Wednesday 15 February 2012

Halo 3

Smoking in the workplace in the year 2552. This is one of many interesting questions that are raised when confronting Halo 3, 2007 Xbox 360 top-selling sequel to Halos 1 and 2. Much like how all serious Wii owners are obliged to own an edition of Zelda, everyone on team Xbox are conscripted into the Halo 3 brigade. And so now it's my turn to give it a go, four and a half years after it was cool.

Halo is a series of iconic first person shooters among fans of green. It stands as Microsoft's only meaningful intellectual property, and it's a series that's repeatedly flogged to death in an effort to combat Sony's line of PlayStation consoles. Because you see, the PlayStation doesn't have Halo and that makes it bad.

Nevertheless, I ignored Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001. Though I understand that it would have been quite revolutionary at the time (as one of the first fully functioning console FPS games), I had little interest in the system it ran on, instead judging the Xbox to be a clunky waste of space. And thus a similar situation emerged when its sequel popped up a couple of years later.

But you can't avoid Halo forever, and inevitably, I wound up with the PC version of the first game. But PC Halo is a very different kettle of fish, as although it was perfectly playable and entertaining, by the time it was released it was swimming in a sea of better examples of the genre. Also, unlike its Xbox cousin, it wasn't really doing anything new or interesting to keep me hooked until the end, and as such, it's sat on my shelf waiting to be completed since about 2005.

But when Halo 3's hype machine kicked in in mid-2007, attitudes towards the series were very different. Many who skipped the original Xbox (in favour of the PlayStation 2) had now invested in Xbox 360s, and suddenly there was a great deal of interest in the life of Master Chief. It broke some records, was loved by many, and of course, for better or for worse, has gone on to inspire countless first person shooters since. It's very difficult to remain ignorant about this one.

In the past I had played about ten minutes of Halo 3's multiplayer, because it is a game that regularly features at social occasions for its deathmatch options. But if I'm honest, I never quite understood why this feature was allowed to stand out so much. My understanding was that the existence of Halo was one of the reasons Epic Games and id Software ditched their multiplayer offerings of the early 2000s (Unreal Tournament, Quake III) in favour of returning to single-player campaigns. It's as if the Halo series has gone back on itself... and even weirder that Halo 3's single player campaign actually... isn't very good at all. Maybe that's why I struggled to find screenshots of it.

It's becoming increasingly clear that perhaps my break from "mainstream" gaming is more justifiable than I imagined. Halo 3, a plinth of supposed Xbox 360 quality, failed to impress me, and if nothing else raises some serious concerns about the way the industry has been behaving itself in my absence. Lovable Murdoch-owned UK newspaper, The Sun, kindly told readers to "believe the hype" about Halo 3 - words so memorable that re-releases now litter the box art with similar comments. Did you know the Official Xbox Magazine rated it 10/10? How shocking.

But the thing is, I did believe the hype... only to be let down just seconds after booting up the disc. I can't do much but question the alleged quality of this release - for example, the initial loading screen sports a North American ESRB rating instead of something more appropriate for this region of the world. It's a lovely fact that Halo got an "M" (seriously, I can't explain why - it's hardly a gore-fest) but this value has no bearing outside of the states. The localisation team must have been off that day.

Every Xbox 360 game seems to demand a patch be downloaded from Xbox Live before play. Usually these exist to address bugs or to keep it looking pretty on new Xbox dashboards, but that didn't seem to be the case with Halo 3. Just seconds into the mostly silent menu screen, a massive advertisement for Halo Reach popped into view to waste my time. Now, this wouldn't have crossed many reviewers' minds back in 2007, partly because the concept of Halo Reach had not been invented, but it's certainly a worry - Microsoft are so confident that I will enjoy Halo 3 that they've assumed I will go on to buy up the rest of their Halo stock too.

Nevertheless I start the game, am presented with a fairly meaningless monologue to find Master Chief arriving in a forest from the sky. Some people show up, words are said, and I find it's my job to lead them all out of the woods. And thus follows a series of confusing events which are never fully explained.

Let me emphasise some points I made earlier - I did not finish Halo 1, and did not buy Halo 2. For me, this series is pretty "new" - I have a vague idea of what a "Master Chief" is, but this is about as far as my knowledge goes. And I'm sure it's a similar situation for many players - Halo 3 is on a different console to its predecessors, and was heavily advertised during the months surrounding its release. What they didn't mention in those iconic adverts was that actually, it's not for you - it's for established Halo fans.

It turns out the majority of this game is built on the story of Halo 2 (which is fair enough). Most major characters were also introduced in the prequel, but because they all run tight military schedules, you won't have time to reacquaint yourself with them. What's more, if you want the full picture, you have to make sure you read the comic, "Halo: Uprising". Yep, two games and a comic played and read in advance.

So unless you enjoy trawling Wikipedia for answers like I do (or, heaven forbid, read the instruction manual), you'll likely be left with no choice but to completely abandon the story. Nothing is ever recapped - you're not even told what the controls are because you're expected to already know them. With an industry quite willing to force instructions down your throat, it's odd that a flagship product like Halo 3 forces you to do some homework in advance.

