Halo is without a doubt one of the most pivotal game franchises of all-time and is currently sitting comfortably in 23rd place on the list of the best-selling video games ever made with 65 million copies sold. The series helped popularize the first-person shooter genre of games, as well as cooperative play and eventually online multiplayer. Most importantly, the series threw players into a world rich with lore and a masterfully told story that only a handful of other franchises have been able to come close to. Halo 5 is just around the corner, and with it, many changes that have taken place in the games over the many years since it first released in November of 2001. Before we drop into its fifth installment, however, let's take a step back to see how far Halo has come over the years. After all, you have to know how a story starts to know how it ends.
Believe it or not, Halo actually starts millions of years before where it starts us in Halo: Combat Evolved, which takes place in 2552. The very beginning of Halo takes place exactly 15,000,000 years before anything else, with the seeding of the Forerunner species. Over a span of 5,000,000 years, the Forerunners evolved and rose up to eventually destroy their creators, the Precursors, for denying them the "Mantle of Responsibility" and giving it to Humanity in their place. During the Forerunner-Precursor War that ensued, the Precursors were eventually wiped out by their own creations. Those that remained in the wake of the Forerunner's wrath were given a choice: be spared by the Forerunners or exact vengeance upon them. Feeling betrayed by whom they considered children, the Precursors warped into a dust-like form that served as a fail-safe in case of their demise. In this form, they brooded and seethed with hate and anger for what the Forerunners had done to them. They plotted their vengeance and channeled all their rage into a plot to destroy the Forerunners in return; a plan that introduced the greatest threat ever presented in the history of Halo: the Flood.
But what drove the Forerunners to such drastic lengths? Why would they destroy their own creators and set off a chain of events that would create a threat like the Flood? They were denied the Mantle of Responsibility, which became a central Forerunner philosophy that was the origin for their self-appointed authority in the galaxy and their desire to cultivate and protect life. Ancient humans were initially chosen to receive the Mantle when the Precursors moved on, but the Forerunners could not accept that. The Precursors that survived in their dust-like form became twisted over many millions of years, and were a corrupt version of their original selves. They were first encountered by an ancient human empire in cylinders containing the dust. Experiments showed that the dust only produced minor psychotropic effects in species besides humans and San'Shyuum, so it was given to a domesticated species known as the Pheru to improve their behavior. This induced changes in the Pheru that turned them from herbivores into carnivores, turning on each other and craving flesh. This "infection" began to spread to humans, who normally consumed Pheru and were not aware of the dangers that the dust posed to them. The dust, being a form of the Precursors, was constantly evolving itself to further its plans against the Forerunners. It developed traits to enhance aggression and improve the ways it could spread to other species.
The human and San'Shyuum alliance developed a way to combat the Flood by altering the genetic code of the Flood and inserting it into humans. This alteration proved to stop the infection in its tracks and had the potential to wipe the Flood out completely. Faced with a major threat to their survival, the Flood retreated from the galaxy to return later.
The Forerunners soon learned of the threat that the Flood presented, prompting them to create the ultimate weapon against them: Halo.
The humans' war against the Flood attracted the attention of the Forerunners, creating a war between the two highly advanced civilizations. A war which humanity lost and as punishment, the Didact, leader of the Forerunners, stripped humans of everything they had and confined them to Earth. The Librarian, who was in charge of sending species to the shelter of the Ark just outside of the galaxy, became the de facto caretaker and guardian of the human race.
The Flood returned about 10,000 years later, as the Forerunners anticipated, and began their conquest of the galaxy anew. Only after their efforts to contain and suppress the Flood in a non-combative way failed did the Forerunners use the Halo Arrays. With all of the preparations made, and the seeds for survival planted for other species within the Ark, Halo was finally used and it cleansed the galaxy of most sentient life, Forerunners included. The surviving Forerunners, using the Ark and their technology, created an environment where life could reemerge and have a defense against the Flood. After doing this, what remained of the Forerunners disappeared.
