Halo 3: The Juggernaut, or Nothing You Read Here Will Make a Whit of Difference
TomChick - News - 09/23/07 - Link

So, yeah, Halo 3. Biggest gaming event of the year, I suppose. Last night, I got from it everything I'm going to get from the single player game. It's short. I finished the Normal mode in a single evening, clocking maybe eight or ten hours, most of them out of a sense of obligation rather than wanting to know what happens next.

I could complain again about how Bungie has never put bots in the game, but no one expects it and it's no longer any surprise, given that Microsoft wants Halo to move Xbox Live accounts. And, to be honest, I am looking forward to jumping online when the game goes live Monday night. But I still wish I could practice the maps on my own.

But as far as a single-player experience, Halo 3 is a colossal disappointment, largely for how little it's advanced since the series began. The big hook for Halo 1 was that it proved that console shooters could hold their own against PC shooters. Or "re-proved", considering Perfect Dark had already demonstrated this, but only for the subset of gamers who had an N64, which is not the subset of gamers who was playing shooters on the PC. Halo laid the ground work for the the genre to thrive on console systems, at the other end of gamepads, on big screens television and home theater audio systems. Bungie showed everyone how it could be done: solid graphics and sound, liberal use of autoaim, carefully laid out battles that didn't involve too much 180 degree turning, not too many weapon choices, and enough personality to give it some kick.

But like id with their engines, Bungie struggles with the creative part of the equation. Nowhere is this more evident than in Halo 3. Six years later, it's still repeating the formula established in Halo 1. Virtually every single moment and location is recycled from the first two games (the "new" area was done just as well in at least two other games). The engine doesn't even look much better and, frankly, the gunplay is so very 2001. This is the same Halo you knew and loved, or didn't love, as the case may be. I'm sure it'll be a wonderful multiplayer game, mostly because millions will play it. But as a single player game, it's a classic case of the arrested development that makes our hobby the domain of teenage boys, grown up and otherwise.

The story is at once convoluted and glib, an unholy partnership of exposition and assumption. There's no attempt to catch up players who don't remember the specifics of the previous games. Even reading the little "Story So Far" section in the manual will leave the average non-Halo fan scratching his head. Instead, Halo 3 banks on everyone being a Halo fan. A hardcore Halo fan who would understand why Master Chief wakes up in a crater. Duh.

What bothers me most is that Bungie still can't tell a story worth a damn. Because it's an established franchise with enormous hype, this is going to be a huge game. Like Metroids and Zeldas, it'll get unswervingly positive reviews from people who wouldn't know narrative from nonsense, people who make sweeping misguided assumptions about the average guy jumping online and having a grand ol' time getting teabagged and called a faggot. And for those average guys and the occasional average girls, whether they play online or not, this single player story will be the face of gaming: as retarded, confusing, and juvenile as ever.

There are at least two interesting relationships that should have been explored in Halo 3: Master Chief and Cortana and Master Chief and the Arbiter. Each gets a single moment. Yep, one single moment. The supporting cast gets some obligatory maudlin war movie moments, which include Ron Perlman being saddled with the phrase "howling dark" at exactly the wrong moment, and a random half-hearted boss battle without explanation when someone turns out to the obligatory bad guy. And for Zod's sake, if you're going to have Terence Stamp fill in for John Hurt, don't obscure his voice behind some sort of filter.

It's no wonder Halo isn't exactly a hot movie prospect. At this point, it's nothing but a suit of armor, a set of guns, and a handful of supporting characters. Alex Garland's rejected script had some nice moments between Master Chief (unmasked, by the way) and Cortana. Bungie has no concept of this as anything beyond a convenient device. "Always protect her, Chief," a dying character says about Cortana, who is, umm, just an AI, so like, what's the big deal?

What's worse, the story completely overlooks significant details that could have given it some resonance. For instance, what happens to the the rest of the world. Earth, you know? That place we live that could have given this game some sort of emotional hook? Cutscenes opt instead to show people planning something, or talking about what's going to happen if this lever isn't pulled, or mentioning what presumably must have happened in the previous games.

It's hard to look past the blatant corridor level design. I use the term quite literally. Bungie gets a lot of mileage out of reusing entire areas. You'll get a few instances of "go here and do this", followed by "now go back where you were before through respawned monsters, which will save our level designers some time". At one point, you have to revisit a copy of an area. Bungie makes no bones about it. Three teams split up, each to pull a lever in an identical area. What do you know? One of the teams couldn't make it so you get to replay exactly the same area to pull exactly the same lever!

Then there's the "ledge" level design. It's really a corridor, but if you drop one side off into a skybox, it makes it seem more open. Mombasa? Ha ha. Right. I've seen a more convincing Africa in low-budget studio backlots.

There are terminals hidden in the game, but Halo was never about exploration, and it's clearly not built for that sort of gameplay. In fact, when it comes to visiting alien worlds, the contrived and cramped Metroid has a far better sense of plunging you into boxes and making them feel vast. Halo is almost entirely the same places you've been already.

It's worth noting that my expectations for the single-player game weren't very high. I was looking forward to it, but didn't expect anything too different from the last Halos. I got exactly what I was expecting: Halo in HD, a few new weapons and vehicles, and not much more. Yeah, I'm looking forward to trying co-op, but not because of anything in the actual game. The feature interests me more than anything about the content.

Finally, the BioShock factor can't be overlooked. Irrational's "masterpiece of the art form" (if ever there was a game deserving that phrase...) raised the bar for what we can expect not only from our shooters, but from our games at large. Halo 3 is five years behind in terms of clearing that bar. In a world that rewards talent instead of hype, BioShock would be the big holiday hit. Instead, we get an impassive gold faceplate aimed vaguely in the direction it's supposed to be staring thoughtfully while I wonder just what the heck is supposed to be going on. Oh well. I'll just shoot some more grunts until I get to the end of Bungie's idea of a ring trilogy.



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