That being said, I tried to follow the events of the game but never was I entirely sure what we were supposed to be doing. I found myself climbing many towers and running away from explosions, before being transported to another setting to demonstrate the same skill set. Occasionally I'd get in a vehicle and cover a greater distance, but it was all eerily similar to the original Halo. This is a different game, right?

A plot was outlined by the cast of characters, but surround sound clearly got the better of the people responsible for voicing them. Often I could not physically hear the characters over the music, and when I could, they often spoke about things from games I had not played. Though I was incredibly thankful when they started to be killed off, the cinematic sequences in Halo 3 are nothing more than distractions, constantly interrupting the flow of the experience.

On occasion, particularly towards the end, progress is slowed to a crawl while a voice actor blurts out drivel. Bungie also take this opportunity to play with fancy graphics renderers in an attempt to look hip and cool. It's Cortana, and she's speaking to speaking to me!.. makes you long for the days when there wasn't enough disc space for this sort of thing.

One issue remains constant throughout the Halo 3 experience - never does it genuinely become an amazing adventure, truly worthy of those numerous high scores it's accumulated. Things get slightly more interesting when you're given tanks and spaceships to control, but even then, it's nothing groundbreaking. If anything it helps make the campaign feel shorter once you realise how small the worlds really are. So much wasted potential.

Halo 3 actually does the opposite of what you would expect from a top-class game - it gets undoubtedly worse as the story progresses. The characters are given more horrible lines of dialogue to squark at you, and the second-last (or third-last) stage is cramped, ugly and is borderline unplayable. At least until you discover you can run past most of it.

After the first pointless annoying female character is killed, the game tasks you with finding another, so thus begins a quest to find "Cortana", an iconic AI character from the series... who does nothing in this game. You venture down what I assume is the body of a large creature and are attacked by "The Flood" - alien mutant things which can possess the bodies of others. The objective is to save her and get out.

On this stage, there are quite literally hundreds of enemy units attacking you from all directions, and a mixture of console FPS controls, a lack of cover, a lack of lighting and a lack of ammo means you will find yourself constantly being slaughtered unless you use your legs. It's a great time to discover how awkward weapon system is.

Needless to say, I wasn't too keen on this stage, and neither option, whether it be shooting or running, qualifies as "fun" here. It's a stage which although livens up the otherwise fairly predictable experience, generally lacks appeal and fails to complement the control scheme. Halo has always tried to convey large and open landscapes, but this is very much the opposite and it sticks out quite badly.

As a bonus, occasionally Halo 3 forgets to save. If you're randomly disconnected from Xbox Live due to broken Microsoft servers like I am, the "Continue Campaign" option will become meaningless, sometimes thrusting you several stages backwards for undisclosed reasons.

The later stages you've unlocked are still accessible, but the game likes to forget you were playing them, forcing you to traverse to a different screen and engage in a period of "pre-loading" before you're allowed to really load the game. It baffles the mind why this was thought to be a good idea, and sometimes you're held in stasis for several minutes as it checks whether you're worthy of its time. Remember, I'm picking up on small details because Halo 3 is supposed to be a gaming icon - all Xbox 360 developers are meant to learn from it.

Checkpoints don't always activate either. You'd expect small bugs like these to be fixed via patches, but as I've explained, Halo 3's idea of a patch is to inform us that other games exist to buy. It's been a long time since I've seen something as user-unfriendly as this, but icing on the cake is that the game is still subject to a lot of praise today.

If you sat and rated this as one of the greatest games of all time there is simply no denying that you are flat-out wrong. The single player campaign isn't worthless, but it's broken, annoying and can develop into something both repetitive and disinteresting if you're not careful. Ultimately the fact remains that the original release of Halo: Combat Evolved is probably better, and I'd likely recommend that one instead.

Of course, Halo 3 has been pumped up with superior hardware allowing it to display fancier graphics than its predecessors, but the visuals are very much middle-of-the-road by Xbox 360 standards, and much of the audio is completely identical. Aside from occasioanally being caught up in geometry, I have no real complaints about gameplay either - the flaws all stem from the design team.

And there's no point in discussing multiplayer, even if this is supposedly the part of Halo 3 that makes it worth the purchase. The single player campaign will last for the rest of time - the online servers probably won't and so a good chunk of the game will likely be redundant in a few years. I have no qualms about its inclusion and in fact it seems to be genuinely good fun, but it certainly shouldn't be a focal point. And it certainly shouldn't focus on local multiplayer.

Maybe you'll have a better experience if playing with friends, but I imagine that's the case with everything in life, including sitting on the sofa not turning the console on at all. A game should be criticised if it can't survive on single-player alone, no excuses.

In the end there aren't many reasons not to buy this game, but you'll certainly find yourself having to lower your standards if you haven't got any buddies. I don't hate it, but the point still remains that nothing Halo 3 does hasn't been done elsewhere. If there's a gem in the series, this isn't it.


  1. Wish you had told me you were going to play this. I went through campaign mode with Shadsy as Player 2 and it was a blast. But yeah, single player solo did feel a bit... eh.