As the Forerunners, particularly the Librarian, had planned, humanity returns and advances to a space-faring civilization once again. Though the years building up to the start of Halo are far from pleasant. There was significant turmoil in the 22nd and 23rd centuries, until the UNSC stomped out opposition and established a united Earth government. in 2291, the Shaw-Fujikawa Translight Engine was developed, which enabled "slipspace travel" and propelled humanity into another technological stage. In the years following this, many previously inaccessible worlds were made available for colonization, creating another human empire across the galaxy. Though these many new worlds became distant from each other, and especially distant from their home government. Rebellions rose, and insurrections quickly became commonplace. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) spearheads a rebooted ORION Project in 2491 in an effort to create super-soldiers that can more effectively end the uprisings and give rebels something to fear. This project, however, was deemed too ineffective, giving Dr. Catherine Halsey her chance to create something with the SPARTAN Program.
The SPARTAN Program was conceived by Halsey in 2517 as a way to quell the insurrections and reduce costs of stopping uprisings, as well as not directly using the military. Though the project itself had very strict requirements, she was eventually able to locate 75 subjects, all at six years of age. All of the potential SPARTAN-IIs went through a grueling eight years of training, where they then went through a procedure to physically and biologically alter the subjects, turning them into true SPARTAN-IIs. The procedure took place in 2525, and killed 30 of the subjects, crippling another 12. The ones that survived were as unlucky, if not more so than their fallen comrades, as the 14-year old super-soldiers would be the key players in the Human-Covenant War that began later that very year.
SPARTAN-IIs garnered a massive boost in morale across all of the human colonies, known for their superhuman skills and tactics as well as their ability to outrightly do the impossible. The SPARTAN-IIs were highly effective against the Covenant when they were able to counteract their attacks, but they were not high enough in numbers to protect all of the human colonies. ONI called for a SPARTAN-III program, in significantly higher numbers than its predecessor, but lacking MJOLNIR armor which gave the SPARTAN-IIs their great advantage in combat. The SPARTAN-IIIs were often used in high-risk missions with the end result normally being a suicide run. SPARTAN casualties ensued in the war against the technologically and numerically advanced Covenant, but it was not allowed to list the SPARTANs as killed. They could only ever be 'Missing in action' or 'Wounded in action' to convince people that they were truly invincible.
The SPARTAN-IIs collectively gathered on Reach in 2552, where an operation was in the works to end the war with the Covenant. The plan was to commandeer a Covenant vessel, capture Covenant leadership and negotiate a truce by bartering the lives of their leaders, who the Covenant races revered for religious reasons. The plan was interrupted, however, when the Covenant invaded Reach and eventually glassed the planet. The Covenant were able to find Reach by following a human vessel transporting a Forerunner artifact which ends up being a star chart. John-117, now partnered with Cortana, a "smart" A.I., boarded the UNSC Pillar of Autumn and performed a jump to the location listed on the retrieved star chart. They would unknowingly end up at the most destructive weapon in the entire galaxy: one of the Halo Arrays constructed by the Forerunners thousands of years beforehand.
Halo: Combat Evolved gave gamers many unique changes from previous first-person shooters. At the time, everything about it was beautiful and spectacular: the graphics, the story, the sounds, the gameplay. It was what all new franchises nowadays should aim to be.
We start the game as John-117, the Master Chief, aboard the UNSC Pillar of Autumn with our A.I. Cortana. The Covenant follows closely on our heels in the hopes of discovering another major human world, but instead, finds the massively destructive Halo Array, the object of their religious worship of the Forerunners. The frigate is boarded and damaged by the Covenant, which forces John to land on the surface of the ring via an escape pod. On the ring's surface, small-scale battles are fought over Installation 04 and the Covenant suffers major casualties as they are not able to glass the surface since it is considered holy by them. The Covenant unwittingly release the Flood on the ring, bringing back the ancient threat of the Flood that humanity is now tasked with destroying yet again. A Forerunner A.I. charged with control over Installation 04 named 343 Guilty Spark provides John and Cortana with a way to destroy the Flood: activating Halo. Cortana reveals that the Halo Array will do more than what 343 Guilty Spark tells them, and humanity would be wiped out as a result of activating the ring. John then destroys the ring by overloading the engines of the Pillar of Autumn.
