Mass Multiplayer Mayhem and an Unfulfilling Finale
So, why review Halo 3? It's been out for three years and everyone who cares has moved on to Halo: Reach. For one, I just recently got around to playing through the campaign for the first time so it's new to me. Secondly, I've been cumulating thoughts on the whole Halo phenomenon for some time now and this is a good excuse/opportunity to share them for my online submissions debut. This is going to be one part review of Halo 3 and one part overview of the trilogy, because it's nearly impossible for me talk about my opinion of Halo 3 without talking about what came before it.
I am compelled to note that there are spoilers in here, mostly just for stuff that happens at the beginning of each game, and if that makes this a "bad review" I don't care. I'm not going to bend over backwards to discuss this junk spoiler-free when everyone who cares at all about the story of the Halo trilogy should have experienced it on their own already. That said, if by chance the story hasn't been spoiled for you and you really want it to stay that way, stop reading.
Regarding Halo and Halo 2 Multiplayer...
For me, the whole Halo "thing" started the summer after I graduated from high school. My parents moved me back to Texas from Louisiana (we'd moved from Texas to Louisiana two years prior). Bored and alone, counting down the days until I went back to college, I got in touch with an old friend that I hadn't spoken to in two years. He invited me over to hang out with his friends and play this game I'd never heard of called "Halo."
We played "Slayer." I got trounced, but I was having fun. At least I think I was. My memories from that time aren't too clear, so it's hard to say if I was really having fun or if it was just slightly more fun than sitting at home alone trying to earn every last trophy in Super Smash Bros. Melee.
So then I went away to college. I made some new friends and guess what game they all loved? Well, Magic: the Gathering, but besides that...Halo. When hanging out, we'd often play "Slayer." I still got trounced, but I was generally having fun. My skills grew to where I could occasionally hold my own, but I'd still never won a Halo match at that point. One of my friends suggested that I'd improve if I stopped using the Goldeneye-style "Legacy" controls and switched to the more PC-like "Standard" controls. I'd had pretty much no experience with PC FPS games at this point, so the switch was really strange to me.
The next couple of weeks became a trial by fire where I was trounced day after day. Eventually I got to a place where the "left hand controls movement, right hand controls view" setup felt natural, and I won my first match. It was a strange moment. I was quite proud of myself, but at the same time it felt weird that I had put so much work
into something so I could end up being fair competition and get to a point where I could truly have fun
Freshman year came and went in a blur of video games, card games, tabletop role-playing games, finding out that I'd rather be an English major than a Philosophy major, and more dating drama than anyone ever needs.
When sophomore year started, the Halo fans in my dorm began to congregate. I still wasn't the best player, but, unlike when I first started playing, I wasn't getting regularly trounced and the game was actually pretty fun to play with a group of friends. Eventually, two dorm rooms, four TV/Xbox/Halo setups, and sixteen guys coalesced into big 8-on-8 games of Team Slayer and Capture the Flag that happened, on average, twice a week. No doubts or questioning here: THAT was fun. It didn't matter that pistol was too powerful or that outside of the pistol only a few weapons were worth picking up. It didn't matter that there were tons of other games that I liked a lot more than Halo. On those nights, Halo became a solid avenue for accessible sociable fun.
I had almost three months of mass multiplayer gaming bliss...and then...it
Seriously, what the hell?! As soon as Halo 2 entered our lives and the Xbox owners (I wasn't one) set up their Xbox live accounts, they realized they didn't need any actual friends to play big 16-player games. "Halo time" ceased to be a fun social event and became a time to seclude one's self in one's room to "pwn noobs" and raise one's player rank. Who needs real life gaming friends to play and smack-talk with when you can beat 13-year-olds over the internet and tell them how much they suck through a microphone headset? Ungh... So a few weeks of this passed and my friends eventually decided that were ready to stop being perpetual Halo hermits. "Hey, let's get together and play some Halo." They said. "Oh cool, it'll be just like it was before," I thought. I couldn't have been more wrong.
