Trite end-of-year thing #6: Halo 3

Oh, right, hey. Countdown thing.

I’m back in California but my body’s still on Eastern time, and I’ve found myself awake at 6 a.m. for the past two days and glued to BioShock for practically every waking moment, at least until I came to work this morning. I woulda finished it last night, actually, but I stepped out for sushi and the waitress decided it would be a friendly New Year’s treat to offer me a second box of sake, gratis. Which is very generous, but as a lightweight drinker I quickly found myself needing to use intense concentration when simply manipulating my chopsticks, and once I made my way home I figured that this was probably not the ideal condition in which to take down the final boss.

And now, as Kasey says, on with the countdown. Ah, if only I could get someone to sing “Number six” for me here.

Halo 3
Bungie/Microsoft | Xbox 360 | First-person shooter

The music analogy I made for Odin Sphere worked pretty well, so let us continue using this theme until it is irredeemably tired and annoying. If Halo 3 were a band, it would be a supergroup whose name and reputation have taken on a life of their own — a group like U2 or the Rolling Stones, whose fame and ubiquity sometimes obscure their music. A band that feels a little predictable and mundane now, but with good reason: they set a standard that everyone else imitates.

Not unlike what the kids were discussing the other day, at this point people seem less likely to opine on Halo 3 itself than on others’ opinions of the game, and on the series’ omnipresence, and on the enormity of its popularity, and on the desperate extravagance of Microsoft’s marketing of the game, and on the media’s apparent eagerness to cover every minor nuance of the game. Et cetera. The merits and failings of the game itself tend to be overshadowed by the meta-discussion, or else are so utterly blown out of proportion as to turn most conversations about the game into dogmatic chest-thumping. Anything you say about it is going to piss off someone. My EGM review — a 9.0, essentially a five-star rating with some reservations — annoyed the fans (because I was clearly lowballing it from some sort of bias) and the haters (because I was too blinded by moneyhats to give it the 6.0 it so richly deserved) alike. It’s one of those games. Maybe the definitive example.

See, now I’m reacting to the reactions to the reactions, and so on, recursively, ad nauseum. Shameful.

Strip all of that away, though, and what you have is a very good, very polished, very accessible first-person shooter, with some definite flaws. Whether you adore Halo or despise it, the simple fact is that the series represents a landmark in shooter design. These days it’s rare to find an FPS that doesn’t limit you to two weapons (gather as you go), or that doesn’t feature Halo’s set of online play options (refined over the years from their Marathon debut), or that doesn’t give you auto-regenerating shields, or that doesn’t include a persistent voice in your ear to serve as combination storyteller/guide. The Halo design has become a formula for the genre, for better or for worse. Personally, I think it works fine here — Halo 3 is more or less exactly what I expected to see in the trilogy’s finale — but I could live without some of the more blatant (and less polished) knock-offs. Just as no one has ever quite done Bionic Commando‘s grappling mechanic as well as Bionic Commando, Halo-alikes tend not to be as enjoyable as the original.

Whether or not Halo 3 deserves to be treated as the most apocalyptically huge game in the history of the human species is debatable, though I’m not even going to get involved in that conversation. I’ve personally written way too much about the game, but for a reason: it’s what people want to read. Regardless of what you may think of the game, plenty of others (millions, I’d wager) think it’s the bee’s knees and even now will eagerly click on any link that says “Halo.” It’s quite the phenomenon, though hardly unique. Halo 3 just happens to occupy the same niche as Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter II did in years gone by: it’s a crowd-pleaser, a game that hits the sweet spot between polish, playability and accessibility.

I sometimes get the impression that Bungie isn’t quite sure how to handle this mass-market Middle America fanbase it’s managed to tap; their games up to (and, I guess, mostly including) Oni were generally pretty cerebral, and Halo 3 bobs turbulently at the confluence of two very different streams of conscious. Its greatest failing, I think, is that it compromises itself trying to appeal to both and doesn’t really work perfectly for either. The story, for instance, is a pretty decent sci-fi tale that longs to be great. Unfortunately, it’s painted in broad strokes with Hollywood-style “snappy” patter atop patriotic snare drums to catch the attention of gamers who usually snooze during cutscenes; yet it assumes its audience has been paying very close attention to minor story details and rarely (if ever) stops to explain the rapid-fire sequence of plot elements thrown out in each and every cutscene. This results in dialogue a bit too juvenile to cater to the people who are going to take notes on the finer points, and in details presented so briskly that the casual player literally needs a flowchart to keep track of who’s doing what, and why.

So, no, Halo 3 wasn’t exactly the narrative triumph of 2007, although the terminals went a long way toward proving that Bungie still remembers how to weave an interesting, enigmatic tale. But holy crap if it didn’t play beautifully.

Even that’s not without a caveat, unfortunately. Play the game on its default difficulty — a logical decision, given that “normal” suggests “this is the way the game is intended to be experienced” — and Halo 3 is a perfectly competent shooter with very pretty environments, acceptable enemies and entertaining weapons. But the word “normal” is a lie. Bump the challenge level up a notch, and suddenly the experience changes. Enemies become much cannier, much better shots, much stronger, and much more strategic. Suddenly you appreciate the environments as more than just pretty sun-dappled forests; they become vital shelter, each bit of scenery a potential safe haven from unseen snipers or that Brute captain who has a bandolier of concussion grenades with your name printed on them. The enemies become devious foes rather than mere fodder. And you find yourself choosing your two weapons very, very carefully to match each new situation.