Halo 2 is widely regarded to be the best addition to the entire franchise. It saw many changes to its gameplay such as the introduction of health, boarding vehicles, new weapons and dual-wielding and loads of new enemies. But more importantly, Halo 2 offered an insightful perspective into the Covenant and what drove them to want to destroy humanity. It showed us everything from their religion to their politics from the eyes of the fan-favorite character Thel'Vadam, or as he is more commonly referred to, the Arbiter.
Halo 2 starts players off on the High Charity, the mobile capital city for the Covenant. Former Supreme Commander Thel'Vadamee is answering for his failed attempt at protecting Halo, that the player destroys in the first Halo. After this hearing, he is stripped of his rank and given the Mark of Shame by Tartarus, the fearsome Chieftain of the Brutes. The player is then shown a scene in which John-117 is attending an award ceremony where he receives a new set of MJOLNIR Mark VI armor. The ceremony is interrupted by Cortana who shares a report of several Covenant capital ships in their vicinity, which signaled the beginning of the Covenant's invasion of Earth.
The story continues to follow John-117 in his pursuit of one of the High Prophets, Regret. They are led to Installation 05, another part of the vast Halo Array, and realize they must kill the Covenant leader to stop him from using Halo. John-117 accomplishes this task, and in his attempt to escape, he is saved by an unlikely entity: a Flood Gravemind. With a High Prophet's death, chaos followed and removed the Elites as the protectors of the Prophets, and replaced them with the Brutes, creating further tension between the two races. This is greatly escalated when Thel'Vadamee is later teleported to the control room on Halo, where he finds many dead kin, slain by Tartarus and his brutes. An alliance is formed between humans and Elites as they pursue Tartarus who is still trying to activate Halo. Stemming from this newly-formed alliance, Tartarus is defeated and his plans to activate Halo are swiftly ended, but a failsafe is prompted that would enable the firing of the entire Halo Array from the Ark, which would end all life in the galaxy yet again if it were to be activated.
Halo 2 had mixed reception for awhile after it came out, but some believe the changes made to the series to be crucial and changed how it would be played for the rest of the franchise's life. Halo 2 also saw online multiplayer, which invokes many nostalgic memories for everyone who has played it in the past. Regardless, Halo had established itself as a series and showed that it was not going to be stopping anytime soon.
Halo 3 is thought by many who have played it to be the pinnacle of FPS games. It redefined online multiplayer and shaped how multiplayer would be done since its release in 2007. It saw many improvements from Halo 2, a lot of them being from the next-gen console at the time. Visually, Halo 3 was a major step above games in the other series and most other games released at the time. Halo 3 also introduced the Forge and Theater game modes to enjoy clips of their favorite games and the ability to customize the default maps. Because of Forge, Halo 3 saw an insane number of people flocking to Custom Games, and I'm sure we can all reminisce to the days where game modes like "Fat Kid", "Jenga" and many of the other hundreds of variations of custom games rose to fame. Not only did the third and final game of this trilogy give players many options for multiplayer, it also gave them a great campaign and the ending that Halo fans wanted to see.
The story begins where Halo 2 leaves off, with John-117 plummeting down to Earth nearly two weeks after he stopped the Halo Array from being fired. When John-117 is awakened on the surface, he meets with a face he's seen before, but not as an ally: the Arbiter. Sergeant Major Johnson explains that an alliance has been formed, and the Elites are no longer their enemy, to which John seems indifferent to. John-117's presence is requested at nearby UNSC outpost to help develop a strategy to prevent the Covenant from reaching the Ark, and the plan is quickly put forth into action. During the span of the story, Earth fights off an invasion of the Covenant as well as the Flood, eventually culminating in all major parties arriving at the Ark through a portal found in Africa. The Prophet of Truth is killed by the Arbiter, but not without incurring heavy losses on our side.
