Halo History: A Look Back at the Evolution of the Halo Franchise

Key Points

  • Halo’s evolution is essential to console gaming.

  • Many consider the peak of the series to be Halo 3.

  • Where Halo goes next is an exciting proposition. 

The Halo universe kicked off in 2001, and first-person shooters have forever changed because of its success. Halo drew from the classic gameplay of Bungie franchises Marathon and Myth: The Fallen Lords to change gaming forever and turn Xbox into a household name. Characters like the Master Chief, iconic weapons, maps, art design, and music written by Marty O’Donnell are the staples of the series’ staying power and impact on gaming culture.

Consider this a look into the evolution of the Halo franchise, whether you’re interested in their stories, multiplayer matchmaking, or esports.

Halo Infinite from the Halo franchise

2001: Halo: Combat Evolved

The little guy who started it all, Combat Evolved, revolutionized home console shooters. Introducing characters such as John-117 (AKA Master Chief), Cortana, 343 Guilty Spark, and the alien Covenant brought a compelling story world to players. Couch multiplayer thrived in hilarious party settings and grassroots competitions that saw players refining their skill sets for ultimate Spartan glory.

Combat Evolved is a landmark title for Bungie and gaming at large. It made the twin stick controller method viable, using the left stick to control player movement and the right stick to control the camera, or where the gun aims. This control scheme replicated a mouse and keyboard setup. However, Halo also has aim assist with acceleration, friction, snapping, and bullet magnetism — features that virtually every shooter still uses.

Combat Evolved is a perfect combination of world, music, weapons, vehicles, and art style that disrupted the balance of console gaming as few titles ever had. It set the stage for plenty of sequels to follow. 

Halo Combat Evolved Photo source: Halopedia.org

2004: Halo 2

Halo 2 built upon the success of Combat Evolved and took things further with the launch of Xbox Live multiplayer. This was the first viable option for home console online play. The Halo 2 campaign is easily the deepest story of the original trilogy. John-117's stoicism and duty to humanity contrast sharply with the introduction of the Arbiter’s warrior honor and fealty to the Covenant. Halo 2 expanded console esports with its partnership with Major League Gaming (MLG), making names like the OGRE twins and Walshy into sponsored eAthletes.

With the onset of Xbox Live multiplayer, players could ditch the creaky chair at their desktop and instead connect with millions of other players globally, trash-talking Snipes80085 from the comfort of their couch with Doritos nearby. Halo 2 ushered the series and multiplayer splendor online, positioning Halo 3 for a grand slam hit.

2007: Halo 3

To many, this game is the peak. It’s not hard to understand why — despite six other games being released in the nearly 16 years since Halo 3 came on the scene, Halo 3 sold over 14.5 million copies. Reach is the next closest game in sales, with just under 10 million copies sold. Halo 3 also contributed to the millions of Xbox 360s sold, driving a rise of active players on Xbox Live to reach over one million, a then-unprecedented record. Sales numbers alone don’t do this game justice.

Halo 3 video game Photo source: Halopedia.org

The original trilogy reaches an epic conclusion when the conflict with the Covenant comes to a head on the Forerunner Ark. While the storyline continued to engage players, the lasting legacy of Halo 3, however, remains in its social features, connecting players for an absurd amount of fun in several ways. Here's how:

  • Forge debuted, allowing players to edit and create new game modes.

  • Splitscreen campaigns and online multiplayer matchmaking now could split four ways.

  • Playlists offered a plethora of social and competitive modes, including an official MLG playlist to emulate OGRE1 and OGRE2’s highlight plays on the Pro Circuit.

  • Armor customization allowed for variety and simplicity that other titles struggled to balance.

  • Theater and file sharing now offered proof of your Killionaire with the Mauler on Blackout. Because that still totally happened, Mitch! 

Halo 3’s gameplay is the series' peak because every entry after is controversial or divisive. It’s difficult to follow up on the genius of Halo 3, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying.

2009: Halo Wars

As a real-time strategy spin-off developed by Ensemble Studios, instead of the original trilogy’s characters, this story focuses on the crew of the Spirit of Fire and their struggle in the earlier years of the Covenant conflict. It plays well and offers a great Halo story experience. Arguably the most important point, its follow-up in Halo Wars 2 (released in 2017) introduced the Banished, the main antagonist faction in Halo Infinite. Before the story even boots up, however, it’s clear that this real-time strategy game remains a core title in Halo.