You see, Halo 2 handled differently enough that it took some getting used to. It was a tad twitchier than the first (probably in response to those who said the first was way too slow). There were maps that one had to learn, particularly the multi-level maps than messed with the way you read your radar. There were new (broken) weapons to acclimate to and new (broken) weapon combinations to learn to exploit. None of this was a problem for my friends who'd been practicing on Xbox Live. They knew the ins and outs of the maps, where the broken sword spawned, and how to truly exploit the broken plasma pistol & SMG or plasma pistol to battle rifle combos. I however, did not.
To say that they owned me would be an understatement. It was even worse than when I started playing the first one. I was so utterly dominated that I truly believed my friends were conspiring against me: collectively using some kind of cheat and keeping me in the dark so they could have a good laugh at my expense. When I demanded that they either stop using the cheat or clue me in and I didn't believe them when they said they weren't cheating...THEN they had a good laugh at my expense.
I'm not a sore loser, but having such a short virtual life span that you effectively can't do anything but spawn and then die is just not fun. The solution that was suggested to me was to practice on my own, but I didn't have an Xbox or the money to get one. On top of that, I just wasn't that interested.
So, Halo 2's multiplayer single-handedly ruined the fun of "playing Halo with friends" for me. When the LAN parties started up again, I bowed out of them for a good while. When I did occasionally "give it another chance" the result was a harsh reminder that I was severely outclassed by people who spent way too much time playing Halo 2. This trend continued for a good while. I'd sometimes play at other people's houses when all the guys but me decided that that was what they wanted to do. Despite my distaste for the game, getting trounced in Halo 2 was more enjoyable than just sitting there and watching other people play Halo 2. When the Halo 2 community discovered "double-tapping" I swore off Halo 2 multiplayer forever.
Does Time Really Heal All Wounds?
A couple of years later, I got an Xbox 360. Unlike legions of 360 owners, Halo was not a factor in my want to own it. "It's cheaper than a PS3 and has most of the games I'm interested in" was the extent of my reasoning, and Halo 3 wasn't one of the games I was interested in. But, in an ironic twist, Halo 3 was one of the first games I owned.
You see, a good friend of mine who was a big Halo fan bought me my own copy of Halo 3. I must note that I did not ask him for it nor make any notions about wanting it. He did it completely through his own volition. "So now you can play on Xbox Live with us," he said. I wasn't particularly excited at the prospect of the game itself, but I was interested in gaming with my friends. I was now in my post-college years and many of the cool friends I'd made in college lived hours away from me. Despite my misgivings with the franchise, I decided to give Halo another chance, including the supposedly epic story that my Halo-loving friends praised. On that note, let's talk a bit about Halo and Halo 2's campaigns before we get into Halo 3.
A Modern Epic?
Until that little push from my friend, I'd never gone through the Halo story. I knew most of what happened in the Halo universe up to the end of Halo 2 through hearing my Halo-loving friends talk about it. It didn't strongly peak my interest, but regardless, I was willing to give it a shot. I tracked down a free copy of Halo and a cheap copy of Halo 2 and went through both campaigns. Let's take a couple steps back in gaming time and see what I got out of them...
Regarding Halo's Campaign
This game sets up the basic plot elements of the series. The Covenant, Master Chief, Cortana, and the Flood are all set up pretty minimalistically. This keeps the focus on the gameplay, which is solid. The question of "What is Halo?" is explained well enough in highly punctuated bursts via short cutscenes and there are references to the mysterious "Forerunner" race that built Halo.
Master Chief is a cross between the "stoic badass" and "last man standing" archetypes ripped directly out of Jung's collective unconscious. Despite what his fans may try to make you believe, he has no depth and no expressed personality other than "I'm here to kick ass and take names." This lack of characterization isn't necessarily
a bad thing. It's because he is a faceless stoic hero that it's easy for the player to step into his armor and feel like they are the Master Chief. He's almost the FPS equivalent of the silent protagonist in an RPG, and it works well enough (in Halo 1 at the very least).
The story is solid enough to drive the action, but is hardly an "epic" affair. The only thing that I'd consider epic about it is the music, which is actually really good. After finishing it, the story begged a question that could be could be considered a plot hole: If Halo was created as a weapon of last resort against the Flood, why did its builders keep Flood contained on Halo? Hmm... Oh look, the ending shows that they clearly had a sequel in mind, so they should clear it up in a later installment, right? Well, we'll cross that bridge when we (don't) come to it.
