Into the Howling Dark: The Last Days of the Xbox 360 Halos

“We’re saving a marriage here folks,” said our performance improvement group leader. We needed a card with Headhunter, and we needed it now. When we got it, the entire Xbox Live party cheered – twelve men from the US and Europe brought together by their love for Halo and the end of an era.

The marriage in question was mine. I had to take an Uber to New York City 5 minutes ago to meet my wife. The group knew that. They also knew that if I had the achievement I needed – Halo Reach’s Bounty Hunter, which requires a single player to turn in ten skulls, the maximum a player can carry at one time – it would end the match instantly. Nobody else would get anything. You did it for me.

As soon as we got into the game, one person from the enemy team started killing my teammates while the rest of his team tuned in to my grenades. When we had ten skulls combined, I murdered him. The turning point moved to my location a second later. We were lucky. The group congratulated me as I said goodbye.

The servers for the Xbox 360 Halo games – Halo 3, Halo Wars, Halo 3: ODST, Halo Reach, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 4, and the Xbox 360 version of Halo: Spartan Assault – were released on January 13 for always off. The shutdown affected each game differently. Some of the changes were unclear, but they definitely spelled the end of stats, achievements, player customization, and matchmaking for Halo 3, Halo: Reach, and Halo 4, some of the most popular multiplayer games of all time.

Most communities would probably take this news with despair. Not the extraordinarily dedicated Halo community. This is the group that kept their Xbox consoles on for weeks to continue playing Halo 2 after the servers shut down in 2010. In the last year of these games, experiences like mine were the order of the day as the community rallied to send out the Xbox 360 Halos with a bang. They battled low player counts, poorly performing playlists, and unstable servers to regain old memories, complete achievements, preserve classic custom game modes and maps, or simply download their file shares.

When 343 announced on December 18, 2020 that servers were going down, the reaction from the community was mixed. Many people were upset, but even more were determined to end the fight completely, so to speak. Discords like Halo Completionists and sites like True Achievements were soon filled with players wanting to do absolutely everything there was to do before it all became unattainable. For some, it was an exercise in sheer nostalgia, an excuse to come back one last time. Others had never stopped playing and wanted to send off the games in style by hosting games. Many were just there to help. And they showed up. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t have been enough players to find games. By this time, the Halo player base had largely transitioned from the original 360 games to The Master Chief Collection, and 343 had sourced the originals from digital storefronts. If you weren’t willing to buy a physical copy of these games, you haven’t played them.

For these Halo completers, there were more issues in every single game. Want to play ranked games in Halo 3? You need to find other players whose TruSkill rank is less than 10 from your own. Good luck with it. Reach? The sheer volume of playlists available meant most of them were barely filled. And God help anyone who wanted to play Invasion, which requires two teams of six.

In a twist, the biggest problem lay with Halo 4, the crowd’s newest game and the only one 343 had actively developed. Halo 4 ran fine once you were in the game, but the connection to the servers dropped, you couldn’t connect to other players, and it crashed frequently. And every game had connectivity issues when players played across generations of consoles.

Needless to say, getting into games wasn’t easy. Increasing achievements was difficult and required a great deal of coordination and patience. It was next to impossible to play legitimate games outside of custom lobbies. Sometime in late December, the servers for each game went offline for days with no explanation. It took people pinging the developers at 343 on Twitter to get it fixed [the developers did respond, but the response was in a Discord channel that no longer exists. The tweet alerting 343 is available here].

But the community had solutions. In unranked playlists, players with additional controllers logged into guest profiles to fill games after teaming up with other players. In playlists with a limited group size, groups split into teams and began searching simultaneously, coordinating via voice chat.

Some highlighted buggy achievements that could be completed in custom games and provided the game types to obtain via their file shares and/or some posted instructional videos. Others explained how daily and weekly challenges in Halo: Reach could be reset by closing and restarting the game, allowing players to farm credits and purchase more armor for their Spartans. The really engaged quarterback boosting sessions via xbox party chats or discord channels. Whatever the problem, someone had the answer and was happy to help.

