Halo 4 came out 10 years ago today. What happened?
The game had incomprehensibly massive shoes to fill following the conclusion of the OG Halo trilogy. Passed along from Bungie to 343 Industries, it really was the start of a new age for the sci-fi series. Bungie went off to work on a brand new universe (you may have heard of it) now that it had wrapped up its story with ample flourish and bombast.
343 came in as a mix of construction worker and interior decorator, building up an extension to a luxurious house, and seeing if it could replicate (or even evolve) the whole structure. Who knows? Maybe if it did a good job the franchise could shine on, a whole decade from now?
Fast forward to 2022 and the custodian studio has absolutely botched it. The campaign for Halo Infinite was a brave step forward into the open world, admittedly. The past 10 years of narrative leaps 343 took wrapped up quickly as Master Chief goes off on his next, big, splitscreen-less adventure. The multiplayer is a whole other story, with genuine quality foundational gameplay but an overall package that’s starving for significant updates thanks to the dreary live service hell it has found itself in, and a money-hungry cosmetic ecosystem ever-emitting frustration and depression from its user base.
So what happened to that energy? That glorious bridge between the old work Bungie had done and that new ideas 343 had, without abandoning what made the original games great? This is best represented in the weaponry, which was massively stretched out with Halo 4. The SAW, which stood out as an amped up assault rifle with a lot more punch, fit nicely in the pre-existing arsenal of weapons. The railgun, too — God, the railgun! This gun pulled off the same oomph the speargun in Halo Infinite does, but with more gravitas and feedback.
True, this wasn’t true for some of the other new additions – especially with the Promethean guns. Visually, they were great; elaborating on the Forerunner-style tech we saw before with vibrant oranges and all sorts of floating bits and bobs all over the place. It’s a distinct look that remains striking. In terms of what they added gameplay-wise… You got a slightly different shotgun that lacked that legendary pow, the Boltshot that fell flat of the magnum in most ways, the suppressor which hurdled out bolts of uninteresting ammo. You’ve gotta give it up for the Promethean sniper and incineration cannon though — they were rad, even if they were a touch redundant in the face of pre-existing weapons.
Campaign-wise, 343 had a good attempt at introducing a new faction of enemies, trying to capture what a post-Halo 3 Covenant would be doing, and giving us fans a real reason to keep caring about what’s going on in the Halo universe, post-Bungie. The studio did so by digging into the big unknowns established in prior titles, by taking Master Chief to unique worlds we’d never seen before, and (controversially), by messing around with Cortana. How did I like it back in the day? Meh, it was alright. But, it did set the stage for a new plot, and it did give something for Master Chief and the players to do other than wade around in the stagnant world Bungie already visited, explored pole-to-pole, and rocketed away from.
But the multiplayer was so good. There were some really brilliant maps introduced with the game, like Adrift, Exile, and Haven. God, Haven was so good. All the game modes people loved — I remember losing days to SWAT or Big Team Battle. I remember building out a massive collection of Spartan armour, unlocked either by levelling up to obscene levels or by completing truly arduous commendations that pushed you to achieve unique goals that mixed things up. Hey kids, back in the day you could actually unlock these sorts of things through in-game feats. Wild right? No battle pass in sight either, just DLC map packs that allowed you to spend money on new content — wild.
Spartan Ops was perhaps the first whiff of live service hell in the Halo franchise. Replacing firefight, this was a series of weekly PvE content updates that you (and maybe some friends) could take on to keep up for the post-campaign narrative. The Spartan IVs and Halsey got up to all sorts of nonsense. If you would have told people that this – a steady churn of middling mulch lacking the energetic pulse that made Halo special in the first place, wearing Halo’s aesthetic like a flayed face on a horror movie monster – would better represent the series a decade down the line… Well, there’d be calls to Lenny the series, and I’d be at the front holding the shotgun as the once-shining gem in the Xbox’s Emerald crown looks off and dreams of rabbits.
Fast forward to today and we don’t even get that. And if we did, it would be released on a bi-monthly schedule, with each release evaporating in front of our eyes as a sacrifice at the altar of FOMO. The game also had Forge, which later iterations would disregard, as well as a general sense that the game wasn’t fighting for your time against an industry full of time vampires. It was, in my mind as a 14-year-old, the starting line for a really exciting time for Halo. A few years later, I wouldn’t even complete Halo 5. A few years on from that, I just look at Infinite sadly.
In hindsight, Halo 4 was absolutely a kicking-off point for an exciting new era of Halo that could of been. One with a new vision, fresh ideas, and passionate hearts and minds behind the venture.
With Halo 4, we see the glory in that endeavour. Back then, it was really like we were waving off the Titanic from the shore, smiling as it gloriously sailed off towards icy waters.