After this, we find out that the Ark has been reconstructing the original Installation 04 from Halo: Combat Evolved to ensure that the weapon can be used to its fullest extent. John understands that the Flood will consume the entire galaxy if it is not stopped, so he decides to activate the new Halo ring. He seeks out the Index that Cortana still has from their time on Installation 04, and make their way to the ring. The Flood makes every effort to stop them, as does 343 Guilty Spark when he realizes that the Installation will be destroyed again. Johnson is killed in the ensuing fight, with the Chief avenging him shortly after. The last part of Halo 3 is a driving sequence that every Halo fan is sure to remember, even to this day. As our Warthog pulls into the frigate's loading dock, we feel a certain sense of safety if only for a few moments. As our relief turns to shock, our ship is torn in half with the Arbiter's side making it back to Earth while the side John was on is left in a distant region in space. Halo 3 ends with a scene commemorating the fallen, with "117" scrawled onto the memorial to honor the supposed death of SPARTAN-117.
Halo received two releases to the series after Halo 3, though neither of them saw a continuation to the Master Chief's story. Nevertheless, the games that followed after Halo 3 were still great games, in their own right.
Halo 3: ODST was a huge change of pace for the series. It was the first Halo game to feature a protagonist besides John-117. Our hero this time around was a silent ODST marine nicknamed "the Rookie". Halo 3: ODST got many changes to its gameplay, namely from the change from being a SPARTAN to an ODST. Many in-game features and the strength of our character had to be toned down or altered to match the strengths and weaknesses of ODST soldiers, since they were vastly different from SPARTANs. Some other huge adjustments to the game was the removal of online multiplayer. In its place, a new game mode called Firefight was added which was a unique survival game type where the team of ODSTs had to defend a location and survive against endless waves of Covenant forces. This and cooperative campaign were the only forms of online multiplayer that this game had, which received many complaints from fans of the series.
One thing that was added that was the subject of many good reviews for the game was its story. Halo 3: ODST gave players an open-world setting, playing as an enigmatic ODST in the city of New Mombasa after being invaded by the Covenant. The goal for the player is to scour the city in search of Beacons to figure out what happened to your squad after your escape pod crashes and the Rookie is knocked unconscious for several hours. Finding these Beacons puts the player in control of one of the Rookie's squad mates and provides the Rookie with clues as to what happened to the rest of his team. This eventually leads him to his team, and ends with the extraction of a very important character to the story.
Bungie heard lots of criticism for their "linear" gameplay, and this was addressed in Halo 3: ODST's story. The Beacons can be found in any order that the player chooses, and the city itself is open to explore and do whatever you want throughout your time in the game.
Bungie's final Halo title was Halo: Reach, which saw even more changes to it than ever before. Armor abilities were added, and many other common elements from other games such as sprinting and faster game pacing were brought in as well. Invasion was a huge game mode added to put players in the roles of SPARTAN defenders and Covenant invaders, and vice versa. It also retained many of the popular game modes from Halo 3, but with a different spin on them for Halo: Reach.
This game's story follows the events that transpired on the planet Reach, which resulted in the death of nearly every SPARTAN at the time. Halo: Reach gave fans another story that did not follow the iconic Master Chief, and instead put players in the shoes of Noble-Six. Many different objectives are presented throughout the game, with the first one being to identify the cause of a communications relay going offline. This leads to the discovery of the Covenant on Reach, where Noble Team's objectives are changed dramatically. Noble-Six is shown to be a very deadly, especially for a SPARTAN, as he is able to take down a Covenant super-carrier with the help of SPARTAN-052, Jorge. After he reunites with Noble Team, the true objective of the squad becomes clear: to escort the A.I. Cortana off of Reach and onto the Pillar of Autumn. The entirety of Noble-Team gives their lives at some point to ensure that Cortana is safe, and the game's final scene is a standoff between Noble-Six and what seems like an endless horde of Covenant to try and take him down. After sending hundreds of Covenant at the isolated SPARTAN, Noble-Six is eventually taken down, but not before he takes the lives of all the Elites around him.
