E3 2014: Will Microsoft's Halo Gambit Pay Off?

E3 2014: Will Microsoft's Halo Gambit Pay Off?

There's more Halo on the way, but does the franchise still have legs enough to justify it all?

Sitting in the audience at last year's Xbox One reveal event, I found myself as baffled as the rest of the world at Microsoft's curious decision to focus on everything their new system could do except play video games.

All the noise about Xbox making for a wonderful all-in-one set top box did help the presentation's few game-related aspects stand out, though, particularly Microsoft's emphasis on the Halo brand. Obviously Halo is a pretty big deal for the Xbox platform — it was the original console's killer app, a massive part of the Xbox 360, and Microsoft took stewardship of it once Bungie went their own way. It makes sense that the company would position it as a key element of the newest Xbox as well.

But look at all the Halo things in the works. Halo 5: Guardians. The Master Chief Collection, which compiles the first four games. A Ridley Scott miniseries. A Steven Spielberg television show. More toys. More books. More comics. More, more, more. Microsoft is leaning heavily on Halo as a property, not just as a game but as a multimedia franchise. Frankly, it seems like a pretty significant risk. There's never been a truly successful cross-media video game venture, and Microsoft really seems to be putting a lot of eggs in a basket that's never worked before. And with a property whose future seems isn't entirely rock-solid, at that.

The video game plans in store for Halo do at least seem right on-point. Rather than forcing 343 Industries to rush Halo 5 to market this fall, they're buying some time with the much-expected Halo 2 Anniversary Edition; but instead of simply regurgitating a shinier version of a 10-year-old game, they're also including Xbox One-compatible versions of the other three numbered Halo games on a single disc. These games could just have easily been repackaged as stand-alone Xbox One reissues for a much higher overall cost, so there's a bit of good faith at work here. The mix-and-match level mechanics and playlist features of the Master Chief Collection alone could make it a sort of platonic example of a compilation: Interconnected, interlocking, packed with content, and not shy in the least about playing to fan expectations.

It's all the non-game Halo projects that give me pause. 343's discussions about their plans for Halo place a huge emphasis on the series' story, as if the tale told by Halo is in some way remarkable and not ultimately just a fairly hokey science fiction potboiler strung together by interconnected play and story elements that was well ahead of the curve when the original game debuted in 2001 but feels fairly old-fashioned more than a decade later. Halo: Combat Evolved had several surprising moments, but the sequels have never delivered anything to match the Flood's first appearance, and more often than not the overarching story doesn't come across clearly within the games. As with the Gravemind in Halo 2 or the Didact in Halo 4, the series has a tendency to leave things... well, not much so "unexplained" as "poorly explained and deeply confusing." Maybe it's fitting that Ridley Scott is developing a prequel to Halo 5, since his most recent foray into sci-fi — Prometheus — suffered similar issues.

The move into other media suggests Microsoft believes that Halo's story will translate into film. And maybe it will. Much of the context essential to understanding the series' story comes from supplemental media, and television has the luxury of being able to incorporate both shoot-shoot-bang-bang stuff and narrative, much more so than games. Still, the Halo initiative suggests a belief in the series' sustained, and sustainable, popularity, and I wonder if that's entirely true.

I keep thinking about the multiplayer stats for Halo 4 that were discussed in this NeoGAF thread a few months back — stats that paint a far from rosy picture of the series, and whose authenticity seems to hold up to scrutiny. Where Halo 2 dominated Xbox Live for years, Halo 4 all but vanished in a matter of weeks. The question is, why? Halo has a lot more competition in the multiplayer shooter space than it did a decade ago, for sure. And Halo 4 featured a lot of unpopular tweaks to the multiplayer mechanics. There was also the matter of the generational burnout that we saw in the final year or so before the launch of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 — few PS3 and Xbox 360 games performed particularly well in the run-up to the current generation.

So it's much too soon to write off Halo just yet. I think the Master Chief Collection will give a better sense of where the franchise stands. Have gamers really and truly left it behind, or will a fresh coat of paint be enough to entice players to return? As a fan of the series, I'd like to see it continue to thrive... but it's a tough market. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and TitanFall have both taken heavy notes from of Halo's playbook. Meanwhile, former Halo overlords have pushed the Halo concept into bold new space with Destiny.

For my own part, I definitely intend to put the Master Chief Collection through its paces... but to be honest, a big part of my interest comes from my need to finally finish Halo 4. Like a lot of other fans I've spoken to, my interest in the game sort of petered out midway through. I'm sure Microsoft would like to recapture the interest of lost fans like me. Hopefully, their full-court Halo press will ignite a spark rather than simply create further burnout.

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