I get the feeling that there was stuff that the writers should've included but didn't because of time restraints or something. I've heard that Bungie butt heads with Microsoft over release dates and this forced Bungie to cut a good bit out of each campaign, Halo 2 and 3 in particular. Maybe this explains why so many critical plot bits are stuck in the Halo prequel/interquel/sequel novels that my friends were kind enough to educate me on...more on this later...
When the Flood appear. Bungie actually does a decent job of building tension up to the moment where they appear. In addition, the way they are a foil to the Covenant in the way they look and the way they fight injects some much needed variety into the game.
The overwhelming amount of repetition. Until the above high point, there are only four enemy types and the Hunters are a rare encounter. Of the three you'll see over and over again (Grunts, Jackals, and Elites), only the Elites seem to pose any kind of actual threat on standard difficulty. And that's a small fault compared to the environments. At one point (soon before the above listed High Point) you go through the same boring, empty, gray room over and over. A trek through a Covenant ship is disorienting because of how similar the rooms and hallways look to each other. Perhaps the worst instance of repetition is that several later areas are backtracking retreads of areas you've already gone through.
Regarding Halo 2's Campaign
This game goes a lot more into the Covenant's side of the story, particularly their hierarchy and their beliefs about Halo. They're actually humanized in a way. It's possible see them less as "bizarre aliens bent humanity's destruction" and more as "an interplanetary cult who just happen to be aliens and whose religious beliefs just happen to include humanity's destruction." We're introduced to the Prophets (the triune of physically frail theocratic cult leaders) and the Brutes (big, boorish, hairy aliens who are seemingly the backbone of the Covenant's "justice" system). When the game kicks off, the Prophets are really hacked off about what happened in the first game: that humans were on Halo, which they consider a holy site, and that Master Chief, whom they call "the Demon," destroyed said holy site. We also meet the Arbiter, Halo 2's secondary protagonist. The game cuts back and forth between Master Chief and an Elite who was the leader of the Covenant forces in the first game.
The game opens as this Elite is brought out to be punished for allowing humans "to defile the sacred ring." The opening scene cuts back and forth, from Master Chief and the late Captain Keyes being honored and medaled for their service, to this Elite being brought out by the Brutes into a stadium crowd that is chanting "Heretic!" before being chastised by the Prophets, stripped of his armor, and branded (literally) as a heretic. Later the Prophets make an him an offer: become the Arbiter (which is like the Prophets' personal agent that they send on suicide missions) and hunt down other heretics to restore his honor.
After all of Halo and the beginning of Halo 2 are spent resisting
the Covenant's goals, you then spend some time as the Arbiter hunting down rouge Covenant heretics to further
the Covenant's goals. Interesting... In the very least, the Arbiter is an actual character
as opposed to the faceless archetype
that is Master Chief. Their juxtaposition throughout the campaign caused the Chief's flat "I'm a badass" routine to wear thin really quick for me. Each time I switched back to Master Chief from the Arbiter, I became more and more disappointed. If I remember right, I actually groaned at one point.
The action kicks off as a small fleet of Covenant ships ("the fleet that took down Reach was ten times this size" says the old military dude) shows up at Earth. They're looking for something on Earth and they're surprised that humans are on the planet. Chaos ensues, Master Chief does some "oh look how badass he is" stuff before he and his and pals end up on a second Halo, and lingering questions from the first game's story are never addressed. Details like Gravemind, the Flood's hive mind intelligence, and "the Halo from the first game was just one of several that the Forerunner built" raise further questions. While at least mildly intriguing, Halo 2's story doesn't really go anywhere with these things.
So the first game's story left us with questions, the second game's story doesn't answer them and then raises more questions, but they're going to answer everything in the mind-blowing third act...right? Right?!
The Arbiter. Throughout the game we see him start to question the Prophets' teachings and eventually lead his race in a rebellion against the Covenant. Despite myself, I actually found the Arbiter story compelling. When I really look at objectively, the "highlight reel" (more on this below) story skimps on his characterization, the back-and-forth between him and the Master Chief kills the pacing of his plot, and his personal story is not really novel in any way...but I can't help myself. I really like the Arbiter. I guess I'm just a huge sucker for the whole "blind follower begins to question the higher-ups, finds out the truth, and then challenges their status quo" thing. Maybe that's why I like Final Fantasy X as much as I do, despite the objective arguements I could make about the game's problems.
