Where to next, Chief? Pondering Halo’s future.

As you’ve no doubt surmised by now, Halo 4 is a great game. Our very own Marshal Ellison awarded the game 5/5 for a whole host of reasons so you should probably go read his review. As for myself, the “number 2” Halo fan ’round these parts, I agree wholeheartedly with Marshal’s assessment: it’s an amazing experience.

But now that the needles have stopped flying and the Covenant have been beat back once again (for now), it leaves one lingering question: where does the series go from here?

Warning: Story Spoilers Past This Point. You’ve Been Warned.

In my opinion, Halo 4’s campaign is the best since the original Halo: Combat Evolved (with Halo: Reach at a close second); it had all the elements that made the first game so great — a new, alien world; heretofore unseen enemies, using powerful weapons and technology; open environments filled with vehicles, guns, explosives, and multiple pathways with which players can utilize to take down their enemies. Everything that makes Halo a great series.

But Halo 4 comes with its own identity, and its own ideas. Specifically, 343 Industry has brought character development and cinematic narrative to the forefront. Now, if you know anything about me, you know how I feel about cinematic story delivery in videogames; specifically, I don’t like it. But Halo 4 was to strike the special median between story and gameplay that only games like Red Dead Redemption, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Mass Effect have for me in the past. Seeing Master Chief grow over the course of this latest campaign was actually much more compelling than I was expecting. At the end of Halo 3, Master Chief was essentially the same thing he was from the first moments of Halo: CE: a killing machine bred for war. He was a badass, and had his own character quirks (he’s got more than a fair share of luck on his side), and has always been immediately recognizable, but he hadn’t grown much.

By the end of Halo 4, however, we see an entirely different man. Notice the use of the word “man.” For a long time, people wondered if our favorite Spartan II was but a machine, or perhaps a cyborg, with little personality and single-minded in his devotion to his mission *cough*Solid Snake*cough*. But by the end of Halo 4, it is clear he is no machine, but a human with emotions and a devotion to his only companion through the past 4 games: Cortana. In Halo 4, Chief’s primary goal is to keep Cortana safe, and get her home so she can be fixed. We spend hours behind the visor, sharing and taking on the urgency of Chief’s mission. But while humanity may have been saved once again by the super soldier, Cortana dies in the end. This is the first time we’ve witnessed John fail his mission. Ironically, after an event that would leave any other man cold and hollow, John 117 shows more humanity than we’ve come to expect from the Spartan. Visibly distraught, even through all that armor, it is clear this is not the “Master Chief” we’ve come to expect, nor “John 117” the soldier; he’s simply a man named “John” who has lost the only person he ever cared for.

Clearly, there’s a lot of story analysis to be had from the few hours of campaign. Hell we haven’t even scratched the lore-surface, nor the massive scenario implications of the events that take place in Halo 4. In brief, having beat back both Covenant and Forerunners alike, humanity now stands as the dominant force in the galaxy. Throughout the story, the Forerunner mastermind, the Didact, makes allusions to, and grand accusations of, humanity’s rise to dominance. What exactly this foreshadowing means isn’t clear, but it isn’t the only subtext going on here either. In the opening cinematic, Professor Halsey is detained and being questioned about the nature of the Spartans and Master Chief’s true purpose. It is once again reinforced (after having been slightly explored in Reach) that the Spartan II program was set up to breed super soldiers that would quash rebel insurrection around the galaxy. Chief was made to kill other humans; We just got lucky he was there to protect against the Covenant invasion.

The point of all this is, it opens up a lot of doors and makes me wonder: where does the series go from here? It’s been stated by 343i that Halos 5 and will be darker in tone. ODST, Halo: Reach, and Halo 4 are already significantly darker than the original Halo trilogy, so I’m curious just how “dark” it’s going to get. But considering all the new wrinkles made in 4, we could be in for quite a surprise story-wise. We’ve got a beaten and broken Master Chief, humanity on the upswing, and the threat of both a human rebellion and/or a psychotic Spartan II meltdown on the horizon.

Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves behind chief’s visor, this time taking orders from Prof. Halsey (in order keep Cortana’s voice around), but perhaps pointing our DMR’s at rebellious humans before ultimately taking on the Prometheans/Forerunners, and perhaps finding a way to restore the lost Cortana. Of course, I’m just speculating and this reflects my own personal hopes for the series, but let’s face it: Halo 4 ends with the galaxy in a very different place than we’ve ever seen it.

So what does that mean for the gameplay? Well, hopefully, it means we’ll see something completely different.

This is a somewhat difficult point to articulate, but Halo 4′s greatest strength is also it’s biggest weakness: it feels too much like Halo.

Halo 4 is amazing in that it not only looks like Halo, and plays like Halo, it also feels fresh and new at the same time. But this was 343i’s only chance in hitting that perfect mix — the fans wanted more Halo, but can we really take another 2 full games worth of the same ideas and gameplay? 343i has their work cut out for them, and find themselves at a crossroads: more Halo, or find a new direction?

