Halo, Anthem and why we don’t need another Destiny clone.

alternate title “A List Of Things I Hope Halo Infinite Is Not”

The Holiday season is looming, and the Halo Infinite launch party Xbox may once have intended to coincide with the release of the Xbox Series X is finally happening a year and many semiconductor and pandemic related delays later. It’s time to thaw Master Chief after an extended break following the 2015 release of Halo 5, in what 343 has once called a spiritual reboot for the flagship title of the Xbox brand. No pressure.

First, a story about why Halo is a bit personal to me. Years back when we were first living together, my wife picked up a copy of Halo: Reach for her Xbox 360 “to see if it was any good”. Neither of us had played a Halo before it, and I was into mostly fantasy RPG games. A weekend later, we had a second Xbox and another copy of Halo: Reach so we could play together. Soon we’d rearrange the living room to accommodate side by side TVs and forever changed what family night in looked like at our house.

Fast forward to present and on any given game night we may be on different games, single player games, watching a show or playing games with different sets of friends but we still play in parallel. There are a few games we still play together, or exclusively together, and Halo is one of them. As this next title nears release and I see features like cooperative play de-prioritized to make an already late release window, I can’t help but think of other titles we have been excited to try that did not turn out as well. Anthem comes to mind.

BioWare’s ill-fated epic multiplayer space opera fell far short of its potential. Anthem otherwise had all of the right ingredients – excellent flight and combat mechanics, innovative design, breathtaking views and top shelf graphics, a great team of writers and a likeable cast of characters. What went wrong? I can name one mistake, broadly, that no publisher is too big to repeat. Please stop trying to make another Destiny-style live service looter shooter.

Destiny itself is riddled with annoyances its player-base tolerates as they turn in each week to participate in what is otherwise an anomaly in the space-time fabric of gaming. Its success is despite of itself. Random loot rolls for the same limited set of weapons and armor is not the part of the game we need to copy. Another game that made this mistake and later course corrected was Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; the maddening, meaningless deluge of loot to be immediately deconstructed was addressed in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (thank you a thousand times).

It isn’t to say that there is no appeal at all in repeating the same content to try and get the ideal roll for your favorite set of gear, it is just that this cycle by itself can quickly become frustrating and lead to fast burnout. Adding in low drop rates or actual technical issues can turn the experience very negative fast for some players who feel like they put in the work but did not get the reward or expected progression credit. Sooner than the designer would hope, the game will get turned off. This is not hyperbole, but rather a recurring observation from my own home.

I liked Anthem. The storytelling and world-building reached straight into the depths of my imagination and did not let go. I trusted the talent behind two of my other favorite games of all time to be able to deliver something fresh and innovative. I even wrote a bit of fan fiction ahead of the release about one mysterious type of enemy character – ones that appeared to be a model of rogue hardware not unlike the heroes own. I feel like BioWare delivered on this much – the flight combat was as good as we hoped. They were just asked to fit it into a persistent world model it did not seem to be built to support. Fort Tarsis did not need to be Destiny’s Last City for us to love it. I could write for another hour what else they could have done differently but I am sure the team who worked on it knows better than anyone else what they wanted to accomplish.

Halo for me wasn’t ever what Destiny turned out to be, nor was it Call of Duty or Battlefield. Or Fortnite or Apex or Titanfall. Where I started with Reach, Halo was always about the fire team. Being an individual in a group working together to accomplish something heroic. I know for a lot of players Halo was first about playing as Spartan 117.

Master Chief. Blasting alien bad guys with a likable woman AI sidekick and delivering great one-liners in that iconic lead guy voice, this time in a giant open world environment. A face on the front of soda cans and bags of chips and boxes of cereal, a brand almost as recognizable as Star Wars. I have reservations and doubts about the character of Master Chief, who for some people is their Luke Skywalker in this story, but other people may wish to see more of themselves represented on screen. I get this is their “spiritual reboot”, but I hope 343 builds on the amazing cast they had assembled for the previous stories and continues to push the idea of Halo as a larger world than just John and Cortana.

I digress. To be fair, I don’t know exactly what an average week will look like in the life of a Halo Infinite player. The Destiny comparisons above might be totally inaccurate. If the Master Chief Collection or Halo 5 were a good indicator, it was a mix of incentives from both replaying story missions and playing various cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes. On paper, this is pretty much any successful game with live seasons today, but I don’t think any publisher is too big to get this wrong.

The genre today is flush with worlds that built on the success of early titles that include Halo, and a publisher may be motivated to make “the next Apex” or successor to the other title I’ve referenced already. No Brand Too Large to fall over itself to copy a new formula, like Battlefield launching the equivalent of straight to VHS (yes I’m old) title, skipping story mode completely in favor of a large format team battle that looks nothing like the ones it pioneered because that apparently worked OK for another recent title. Banking on microtransactions when they have been broadly frowned on as bordering on predatory. Halo is not and never was any of those things. This doesn’t have to be billed as “a return to form” if they just.. not try to be something else.

Halo Infinite may have launched without co-op story mode for valid reasons, one envelope pushed at the expense of another. I just hope the teams working on it were allowed to deliver the Halo they dreamed of working on.

My wife and I will see you on Zeta, in one game mode or another.

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