The Art Of Killing Properly: Halo 3
Friends and Firearms
My first experience with the Halo franchise was on New Years Eve of 2001. At the time I was still the proud owner of an N64 and PS1, but my friend had made the first foray into the then next generation of games consoles. I’d be another year until I’d be given my GameCube and another two years until I’d get my PS2 and as such Halo would be my first real showcase of Next Gen power. Me and my friend would ring in the New Year taking on the campaign in co-operative mode, him keen to show off his new console and me keen to play a game that didn’t have the N64’s soft core gauze. We played for seven hours, with only minor pauses for drinks and food, storming through the first half of the campaign until our natural competitiveness forced an impasse of sorts.
You see like most people my closest and dearest friend is a person who would be my mortal nemesis if we hadn’t become friends. This unfortunately leads to an inability to co-operate in any manner, unless the ends truly justify the means. So essentially unless we are working towards an endeavour of pure focused malice we tend to lose our ability to cooperate very quickly. Such was the case with Halo, our initial teamwork quickly descending into farcical fights over who got to use the Rocket Launcher. Over the next few weeks and months I’d slowly pick my way through the game, beating the campaign on Normal and Heroic mode and even dipping my toe in the multiplayer waters. Halo wasn’t a big multiplayer game, Perfect Dark still being preferred for split screen thrills.
The times I’d attempt to play a Halo Deathmatch against my friend would all end exactly the same way. I’d skulk around for a weapon for a while, my finding of which would coincide exactly with my sudden death at the wheels of a Warthog. Certainly getting run over by a futuristic beach buggy every time I laid eyes on a weapon wasn’t probably the best introduction to Halo’s rich and varied multiplayer, but it would have to do.
By the time Halo 2 was released passion for the series had quelled in my friends house. Timesplitters 2 on the PS2 and Team Fortress on the PC making the game effectively impotent. Whereas Halo had enraptured my entire friends household, his mother, father and sister all having saves to attempt the campaign Halo 2 was largely untouched. Even I only managed to get two thirds of the way through the game before my passion for it was quelled. I would play a few Xbox Live games on various friends’ copies of the game, but I never got particularly into it. My inability to understand the mechanics of the weapons and shield system making my few forays online a brutal experience.
By the time Halo 3 came around I was the nervy owner of an Xbox 360, a console which had been bought for Oblivion then largely ignored until the months leading up to November 2007. BioShock would be the game to get me back into the console and from that point on I’d get drawn into the hype of Halo 3 even purchasing a Gold account so I could attempt to play online. Halo 3 would be a game that I would grow to loathe intensely, and it would also be a game that I would play every night for nearly a month. Only the Orange Box and specifically TF2 freeing me from its pervasive grasp.
It was only after nearly five months of constant play on TF2 that I decided to give the game another go. The five months away from the game confirmed my low opinion of the multiplayer but allowed me to appreciate other elements of the game I’d largely ignored before.
STFU N00B HAL0Z FTW
I’ll make this clear now, when it comes to Halo 3’s multiplayer I’m just downright bad. Tracking my stats online I have a usual kill/death ratio of -5 which effectively means that everytime I don’t kill someone in the game they kill me five times. Through sheer force of will, and the tactic of aligning myself with people who are good at the game, I was able to drag myself up through the ranks. Obtaining a grade of lieutenant which was probably not all that deserved. Back in the day being a lieutenant meant something (the 150 wins and skill rank of 10 required for it generally meaning that it meant you had no social life). Still objectively speaking I could never function in the deathmatch modes.
The main impediment to my killing prowess was the fact that the guns used in multiplayer seem to work less as armaments and more as practical displays of probability. The damage caused by weapons is largely variable in Halo. Sometimes a clip of assault rifle fire will finish off an enemy combatant, sometimes you’ll get a drop on someone shoot them in the back with a full clip and as you’re reloading your opponent will turn around and gun you down with maybe half a clip. The principals of combat are never fully explained in the game, the vagaries of why your shotgun can sometimes kill a foe in one shot and other times requires three or four point blank rounds just to mildly inconvenience them never fully explained.
In comparison to Call of Duty’s one shot kills and Team Fortress 2’s strictly regimented damage system Halo 3 just seemed far too random. With players even walking off rockets to face like it ‘ain’t no thing’ it leaves precision killing to either snipers or brawlers. What this essentially meant was that Halo Deathmatches turned into melee competitions more often than not, with beam swords, hammers and the rifle stocks being used far more than actual ordnance.
As you progress through the ranks of Halo’s deathmatch you’ll start to notice the effects of the randomised weapons. Early on you’ll be involved in tense firefights and you’ll actually be involved in skilful competition with your opponents. As the ranks go up however you’ll notice the arenas become more and more sparse as traditional Halo tactics are utilised. You see the key to winning in Halo is in ambushes, what this leads to is players rushing to get effective close range weaponry and crouching in corners (so they don’t appear on radar) so they can shoot people as they walk past.
