Truth and Reconciliation: A Personal Halo 3 Retrospective

halo3The Xbox 360’s first year or so on store shelves was somewhat disappointing. Most full retail releases were multi-platform filler, everything was priced at a premium, and developers and gamers eyed each other nervously across the no-man’s land of a barren Xbox Live Arcade for the longest time, desperately trying to figure out just what it was for.  Hastily ‘jumping in’ to paraphrase the console’s marketing slogan, may not have seemed like a great idea in hindsight, but what choice had Microsoft given Xbox devotees, after all abandoning the original Xbox so abruptly?

Thankfully, there was a light at the end of the tunnel for early adopters: Halo 3, released in September 2007.

My Xbox 360 came back from Microsoft just the day before the game’s release, after falling foul of the dreaded ‘red ring of death’. I purchased the game the following evening, after work from a local Virgin Megastore; the first luxury my broke, post-Uni self had enjoyed in a very long time.

Back then, not only were me and my partner still chugging along with a gargantuan non-HD CRT, but also had no internet connection in our flat, meaning that my Halo 3 experience would, until much later on, be strictly single player, and via archaic cathode ray to boot.

Quickly apparent was that Halo 3 had far more in common with its direct predecessor than the original. Narrative emphasis had shifted for good from the mystery of the Forerunners and their technological legacy to more typical sci-fi concerns such as the ills of religious zealotry and the looming threat of human extinction. It was all tastefully done, of course, but hardly original. Gameplay was also more of the same, save for the reintroduction of the Assault Rifle and the addition of usable utility items, such as the Bubble Shield.

The actual climax itself, which I won’t spoil here, suffered from ‘Matrix Revolutions syndrome’, i.e. was hamstrung by Bungie’s conscious effort to leave something to work with for future installments, with too much unresolved. My disappointment was palpable.

But then we finally got ourselves connected to the internet, and Xbox Live beckoned.

I remember vividly that first game of 4v4 Slayer on Snowbound, realising immediately why Halo 3’s single player had felt so hollow; clearly it was here, into multiplayer that Bungie had put most their effort.

Balance for the game’s competitive suite was odd on the face of it. Because every player spawned with the same weapons, most confrontations would involve simply running at an adversary shooting your Assault Rifle until within melee range, at which point the first of you to press B would almost always kill the other instantly. The timing here was so tight that it was entirely possible for both players to kill each other at the same moment, which was always amusing to see in action replay.  See below my old Xbox Live account’s stats:

halo3stats

Over 59% of my career kills are either with the Assault Rifle or by melee. There’s a fair argument for this representing quite a serious flaw with the game’s balance, but as somebody who’d gotten the aforementioned ritual down to a fine art, I was having too much fun to care.

That said, my weapon of choice was actually the Shotgun, and one of my favourite tricks with it was to press B immediately after firing at close quarters, running right into the fray. If the shotgun blast didn’t get ’em, the ensuing smack to the chops would. Equally satisfying was sniping players who seemed to think that jumping around like a fool would save them when caught in a far distant crosshair. On the contrary, jumping in Halo 3 was ponderously slow, so airborne players would often gracefully fall into your killbox with the minimum of fuss.

Next game in the series, (discounting pseudo-expansion, ODST) Reach, significantly nerfed melee attacks and added loadouts; a choice of starting weapons and an accompanying ability, which did much to diversify multiplayer engagements. Furthermore, Reach’s single player campaign, which I’ve written about before, was second only to the original Halo in terms of raw space opera gravitas. Bungie subsequently bought their freedom from Microsoft in exchange for the Halo intellectual property, handing the reigns to the Redmond supergiant’s purpose-built 343 Industries. It was no doubt a bittersweet moment for the company, parting with the property that put them on the map, but at least they went out on a high.

Since then the series’ fortunes have been mixed. I initially quite liked Halo 4, but after revisiting Bungie’s work, backpedaled on a lot of my initial praise, reevaluating the game as workman-like and hollow. Most recently we’ve seen the Master Chief Collection for Xbox One, which includes, among other things, an upscaled 1080p, 60 frames per second port of Halo 3. Although I won’t be purchasing an Xbox One for the foreseeable future (if ever), I’d certainly be interested to see how this performance boost impacts Halo 3’s gameplay; whether it actually improves things, or is present simply for the sake of 1080p60 willy-waving.

The upcoming Halo 5 looks set to take the series down a very e-sports orientated path. Annoyingly, Halo’s staple commentator reprises his role in terms of narrating multiplayer matches, but this time chews on his vowels like some over-enthusiastic ESPN dudebro fratboy. Furthermore, what we’ve seen so far of the single player campaign suggests a quite dramatic shift in focus. The Master Chief has previously been a man of few words; not completely mute like Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman, but certainly intended as a similarly personality-less blank canvas onto which players can project themselves. Why now, 4 Master Chief excursions later, does 343 suppose we suddenly wish to see this blank slate of a hero in third person, rather than as the moribund vassal for sci-fi escapism that he’s always been?

Bungie’s sci-fi kind-of-MMO-but-not-really project, Destiny, may have failed to set the world alight in quite the way they intended, but its thematic, aesthetic and mechanical similarities to Halo cannot be ignored. As I’ve said before, this goes to show that Halo-like and Bungie-like are in fact one and the same, and by extension, I stand by my assertion that Bungie was Halo, and that anything bearing the series’ hallowed name from after their departure does so under somewhat false pretenses.

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