a review of Halo 3
a videogame developed by bungie
and published by microsoft
for the microsoft xbox 360
text by tim rogers
Halo 3 is one of the best videogames of 2007 for many of the same reasons that doing push-ups is better than not doing pushups. It’s a game about a human man in a robot battle suit; armed with pistols and rifles, he shoots inhuman alien freak bastards in the head; he rides bitching all-terrain vehicles at high speeds, ramping off the peaks of a construction site, landing atop giant enemy robotic spiders. He snipes dudes, he overcomes odds, and by the end of the game he saves the universe and finishes a fight. Just about everyone — TIME magazine and Newsweek and The New York Times and every other major news publication in North America — ran a feature-length article on the Halo phenomenon, calling it “certifiably huge” and going on to detail, using diction reminiscent of a Catholic priest denying rape charges, that there are action figures and novels already on sale, and a major motion picture in the works. One writer admirably went so far as to actually play the game, and came out convinced that, among other things, videogames are not movies, nor are they literature. We here at Action Button Dot Net wish to salute that guy, whoever he is: Duh. We wholly acknowledge that Halo 3‘s musical score is likely based on the sound of trash collectors emptying the bin outside a small-town symphony orchestra, that its screenplay of rhythmic grunts and screams is about as entertaining, at face value, as a play starring fourth-graders in crocodile costumes.
Still, Halo isn’t about all that, man. It’s about shooting stuff – and more than that, it’s about shooting stuff brilliantly. Halo wins its bet by not being an asshole. Unlike other games with tacked-on husks for storylines (Super Mario Galaxy, for example), Halo 3 manages to focus, 99% of the time, on the construction and flow of its stages. When a guy screams at us about how the enemies are coming, he’s serious as a heart-attack, and we have to kill those enemies or we’re going to die. Sometimes there’s a vehicle to get in, and you get in it and drive it, down a big tunnel or a picturesque beach. If you die, you kind of start back just seconds before you died. The game doesn’t have “extra lives”, and it doesn’t ever ask you if you want to continue. It knows, at all times, that the fact that the console’s power is engaged means that the player is willing to play. It leaves the decision to stop playing entirely outside the realm of its menus and on-screen prompts.
Prior to playing Halo 3, I played through Halo 2 for the first time — it was released in extremely limited quantities in the country where I live, and it only saw a wide release years later, as part of a two-pack commemorating Halo 3‘s launch. I found Halo 2‘s single-player mode to be rambling and occasionally desolate. I can’t be too sure, though I think the final boss accidentally killed himself around thirty seconds into the battle. The story was, as far as I could tell, a collection of the scenes in “Star Wars” episodes one through three where morbidly boring aliens with faux Korean accents argue with each other about space taxes, space tariffs, and space embargoes, plus the sound of realistic machine-gun fire. Halo 3, played alone, would probably be no less desolate and scoff-worthy, though thanks to the power of the internet, I was able to tear through the campaign mode with an actual real-life friend who lives halfway around the world. In this day and age of AI engineers teaching robots to play Ms. Pac-Man, it is still amazingly, gloriously more fun to play with actual people. A robot might be able to pull a headshot, sure, though can it share feta cheese recipes or spread rumors about which professional wrestlers are actually, really, truly gay? You can add two more players to the game, which is more dudes than you can fit in a Warthog; four-player co-op, if it’s with people you know and like, ranges from hilarious to visceral and over-competitive. I’ve found, in fact, that playing campaign mode with three actual friends will result in surprisingly more spur-of-the-moment slander than playing a deathmatch against people you don’t know. For me, two or three is enough. Having a relaxing conversation with two friends is one thing; having a relaxing conversation with two friends while driving Future Jeeps and firing Future Rifles is another thing. If one of you sucks at videogames, it’s still cool. Who really cares about the story, anyway? Halo is all about the moment-to-moment skirmishes, the shooting, the halting in a monologue about modern rock music to say “Okay, seriously, you take the guys on the left this time”, and the big action set-pieces — bigger, longer, harder, and more relentless than the shiniest firefights in the movies. The set-pieces are thrilling even from a logistical standpoint: here, at last, you get to live out a movie action scene where the slow parts aren’t cut out. And so the game pumps and chugs along. Maybe, this time, you’ll be the one to destroy the big ominous weapon at the end of that one stage, or maybe not — though individual set-pieces and stages occasionally stand out, Halo 3 is clearly a game about moments, about playing.
