Halo: Reach was a visual treat, and chock full of explosive spectacles. It's a prequel that chronicles the events just before the original Halo, closing the narrative gap for fans who'd still have to wait another two years for 343 Industries to release Halo 4. It was almost everything you could want in a Halo game: great gunplay paired with a solid multiplayer experience. Almost everything: the characters felt a little hollow, and the plot was rather thin -- and that's saying a lot for this space opera series. It remains a great game, and certainly one that every Halo fan should add to their collection, but it remains humbled by its predecessors, and what was still to come.
Halo Wars is one of my favorite unsung games. Its story predates the first Halo game, offering us a glimpse at the first skirmishes between the human race and the Covenant. And it's a real-time strategy game -- a pretty good one at that. Developed by Ensemble Studios (of Age of Empires fame), it feels phenomenal on a controller. The strategy was a little light for an RTS -- which makes sense, given the limitations of the control scheme. But it remains a fun, challenging experience, and if you could convince a buddy to grab the game, the multiplayer experience was a blast too. Halo Wars 2 has been announced, so with a little luck others will get a chance to see what was so great.
Halo 3: ODST was something of a stopgap between Halo 3 and Halo: Reach, and there's an underlying temptation to dismiss it as such. It's short, and it's the first first-person Halo game that doesn't actually star Master Chief. But the radical departure from the norm is also why it was so exciting: You're a "normal" soldier, fighting a war for the survival of your species against a menacing alien foe, while also piecing together the fates of your friends through a series of flashbacks.
And then there was Firefight. This multiplayer mode is generally known as "horde mode" these days, thanks to the Gears of War series, but it sees you taking on wave after wave of increasingly challenging bad guys with your friends, over Xbox Live or split-screen. There are still some grumbles over whether the short experience was really worth a full-price $60, but there's no denying it was an excellent departure from the norm.
Halo 4 could've been terrible. Bungie had long since handed the reins of their series to developer 343 Industries, and five years had passed since we last played a game starring the Master Chief. It would go on to receive critical acclaim and gross $300 million during its opening week, a series record.
But it was also something of a departure for the series: running and gunning remained paramount, but we also dove headfirst into the relationship between Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana, lending a new, human element to a series that had long been mostly concerned with spectacular explosions. 343 Industries also struck off in new directions, exploring untapped sections of Halo lore with the mysterious Forerunner race. Sure, things felt a little wacky at times, but it was ultimately Halo at its finest, despite a new developer at the helm.
Halo 3 wasn't Bungie's last Halo adventure -- the developer still had a hand in creating Halo 3: ODST, and Halo: Reach. But it certainly felt like a last hurrah: it'd mark the series' debut on the Xbox 360, but also the last time we'd see the Master Chief in action for five years. All of the lessons honed in Halo 2 were on full display here, and you'd be hard pressed to find a console first-person shooter that was as dominant on the competitive multiplayer scene. It was evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, but still an impressive step forward for the series, and the shooter genre.
The graphics were leagues ahead of its predecessors, and an epic soundscape (with support for 5.1 surround sound) made for an engrossing experience. And then there were the subtle touches: For a good time, try playing the game on different difficulty levels and listening in on the banter between the celebrity guest stars who played assorted army grunts.
Who can forget the first time they traded shots with Halo's larger-than-life Convenant Elites? Or shared a screen to play cooperatively with a friend, and were then unceremoniously run over as your buddy figured out how to drive the Warthog jeep? It's crazy to think that Halo was born in a world before Xbox Live, and saw my high school friends and I setting up that sweet 16-player system link multiplayer by lugging multiple original Xboxes around (those things were heavy).
But there's no denying that Halo was a phenomenon: not since GoldenEye had a console-based first-person shooter so enraptured gamers, and the series' lasting effect speaks for itself.
Sure, the original Halo introduced the world to the Master Chief, but Halo 2 brought us so much more. The health bar was ditched in favor of the shields, and we got an entirely new perspective on the action by stepping into the shoes of our erstwhile enemies, the Covenant Elites.
But most importantly, Halo 2 brought the series to Xbox Live, kicking off a celebrated competitive multiplayer experience, complete with skill ranking to separate the wheat from the chaff and automated playlists that kept the good times flowing. Halo was great, but Halo 2 was the real foundation of all the good things we've come to love since.