So regardless of the game’s narrative shortcomings, irrespective of its less-inspiring-than-hoped multiplayer, all hype aside, Halo 3’s single-player campaign on heroic is one of the most challenging and rewarding game experiences I’ve ever had. It was hard — it was damn hard. But it never felt unfair; I never felt overwhelmed. Rather, the entire experience felt perfectly tuned and balanced, except for the fact that the first two levels are the toughest in the game, and the last two are the easiest. (What’s that about, guys?) It was the perfect length, too — long enough to feel complete, but brief enough that it didn’t feel padded.

No, it was just short enough to leave me hungry for a little more… which is inevitable, of course, given that the coda basically says “BUY HALO 4, COMING SOON.” But next time, someone else can write all those friggin’ articles. Turns out I enjoy Halo most from the outside.

11 thoughts on “Trite end-of-year thing #6: Halo 3

  1. I genuinely believe that Bungie is done with the Halo series, at least for a game or two, since they’ve been focusing on it since 2001 or so. Of course, I routinely “genuinely believe” in foolish things, like Nintendo delivering the remainder of the Mother series to the U.S. and Square realizing they need to come up with some new IPs (or at the very least bringing the Mana series back from the depths of hell).

  2. Yeah I’ve kind of hit a Bioshock obsession myself, which is interesting because I’m completely hit-or-miss when it comes to FPS. I noticed your Achievements marked you as a “Sister Saviour” while I’ve been harvesting the little darlings left and right. Way to make me feel like Satan.

  3. I would have probably been in the Halo is overrated camp if it wasn’t for the people on the boards making the multiplayer so much fun. I’ve never been a big fan of Halo, because I don’t really like the single player game and I never owned an original Xbox. That being said, Halo 3 was one of my favorite games this year and it definately saw the most time on XBL. It’s still probably overrated but who cares what other people think anyway? I like it and that’s all that matters to me :)

  4. I had never played Halo before, and now I finally got me an xbox360 so I decided to see what is was all about and bought Halo 3. Biggest disappointment ever. I just don’t understand why everybody thinks this such a great game, it’s boring as hell. Just compare it to the singleplayer of CoD4 or the multiplayer of team fortress 2, now those are great games!

  5. Well, the thing about Halo is that the second game was the first major console shooter to support online play, and do it right. So it became the 800-pound gorilla among console FPS fans who hadn’t experienced more diverse, class-based shooters like Team Fortress. I think what bothers me most about the multiplayer is that they’ve offered all of these specialized armors, like scout and assault or whatever, which would suggest more diverse roles for people. But no matter what you wear, it’s always just Spartans and Elites, who are Spartans with hooves. The game sacrifices dynamism for diamond-polished balance. That’s fine, but if the core design doesn’t appeal to you, a coat of spit-shine isn’t going to change your mind.

  6. Thanks for pointing out that the game needs to be played on one of the 2 highest difficulties. I played the original Halo on normal, basically ran through it, thought it was a shiny piece of poop, and told everybody so. Then I replayed it on the harder modes and found the added strategy, and that the previously decorative scenery was actually a series carefully devised horizontal platformer footholds (sorry, Cliffy B).

  7. In all fairness, the game actually claims that Heroic is “the way the game was meant to be played”. It’s just a bit strange that they give the name “normal” to a different difficulty level, which seems somewhat backwards in the face of the previous statement.

  8. Halo 3 was overrated by some, but it seems to me that COD4 has clearly ursurped Halo 3 for the title of “most overrated game”.

    Sure, the pre-release Halo hype was insane, but most Halo fans now admit the faults in Halo 3. COD4 fans, on the other hand, seem blind in their love for a game in which every enemy you encounter is almost exactly the same (and they all die with one well-placed shot, from any gun…), with no vehicles, no co-op, etc. Not to mention that if Halo 3 is Halo 2.5, COD4 is certainly COD 1.5, as the game still plays almost exactly like past titles (not that that’s a bad thing).

    COD4 is a fantastic game, yes, but its see-no-evil fanboy following is worse than any game in recent memory…

  9. I’ll second Ben and say that the Tyrants made this one of my favorite games of the year. I didn’t play much of the first two outside of LAN parties and such. They really did up the ante with the addition of videos and customizable maps and gametypes.

  10. Halo is only comparable to Super Mario Bros. and SF2 in terms of popularity. It didn’t do quite as much to revolutionize its respective genre.

  11. Re: Bioshock – I have the PC version because I didn’t expect to get a 360 quite so soon, and I’m saving them. For those that are unaware, for every three little sisters you save, they give you a present – it’s far less satisfying actually knowing that Tenenbaum is looking after you than it is not knowing if you’re being suckered into helping them.

    I’ve only saved enough little sisters to get the first reward, which contained the Hypnotise Big Daddy plasmid. They really do need to do something about their risk/reward model.

    Is there much TF2 going on on the 360? I wouldn’t know. (I got Orange Box for half-price thanks to Steam, so I see no need to pay full price for the opportunity to get gamer points on a game I’ve already played and finished.)

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