The campaign feels very
incomplete. A lot of key things are missing plot wise. As repetitive as the first game was in terms of gameplay and presentation, the story was solid. The second game has a good bit more variety in its environments and gameplay, and the graphics are much improved, but the story feels like a giant loose end.
First off, the story follows suit with movie franchises like The Matrix and game franchises like God of War: Part 1 can stand alone and Parts 2 and 3 are one big sequel story in two parts, highlighted by a huge drop-off cliffhanger ending in Part 2 that leaves people with more "annoyed frustration" as opposed to the whole "excited anticipation" angle that these creators were probably going for.
Note to media developers: this is NOT a good way to tell a story across a trilogy. Go back and look at some of the most critically and commercially successful trilogies of our time: Indiana Jones, the original Star Wars, Back to the Future, and, as a video game example, Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time and its sequels. You know what they all have in common? Whether very episodic like Indiana Jones, a streaming narrative like Back to the Future, or somewhere in between those extremes like Star Wars and the Sands of Time trilogy, each movie/game has its own story arc. Please stop making one stand-alone story and then one big sequel story in two parts. It's getting really old.
This problem combined with unexplained bits from the first game make the whole thing feel like it's somewhere between a complete campaign and a highlight reel of a complete campaign.
End of my Personal Abbreviated Halo History / Beginning of my Halo 3 Review
So we've established where I'm coming from through the first two. Let's bring this to a head. What's the deal with Halo 3?
First, how's the multiplayer?
As far as multiplayer goes, Halo 3 is solid. After two games with serious balance issues regarding the weaponry and game-breaking glitches, Bungie (more or less) got it right. The melee weapons are still really powerful, but I never got the sense that they were officially broken like the sword in Halo 2 (though that hammer is pretty ridiculous).
Unlike the average past gaming session of Halo 2, I could jump into a match of Halo 3, despite months of not playing any FPS, and hold my own. While there are still people who eat, drink, and breathe Halo and, naturally, will dominate the board, it's a gaming environment that is not unapproachable to outsiders, like Halo 2 quickly became for me.
There's a good variety of game types and maps as well as the ability to customize game types and maps. There's plenty to keep an itchy trigger-finger busy for a long time. The only standout flaw in the multiplayer design I found was this: if you are playing online and you don't shell out for the extra map packs and stuff, the Matchmaking will probably put you the same small handful of maps and game types over and over. Way push sales, Microsoft.
What, you were expecting more? What else is there to say? Halo's core FPS gameplay is really that simple. I can't think of anything in the core gameplay that hadn't been done before Halo 3. It's really just a refinement of the formula from the two games that came before it, which in itself was a translation of PC FPS mechanics to the console. Throw in some new weapons, better graphics and sound, balance tweaks, and some new bells and whistles, and you've got your Halo 3 multiplayer. Take it or leave it.
And how about the campaign?
Here we are...the reason I was motivated to write this piece. The Halo trilogy has been lauded by fans as having an amazing storyline. After my experience with the first two, the third campaign had tall order to fill if it was going to live up to that.
Everything about the Covenant, the Flood, and the Halo facilities starts to come to a point at the end of Halo 2 and beginning of Halo 3. A bigger Covenant fleet comes to Earth. It seems that that thing the Covenant was looking for at the beginning of Halo 2 is a Forerunner device that opens a portal to the Ark, an installation that has the ability to activate all the Halo sites at once...and how does this all turn out?
The good end of the campaign...
First off, Halo and Halo 2 had great music and Halo 3 does not disappoint in this regard. The epic-sounding main themes as well as the more subtle atmospheric pieces are still excellent. Like its predecessors, the music of Halo 3 consistently suits and amplifies the scene at hand.
