Well, I’ve been trying to put this off for a while today because it’s actually quite sad for me that we’ve reached the end of this 30 day challenge. I started doing this so that I could have something to write every day, to encourage myself to just keep writing things about a subject and a universe I’m passionate about, but now it’s done. Don’t think that this will be my last post on the Halo series, though – I’m thinking of doing a series of lore-oriented posts at some point, we’ve got the Escalation comic series coming out next month, Mortal Dictata in January, more unannounced novels in the pipeline, and the next instalment in the Reclaimer Saga which means that there’s going to be lots to talk about.
But, without further ado, let’s get into why this particular series has had me so deeply enticed for the last 12 years.First of all, it’s sci-fi. Science fiction is such a beautifully vast, varied and abstract genre it’s difficult not to be totally ensconced and enthralled by the universe that Halo has. With 100 billion years of history in its lore, there’s a lot of ground that has yet to be covered which means that the stories can only expand further and further until we have a universe filled with different tales of conflict, betrayal, and redemption.
I’ve been a science fiction nerd for as long as I can remember, going back to when I’d spend every day as a child watching and rewatching things like Star Wars, Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, Doctor Who and so on. Science fiction practically runs in my veins, my literary preferences were largely shaped by reading novels like Hyperion, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Though I’m still yet to set the time aside to read more of the classics (particularly in the case of Dune, which I’m very much looking forward to reading). Likewise, Halo has had over a dozen novels released in the last 12 years, some of which (ahem! Forerunner Saga) are exemplary pieces of the kind of classical science fiction I love – thank you, Greg Bear!
The Halo universe has so many elements of what makes a science fiction story great – space exploration and colonisation of new worlds, aliens, aliens with galactic theocratic and fascist political dimensions, ancient mysteries, scientific advancements, spaceships, and the Lovecraftian twists surrounding a near-omnipotent threat that spans the history of our universe and beyond. It’s the perfect recipe for a series that can last a long time as there are so many different pieces of media that the series has touched – games, novels, comics, graphic novels, live-action film and such.Secondly, the artwork. The sheer amount of it that has gone into this series is mindboggling. Bungie, 343 Industries and Ensemble Studios (and everybody else who has worked on the series) has come up with some absolutely stunning artwork which is often represented in the game beautifully. Be it a depiction of the aftermath of an all-out battle with a lone soldier standing in the midst of the ruins of a decaying city, a particular environment of an alien world with exotic flora and fauna, or a study of a character’s clothing and armour, there’s always so much detail that has gone into making it.
You can find volumes of artwork on Concept Art World, and I’ve posted a fair number of pieces in previous posts. Just like with the stories, the artwork manages to capture so many atmospheric tones and evoke some kind of emotion out of you – mostly awe at the sight of vast, city-sized Forerunner cathedrals with pulsating blue lights emerging out of a snow-capped mountain and the like. You’re never short for some kind of inspiration when it comes to the artwork of this series – be it official or fan-made.Linking directly into the artwork is the actual environments you have as playspaces in each of the games. While you may not be able to actually explore an entire world of Forerunner structures and cities, the environment certainly lets you know that they’re there. I remember the first moment in Halo: Combat Evolved where you climb out of the escape pod after crashing on Installation 04 and you look up to see how the horizon arcs into the sky and over your head with vast oceans and landmasses hanging over you. I keep using the word ‘awe’ to describe these sorts of things, but that’s literally what is going through your head as you look out at the near-pornographic scenery.
The visuals of Halo have only gotten better over the years as well, Halo 4 is one of the most visually and artistically stunning games on the Xbox 360 as it pushed the console’s capabilities to its absolute limits.
The enemies are another reason why I love this series because, unlike a lot of other titles out there, the enemy AI is often incredibly dynamic and believable. Oddly, I think that the first game managed to pull this off best when it comes to combat, but in every one of the game you’ll see the enemy AI emote in very natural ways. Grunts might be displaying their sloth-like tendencies by sleeping in a quiet spot by a tree, Elites will be patrolling the area, Brutes will be growling and tearing things apart, and Hunters will just smash through anything that gets in their way. I particularly like it in Halo: Reach where a group of Jackals might form a phalanx formation to attack you so you have to strafe around them to get past their shields (unless you have a grenade handy to thrown behind them). The Covenant feel like a fun enemy to go up against, especially when you up the difficulty to Heroic or Legendary where you’ve got to approach combat with a strategy that isn’t ‘spray and pray’.
