Monday, September 5, 2011

"Bet you can't stick it" - Ten years of Halo

"Ten years ago, Halo changed the way we play video games" - I understand Microsoft and 343 Industries' desire to pump up their audience for the upcoming Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. And let's face it, it's not like the aforementioned statement hasn't been recycled to try and sell a myriad of other video games, movies, products, etc. But I feel it's also a grand exaggeration. As someone who was not particularly fond of the original Halo when it hit the Xbox, I am still willing to give it credit where credit is due. Among the ranks of Perfect Dark and Goldeneye, Halo was one of the best first-person shooters developed for consoles. It wasn't afraid to do its own thing with the multiplayer aspect, straying from typical level designs with levels like Chiron TL-34, Boarding Action, and Hang 'em High. And it certainly helped pave the way for other games that would steal some of the PC-dominance over the genre.

My favorite genre has always been adventure games, whether they are more free-roam adventure titles like Ocarina of Time and Metroid Prime, or platform adventure games like those of the Sonic the Hedgehog and Kirby series. Aside from a few titles on the N64, I had almost zero experience playing first-person shooters, and those that I had watched others play seemed to be - with perhaps a few rare exceptions - the same game regurgitated over and over, with clunky controls and storytelling that was mediocre at best. While I don't feel that was necessarily the case with the original Halo, I kept my distance from it because, to me, it felt lacking. Yes, the multiplayer could be great fun, but only shined brightest if your friends lugged their own Xboxes and televisions over to your house to play. The story was creative, but the characters weren't particularly fleshed out, and thus I had little reason to care for them - most notably, leading man Master Chief.

I carried my skepticism towards the sequel for a few months after its release, until a friend of mine invited me over to his house for a LAN party. I was reluctant to try Halo 2, but eventually I gave in, as all eight of us playing would be staying up until well past three in the morning anyways. To put it bluntly, I was absolutely horrendous at the game. For the first few matches, I spent more time exploring the levels and subsequently being shot up than I did trying to learn the controls. I tried to stick with what I knew, and with Halo 2 being a first-person shooter, that wasn't much, save for the ability to drive vehicles. Granted, this was no Mario Kart, but I got a feel for how the Warthog, Ghost, Spectre, and Wraith all handled fairly quickly. And that became my calling for the evening - a cabbie, if you will, providing a mobile turret for slayer matches and quick getaways during capture the flag. Many hours later, I decided that perhaps my skepticism had been proven wrong - at least as far as the multiplayer was concerned. The fact that we had played so many matches with people in different states (some in different countries) was genuinely exciting.

As most of the group dozed off for the night, a few of us stragglers were still willing to have another go at the game, but decided to take turns in the cooperative campaign. Graphically, the game blew me away. It was wildly colorful and infinitely more detailed than the original Halo. The soundtrack was phenomenal to boot. I wasn't overly impressed with the events of the first few missions - sure, the segment in zero-gravity on Cairo Station and boarding the Scarab to destroy it from the inside were both pretty cool, but I felt this was more or less a highlight reel of Master Chief doing his thing - being a tough guy and killing aliens. Everything changed when things shifted to the Arbiter's perspective, which initially led me to be quite confused. Wasn't the Covenant supposed to be the enemy? Why was I controlling an Elite? Why was he being sent to kill other Elites? I soon stopped asking these questions, embracing what Halo 2 had trumped its predecessor a thousand times over with - effective storytelling, memorable characters, and a much more expansive universe.

A few LAN parties later and I went out and purchased my own Xbox, registered an account for Xbox Live, and joined in the fray. In hindsight, it was all very impulsive, as I never actually bought another game for the original Xbox - I had every intention to, but purchased Knights of the Old Republic for the PC and most other multiplatform games for either the Gamecube or Playstation 2. Eventually I upgraded to the Xbox 360, though not until almost two years after the system's launch. And of course, the first game I picked up for it was Halo 3.

