On Reflection: Modern Halo
Ben finds Halo Infinite to be an indictment of the modern franchise
Halo 2 was a social occasion. It was an event. We had a crowd of friends around, far more than could play at any given time, even though we had four people to a screen via splitscreen co-op, a tiny corner each, everyone perched on the edge of their seat, leaning forwards and craning their necks to see every important pixel. Whoever wasn't playing gathered to spectate, and there was cheering, jeering, and endless accusations of modding (pretty much every time we were outplayed or suffered lag). Even through Halo 3, lag was the excuse for every whiffed shot or misplay, and hackers the label for anyone who landed an improbable hail mary stickie grenade or assassinated a camo player. There were probably some genuinely dubious plays, but by and large it was tongue and cheek.
By design, Halo was sociable. Even System Link - the means by which you cabled multiple Xboxes together - was sociable since it effectively multiplied the number of players and spectators you could get in a household.
Then the transition to online began. Halo 3 got rid of corners, making splitscreen 2 player only. Later, Halo 5 got rid of local 'couch' co-op altogether, mandating a 'one player per xbox' policy and forcibly breaking up social gatherings. If four friends wanted to play the game together, they couldn't do so in person, they would each need their own console, their own screens and their own internet connection. With splitscreen, anyone spectating knew they were just one or two matches away from taking their own turn on the controller. But one player per screen, that wait was set to be much longer.
In the internet age, where increasingly people did have fast internet and their own screens rather than just the family TV (until very recently at my home in Wales, I didn't have either), it might seem like this transition wasn't so massive. Everyone could just chat over Xbox party chat. In the early days, this wasn't too far from reality. After all, an Xbox shipped with a headset and a mic. If you bought a new controller, you got a headset too - it was cheap and not very durable, but it worked, and at least offered a starting point and some social continuity. Halo matchmaking lobbies were filled with banter, jibes, insults, people of all ages becoming embarrassingly but joyfully competitive with one another, and the lobby and game continued to contain a strong social element.
And then headsets, too, stopped being shipped with controllers. It became incumbent upon the player not only to buy their own console and monitor, but a compatible microphone and headset too. The lobby fell silent. Games fell silent. Frustrations, largely born of communication failures, began totting up. It was harder to gel as a team. Quitting became more common. Bad plays weren't laughed off with an apology, there was no humanity to them. We may as well have been playing with bots. In fact, Halo Infinite literally introduced bots to the game, with tiered abilities so you can customise their difficulty to provide you with a challenge or to fall like leaves in a gale when you want to blow off steam.
Then Xbox party chat was usurped in dominance by alternatives, most recently and notably, Discord. A private Discord instance excludes anyone from the chat who wasn't invited. It's now a genuine (pleasant) surprise when somebody else has a mic in a game. Ninety percent of the time, games are silent, solitary, uncommunicative arenas of frustration. It's not like the game devs haven't recognised this either. Halo Infinite introduces a 'ping' feature, so you can call out areas on the map to your team mates without ever having to open your mouth and speak to them. Helpful though this is, it adds another disincentive for people to actually socialise while playing, another reason not to bother buying or digging out an old mic.
Nearly gone is the serendipity of enjoying a game with a stranger, and - as earlier Halo games allowed you to do - buddying up with them to team in subsequent games, and sometimes befriend properly (as I did with a Scandinavian gamer I'll just call Donk). Halo Infinite has no 'buddy' option. It doesn't even have an easy 'friending' option. When my friends and I are online at the same time, we have to send match invites via Discord because the in-game option is so opaque (though I assume, surely, it's still there in some form). A social experience on Halo increasingly depends on your IRL friends being available and online at the same time as you, and still interested in playing despite the social experience being stripped from the game. This is rare. In fact, many of the friends I grew up with enjoying Halo have long since abandoned the franchise. Even my brother, who I played every Halo game with through until they ditched splitscreen multiplayer and co-op campaigns. For a long time I thought the problem was the dwindling player base of Halo 5. That all these decisions had proved a perfect storm, strimming 'casuals' from the game and only leaving die-hard fans. I placed my hope in Halo 6 as it was known back then, Halo Infinite as it's known now. This would be the game that would revitalise the franchise, that would fix the problems and put Halo back in the spotlight, bringing a huge player base with it and a new social scene.
But I'm now convinced that these problems are systemic. They are hard boiled into the way modern gaming works. As with the rest of digital living, 'connection' is just a buzzword. Every new iteration of Halo produces new obstacles for fans of the originals. Halo Infinite is Free-to-Play, a decision surely made to maximise participation. On the face of it, this is a positive move. But the priority for developers and gaming studios is money, and a free to play game means that money has to come from elsewhere. In this case, cosmetics and the in-game store, and all the inevitable ills that brings. Now, the developers are incentivised not to prioritise their focus on improving gameplay, producing more maps and honing the sporting balance, but on optimising uptake of new player and weapon skins, badges, logos, stances - all irrelevant to the core gameplay experience and a distraction from genuine issues that need to be addressed. Worse, because the player aesthetic has become a product, gameplay needs to include those aesthetics, and so we are left with the maddening and confusing situation in game, where a player may be on the Red Team but has chosen blue armor to wear. This produces moments of hesitation during crucial battles as they run around the map: a Blue player with a Red outline. On social media, half of the community are crying out about urgent changes needed to gameplay, while half are crying out about store prices and the cost and variation of cosmetics. This is toxic for the game and its player base.
The upshot of all this is that I find myself, a dedicated Halo player and fan of 20 years, wondering if the future of Halo, for me personally, is not actually playing the game, but just spectating the esports events. Halo Championship Series (HCS) puts a squadron of charismatic, passionate and exuberant casters in front of you - essentially substituting the enthusiasm and banter of your own friends - for you to enjoy them enjoying the social Halo scene vicariously. During streamed tournaments, the Twitch chat fills with hype - often nonsensical, always too fast to meaningfully engage with - but it gives a sense of universal fun, it conveys the idea that you aren't alone playing this aggravating game, that your issues with aim assist, desync, and quitters aren't unique, that you are one of thousands of people who are still passionate about Halo, and still dewy eyed with nostalgia and fond memories, still eager for Halo's 'return to form' that it seems, by modern design, may never come.
EDIT: Happily, after publication, HCS caster Bravo was kind enough to give his view to us about this on Twitter, but too soon for our move to Substack!