For ten years, Halo has meant Bungie and Bungie has meant Halo. Now that the Halo baton has been handed to 343 Industries, it’s the end of one era and presumably the beginning of another. What better time to look back at what went right and what went wrong?
Bungie did weapons right
If there’s one thing a shooter has to get right, it’s the guns. A hallmark of Halo was that every weapon was unique. They each had personality, whether it was the way the needler’s ammo popped out like porcupine quills or whatever that indicator on the battle rifle was pointing at. North? Is there north on a halo? What’s more, every weapon was useful given the right circumstances. Even the lowly pistol had a little sniper rifle in it. And Halo never afforded you the luxury of just picking your favorite weapon and sticking with it. You had to scavenge weapons as you played. You had to experience firsthand the diverse arsenal. Furthermore, can any developer match Bungie’s reputation for treating weapon balance and tuning with the utmost seriousness and detail? I once attended a GDC talk given by a Bungie developer discussing the velocity of their sniper rifle bullet. It was — no joke — fascinating.
Bungie did writing wrong
The storytelling in the Halo series has always been awkward at best, incoherent at worst, and overly earnest throughout. Meanwhile, other notable developers played with new ways to tell stories in a genre where the main mode of interaction was shooting something. Bungie’s stories never made their way into the gameplay (the introduction of the Flood in the much maligned library was a rare exception). They bent our ears with exposition during cutscenes. To make matters worse, a story about a guy in a badass suit of armor saving the universe should not be convoluted. Yet we got some sort of prophecy mumbo jumbo, a bunch of hoo-ha about alien artifacts, and the talking plant from Little Shop of Horrors. Can anyone explain Gravemind to me? At least the weirdly moodyHalo ODST and the forced war-is-hell-so-let’s-take-turns-at-noble-sacrifices of Halo Reach were something different.
Bungie did aliens right
It’s called a shooter. What you’re shooting at is equally important as what you’re shooting with. Just as the guns had personality, so too did the aliens. The grunts scuttled confusedly, just as likely to huck a fatal plasma grenade as they were to run away. Elites sidestepped adroitly when you popped their shields. Brutes heaved their hammers mightily. And oh how you had to agonize over the unique dilemma of how to smack a hunter in its squishy back while avoiding its obligatory twin. Seriously guys, if you’d just show up one at a time, my life would be much easier. Even the ancillary aliens had their place. Sentries were always a cause for serious dread or serious relief. And love ’em or hate ’em, you have to admit the Flood weren’t your garden variety zombie apocalypse. Bungie provided as rich and diverse a shooting gallery as any game could hope to have.
Bungie did characters wrong
The humans don’t fare nearly as well in the Halo universe. Master Chief was a stuffed suit. Of green armor. He didn’t even have a face. He was from a time when the player character was a mute cypher. I’m still surprised every time I hear him speak. I can see him and Gordon Freeman getting along royally. Cortana, Guilty Spark, Miranda Keyes, and the cigar chomping Johnson were all derivative and/or underdeveloped. The cast of Reach is straight out of a Call of Duty game. I’d argue the only interesting character in the entire series is the Arbiter, which is probably because Bungie knows how to do aliens right. See above.
Bungie did multiplayer right
Halo picked up where Quake and Unreal Tournament left off. And without the luxury of a mouse and keyboard. Bungie proved that a fast smart multiplayer shooter could play on a gamepad, and they rightly hitched it to the rising star of Xbox Live. Furthermore, they knew how to build a following and shape it into a community. They knew how to give that community to tools to grow and flourish. From the Forge to the robust replay system, the genius of multiplayer Halo didn’t stop when the match was over.
Bungle also did multiplayer wrong
Halo’s multiplayer was a success in spite of some serious oversights. Bungie’s single-player AI was a marvel to behold, yet they never gave us bots. There was no way to practice multiplayer Halo. There was no way to play it single-player. This is part of why it was unfriendly to less committed players. Halo was a skill you had to develop, not unlike one of Capcom’s fighting games. You had to learn by losing a lot. Would Call of Duty, a game in which any dual-thumbed klutz can jump in and get a handful of lucky kills, have developed such a following if Halo hadn’t been so punishing to dual-thumbed klutzes?
Bungie did replayability right
Bungie was doing leaderboards long before it was fashionable. They understood perfectly the idea of a risk/reward system by letting you choose skulls to tune the difficulty level. In return for your troubles, you earned a higher score multiplier. And they made you go through the levels searching for the skulls first. For all the clotted silliness of their stories, Halo’s campaigns were well worth playing over and over because the scoring system gave them meaning outside their narratives, beyond the simple fun of shooting cool guns at cool aliens. If there’s one thing more gratifying that headshotting an elite, it’s seeing the points you earned for headshotting an elite.