I'm positive that I logged more hours of playtime in Halo 2, but I spent plenty of time in Halo 3's multiplayer matchmaking as well. Certain elements felt refined from the previous games, while others - like the equipment and Brute vehicles - felt a bit clunky and unnecessary. The story was brilliantly executed, despite my disappointment at it being shorter in length than Halo 2's campaign. Unlike many others, I had thoroughly enjoyed the Arbiter's campaign missions in Halo 2 and was sad to hear that Master Chief would be receiving the spotlight for the majority of Halo 3. I was, however, satisfied to see how the Arbiter's role in Halo 3 played out, and (as with many of the other cutscenes) I cheered as Arbiter used his energy sword to dispatch the Prophet of Truth. Ultimately, Halo 3 never felt as perfect a game as so many claimed it to be. I felt it was a fitting conclusion to the story of Master Chief, but there were so many other directions Bungie could go with this universe.

Frankly, I almost entirely ignored Halo 3: ODST when it was announced. The same went for Halo Wars. While both did present new perspectives on the Halo universe, they way they presented themselves failed to draw me in the same way the other games had. While I teased the prospect of picking up ODST, it eventually passed by, though I did take the demo of Halo Wars for a spin. I have always been quite fond of real-time strategy games on the PC, but found the resource management - or rather, lack thereof - removed much challenge from the gameplay.

I left Halo 3 behind for a while, exploring all the other games that I wanted to for the Xbox 360 - Bioshock, Resident Evil 5, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, The Orange Box - until a teaser showed up online for a brand new Halo title. It was to be called Halo: Reach, and was set during one of the most important points in the Human-Covenant war. I knew the basics of what happened at Reach, as the same friend who hosted that first Halo 2 LAN party had also read a few of the Halo novels and passed on that information to me. But as Bungie unveiled new information about Halo: Reach, it was expressed that this would not be Master Chief's telling of the events. Rather, a new squad of Spartans - Noble Team - would take the helm.

The thriving world that was Reach - from its hilltop farmhouses to the sprawling metropolis of New Alexandria - coupled with the variety of personalities presented in each of the members of Noble Team brought me back to my first days with Halo 2. The campaign missions were set up as a sort of 'greatest hits', an homage to missions from every Halo title before it. The gameplay elements from Halo 3 that I was not so fond of (the equipment and weapons, primarily) were either cut or fine-tuned to work with Reach's gaming engine. And yet, despite all of the tributes to and influences from Halos of yesteryear, Halo: Reach felt like the most original and creative since the series' start.

Halo: Reach was the most fitting conclusion Bungie could have dealt to fans of their series. That said, I am still very curious to see where 343 Industries takes the franchise. Hopefully they will keep the games as community-driven as Bungie did. With Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary just two months away, I think I am going to work backwards and give ODST a fair shot before I revisit the events at Alpha Halo. I have no idea what changes lie ahead, but Halo 2 - with its phenomenal storytelling and brilliant multiplayer - will always be my favorite, and the most important game in the series to me. It was the single game that opened my eyes to everything that online console gaming could be, and turned me from a Halo skeptic to a Halo fan. In revisiting the point I made at the beginning of this article, do I think the original Halo changed the way video games are played? No. Do I think the franchise as a whole did? Without a doubt.

Favorite characters from the series:
- Arbiter
- Jun-A266
- Prophet of Truth
- Sgt. Johnson

Favorite songs:
- Sacred Icon Suite from Halo 2
- Behold a Pale Horse from Halo 3
- Finale from Halo 3: ODST
- The Pillar of Autumn from Halo: Reach

Favorite multiplayer maps:
- Blood Gulch (Halo)
- Sidewinder (Halo)
- Damnation (Halo)
- Midship (Halo 2)
- Headlong (Halo 2)
- Relic (Halo 2)
- Containment (Halo 2)
- Turf (Halo 2)
- Ghost Town (Halo 3)
- Orbital (Halo 3)
- Powerhouse (Halo: Reach)
- Condemned (Halo: Reach)

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