Unfortunately, Halo: Reach was the last game in the series to be developed by Bungie Studios, which became Bungie, LLC after Halo 3's release. Microsoft retained the rights to the series, and eventually gave it up to 343 Industries, who has since taken up the Mantle for the legendary franchise.
Under new developers 343i, Halo 4 was released in 2012. Many differences can be noted and attributed to the new development team behind the series, especially when it comes to the direction that the story goes in. Aside from the story, Halo 4 also saw a new cooperative game mode called "Spartan Ops" which was an episodic addition to the campaign, though Master Chief was not a playable character for the episodes in Spartan Ops. The multiplayer was also made to seem more realistic, with the concept of it being a SPARTAN-IV simulation where newly-trained SPARTANs would fight virtually instead of previous multiplayer where there was no story or idea behind it.
Halo 4's story put players back into the role of the fabled Master Chief, years after he had gone missing from the events in Halo 3. In his time spent in cryo-sleep, Cortana spends 4 years in complete solitude which combined with her age, makes her go through a state of rampancy. She awakens John-117 after they are scanned by the Forerunner Shield World Requiem. Shortly after, they are boarded by loyalist Covenant forces until they crash land onto the Forerunner planet's surface. The UNSC's newly-created Infinity picks up the distress call that was sent so long ago by John and Cortana, commandeered by an old friend to the Chief whom he had saved many years before the events of Halo 4. The UNSC Infinity, in an effort to bring back a hero, travels to Requiem and gets caught up in the Forerunner defenses and becomes involved when John unintentionally releases the Ur-Didact, an ancient Forerunner warrior and former leader of the Forerunners.
In an attempt to get the UNSC Infinity off of Requiem to pursue the Ur-Didact, John is contacted by another Forerunner: the Librarian, humanity's guardian. In their brief interaction, the Librarian tells John about the Forerunners and how they chose to deal with the threat of the Flood. They had developed a machine able to digitize warriors under the Didact's command to make them immune to Flood infestations. The Ur-Didact's plan after being freed by the Chief is to find this machine, the Composer, and use it to destroy humanity because he views them as a greater threat than the Flood. The Ur-Didact is successful in retrieving the Composer, but John is also successful in stopping him, though it is known that the Chief would have died had Cortana not intervened in a split-second moment when the Chief detonated a bomb to kill the Ur-Didact.
The Chief is found floating in space in the midst of debris from the Composer, and is eventually brought back to Earth.
Halo 4 received mixed criticism for how they portrayed John-117 in this game. Previously, he was a strong, silent type but 343i wanted to make him more "human", and players noticed that the Chief interacted and spoke a lot more. There is also a pass made at this near the end of the game where John is told that "soldiers aren't machines."
Finally, we have arrived to the upcoming Halo 5: Guardians. The rich story of the series is going to be continued in its second trilogy, though this time the Chief is not alone. Reunited with the SPARTAN-IIs he grew up and trained with, Blue Team is reunited. All that is known about the upcoming game is that it will follow John-117 and Blue Team, and it will also follow a team of SPARTAN-IVs trying to track them down. It has not yet been revealed why Blue Team goes AWOL, but we can be sure that the Chief would not shy away from the UNSC without good cause.
Although not much is known about what Halo 5: Guardians will be about, we can be hopeful that the series is in good hands. Halo has most certainly had its ups and downs in the past 15 years, but it's always had a special place in the hearts of gamers all around the world. From what has been shown of the gameplay, Halo 5: Guardians does not look like it will disappoint its fans.
Are you hopeful for the next titanic Halo release? Or, like many others, have you given up on the series? If one thing about the series is for certain, it is that 343i definitely aims to send the series out with a bang.