There has been a lot of Halo in the air. It’s a bit like a roaming, free-floating sensation of Christmas jollies surrounding you, but it’s far more explosion-y. Halo: The Master Chief Collection is on the verge of release (it’s happening tomorrow), including a fresh launch trailer for the sizable aggregation. The reviews have already hit and roving around. And there’s that Halo 2 documentary.
Freely available on Xbox Video and the general Internet, it’s a roughly one-hour look back at the development of one of the most hyped games ever released and how 343 Industries went about remastering it for the aforementioned collection. The title—Remaking the Legend – Halo 2 Anniversary—is more than a bit presumptuous. There’s no denying the game made a huge splash both before and after release, but legend might be more marketing than fact.
It’s not that anything the people in the documentary said were entirely false. That would just be lying. In fact, Halo 2 did almost singlehandedly manufacture the now standard and widespread concepts embedded within current online multiplayer including playlists, matchmaking, and, well, playing shooters online with a console. It basically took the burden of justifying Xbox Live upon its green armored shoulders and plowed headlong into the future.
What it does manage to gloss over (besides other influences within the realms that Halo 2‘s multiplayer innovations dallied in) is what a colossal disappointment that game was. Okay, let’s dial it back: both “colossal” and “disappointment” are relative. It is, by all means, a great game and still holds up in most regards today, but you have to know the context with which it was released could not generate anything less than some degree of tepid nostalgia.
The two chief pillars to which critics will point first involve the Arbiter, the second playable character in the game’s single-player campaign. The impact upon the mythos this Covenant pariah has is conceptually solid, but it plays out within the rest of the story like a prequel Star Wars. It’s full of politics and not enough basely intuitive or intellectually stirring actuations the brooding conflicts and twists.
Not only that, but playing the Arbiter was far from compelling. For all the ire that the Flood drew in Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie saw fit to instead excise the entirety of that painful underground exercise into its own segment involving a character no one really wanted to play. Perhaps it was some twisted idea of redemption in proving they can actually make the Flood fun, but the net result was the same.
Then there is the ending, or lack thereof. It does, for all reasonable analyses, end only in the strictest definition of the word. It is the terminus of the campaign, yes, but it goes so far out of its way to be a cliffhanger that it must have been as inconvenient to write as it was frustrating to watch. The only way it could have been more insulting if Master Chief had actually been hanging from a cliff. (The real reason follows below.)
This makes the documentary—this 62-minute trailer barely qualifies as such when it so directly is aimed at wallets—a lackluster addition to the game’s history. It has some neat tidbits and behind-the-scenes clips (who knew John Mayer played on the soundtrack? That’s incredible.) but it also skips over the most compelling arc of all: an education.
It’s lightly touched upon in the part where some folks that worked on the game discussed its genesis, which was sloppy to say the least. It was a haphazard affair with a lot of guns pointed in a lot of directions that all hoped to cooperatively shoot down the giant sequel hype beast while not really planning ahead or even communicating all that well. It serves to highlight the true value of Halo 2, which are its contributions to Halo 3.
Put aside all of the multiplayer influences that linger about today and focus on the broad strokes. Halo 2‘s development was, by all means, a nightmare. Most, if not all, of what was shown as the first bit of publicly viewable gameplay in 2003 was scrapped and the game was not playable until a year later. And the subsequent and seemingly interminable engine work blocked production and design, rendering half of the team useless.
This led to the final year of development to be described as “the mother of all crunches” in an IGN retrospective. A split team structure resulted in broken lines of communication and a prototypical mess with an impending deadline. It was the paragon of poor planning and excessive ambition.
Yet we still ended up with one of the highest rated games of 2004 and one of the best selling games ever. But all it led to was the immediate production of Halo 3, which would eclipse its predecessor in terms of sales and ratings. And if you look at its actual development, it came across as a far more structured endeavor. Instead of spreading thin across arbitrary divisions of labor, Halo 3 worked between a single-player and multiplayer chasm, producing individual builds and weekly, publicly accountable updates.
The end result of this lesson in growing from a “messy adolescence” (as Halo 2 engineering lead Chris Butcher put it) to a legitimate organization and a superior product that had a metered and met ambition and expectation. And from that, we had several ensuing games of the same universe grace our gaming libraries.
It’s interesting to think of the material contributions Halo 2 had on the industry and its studio and our lives directly and in fact makes for a good sell to think fondly on and purchase the Master Chief Collection, but an equally compelling thought is how it shaped the studio that would come to continually pump out game of the year contenders. (And a somewhat average, derivative game about light and dark.)