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

“We’re saving a marriage here, guys,” the leader of our achievement-boosting group said. We needed a map with Headhunter, and we needed it now. When we got it, the entire Xbox Live party – twelve men brought together from across the U.S. and Europe by a love of Halo and the end of an era – cheered.

The marriage in question was mine. I needed to be in an Uber bound for New York City 5 minutes ago to meet my wife. The group knew this. They also knew that getting me the achievement I needed – Halo Reach’s Bounty Hunter, which requires a single player to turn in ten skulls, the maximum any player can carry, at once – would immediately end the match. No one else would get anything. They were doing it for me.

Once we were in the match, one person on the enemy team began killing my teammates while the rest of his team lined up for my grenades. When we had ten combined skulls, I assassinated him. The turn-in point moved to my location a second later. We’d gotten lucky. The group congratulated me as I said my goodbyes.

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 – turned off forever on January 13. The shutdown affected each game differently. Some of what the changes would mean were unclear, but it definitely meant the end of stats, achievements, player customization, and matchmaking for Halo 3, Halo: Reach, and Halo 4, some of the most beloved multiplayer games ever made.

Most communities would probably greet this news with despair. Not the exceptionally dedicated Halo community. This is the group that kept their Xbox consoles on for weeks to keep playing Halo 2 after the servers shut down in 2010. In the last year of these games, experiences like mine were commonplace as the community rallied to send the Xbox 360 Halos out with a bang. They fought low player counts, malfunctioning playlists, and unstable servers to recapture old memories, finish achievements, preserve classic custom game modes and maps, or just download their File Shares.

When 343 announced that servers were going down on December 18, 2020, the reaction in the community was mixed. Plenty of people were upset, but even more were determined to completely finish the fight, as it were. Discords like Halo Completionists and sites like True Achievements were soon packed with players looking to complete absolutely everything there was to complete before it all became unobtainable. For some, it was an exercise in sheer nostalgia, an excuse to come back one final time. Others had never stopped playing and wanted to send the games off in style by hosting games. Many were just there to help. And they showed up. If they hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been enough players to find games. At that point, the Halo playerbase had largely moved on from the original 360 games to The Master Chief Collection, and 343 had pulled the originals from digital storefronts. Unless you were willing to go out and buy a physical copy of these games, you weren’t playing them.

There were further issues within each individual game for these Halo completionists. Want to play ranked in Halo 3? You’ll need to find other players whose TruSkill rank is within 10 of your own. Good luck with that. Reach? The sheer volume of available playlists meant that most of them were barely populated. 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 newest game of the lot, and the only one 343 had actively developed. Halo 4 ran fine once you got in-game, but losing connection to the servers, finding yourself unable to connect with other players, and crashing was common. And every game had connection difficulties if players were playing across console generations.

Needless to say, getting into games wasn’t easy. Boosting achievements was hard and required an intense amount of coordination and patience. Playing legitimate games outside of custom lobbies was all but impossible. At one point in late December, the servers for every game went offline for days without explanation. It took people pinging the developers at 343 on Twitter for them to get 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 extra controllers would sign in guest profiles to populate games after joining up with other players. In playlists that limited party size, groups would divide into teams and start searching at the same time, coordinating over voice chat.

Some highlighted glitched achievements that could be completed in custom games and provided the game types to obtain them through 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 relaunching the game, allowing players to farm credits and acquire more armor for their Spartans. The truly dedicated quarterbacked boosting sessions across Xbox party chats or Discord channels. No matter what the problem was, somebody had the answer and was happy to help.

My requirements were relatively simple. I’d completed the last few Halo 3 achievements I needed in 2020, shortly after 343 Industries announced the servers would be going offline, and slowly worked through the last games I needed to finish in the intervening year. By the time January 6th rolled around, I only had two games to 100% left: Reach (I needed 17 achievements) and Halo 4 (I needed 52 achievements). I had a week left to get them.

It sounds ambitious, but what I was doing was nothing compared to what some players were attempting. One person I regularly played with was trying to complete every commendation in Halo 4, which involved getting several hundred kills with each weapon, blowing up a certain number of vehicles, earning so many multi-kills, and so on. Others were attempting to max out their commendations and armories in Reach. One guy wanted to catalog and preserve every major custom game and map to ever hit Halo 3 and Reach in both the legacy titles and The Master Chief Collection (spoiler alert: he did). Another person I played with hosted an entire day of Reach custom games for anyone who wanted to play. He had over 300 custom game types and hundreds of maps, so nobody would ever have 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 folks with stuff I no longer needed because I knew the answers or had the time between sessions with the players that had become part of my regular group. It felt like giving back to a community that always had answers when I had questions, and welcomed me into every group I asked to join. By the end, I was hosting game types for bugged achievements on my File Share, linking to walkthrough videos, running campaign missions for challenges and achievements, forming regular Firefight groups, and walking groups through some of the more complex achievements I’d already gotten. In return, when I asked for help, I always, always got it.

I spent the last couple of days preserving as much as I could, taking pictures of my stats and my Spartans, downloading clips, maps, and screenshots off of my and my friend’s File Shares, revisiting memories none of us had thought about in years. I finished my last Halo 4 achievement, and my last achievement overall, at 11:30 PM on January 12th by playing the campaign with my wife, something we’d been doing anyway. The server would shut down sometime on the 13th, though 343 hadn’t been specific about the time. Some folks guessed it would be at noon Central, which is when the Halo Twitter account -and Halo Infinite – are updated, but I wanted to have everything done just in case.

The servers were shut off at noon Central the following day. I quickly surveyed the damage: Service Records and stats were gone. Custom armor was no longer loaded in the Reach campaign unless we went offline, though it seemed players could still gain Credits and unlock new pieces. By far the biggest loss was the removal of much sought-after and very cool Recon armor in Halo 3, even if you’d 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)]. That 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 the player count strangely never fell before 1328 players no matter what, was empty; the little points of light marking players across the world had gone dark.

Halo: The Series Gallery

On forums and Discord servers, folks came in to pay their respects, celebrate their wins, and mourn the things they hadn’t been able to finish. Some were still playing, refusing to turn off their consoles or close the games, trying to stave off the inevitable. Others lambasted 343 for closing down the servers, but many knew that they would never have met these people – or had as much fun playing these games – if the games hadn’t been about to come to an end. It was a tragedy to lose so much, but shutting down the servers had done more to revitalize those games, and the community, than keeping them up ever would have. We’d come together to say goodbye to old friends and made new ones in the process; there was something beautiful in that.

On the night before the servers shut down, a group of us all sat in voice chat, each in different games. One player, who went by BanditKing, was playing Halo 3’s multiplayer, intending to keep his console on as long as he could. “It’s 40-40. A real tight game,” he told us in the middle of one match. “A tied match in Halo 3. There’s nothing else 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 spent playing them is any indication, they won’t be forgotten. As any fan of the series knows, Spartans never die.

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