2010: Halo: Reach

Bungie’s final title in the Halo universe became a full circle moment — Reach served as a direct prequel and handoff to Combat Evolved, an ending joining the beginning, just as a ring has no beginning and no end. 

Reach follows Noble Team, a squad of Spartans, and their heroic sacrifices during the fall of Reach, one of the oldest human colonies in Halo lore. The story is a swell of emotion and reflects what Halo means to its creators while looking toward the future. Its armor customization for both Elites and Spartans alike remains a fan favorite. While its esports scene showed signs of wear against rising titans like Call of Duty, Reach is commonly considered a testing ground for what Bungie eventually implemented in Destiny

Halo Reach Photo source: Halopedia.org

2012: Halo 4

The first mainline game developed by 343 Industries picks up four years after the events of Halo 3 and addresses the mystery of the Forerunners themselves. This is in the form of the Prometheans, with silvery metal weapons emitting a neon orange glow, which complements a detail-heavy art style.

Halo 4 contrasts sharply with Bungie’s games. It is the beginning of what 343 Industries calls the Reclaimer Saga, the return of the Forerunners and an army of Prometheans led by the Didact. Cortana endures rampancy throughout the game, a death stage for AI, and she heroically sacrifices herself at the story's climax to save Earth from the Didact’s onslaught.

Halo 4’s multiplayer implements loadouts and other abilities, resembling other popular first-person shooters of the time. This speeds up the game but loses much of that core Halo combat within previous games. It is considered a controversial entry for iterating too much from other franchises while sacrificing some of Halo's identity. It does have its fans, however.   

2015: Halo 5: Guardians

If you’ve heard of Halo 5: Guardians, you understand it is easily the series' most controversial game. Cortana returns as the game’s main villain, commanding both Prometheans and AI armies. Master Chief goes AWOL to track her down, and Spartan Locke, a new protagonist, is tasked with bringing him in alive for desertion. This campaign introduces a multitude of new ideas without exploring them to any degree of satisfaction.

Halo 5 Guardians Photo source: Halopedia.org

Multiplayer is a similar story, but not exactly. The REQ Pack (requisition package) system is a controversial loot box iteration that paywalls a lot of armor, but the gameplay is faster than ever, implementing an aim-down-sights mechanic and advanced movement option that other shooters didn’t have. In the casual sense, Halo 5 also brought in the popular Warzone mode, which pits two teams of 12 against one another in objective-based play — capture bases, kill high-value targets, and destroy the enemy team’s core, and you win. Halo esports received full backing from Microsoft with the Halo Championship Series (HCS), fostering new talent year after year. While Halo 5 did a number on the Halo brand, it is essential to understand what changed and how it affected the series into the future.

2021: Halo Infinite

343 Industries suffered an identity crisis after Halo 5: Guardians’ backlash. As such, the studio described the next game as “a love letter to Halo” and “a spiritual reboot.” Troy Mashburn of 343 Industries explains, "'Spiritual Reboot' is a term we use to describe our approach to introducing new ideas while staying true to what it felt like to play the classic games." These ideas show, for better or worse.

The Master Chief’s look resembles his armor style in Bungie’s original trilogy. Classic Halo themes play boisterously throughout the open-world campaign. The story harkens back to the fall of Reach, bringing humanity to the brink of destruction, and only the heroics of the Spartans can save it. With the Weapon, a character similar to Cortana, John-117 squares up with the Banished, a splinter of the Covenant for control of Zeta Halo, Installation 07. The campaign is exhilarating and a return to the franchise's standards.

Halo Infinite Photo source: Halopedia.org

Infinite also is the first mainline Halo to go free-to-play, which brings its pros and cons. On the one hand, it is a multiplayer game that is free to anyone who has either a PC or Xbox One and above. Unfortunately, this means most of the armor customization is paywalled to some extent, whether underneath the $10 season battle pass or marked-up bundles in the game’s shop. HCS is competitive and popular on streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube, and one of the primary reasons Halo Infinite is still kicking despite a rocky launch.   

Forward Unto Dawn

Where the franchise goes from here is open to speculation. Games like Halo 3: ODST and Halo Wars mean that there’s a market for quality spin-offs. The cliffhanger ending of Halo Infinite means there’s plenty more story to tell, whether a true continuation of the Reclaimer Saga or not. Infinite remains a top priority for 343 Industries, with rumored additions of more playlists like Warzone mode and a battle royale. However, what comes next remains intriguing to loyal and returning fans alike.

Stick around on HaloHype for all things in the Halo universe, including lore, characters, multiplayer guides, gaming, and gear!

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