One of the more outstanding of the set-pieces is the thrilling escape at the end: it’s just you (and your buddies, if you’re doing co-op) in a Warthog, driving at top speed across a mega-huge, collapsing . . . something. Maybe it’s a space station. Who knows what it is! Whatever it is, it’s huge, and it’s falling apart. There are second-hand-ticks where the game’s physics engine struggles under the weight of such bold-faced execution — you might steer wrong, and now the front of your Space Hummer is chacking uncomfortably against the edge of a fragment of crumbling floor, and seconds later, you’re dead, and you’re starting over — and the tacky music doesn’t stop pumping. This is the way the best videogames (like Sin and Punishment) end — like old-school videogame tournaments (which might not have existed outside of “The Wizard”): the game acknowledges the reality that you have mastered it, grins, and says, “Yes, you’ve mastered the game — now, to complete the challenge, try this game you’ve never played“. This kind of attitude is half throwback to Halo 1‘s final escape sequence and half the very essence of Halo: more than a “multimedia franchise spanning novels and videogames, with a feature film in the works” or whatever other bullstuff the PR guys ask their wives to whisper to them every night, Halo is the precise reason kids don’t play with G.I. Joes anymore. Why use your imagination to think up situations in which Duke and Cobra Commander would need to team up to tackle Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (must also think up reason for Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader to be working together)? Why bother to fill that Tonka dump truck with “explosive” Troll dolls and send it crashing at Darth Vader’s Lego Medieval Knights Castle? You’re just going to have to clean up afterward. Besides, is it really healthy for a young mind to butcher continuity in the name of fun? Really? With Halo, a child can be no less and no more violent than he would be with a fistful of G.I. Joes, only now he’s forced to stick to the plot — and he doesn’t mind sticking to the plot. It’s all eyes-forward, here. Move forward to keep blowing stuff up, utilizing virtually untraceable problem-solving skills. The kids won’t even have to know that their critical thinking skills are expanding gradually. It’s a bit of a shame that imaginary guns seem to be more educational than textbooks these days, though why not? Simulations of death are pretty much the only thing that’s entertained or educated anyone in civilized history. Ask Shakespeare.
I had a chance to sit down with a man from Bungie at Tokyo Game Show last year. I’m not really sure what his name or position in the company was, though he was just about award-winningly British. Inspired by a blinking, possibly narcoleptic limey who had, earlier in the day, after witnessing a ten-minute demonstration playthrough of Ninja Gaiden II, dared to begin a question with “We’ve read that the game is quite violent” — no stuff, Sherlock! — I asked this British man from Bungie about violence in Halo. The games consistently get an “M” rating despite there being no blood, no profanity, and no human-killing. Even the “Star Wars” movies have featured actual human dismemberment in semi-graphic detail, and only one of them cracked “PG”. The British man gave me a suitably vague (and therefore British) answer: Well, there’s the Flood, who kind of somewhat resemble humans. Zombies are kind of a hot button, you see. I’d really hoped he would have gone out and just told the truth; I’m going to tell the truth here, and say that he said it (even though he didn’t): “Older gamers wouldn’t want to play a game that kids are specifically allowed to play, and younger kids are certain that any game not intended strictly for adults will turn them into hydrophobic homosexuals.”