Secondly, the game looks good. Employing good music and this good graphic presentation, the game features some pretty cool set pieces, such as destroying scarabs (the huge, walking, Covenant war machines). There was a more scripted sequence for destroying a scarab in Halo 2, but in Halo 3 it's all interactive:
I see a ton of marines surrounding these things and hailing them with firepower. I grab a missile/rocket/grenade launcher, go commando on one of its legs, which cripples it and makes it stoop low. I then jump inside, kill all the aliens, blast its power core, then jump out and run like a bat out of Hades before the whole thing blows up. These were the only moments in all three games where I truly felt like a "badass super soldier" as opposed to "a guy with nice guns and regenerating shields."
And I know that it was ripped from the first Halo, but the "daring driving escape while the world around me blows up and the epic music plays" thing was pretty freakin' sweet, and executed much better in this game than it was in the first.
And now the bad end...
First off, I understand that Master Chief is the more popular character, but still, the Arbiter gets the shaft.
Bungie decided that their co-op mode should have some context rather than inserting a story-breaking doppelganger like they did in the first two games. Halo 3's co-op mode has Player 1 controlling Master Chief and Player 2 controlling the Arbiter. They even expanded co-op to four players (players 3 and 4 control two generic Elites in tow of the Arbiter). Kudos to Bungie for giving co-op the context. Shame, shame, shame on them for making the Arbiter an integral part of the story in Halo 2, then relegating him to Master Chief's sidekick in the story of Halo 2 Continued...err, Halo 3. The Arbiter does get his good story moments, but they are the textbook definition of few-and-far-between.
Oh well... Since Master Chief and the Arbiter shadow each other for pretty much the whole game, I can choose to play as the Arbiter in the single player campaign, right? Wait, I can't? WHY NOT?!
Okay so this stuff is pretty subjective and only applies to Arbiter fans like me, but, objectively, Halo 2 offered variance in the campaign: the flat "stoic badass" Master Chief for people who really like that sort of thing and the Arbiter for those who prefer at least a little character development in the man behind the gun. Halo 3 does not. Like the first game, this story is nearly 100% plot-driven.
I could understand this decision to focus on the Chief if the Arbiter was an overwhelmingly unpopular character, but according an unofficial poll on the Bungie forums as of the time that this was written, it's closer a 60/40 split. As far as I can see there was no compelling reason for Bungie to sideline the Arbiter character as much as they did, and the decision to do so robs Halo 3 of some of the character and variety it could have had.
I wish that the above was the biggest flaw in Halo 3's campaign. Sadly it's not.
If you remember some of my earlier comments, Halo and Halo 2 begged a lot of plot questions that went unanswered...
Why were the Flood contained on the Halo sites?
If the Halo sites were fired in the past, why are the Flood still around and why is there still sentient life in the galaxy?
What was Gravemind doing on the second Halo site?
What is the relationship between the Forerunner and the human race?
Halo 3 had the opportunity to deliver revelations in a big way...
In case you didn't catch the pointed sarcasm in my earlier comments, It didn't.
We start off the campaign with Cortana giving a short enigmatic speech directed at Master Chief about why she "chose" him. This kicks off the stand-out plot element of Halo 3: Master Chief experiencing glitchy telepathic messages from Cortana, who, as far as we know from the ending of Halo 2, is in the clutches of Gravemind. The game explores the deeper relationship between Master Chief and Cortana, and the stoic badass actually gets a sliver of character development! He breaks out of the "good and dutiful soldier" mold when he defies the wishes of a commanding officer out of loyalty to Cortana.
Sadly, Halo 3 does not answer the overarching questions raised by the previous games. Like its predecessors, it offers some cryptic bits that we can use to make shaky inferences, but mostly Halo 3's story just raises further questions...
What exactly is the Ark and why is there an Ark portal on Earth?
Why does our stoic Master Chief seem to care so much about Cortana and have so much faith in her, and why is she so personally invested in him?
These questions also go unanswered in Halo 3, and while I haven't played Halo Wars, ODST, or Reach, I know enough about them to know that they do not address any of the italicized questions I've listed, so we can't even count on them to fill things in for us.
If questions that need to be answered in order to truly understand and appreciate a story go unanswered, they turn from "mysteries" into "plot holes." The weird thing is, even though they go unanswered in the games, I KNOW the answers to all of the above questions. My Halo-devotee friends have filled in all of the above plot holes for me. "How?" you ask? The answer is the single biggest head-scratcher regarding the whole "Halo video game fiction," and it's a doozie...
