favorite moments from those first two games, and most everybody agrees that they were amazing. But after that, a little bit of lag set in. Halo 3 was a legit system seller for the Xbox 360, nearly tripling sales for the Xbox’s progeny upon release and it remains the high point of the entire series in sales. And while I would argue that the story left me somewhat disappointed, few complained about the multiplayer which was now the premiere feature of the franchise.
Halo: ODST was the last highlight of the series for me from a storytelling standpoint. It was technically an expansion of Halo 3, but it was different in tone from the rest of the series and featured a new cast for a very different kind of Halo story; something more understated and moody. Plus, it added the Firefight mode (which I adore) and new multiplayer maps.
But with the main trilogy complete at this point, it seems like the series kind of took a turn for the worst. You can probably chalk this up to the wait between the first three games. There was about a three year period between games in the original trilogy. That’s a lot of anticipation. But starting with ODST, Microsoft’s policy became Halo overload. Halo: Reach came out only a year later, the real time strategy spin-off, Halo Wars had come out between the third game and ODST, and a ten year anniversary remake of the original Combat Evolved came out a year after Reach. That’s a lot of Halo.
Halo: Reach sold nearly as well as Halo 3 and featured a team-based story in a prequel to the original trilogy, which was really cool, and it featured a complete overhaul of the multiplayer balance with the addition of armour abilities. This upset a lot of hardcore players. To a lot of gamers, it was the equivalent of dedicating yourself to a sport and then having all of the rules changed. They didn’t like the random elements like jetpacks and cloaking in a game where the gameplay had previously been limited to walking, jumping, and shooting.
Halo 4 came out another year after the Combat Evolved: Anniversary Edition with a new developer. It had been five years since gamers had played as the iconic Master Chief, and big things were expected from this return, but what we got was fairly blah by Halo standards with minimal effort put into the story.
Reach’s deep and exciting Firefight mode was replaced with downloadable Spartan Ops co-op DLC which was fun and had an actual story but lacked the replayability of the mode it replaced. Plus custom loadouts was now the order of the day in multiplayer matches, increasing the randomness of battle conditions in a game whose players have become increasingly inflexible. All of this added up to Halo 4 performing more poorly than its 360 predecessors.
While it was a long damn way from being a commercial failure, the overall attitude towards Halo 4 is that it didn’t live up to the standards Bungie had set in previous installments and it fell down the rankings of most-played Xbox Live games that previous games had dominated for years. If Halo 3 is what got people out to buy the 360 in the first place, it seems like they bought Halo 4 out of habit.
So the question now is whether or not Halo is still a property that will get people excited enough to buy a whole new console for. The last few games got to piggyback of the success of Halo 3 since they came out for the same system a lot of players bought to play it, but now that the sheen has worn off of the franchise it seems likely that the next installment could be the one that brings Master Chief back down to Earth.
I mean, I’m a bonafide Halo nut who owns every single game ever released (Anniversary Edition re-release excluded) and played them all extensively. I love the armour abilities and other randomizations that have forced players to be able to adapt rather than simply lather rinse/repeat/ the same strategy every match. But if I buy an Xbox One, it will not be just to play Halo 5.
If I end up with an Xbox One I will almost certainly buy the new Halo as well, but Microsoft is going to need to offer me more than a franchise that appears to have peaked at this point to sell me on their latest console. I still love Master Chief, but at this point I’ve been there and done that many times over and the prospect of going there and doing that yet again just doesn’t excite me as much as it used to. Coming from a player who staunchly defends things that many gamers have hated from the last few games, that is a really bad sign.
With original Halo developers Bungie releasing a brand new multiplatform IP, Destiny,in a few months and the only look at Halo 5 so far being a rather unimpressive trailer featuring Master Chief wrapped in a cloak for some reason (is he worried his armour will get dusty?) the hype train seems to be rolling in the wrong direction altogether. It’s been a while since Halo 4 came out with only the poorly-received iOS venture Spartan Assault plug the gap. People should be more excited.
Microsoft is hurting right now and I’m not sure that a new Halo is going to turn it around for them. At this point, it’s putting a bandage where stitches are needed. Better than nothing, but not enough to stop the bleeding. As of last month, five million Xbox Ones had been shipped to retailers. Even if every person who bought one got Halo 5, it would be a relatively paltry number for the franchise compared to what it’s used to. Halo 3 sold nearly three times that.
Consoles need to be moved, and it the latest Halo can’t do it for Microsoft I don’t know what will. The ditching of Kinect will be a help -as will an additional price drop between then and now- but what really needs to happen is more investment on getting exclusive innovative new franchises. Gamers want games and there are very few of them that are worth the investment of a new console all by themselves these days. When Halo was the new big thing in gaming, it may have fit the bill, but a decade has come and gone and we’ve seen it all before. It’s probably time for Microsoft to consider putting some eggs in other baskets again.