The year is 2001 and there are whispers of something big brewing. The people over at Bungie Studios had a dream to create the definitive next-generation console shooter. They wanted it to be a first-person shooter (FPS) unlike anything seen before. They took principles of the genre and built on them, creating new staples for many games to come.
The developers dubbed this dream Halo: Combat Evolved. Its popularity skyrocketed to the stars, which was fitting given its setting. Halo became a gaming phenomenon at launch. Fans flooded stores across the globe to get their hands on the sci-fi epic.
Over two decades later, the Halo franchise continues to dominate the market. Halo became more than a video game. It’s nostalgia for a lot of fans now. Their childhood was consumed by Master Chief and the Covenant.
The main story of Halo puts players in the role of Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, an elite soldier fighting for the United Nations Space Command against the Covenant alien species. As Master Chief, you, along with the artificially intelligent entity Cortana, run around on foot or in commandeered vehicles pursuing your objectives.
The use of vehicles was a feature unseen on previous consoles unless the game was a dedicated simulator.
The Inspiration Behind Halo
Joseph Staten, the brains behind Halo’s writing direction, pulls inspiration from different mediums, such as novels and movies when crafting a story. He puts just as much thought into the environment of the characters as he does with the characters themselves.
“I always say that the most important character in any game is the world itself,” Staten said in an interview with RollingStone Magazine. He worked long weeks, sometimes exceeding 80 hours, to craft the elaborate tale players watched unfold between intense combat gameplay.
Bungie drew inspiration from several classic pieces of science fiction when devising the concept of Halo.
The clearest piece of inspiration is Ringworld by Larry Niven. In this novel, a group of astronauts set out to an alien construct in the shape of a rotating wheel that is 186 million miles in diameter.
Other sources of inspiration include the Starhammer series of novels by Christopher Rowley and the Starship Troopers blockbuster starring Denise Richards and Casper Van Dien. These sources follow soldiers or explorers into the farthest reaches of space to fight an alien species for the good of humanity.
Such a game could only be fit for the newest and most powerful console of its time.
The big, black, and green box known simply as the Xbox was already anticipated to be the hottest item on the market. When news broke about Halo, the console’s popularity intensified and went on to become a commercial success.
This was a time when the Playstation 2 and the Nintendo Gamecube were Xbox’s top competitors. It was 2001 and graphics were outdated on current consoles. The world was ready for video games to be pushed to the edge.
Halo: Combat Evolved revolutionized the multiplayer feature in video games. It took the traditional split-screen for multiplayer gameplay to the next level. Players could choose to play through the story cooperatively or against each other in one of five competitive multiplayer modes.
Up to four players could play on the same Xbox, but multiple consoles could be joined together via a “System Link” feature. The System Link allowed up to four consoles to link up, allowing up to 16 players to challenge each other. Xbox was the true party console of the time, but the Xbox Live internet subscription service was not launched until 2002.
As of 2022, there are 16 games set in the Halo universe, spanning multiple genres and platforms. Eight of the 16 games are part of Halo’s main storyline. The remaining eight games are spin-offs that take place in the same universe. Only six of those follow the main protagonists, Master Chief and Cortana. Every iteration of Xbox — from the original Xbox to the current Xbox Series X — has received a Halo installment.
Since the franchise is owned by Microsoft, Halo can also be played on a computer that supports a Windows operating system.
Halo: Combat Evolved was released in 2001 for the original Xbox and didn’t get a sequel until 2004. Bungie improved the multiplayer for Halo 2 by giving it online multiplayer capabilities. Xbox Live was officially up and running by then, so nobody had to leave their home to trash talk and compete against friends.
New Games For New Consoles
2007 saw the launch of Halo 3 for the Xbox 360, Microsoft’s second Xbox console. Halo 3 was the conclusion to the story that began in the first installment of the series. It was thought to be the ending of Master Chief’s story, but that changes down the road. Bungie built upon the multiplayer format by allowing players to save gameplay footage and share files. The company also introduced the Forge, a map editor that allowed players to modify multiplayer maps.
That wouldn’t be the only change coming to Halo.
While most Halo games are first-person shooters, there there was a time when an entirely different development team branched the franchise into another genre.
Ensemble Studios developed Halo Wars, the first non-first-person shooter in the Halo series. It launched in 2009 to a generally positive reception. It was a real-time strategy game that took place 21 years before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved. The campaign has the player lead human soldiers into battle against the Covenant alien race.
Halo Wars was eventually re-released for Windows and the Xbox One in 2016 with Halo Wars: Definitive Edition.
In September 2009, six months after Halo Wars, Bungie released Halo 3: ODST. Instead of focusing on Master Chief and his exploits, you play as Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs).
Despite having “Halo 3” in the title, ODST takes place during and after the events of Halo 2. ODST continued Halo’s trend of being a top seller, becoming the best-selling Xbox 360 game worldwide when it was released. Halo 3: ODST was intended to be a side project that would fill the void between Halo 3 and the next Bungie-developed game, but expanded into a full game.
Luckily, fans didn’t have long to wait for the next installment.
Bungie split itself into two development teams in 2007. One team went on to produce Halo 3: ODST, while the other got to work on Halo: Reach — the next full-length Halo game and Bungie Studio's last game in the franchise.