Whilst it is hilarious to watch replays of your opponents skulking around in corridors like a cybernetic Preying Mantis these tactics rob the game of a lot of its fun. When combined with the flakey weaponry it made the deathmatches almost unplayable for me. Of course this problem was compounded by the constant assertion that I was a ‘nigger faggot’ and that I ‘failed at life’ after being shot to pieces by the majority of Halo’s populace. In the world of Halo being brutally insulted isn’t a possibility, it’s an eventuality and it is another element of the game which rears it head in the more straight forwardly misanthropic deathmatches.
Like Mad Max, but without the Mohawks
Halo 3’s multiplayer has a saving grace in its variety. Killing each other only makes up a small section of the game options available, with tactical map variants offering scope for enjoyment for those not truly blessed in the killing arts.
Some of my fondest memories of Halo 3 are based around epic Control Point games on Valhalla. With two teams taking it in turns to capture and defend set control points, and with a full array of vehicles to use, the Control Point games were always the funnest facet of the game for me. They also inspired genuine combat, with people being spurred on to face the enemy instead of being allowed to lurk in the shadows. These objective based maps, especially when played with like minded people, would become the heart and soul of the Halo experience. Halo’s multiplayer in my mind would become defined by the vehicular carnage wrought by these games. Banshees duelling in the sky as down below the teams raced from point to point on Mongooses and Warthogs. Certainly it was all a bit George Miller but the accessibility of the vehicles and their practicality led them to become an integral point of the game experience.
The only mode to ever challenge the sheer joy of these Control Point games was the awe inspiringly crazy Rocket Races. Rocket Race essentially involves teams of two people (one to drive, one to shoot rockets), dozens of Mongooses, invincibility and a relay of ten checkpoints. It is basically a race, but the fact that you couldn’t be killed combined with the Mongoose’s propensity to shoot off into the air at the slightest provocation would make everything far more Mario Kart than Gran Turismo. Invariably you’d get a sad sack more intent on finishing the race than partaking of the carnage, but most people would be far more interested in the sheer spectacle of propelling futuristic quad bikes across the level with rockets.
Oh God! The Bloom, IT BURNS!
When I got Halo 3 the Single Player was largely an afterthought, I got up to the third mission and just moved onto exclusively playing the multiplayer. What happened was that everything that I had loved about the original Halo, the feeling of discovery, the feeling of being in a large expansive world was stripped away for the first few levels. The openness of the earlier games only coming into effect in two of the nine missions. In particular the first level of Halo 3 is almost hateful in its mechanics forcing you to confront hordes of enemies and ill equipping you for the job. In a mission desperately crying out for a sniper rifle you’re only given one towards the end of the level, at the point in which its theoretical usefulness had already expired.
The game would gradually improve as the missions went on, kicking into gear from the fourth mission onwards, but its floundering first steps would initially mar the entire campaign. It was only when I picked up the game again that I was able to appreciate how well the campaign had been designed. Previously I had got through to the penultimate mission on my own in heroic, finishing the game on legendary with a few friends on co-op. I’d been rushing to get through the game and as such I failed to appreciate the little touches.
Given a second shot I took my time with the missions and slowly began to appreciate the rhythm and mechanics of each shootout and set piece. Even my earlier gripes with the game were generally dulled by how much the campaign enraptured me on the second play through.
I still found the faux-wackiness of the game to be utterly irritating. The pithy dialogue of your comrades and ironic comedy of your enemies giving the game the feel of a bad Joss Whedon fanfic. It was a game that cribbed from numerous sources without any thought or care, even making one of the main characters a composite of three Carl Weathers characters and Sgt. Apone.
Other problems however became nonexistent as I started to pay attention to the game. Where once I would have criticised the game for its functional graphics and over reliance on eye searing bloom effects, I started to understand what the developers were trying to achieve. The beauty of Halo 3 came across in its minutia, little details only noticeable in the games revolutionary theatre mode. Watching individual shell casings career from your rifle, or watching AI characters work their way through areas of a level you weren’t even in gave a credibility and stability to the world that made me forgive its lack of graphical umph. I could still do without being blinded with each explosion, but generally speaking I grew to love the design ethos of the game.
With its pounding choral score and set piece led design Halo 3 was the equivalent of a summer blockbuster. It was designed to be entertaining and over the top, and that is another area the first few levels faltered. In a game that had aerial assaults on fortified installations, fights against skyscraper sized insectoid battle platforms, and the ability to punch tanks to death the first few levels of skulking around a jungle canopy/military installation just felt lacking. The Halo series operated on shock and awe, grandeur above all else and the claustrophobia of the opening levels almost betrayed this ethos.
I think this disparity between claustrophobia and grandeur is the key dichotomy in play in Halo 3. I’m a fan of the big operatic moments of destruction in the campaign and as such I move towards the grander elements of the multiplayer. Those who like the tense silence and stalking of the first levels will probably find themselves far more comfortable with the deathmatch aspects of the game.
This entry was posted on March 27, 2008 at 6:26 pm and is filed under Button Bashin', Review, Ruminations with tags Halo, Joss Whedon, XBox 360. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.