WHAT'S ALL THIS?!?!?!?!
Taken as a whole from what I've learned of it second-hand, Bungie actually crafted an interesting, compelling, and complete
(though not wholly original
) sci-fi universe with a novel (as far as I know) take on the Biblical story of Noah's Ark and an interesting spin on the historical geological question: "Why are the oldest fossilized remains of humans found in Africa?"
The problem is this: the games themselves, particularly 2 and 3, are stripped down to be highlight reels of a story rather than a complete story. Taken on its own without certain background knowledge, the story that is presented within the Halo video games is horribly incomplete. To really understand the fiction in
the games, you have to have knowledge of the fiction outside
the games, and that's NOT good video game storytelling.
Also, there are moments with little nuances you cannot appreciate without knowledge of the outside fiction. For example, near the end of Halo 3 Cortana tells Master Chief, "It's been an honor serving with you, John." To someone like me who read the first half of the novel, "The Fall of Reach" and knew of the preceding history of two of them, this moment actually had an impact. I'll admit, I was a bit touched. To those who have no knowledge of the fiction outside the games, this moment is no more profound than "Huh, okay...so his real name is John."
I have a number of theories on why
Bungie presented its fiction this way, but I'd rather not get into them and it's all speculation as far as I can see. Rather than dance around some moot points I'll just play the "evil corporation" card and say that it's probably all Microsoft's fault.
argue that this storytelling approach has at least one merit: it allows a person to get out of the fiction as much or as little as they want. Hardcore Halo sci-fi fans can read all the novels and comics and watch the direct-to-DVD/Blu-ray movies; meatheads who care only about blasting aliens and playing multiplayer don't have to be bothered with (what they would consider) unnecessary details. The fact remains that no matter how good one considers the whole Halo canon to be or how relevant or irrelevant the story is to the gameplay, the narrative derived from the video games cannot stand on its own. Therefore, as a complete and cohesive story, it fails. Though this wouldn't even really be a big deal if Halo fanboys didn't laud the games' "epic" story with so much praise.
So, where does this leave my judgment? I don't hate the Halo franchise. I don't love the Halo franchise. I just try to see it for what I believe it is: a solidly-built, but not perfect, console FPS franchise whose not-quite-balanced-until-the-third-game multiplayer offerings and campaign storylines somehow became much bigger deals than they actually are. It's also a franchise that built one of the most bull-headed fanboy communities in history that will forever praise Halo's multiplayer, talk about how Halo's story is "soooo epic," and claim that Master Chief is the best video game character ever
, when, according to the story of the games by themselves, he can hardly be considered a "character" at all.
To me, this begs the question, "Why did Halo become such a big deal?" Well, from my experience, Halo is a good gateway FPS. Before Halo, I had little-to-no experience with FPS games besides Goldeneye on the N64. With slower movement and regenerating shields, Halo has a gentler learning curve than twitchy games like Unreal Tournament or games where you can die really easily like Half-Life. In a way, I owe Halo. Through Halo and Halo 3 I've had some fun times with friends, and through the first Halo I became adept with the dual-analog controls
And when it comes to the campaign, Bungie does a good job of making the experience feel
epic. When looking at the games' story in hindsight, it's incomplete and contrived. But while I'm taking down hordes of aliens or driving the Warthog in a thrilling escape and the orchestral Halo music kicks up in the background...I can't help but feel, at least a little, that I'm a part of something epic.
I'm sure there are tons of perpetual console gamers like me, long ignorant of PC gaming, to whom Halo was their first real experience with multiplayer FPS, in LAN and online. It also may have been their first experience with an FPS that tells the story of a "last man standing who defied all odds to save the day."
Legions of gamers got a first taste of these things through Halo, and fell in love with the series.
As for me? After getting my feet wet through Halo and learning the FPS ropes, I turned my FPS attention to games like Unreal Tournament, Jedi Knight II, Bioshock, and the Half-Life series. All these are games that, in my opinion, offer more compelling gameplay and (in the case of the latter two) much more compelling stories.