The weird pathological zeitgeist of Bush-loving America penetrates Halo 3 in all legal orificies; the laws of the internet hold stone-faced, iron-fisted rule. That the only way to verbally communicate with the opposing team in an online deathmatch requires you to be standing quite close to them is many things: an appreciated riff on reality, for starters. It might perhaps be a well-meaning device intended to cut down on trash talk between players, though in my experience it seems to only sharpen rage to a sucked-on candy-cane point. Halo players with testicles nestled firmly beneath their kidneys know, above all else, one thing: Must Hate the faceless motherheckers of the other color; if hate does not happen, commence sliding down the slippery slope toward Hell, toward being an actual anus-loving queer. The existence of proximity chat only fills the young boys of America with the urge to get as close as possible, to pistol whip, while shouting the most potent one or two syllables that pop to mind. Their message will be heard, and it will be heard in its entirety, before the dead player’s corpse disappears and they re-spawn somewhere else. Is there any hate greater than that that can be summed up, however subconsciously, in one syllable? It wasn’t three seconds into my first-ever Halo 3 online deathmatch before someone had cold-cocked me (female covenant, just for the hell of it) with a shotgun and then screamed my least-favorite synonym for “Black Person”. Wow! The next time he killed me, he called me my least-favorite synonym for “Gay”. His voice sounded like he had braces. At the end of the match, he called me “Sivvy” (my Xbox Live name is “cviii”, add me if you like) and asked me how I like chugging on my least favorite synonym for penis. It was then that I spoke to him the first time. “Does your mom restrict profanity to the basement?” I don’t think he understood the question, because he started sending me hateful voice messages with diarrhea frequency for something like six hours after that, as I played through campaign mode with a friend. Eventually, he sounded like he was simultaneously drunk, thirteen, and with braces. That’s got to be at least a misdemeanor. His most well-constructed argument, eventually, was that I couldn’t get a girlfriend — because I was gay. At that, his sixty-somethingth message, I graced him with a response — “Well, I guess if I was gay I wouldn’t want a girlfriend, though, would I?” His reply was that oh my god I actually sound gay, too. (I’ll admit, I’m not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Barrack Obama!) He didn’t send a single message after that, though an hour later he did invite me to join a game. The moment his invite came, that almost made me think Halo 3 was the game of the year, right there. Perhaps I’d been the only person to give that kid the time of day and actually respond to his fetal hatred. That he invited me to a game — and that I quietly refused his request — gives me hope that some day, he might grow up, and the rest of the world might grow up with him. And maybe that Halo movie will get made, you know, the one produced by Peter Jackson and directed by a man with actual talent and vision. I must admit, in a world where even the game producers acknowledge that the plot of their game is a whole load of balls, it’s simultaneously weird and not for the executive producers to shrug off a game-based film because it’s based on a game and films based on games tend to suck, despite the fact that this particular game is pretty much a blank slate and we have two very talented artists willing to pick up the chalk.
Recently, I read a story on the internet about how the producers of the “Halo” movie would want to make Master Chief not the main character. It’s kind of hilarious how many people find this idea terrible. Master Chief isn’t a character or a person — he’s an icon. He never takes off his mask, because, as one of Halo 3‘s producers said, “if he took off that helmet, it’d be you inside”. A “Halo” movie presents an opportunity to make a fresh new story about humans fighting aliens; why not make Master Chief an object of wonder, like the aliens themselves? In a movie, we’re always looking at the character; would Halo be as popular if we had to stare at Master Chief the whole time, rather than see it through his eyes?
At the end of the day, Halo 3 is both a videogame — a great videogame, even — and a whole class of hobby in and of itself. Like Halo 2 before it, it will be the only game that some people ever play. Only, unlike Halo 2, Halo 3 is complete: it has four-player online co-op, it has a brilliant “Forge” mode for tweaking deathmatch stages (more of a “sandbox” than Grand Theft Auto, in the most basic sense), and it has the most awesome movie playback feature. When a man from Bungie first introduced me to this feature, showing how far you can scale back the camera from the playing stage, I was kind of stupidly amazed. When he said you could save multiple playthroughs of the entire campaign mode, I was shocked for a second, and asked him how. He said well, it’s not really that complicated: it just saves button inputs. That kind of burst my bubble for a second, like the time I realized that Hot Shots Golf‘s replay-saving feature was only memorizing the just-entered club, wind, and shot angle configurations and playing itself. In practice, though, Halo 3‘s playback mode is an eerie out-of-body experience. It gives you time to look at everything freely. To appreciate the world, and the context of the violence more thoroughly. It’s inevitable that the average human will find playing the game more rewarding, though much like the game itself, as what it is, hell if it isn’t an awesome little toy.