Halo Without Bungie

The five Halo titles developed by Bungie spoke of a much larger world beyond the confines of the console games. It was a place described in incidental dialogue among the marines of the United Nations Space Command, in computer terminals found on a gigantic alien installation called the Ark and in the live-action commercials for Halos 3, ODST, Reach, and the Neill Blomkamp directed “Landfall” live-action shorts. It was a universe described in glimpses and whispers.

 Halo 4 feels more like an adaptation than an adoption and continuation.

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The best Star Wars expanded universe books were Timothy Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn trilogy; Zahn clearly understood what makes Star Wars. J.J. Abrams managed to channel the spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series and gave us representations of Captain Kirk, Spock and Bones that felt genuine. The Halo universe, for its part, was fleshed out in graphic novels and books and anime and
full-motion comics that stayed true to the spirit and aesthetics of Bungie’s universe, carrying much more aesthetic unity than either of those other huge science fiction franchises.

That’s because a lot of that media was produced under the watchful eye of 343 Industries, Microsoft’s development and intellectual property halo-combat-evolved-anniversary-1management studio founded specifically to expand on Halo’s commercial potential.

Aside from cross-media, 343 was also responsible for the Halo: Waypoint app on Xbox Live, a faithful collection of Halo media and lore; the 2011 high-definition remake of the original Halo was handled respectfully, too, and left me hoping a Halo 2 remake would get the same treatment. Finally, Halo 4’s live-action lead-in, Forward Unto Dawn, felt very true to series canon. Given their track record, I had no reason to fear for the future of the Halo franchise when 343 took over with the last installment.

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I knew something was wrong with Halo 4 the first time I fired an assault rifle.

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You’ve probably watched some or all of the Star Wars movies. You’ve probably played some Star Wars video games. Maybe you’ve even seen the Clone Wars cartoon. In all of these depictions a lightsaber always sounds the same. You know the snap-hiss of a blade igniting, the woom-woom of the weapon being swung around, and the sharp crack of two light blades striking one another. That sort of consistency is what keeps all those various media unified, and makes them feel like depictions of the same space.

halo4Now imagine you’re watching a new Star Wars movie and the lightsabers don’t sound the same and that other previously consistent aesthetic factors have changed, too – it might not seem like Star Wars anymore, but rather something one step removed. Bungie had evolved their designs throughout all of their Halo games but when it came to the essentials like sounds and character design they staid their own course, with only small, iterative improvements from game to game.

Assault rifles in Halo used to sound smooth. Now they’re loud and staccato. The engines of a Warthog used to sound well-tuned. Halo 4’s is more like a Kawasaki badly in need of a new muffler. Battle rifles are aurally closer to laser guns than a three-shot burst projectile. Familiar enemies like Elites, Grunts and Jackals don’t look right. Elites are too skinny and their faces are wrong. Grunts don’t always wear gas masks (they breathe methane) and emit nasally squeaks reminiscent of pigs on helium. Jackals used to look avian; now they look decidedly reptilian.

Halo 4 feels more like an adaptation than an adoption and continuation. The danger of adaptation is straying just far enough away from the source material to develop into something unrecognizable; this has become my fear for the Halo universe under 343 Industries.Where I most feel Bungie’s absence is in the storytelling. 343 took Bungie’s whispers and glimpses, turned them into a sledgehammer and cracked the audience in the skull with it.

The Forerunners – the mysterious, ancient race which built the Halo rings and whom the alien Covenant worship as gods – had never been halo-4-images-11shown before other than glimpses in the Halo: Legends anime. They were left, like a Hitchcock horror scene, to the imaginations of the fans. Halo 4 not only pulled back the curtain on the Forerunners and ruined the mystery, they’ve also molded them into unimaginative
archetypes.

Halo 4 ends with a starfighter scene right out of the original Star Wars’ trench run. The revelation that ancient, space faring humans existed in the time of the Forerunners not only flies in the face of Halo lore but comes off as a cheesy reveal trying to be profound. Master Chief used to be practically mute; now that he’s writing novels out loud I’m beginning to feel the silly, empty nature of the character like others have for years.

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I don’t want you to think that I dislike Halo 4. I don’t. The visuals are a testament to why we don’t need another console generation (yet). The “pick the right tool for the job” interaction between weapons and encounter areas that I always associate with Halo is still there. It took me a while to adapt to the new score, which is more orchestral and less choral than the Martin O’Donnell’s previous scoring, but it’s grown on me.