Combine this with the excellent level design prevalent in most of the games and you can begin to see how each of the ‘ingredients’ mix together to make a game that has all of its formulas clearly worked out.
The characters are the next thing I want to move onto. While there has been some questionable writing in the past, for the most part the Halo series has some truly compelling characters. The Ur-Didact, IsoDidact, Librarian, Faber, Chakas/343 Guilty Spark, Cortana, Thel ‘Vadam, Sadie Endesha, Lighter Than Some, Sif, Mack, Serina, Gravemind, Rtas ‘Vadum, Forthencho, Jacob Keyes, Catherine Halsey, Philips, Preston J. Cole… I could name-drop all day because there are so many interesting, well-developed characters who litter the history of the series. Prior to Halo 4‘s beautiful portrayal of the Chief, even he exhibited some interesting characteristics in the novels. Characters like the Ur-Didact, Librarian and 343 Guilty Spark have been prominently featured in Terminals scattered throughout the games which you can watch here and here.
The weapons are another key aspect of Halo which all feel incredibly inventive. You’ve got your conventional human arsenal that’s comprised of assault rifles, overpowered pistols and shotguns, but then you get guns like the Needler and Fuel Rod Gun which just feel so satisfying to use. You get Energy Swords and Gravity Hammers which send enemies flying several feet into the air as the result of the force of the shockwaves you create, then you get Forerunner weapons designed to disintegrate organic targets like the Scattershot, Binary Rifle and Incineration Cannon. Seeing the Forerunner weapons assemble in your hand as you pick them up just never gets old, and the moving parts of Covenant weaponry like the heat sinks which allow heat to vent when you overcharge your weapons is just really cool to look at.
I have to pay particular compliments to the sound designers for the series because every sound is incredibly unique to the point where you end up subconsciously noticing subtle audio cues for things like an Elite who is waiting for his Plasma Rifle to cool down, giving you the chance to pop out of cover and land a well-placed headshot.
It doesn’t just end with the single player experience though, from the very beginning Halo has had a spectacular multiplayer component. Armour and gameplay customisation, a whole range of competitive modes, online matchmaking, skill ranks, Theatre mode, online file sharing, Firefight, and (my particular favourite) Forge mode have been added as the series has progressed and updated with each new instalment in the franchise. It’s great to sit around an empty Forge canvas for a few hours and build a map to test out with your friends, it has become such a huge part of the community since 2007 and hopefully we’ll be seeing some awesome new functionality with the next title.
The multiplayer maps are deserving of mention as well because so many of them are just so well designed. You’ve got some iconic classics like Blood Gulch along with other favourites such as Relic, Hang ’em High, Guardian, Lockout (anybody seen any ghosts?), Zanzibar, Wizard, Turf, Terminal, The Pit, Sandtrap, Haven and so on. Each map has its own unique aesthetic and identity for the community, they’re pretty much all extremely memorable with various nuances and strategies people employ (at least, those who don’t just bum-rush the power weapons right off the bat).
It just wouldn’t be right to talk about Halo without mentioning the music which, I think, is one of the main reasons why this series is so popular. Marty O’Donnell & Michael Salvatori, Stephen Rippy, Tom Salta, Neil Davidge and Kazuma Jinnouchi have all created some simply sublime musical scores to accompany the games. I’ve orated lengthily about why I feel that Halo 4 is my favourite OST (with ODST a close second), even before the game was released, but to tell you the truth there isn’t a single game in the series that stands out as having a ‘sub-par’ musical score. They’re all excellent, they all support the atmosphere and emotional tone of the game in different ways and I’m loving how we’re pushing into new territory with Davidge’s scores. Tracks like Legacy and Revival stand out, at least to me, as the superlative tracks for the series as a whole, alongside the likes of In Amber Clad and Under Cover of Night.
I think that’s about all I have to say right now. So to sum up, I love this series because every aspect of it is just pumped with quality. The story, the characters, the artwork, the level and AI design, the multiplayer and additional components, the music – all of it is just brimming with the kind of excellence one should expect from a Triple-A title.
The Halo franchise has a bright future ahead in my view, we’ve had some excellent additions to the fiction over the last 4 years from 343 and I can’t wait to see what they have next for us.
Thank you very much for sticking with me over the last month, I’ve very much enjoyed writing these posts and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them.
See you on the virtual battlefield, Spartans.