I worry that 343i’s intention is to simply keep the series at a constant pace, despite the new directions taken in 4. However, I also wouldn’t be surprised if this was a transitional experience, giving us enough of a mix between new and old ideas so that we have a point of reference for the next game; “It’s a lot different from Bungie’s Halos, but it still feels a lot like Halo 4” is something I’d like to hear come games 5 and 6. Specifically, I want to see 343i put their own spin and identity on Halo. We’ve already got a new art direction, new music, a new story, new enemies, new technology, new lore, a new threat, new weapons *deep breath,* a new dimension to Chief, an opening for a new AI character, and new faces to recognize NOT TO MENTION a new take on multiplayer…

So specifically, where do I want the series to go?

For starters, really pair down or nix altogether the use of the Covenant. Yes, that’s right: give the Covies the boot. Why are we even fighting them again in the first place? Why are the Elites with them? Where are the Brutes? What became of the Arbiter? Look, we’ve spent 6 games fighting these suckers. I know it’s an odd thought not seeing their iconic silhouettes or using their familiar weapons, but just look at how well 343i integrated the Prometheans in Halo’s universe and gameplay. Sure, the Covies got a visual overhaul, but they fought in the exact same way as they have for the past 6 games, and with the same weapons (which, by the way, no longer sound like the used to). I was actually disappointed when we learned a few months after the E3 reveal that the Covenant were going to be featured heavily in the story. I want to see what Halo can do with new enemies, and to me, the Promethean were proof the series doesn’t need the covenant to be fun or “feel” like Halo.

So let’s get some new enemies to fight. I’d love for the Promethean Knights and Crawlers to return, maybe this time alongside Forerunners or other Prometheans. Or hell, the aliens from Marathon, or have us fighting other Spartans–  I don’t care, just give us something new to fight! And while you’re at it, some new weapons as well.

The Prometheans were the highlight of Halo 4‘s combat

Finally, I’d like to see the level formula mixed up. Reach and gave us larger arenas to fight in, as well as memorable set pieces and a wide array of weapons and explosives, and Halo 4 especially had some new level design ideas to take advantage of the Promethean’s new tactics. But for the most part, we were doing the same things we’ve always done: take warthog to installation, enter installation, escape, enter massive battlefield, take out key points, rinse, repeat. Besides a few clever vehicle moments and some sweet behind-the visor QTE’s, Halo 4 fit mostly into pre-existing level design philosophies. Which, to be fair, is extremely impressive and a triumph for 343i, but let’s face it: Halo is 11 years old. It might be time for some new ideas.

What if we were given even more freedom? What if the battlefields were truly massive? I could imagine a game where there was an open “over world” of sorts, with smaller, more focused areas where the gameplay would resemble the level structure of previous Halos. I’m not talking Skyrim or GTA, but perhaps the team could further utilize their Metroid Prime talent and inspiration to allow for more exploration, some non-linear gameplay, and maybe even the “find a new weapon/ability to access new areas” paradigm. I know this is all just what if’s and daydreaming, but seriously, there are some really cool places 343i could take the series without sacrificing the soul of the series. And I didn’t even touch on the ways the multiplayer could evolve.

To be fair, it’s possible with Halo 4 being on the Xbox 360, 353i had to stay within the constraints of the hardware, not to mention meet certain expectations of the fans. Hopefully, the transitional elements of Halo 4, paired with the switch to next-gen hardware, will not only make for an even prettier Halo experience, but facilitate some creativity as well.

At any rate, Halo 4 is probably the best Halo since Halo. As it stands, it is on the top of my short list for Game of the Year 2012. 343i has taken one of the most beloved franchises to new heights, and I look forward to (and sincerely hope for) a new, exciting future of Halo. 

I’m curious to hear your thoughts as well, on everything from the story, to the multiplayer, to the campaign, to the future of the series — what are your thoughts, reactions, hopes, concerns, etc.? We here at Power Cords love talking about Halo, so please, indulge us!

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8 thoughts on “Where to next, Chief? Pondering Halo’s future.

  1. At the end of Halo 3 I was almost positive that planet they showed at the end of the Legendary Ending was Marathon and I was ecstatic. If they incorporated Marathon in with the forerunners in the next to games I would be so stoked especially with that Marathon remake or new game (I am not sure which it is) in the works. Also if we were fighting enemy Spartans in the campaign my mind would explode. in a good way

    1. Yeah, I actually wouldn’t have been surprised if that was the direction the series would’ve took had Bungie still been involved. Also, I agree: Chief fighting other spartans would be nuts!

  2. i loved how character-focused this game was. You saw hints of the emotional depth of the Chief-Cortana relationship in previous games, most noticeably Halo 3, but here they really pick it up and run with it. That last scene between them… through some magical combination of voice acting, motion capture, and animation, you don’t have to see his face to know what he’s feeling.