Halo 4’s multiplayer might also be the best in the franchise. Bungie stodgily resisted adopting the conventions of the multiplayer FPS genre like sprinting (sprinting!) or class builds and loadouts. 343 has taken just enough of those conventions and added them into Halo 4 to bring the multiplayer up to speed, which is probably why I’ve already played more multiplayer in 4 than I did 3’s and Reach’s combined.

h1It’s a different Halo, however, and more so than I’d expected. Where Bungie opened doors to storytelling, it feels like 343 is closing them. Bungie gave Halo a larger presence by filling in gaps; new Halo installments (in part out of necessity to keep Master Chief’s story progressing) may have to leave all of that potential behind.

Creatives want to put their stamp on things. I didn’t expect 343 Industries to parrot Bungie’s spirit, but I’ve gone back to playing all five original games over again because I don’t want to lose sight of that universe – the true universe, the one I’ve grown to love as much as Star Wars or Star Trek or any other major sci-fi franchise.

Halo 4 may be the first game in a new trilogy, but it’s also an ending. This is Halo without Bungie, and it’s not quite Halo anymore. Maybe I hoped for too much.

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Nerd rage with Dennis Scimeca over Halo 4 on Twitter @DennisScimeca.

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  • Rob Haines

    I loved playing the original Halo in co-op, but I can't honestly say I was ever enamoured by the plot (admittedly having only played 1 & 3). Perhaps I didn't read enough supplementary materials, but it always seemed to be using that sledgehammer you mentioned, cramming capital-letter-prefixed buzzwords into my skull.

    Still, I'm clearly in the minority given the series' success, and while some measure of evolution would be required to prevent 343 being accused of religiously copying Bungie's template, it's interesting that the changes they chose to make don't seem to satisfy.

  • Andrew

    Is it different? Yes. I think what you're struggling to say, though, is much less a matter of iterative differences (sound design, dialogue, etc.), as evidenced by your satisfaction with the gameplay, than it is about the angle of the story. Hear me out. What you felt was missing, if I'm following you, was the universe, was the FEEL of it all. In previous Halo games (probably odst excepted) the emphasis was not the characters, but the world.
    Allow me an example or two. Bungie tried to move in that direction with Halo 2 and the Arbiter, but the audience pulled back. They tried again, somewhat, in ODST, that was mostly a spinoff. Reach again featured mostly empty characters with the thrill of it all being that you were on REACH, and that some cool universe stuff happened there. That first talk with captain keys in Halo 1 was not a cutscene, I think, because they wanted you to feel in the world. It was less about the characters and their quandaries than it was about feeling like you were on a space ship with aliens attacking you.
    Think about how this approach played out in gameplay. The master chief was generally an empty character – he rarely spoke, and never reacted to anything. Cortana was a great excuse for a voice in your head to advance the plot and give you objectives without having to rescue anybody or even interact with anything more personalized than a button. There weren't any CHARACTERS to worry about, because they simply served as a vehicle/reason for experiencing more of the world.
    In Halo 4, that's switched around. Now our interaction with the universe is framed by the characters. Cortana's characterization literally changes how we interface with the game, both on the visual (her blue distortion) and gameplay (she keeps messing things up that we have to fix) level. Now the scientists getting zapped matters less because that kind of thing happens in the halo universe, but more because of the impact it has on the Chief and Cortana.
    This is a big change. Halo has shifted from a glorious adventure experiencing a universe to a story about characters with a long tradition (the partner story goes way, way back… at least to Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, at the very latest). So I understand the hurt. It doesn't feel the same because it's not the same. But all of those iterative differences, the tweaks to the sounds, the look of the elites, etc., those or symptoms, not causes. Halo has changed at its core from an experience to a story, from a place to a characterization. And in some ways that's sad. It's doubtful they will ever re-create the sheer joy of that first warthog-led exploration of Halo.
    But to me, it was something that needed to happen. You can only run so long on an experience. But stories… stories you can tell forever. To frame it in terms of other games, Halo is becoming less Lost Planet and more Mass Effect. Less Dead Space 1 and more Dead Space 3. Less Grand Theft Auto and more LA Noire. They may deal with the same themes, but the approach, and the method, is different. Love it or hate it, it's happening.
    Notes:
    1) Dennis, I'd love to hear your thoughts. If you'd like to talk about it, shoot me an e-mail at anomolousthinking@gmail.com
    2) Full disclosure, while I've played through 1-3, I haven't yet played through 4, though I've watched all of the story most of the gameplay on youtube (same for ODST)

  • sebastian

    nope, not disappointed in the slightest.
    halo 4's a superb game. best campaign since the original and halo 2. halo 3's and reach's sucked arse.
    and the mp is just plain addicting.

