Officially, Halo has been a trilogy. There have only been three numbered games in the series, despite an RTS spin-off, a side-story that followed an Orbital Drop Shock Troop squad through a Covenant-occupied New Mombasa, and the prequel (yet, ironically, last of the series to be developed by franchise creator Bungie), Halo Reach. Largely first-person shooters, sharing the same core mechanics, what distinguishes a "secondary" title like Halo Reach from its numbered brethren?
343 Industries, new curators of the Halo license, feels that it's all in the protagonist. John, designation: Spartan 117, rank: Master Chief. Halo's mostly silent main character has always acted as more of a cipher for the players than his own entity, which, as we mentioned in our preview of the game, is something 343 Industries hopes to change. John has an extensive history and distinct character traits, found in sources outside the Halo games themselves, such as the comics and the animations.
If by "revitalize" we simply mean "shake up," then Halo 4's direction alone should be enough. Changing a character designed to "not get in the way" of how players are reacting to the world they're in and the events unfolding before them, specifically so that he and his personality are central to that action? It's a gutsy move, but if it pays off, it could easily extend the franchise's story across the already-announced trilogy of new titles.
Along those lines, a more active role for Cortana—the Chief's sassy tag-along A.I.—would likely go a long way. Whereas John was always the player's puppet or self-insertion, Cortana's dialogue has consistently been a high point in the series, her personality providing a degree of aid and companionship, even when John has been otherwise on his own. Her absence through most of Halo 3 was plot essential, but now that she's back, it would be great to see her develop more as she and John work their way through an adventure in parts unknown, with only each other.
Which brings us to another point: solitude. The original Halo didn't precisely ask players to go it alone, and it was always possible to call in a buddy for co-op, but the first game was tinged with elements of survival horror, from the first appearance by the grotesque flood to the very fact that player was stranded on the ring world. The Pillar of Autumn is boarded and brought down to the Halo installation at the beginning of the game. Players have a mission to accomplish on that ring, yes, but the knowledge that you're in an enemy territory that you can't get out of is a near-constant psychological burden. Added to that, much of the game is spent without other humans by your side, taking the Covenant on more or less single-handed.
Now that John and Cortana are stranded in space, far away from anyone whom they might know—and it's incredibly unlikely that other human characters will make an appearance in the game—there's an excellent opportunity to bring back that pall of dread, that sense of the vast and dangerous unknown that permeated the first game. The later entries were so focused on group assaults and leading players from set piece to set piece that a return to this more atmospheric, almost hopeless type of gameplay would be refreshing.
I've talked a lot about the single-player, and mostly about story and atmosphere, barely touching on the component that has led gamer after gamer prostrate themselves at Halo's altar: the multiplayer. On the one hand, that's had a lot to do with the fact that I'm drawing inspiration from the first Halo title. While it had excellent multiplayer, which was carried through and updated in its sequels, Halo: Combat Evolved was limited by the lack of internet play. Some people devised a tunneling application to play it online against others, but the only way to get more than four players in a game lag-free was to get a bunch of Xboxes together, each with a copy of the game and their own television, and link them together. Multiplayer maxed out at sixteen people. There also weren't a lot of maps that supported that many players—or, more accurately, I don't remember a lot of maps that supported sixteen players.
Halo's multiplayer, since not everyone was going to be able to set up a system-link scenario, had a plethora of levels devoted to hosting between two and four people. Smaller and more compact, they made for hectic, claustrophobic, close-range battles. With each progressive entry in the series, the message has been "bigger is better;" get more people onto one map in one multiplayer room. With online play, gamers can always find someone to play with. Those smaller maps, though, gave games played on them a more intimate, personal feel. A small-match playlist with maps like those would be tremendous, and odds are we'll see how well it pans out when Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition hits on November 15.
In general, the Halo series' core mechanics are incredibly solid, and it probably doesn't need an overhaul on the scale that Resident Evil 4 provided for its respective aging franchise. The games have always been about solid, satisfying, and skillful first-person shooting action. The best thing this newest entry can do to revitalize the Halo franchise, in my mind, is to go back to its roots and expand upon them with modern game design, all while making John the type of character players can relate to, rather than subsume with their own personalities.
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*