Instead of continuing Master Chief’s story, Halo: Reach is a prequel tale that takes place on a doomed planet. The plot follows a team of Spartans known as Noble Team. The player is Noble Six, the newest Spartan on the team.
Bungie broke away from Microsoft to become an independent studio after Halo: Reach’s release, which meant leaving Halo behind. Microsoft couldn’t allow such a commercial success to evaporate into obscurity, so the tech giant promptly established 343 Studios to continue the development of Halo content.
Their first Halo installment was a remake of Combat Evolved titled Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, released in 2011 to commemorate Halo’s 10th anniversary. 343 Studios’ first original game came in 2012 with the release of Halo 4 for the Xbox 360.
In Halo 4, Master Chief and Cortana returned for a new story that included a new faction of enemies known as the Forerunners. The game received positive reviews from critics and fans alike. It was re-released in the Master Chief Edition for the Xbox One in 2014.
343 Studios partnered with Vanguard Games in 2013 and 2015 to create Halo: Spartan Assault and Spartan Strike, respectively. While these were shooters, they weren’t first-person shooters. They’re presented in the third-person and are more of a hack-and-slash type of game, but were praised for getting the look and lore of Halo spot-on.
Spartan Assault and Spartan Strike were the first mobile games in the franchise, which explains the change from FPS to a twin-stick shooter.
Shortly after Halo: Spartan Strike, 343 Studios returned to their Master Chief story. Halo 5: Guardians was released in October 2015. The story saw Master Chief go AWOL to track down his old artificial intelligence ally, Cortana. The fact that Master Chief would leave without notice called his loyalty into question and required other Spartans to track him down. This was a new angle for the series.
In 2017, 343 Studios and Creative Assembly developed the Halo Wars sequel for Windows and the Xbox One. In typical real-time strategy fashion, the player builds up a base of operations while collecting resources to fight enemy factions.
343 Studios followed the story in their other Halo games by setting Halo Wars 2 at the Ark, a Forerunner installation that creates Halo rings. Halo Wars 2 players had the option between a campaign mode or online multiplayer, allowing them to experience the Halo universe in a different fashion.
343 Studios partnered with Endeavor One, a small production company, to create Halo’s first virtual reality experience — Halo: Recruit. It’s a brief experience that can be played on virtual reality headsets like the Oculus.
Furthering their adventures outside of console gaming, 343 joined Raw Thrills and Play Mechanix to create Halo: Fireteam Raven. This was an arcade game exclusive to Dave & Buster’s establishments before it was released internationally.
Halo Infinite marks Halo’s sixth main story entry into the series. It is the first main game to launch on multiple platforms simultaneously — Windows, Xbox One and the Xbox Series X and S (the slim version of the Xbox Series X) -– in 2021. This launch coincided with the franchise’s 20th anniversary.
Halo Infinite is set in the year 2560 on the ringworld known as Zeta Halo, where Master Chief fights against the enemy simply known as the Banished.
Exploration Outside Video Games
343 Studios couldn’t stop at a video game version of the franchise. Halo needed to evolve and become something more.
In 2010, 343 Studios financed the creation of Halo Legends, a collection of seven short films set within the Halo universe in Japanese animation style. This led to Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, a web series of five 15-minute episodes used to market the Halo 4 game. The series was eventually released on DVD before finding a home on Netflix.
That wasn’t the first time Halo saw life outside of gaming. Microsoft wanted Halo to be a multimedia juggernaut, so in 2001 the company commissioned a series of novels to publish.
Unfortunately, these novels strayed in some ways from the video games, creating inconsistencies. Eric Nylund authored the first book, Halo: The Fall of Reach, followed by First Strike and Ghosts of Onyx. William C. Dietz wrote a novelization of Combat Evolved called Halo: The Flood in 2003. A number of other authors wrote for the Halo universe.
By 2021, 36 novels broadened and enriched the lore within the universe.
The first fan-made web series based on Halo was created in 2003. Rooster Teeth was a small, independent production company that created Red vs. Blue. It was a comedy series intended only to last six to eight episodes. However, it unexpectedly picked up in popularity, prompting the creators to extend the series to 18 episodes.
It was only a matter of time — and that time is now — before Halo would make its way into your living room through your TV.
Paramount+, a streaming service, aired the Halo television series in March of 2022, starring Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief and Natascha McElhone as Cortana. While the series breaks away from its video game counterpart in many ways, viewership was high and fans were generally pleased to have a live-action Master Chief to watch each week. This TV series gives them a new way to enjoy something dear to them.
Halo is a household name that continues to tremendously impact the gaming world and pop culture in general. Where does the franchise go from here?
Perhaps a major blockbuster movie could be made that would broaden the franchise’s audience. The advancements in virtual reality technology make it a serious contender to get a game or two on the Oculus and compete with Half-Life: Alyx. Rumors are that Halo will eventually enter the battle royale genre of video games.
Microsoft hit a gold mine when it paired the launch of the original Xbox with Halo: Evolved Combat. Fortunately for them and for the legion of Halo players, they haven't stopped digging that mine just yet. 343 Studios intends to build upon Halo Infinite by saying goodbye to sequels and adding story content for the next 10 years.
Meanwhile, live-action fans get to look forward to the second season of the Paramount+ television series.
The sky isn't even the limit for this franchise. It's the stars.
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