My requirements were relatively simple. I had completed the last few Halo 3 achievements I needed in 2020 just after 343 Industries announced the servers were going offline and was slowly working my way through the last few games I had to complete over the past year. On January 6th I only had two games left at 100%: Reach (it took me 17 achievements) and Halo 4 (it took me 52 achievements). I still had a week to get them.

It sounds ambitious, but what I did was nothing compared to what some players were trying to do. One person I played with regularly attempted to complete every commendation in Halo 4, which meant getting several hundred kills with each weapon, blowing up a certain number of vehicles, getting that many multi-kills, and so on. Others tried to max out their commendations and armories in Reach. One guy wanted to catalog and preserve every major custom game and map to ever meet Halo 3 and Reach in both the Legacy titles and The Master Chief Collection (spoiler alert: he did it). Another person I played with hosted custom Reach games for a whole day for anyone who wanted to play. It had over 300 custom game types and hundreds of maps so nobody ever had to play the same thing twice. A regular on the Halo Completionists Discord hosted daily firefight boosting sessions to help people complete challenges.

I found myself helping people with things I no longer needed because I knew the answers or had the time between sessions with the players who had become part of my home group. It felt like I was giving back to a community that always had answers when I had questions and welcomed me to any group I wanted to join. I ended up hosting buggy achievement game types on my file share, linking to walkthrough videos, running campaign missions for challenges and achievements, forming regular firefight groups, and guiding groups through some of the more complex achievements I’d already received. In return, when I asked for help, I always, always got it.

I’ve spent the last few days preserving as much as I can, taking photos of my stats and my Spartans, downloading clips, maps and screenshots from my and my friends’ file shares, and reviving memories that none of us have had thought for years. I finished my last Halo 4 achievement and overall achievement on January 12th at 11:30pm PDT by playing the campaign with my wife, something we were doing anyway. The server would shut down sometime on the 13th, although 343 didn’t specify the exact time. Some people suspected it would be Central around noon, when the Halo Twitter account—and Halo Infinite—updates, but I wanted to get everything done just in case.

The servers were shut down at 12:00 Central the following day. I quickly surveyed the damage: service records and statistics were gone. Custom armor stopped loading in the Reach campaign unless we went offline, although it seemed like players could still gain credits and unlock new pieces. By far the biggest loss was the removal of the coveted and very cool Recon armor in Halo 3, even if you had completed all the notoriously difficult Vidmaster achievements to unlock it [The Vidmaster achievements were 7 achievements spread across Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST. The most difficult ones required players to complete a Halo 3:ODST level solo on Legendary without firing a shot or throwing grenade (Classic), competing 4 sets of ODST Firefight in 4-player co-op on Heroic (Endure), complete the last level of Halo 3 in 4-player Legendary co-op with the Iron skull on and everyone in Ghosts (Annual), and complete the last level of ODST in 4-player co-op on Legendary, with the Iron skull on, without using the Scorpion or Warthog (Deja Vu)]. This set was a badge of honor, and it was just…gone. For the first time, the map showing where players were in Halo 3 multiplayer, where oddly enough the player count never dropped before 1328 players no matter what, was blank; The small dots of light marking players around the world had gone dark.

Halo: The Series Gallery

On forums and discord servers, people came in to pay their respects, celebrate their victories, and mourn the things they couldn’t finish. Some were still playing, refusing to turn off their consoles or close the games, trying to stave off the inevitable. Others berated 343 for shutting down the servers, but many knew they would never have met these people – or had so much fun playing these games – if the games had not been about to end. It was a tragedy to lose so much, but the server shutdown had done more to revitalize these games and the community than it ever did to keep them going. We came together to say goodbye to old friends and make new ones in the process; there was something beautiful in it.

The night before the servers shut down, a group of us all sat in voice chat, each on a different game. A player named BanditKing was playing Halo 3’s multiplayer and intended to keep his console on for as long as possible. “It’s 40-40. A really close game,” he told us in the middle of a game. “A tied match in Halo 3. There’s nothing quite like it.”

He was right. There still isn’t. But The Master Chief Collection is still here, and Halo Infinite is the best game the series has seen in years. The original games may be gone, but if the last week I’ve played them is any indication, they won’t be forgotten. As any fan of the series knows, Spartans never die. Into the Howling Dark: The Last Days of the Xbox 360 Halos

Fry Electronics Team

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