    Love your idea about giving future games more of an open world feel. i think that could go very well with Bungie and 343i’s previous use of stuff like terminals as a way to explore the game world and it’s history. Like in the second level of Halo 4 when you’re in a field of debris, you can access one of Dr. Halsey’s logs and a recording of the Covenant’s broadcast of the word “Didact”. Finding those things made me look for more as the game went on. So making the world more explorable with even more of that stuff to find would be quite welcome.

    While i agree that we should be seeing a lot less of the Covenant during gameplay in the future, i feel like story-wise they have to stick around. They’re a part of the game universe, and since Halo 4 really set up the idea of humanity finally having the dominant role in the galaxy, we still need to some non-dominant non-humans to populate that galaxy. And of course, we have to see the Arbiter again. He was my favorite part of Halo 2, especially how his role as deuteragonist gave the Covenant a voice in the story. For Arby’s sake, i hope to see them again. But i certainly am okay with not having to fight them; you’re right in that Halo 4 showed they could successfully introduce a new enemy. Let’s keep moving in that direction.

    One of the very, very few problems i had, and a minor one at that, was that Requiem wasn’t really explored as much as i hoped it would be. For one thing, i don’t remember them even referring to it as a Shield World (i’ve only played it twice now, so maybe i missed it). It’s a concept only really discussed in the books (not to abuse the use of parentheses here, but i think you bought me one of those books ages ago. Halo: The Flood? Thanks, dude). Anyway, since they’re integrating so much of this Forerunner and Spartan backstory into the core of the game’s narrative, it would have made sense to talk about the Shield Worlds and their role as protection against the Halos. The Didact was even responsible for constructing the Shield Worlds, which makes being imprisoned in one super-duper ironic. So, you know, that kind of stuff. But i can’t REALLY complain, because they’ve already gone to such great lengths to include all this info that was either previously inserted into the games as easter eggs or only mentioned in the books.

    Also, since Chief had the option to read those conversations between the Didact and the Librarian in Halo 3 via the terminals, you’d think he’d voice some recognition when he runs into both of them. But again, nit-picky.

    That opening scene was very well-done, and kind of took me aback with how blunt they were about the morality and complexity of the super-soldiers program, and the importance of the Chief as a human being – topics that weren’t really discussed in previous games, as the Covenant and the Flood sort of had everyone’s attention. But it was the good kind of blunt. Okay, the second good kind of blunt. It was exactly what i was hoping for. Now that the Human-Covenant War is over and the Flood is no longer a threat (hopefully), they can finally address these issues. If 4 is a sign of things to come, i am really excited for this trilogy.

    i was hoping for a scene with Chief and Halsey at the end, to bookend the game. But since they even bothered to open the game with her i’m sure she’ll have a more substantial role in Halo 5. And like you say, that’ll ensure Jen Taylor still has work.

    Well, thanks for letting me nerd all over the place. Sorry about the mess.

    1. I probably should’ve been more clear, but I only meant that the covie’s should be less of an enemy in future games. And I also agree about the Arby: where is he??

      But yes, open world. I thought Requiem was a gorgeous setting, and some of those brief moments of quiet exploration (the post-crash level in particular) were excellent as well. A part of me is hesitant to say “go on, really change it!” because the other part knows that Halo appeals to a certain part of its fanbase solely because it’s a first person shooter with robust multiplayer. But like I said, I really enjoy the campaign in Halo games quite a lot, probably even more than the multiplayer despite that mode having the “longest legs” in terms of what I go back to months after the campaign has already been completed. So, naturally, campaign is where I’d like to see the most growth.

      And yes, that was me who gave you Halo: The Flood. I can still recall standing in the lunch line while you explained to me the ending of the original Halo: CE. Oh, and if I’m not mistaken, there was also the “glue figure” project which was based around Master Chief, yes? Or am I just embellishing that memory for myself haha?

      1. i agree, new trilogy means it’s time to move away from the Covenant… even though what i’ve seen of the Spartan Ops makes it look like they’re still very much part of the picture.

        i could see why it might have been a good call to keep them around for Halo 4, as it let players ease into the game rather than immediately throw them against the new enemies. And like you said about it being a transitional experience. Now that 343 has shown what they can introduce to the series, they might be able to take more risks for the next games.

        i think Arby’s busy being president of the Elites, or something like that. i dunno, haven’t read the recent books yet. But it’d be excellent to see him in a game again. i miss the divided consciousness of Halo 2, and the buddy action movie of 3.

        Maybe a good way to sort of compromise on the open world/FPS conflict would be to design larger maps with more to explore via multiple pathways, but still provide a waypoint and a fairly straightforward route to the goal. People who want to zip through the campaign and then jump into multiplayer are free to, and people who want to immerse themselves in the story and the environment can too. Also any excuse to throw in more Marathon references is always welcome.

        Speaking of Spartan Ops, i think there’s a lot of potential there. i haven’t played any of the missions yet because of a severe lack of Xbox Live, but i’ve seen the cutscenes on the youtube.

        i really don’t remember the glue figure project. But i wouldn’t be surprised. i had a lot of projects.

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