  • Steven Garrigus

    I have to disagree with your assessment of Halo 4, especially concerning the Forerunners. I've read all of the Halo novels, dug through every bit of information and sought out every piece of lore associated with the franchise. You should read Greg Bear's fantastic novels about the fall of the Forerunner civilization which deals quite specifically with the Forerunner/Human war. I think as an exact opposite of your reaction, I was ECSTATIC to see the terminal videos with "ancient" humans, the Lord of Admirals, etc.

    343i has not only crafted a very competent & addicting new entry in the series, they have expanded it in ways that needed to happen to keep the series relevant. I am personally excited to see where this storyline progresses and to learn more about the what happened to the Chief (slight spoiler).

    • Connor Nelson

      I have to agree, with you in a way, but I didn't much care for Halo: 4. I've been in love with the Halo Universe as long as I can remember. But the forerunners being your enemy? I mean, I understand the didact, but really?
      A single Forerunner AI could over power Cortana (In her Rampancy state) and lock chiefs armor.
      But, yet they were so under powered they couldn't do anything at times..
      And now, after everything they are trying to change things.
      Such as the beginning, them being gone for around 4 years, floating to Requiem, please explain this. As close to it as they were in Halo: 3 when chief first entered it would have been just a few weeks before impact (Given the size of the planet and how strong of a gravitational pull there was)
      To me, 343i left too many holes in the story, whereas Bungie would have filled.
      I liked how Bungie worked with Halo, I wanted the story, and the world. Not the character.
      But ofcourse this is merely my opinion. :)

  • RIP Halo

    I used to love Halo, oh so much. Halo 3 was for me the best game in the series and had such a great multiplayer, I really loved it. But as Bungie started to give in to the common features of Multiplayer FPS games, sprinting and loadouts and such, I feel as though the game lost it's identity. Halo was that one game that played like a retro PC shooter but with all of the neat aesthetics of a modern game. With Reach I feel that Halo took a massive step away from it's roots and really started to ruin the series. I have played Halo 4 a fair amount and can't say that I'll be buying another Halo game. It lacks the appeal to the Hardcore audience that it once had. Halo used to be a huge Esport, now it has been reduced to a casual game much like Call of Duty. Features such as Grenade indicators, killstreak ordinance and loadouts have ruined what used to be a beautiful game. Critics consider it more entertaining as they didn't delve into the complex and difficult multiplayer of older Halos. Critics are casual gamers and the industry wants to appeal to casual gamers. They no longer care about the Hardcore, competitive players that once played their games.

    They should have put Halo to rest with Halo 3, but companies care more about the commercialization of video games than they care about creating a quality product. Call of Duty is the prime example of mass commercialization in this industry and I'm sure that Halo will take a similar route.

  • Connor Nelson

    I love the Halo series, but since Halo: 3, I cannnot stand the multiplayer. I liked, you had to fight for the power ups, not spawn with them. Halo Combat Evolved, I loved it, waking up to the alien invasion. I mean, I was young when I first played it so seeing my first Elite up close scared the shit out of me haha! Overall, Halo kept a certain feel to it, which I feel was lost when Bungie left.
    I mean, as much as I didn't like the campaign of Reach, it was there because, so many fans wanted to play on Reach. Had they taken their time, and changed a few things, it could very well have been one of the best Halo's (Campaign wise)
    343i tried to make the halo universe make sense. Why Spartans fought, how the maps were there. Those things don't matter, being a Spartan 2,3,4 doesn't matter. All I cared about was kicking the other team's ass, I didn't need a story to go with why I was kicking their ass.
    Bungie was able to keep a mystery alive, we all wanted to see a Forerunner, not a whole game about them fighting them. The Terminals were AMAZING.
    Criticize if you want but this is my opinion. :)