Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Requiem for a Halo

Creating a sequel is no enviable task, even less so when the original artifact is something truly special.

Granted, there is perhaps the thrill—particularly for newcomers—of becoming a part of the saga, of being able to contribute to a great and admired legacy. But fans are a prickly bunch—very difficult to satisfy. The fans don't always know what they want. A sequel has to be innovative, of course. But it can't stray too far from the original source, not in spirit and certainly not in whatever has been deemed canonical. It must be … faithful.

Having played through the first few missions of Halo 4, I think I can safely say the developers at 343 Industries have remained faithful to the Bungie games that came before it—for better and for worse.

I like the Halo games. They tend to have a nice clean aesthetic. They're linear and easy to navigate. You see your objective marked off in the distance and you make your way there—picking off all the enemies standing in your way. I like to play on the heroic difficulty. It gives me just the right balance of fun and mild challenge. Playing legendary is slow and punishing. Heroic moves at a much nicer pace. Sure, I still end up failing a lot and repeating the same firefights, but I know there's never any doubt that I'll soon get it—it might even be close and a little bit exciting. I'll shoot down one of the last standing elites, my shields blasted down to nearly nothing. Then I'll see those two glorious words display without fanfare at the bottom corner of the screen: “Checkpoint... done.”

At the same time, I know these games are stupid. I think it was while playing Halo: Reach that I finally saw how stupid it really was. It was most evident while playing with the game's Firefight mode, which sends increasingly difficult waves of Covenant enemies to attack your position.

It was during these staged battles that I began to question the entire Covenant military strategy. You see, the Covenant are an alliance of alien races, all bound together in service and adherence to some kind of religious order. There's a social hierarchy to the species, which shows in their military structure. The Grunts are the lowest ranking members—the cannon fodder. They're the squat, slow-moving creatures who get sent off to the front lines of skirmishes. Half the time they can't even figure out where they're supposed to be going, their relentless squeaking chatter giving away their position as they approach. When a human soldier actually engages them in combat, it's not uncommon for these grunts to simply turn around and waddle away in terror.

The next most-common enemy is the Jackal. Sometimes I think these guys are even stupider than the Grunts. The Jackals are easily spotted by the circular colored energy shields they carry around with them (some enemy types from this species forego the shield for a two-handed rifle). Their modus operandi is to fire off the occasional shot from behind cover before deciding—for whatever reason—to start creeping around the open battlefield, often turning their shields away from the line of fire in the process. Some are a little better at staying hidden than others, but when you happen to approach a Jackal in close quarters, don't worry—they're extremely frail and timid. Most of the time you can just punch them repeatedly until their shields peter out and they die. You'll feel like the playground bully, but it's faster than wasting ammo on their shields and having to reload.

The Elites are a different breed, and their name is no misnomer. Elites are the true soldiers of the Covenant military. They're tall, athletic, and they come equipped with surprisingly effective energy forcefields that the player needs to wear down before being able to impart any lasting physical damage. These guys employ much more believable fighting tactics. They take cover when shot at. They charge when desperate. Simply put, they're a worthy adversary.

I guess it just makes me wonder, why does the Covenant bother with the Grunts and Jackals at all? Are they simply meant to soak up and deplete the enemy's limited ammunition? I guess that might be a reasonable explanation if the rest of the crew managed to get the job done. But the Covenant troops are constantly failing—to a lone space marine, no less! As opposed to placing the Elites at the outer edge of the conflict, would it be more effective if they just rushed out with a giant horde of Elite soldiers right from the get go? Think of the terror and panic that would induce! Think of how quickly the humans would be wiped out.

That's close to what actually happens at an early point in the first game of the series, 2001's Halo: Combat Evolved. On the third level, the Master Chief and a band of human soldiers sets out on a kind of suicide mission—to covertly infiltrate a Covenant capital ship and rescue the imprisoned Captain Keyes.

This is such an awesome game level, punctuated midway through by one of the most memorable fight sequences of any video game. As the player and a crew of allies gets beamed aboard the Covenant vessel, they find themselves standing in the center of a dark empty loading dock. Master Chief's A.I. companion Cortana makes an obvious, cautious observation about the lack of Covenant forces. This of course reassures no one. The player knows something is about to happen—the setting is beyond ominous, and at this point completely foreign. Suddenly, one of four surrounding doors makes a soft pulsing noise and flashes color. As it slides open, the familiar growl of an Elite soldier echoes inside the dark chamber (prompting one of your human compatriots to utter the famous line, “No Covenant. You had to open your mouth!”). If the player manages to locate which door has just opened, they might spot the nearly invisible enemy rushing forward with some kind of glowing energy sword.

Most of the people who play this sequence their first time through probably get slaughtered immediately. It's such a startling encounter, such a great way to introduce players to the sword-wielding Elites. The first time I ever managed to clear each of the ensuing waves, I ended up being the lone human survivor. During later attempts I was able to arrive at that location with a better strategy. I knew to lob grenades at the first sign of approach. But that first time … what an exciting challenge!

Unfortunately, there's not much that can top an excellent first impression, and the original Halo had a lot of firsts—the first ride in a Warthog vehicle, the first tango with Covenant Hunters (twin armored juggernauts with high-powered energy canons for guns), the first major gameplay twist introducing the dreaded Flood creatures. Hell, just booting up the game for the first time and and hearing that epic a cappella theme was an event. Subsequent games tried to replicate these iconic moments—it seems like most Halo games include an obligatory infiltrate-the-Covenant-ship mission—but they were never as surprising and rarely as effective the second time around.

Jumping ahead to the latest entry in the series, it all just feels a little strange. For the third time this console generation, the franchise has returned sporting cleaner, crisper graphics. They're high-fidelity graphics, yes, but with regards to what? Everyone knows there's no such thing as a “real” Covenant alien. So why are we so easily led to believe that these crispier and crispier representations are any more or less “accurate” to the mythical real thing?

I certainly think it's cool to play games with shinier graphics, but how is this constant pixel-pushing serving the series overall? Is it being used to tell a better story? Maybe that's asking too much from a Halo game. Is it at least being used to present new surprises or innovative enemy encounters—new memorable firsts? Unfortunately, I can't really say I'm in love with Halo 4's new enemy types, but at least it's an attempt at something new. One of the things I did during my last play session was to step into a mech suit, which was certainly another first for the series—and a bit of a surprise.

I think the original Halo accomplished something genuinely amazing in its day. It made the shooter fun … for everybody. If not everybody, it made the shooter accessible to anyone who would ever have any interest in playing a shooter.

Think of all the titles that came before it: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Half-Life, Goldeneye 007. Were they fun? If you were already into games, almost undoubtedly yes. But they still had their quirks. They were mostly PC games. Halo: Combat Evolved made the experience of first-person shooting as kinetically fun, intuitive, and as streamlined as it would ever conceivably get. It did so many things right. It offered the best cooperative multiplayer experience of any almost game to date. Its competitive mode was incredibly well-balanced. It also told a coherent story that wasn't all juvenile gags and bloodlust. Halo was the Star Wars of video games, a true popcorn game if ever there was one.

Today, 12 years later, the shooter finds itself in an awkward position. Sure, the genre still sells like hotcakes, but I'm not sure it generates the same enthusiasm it once did. We're hearing more and more voices in the wilderness calling attention to this glut of shooting insanity (for starters, see here and here). These are smart, critical minded individuals rightly questioning the present-day value of games that revolve around shooting things from a first-person perspective—maybe from any perspective.

And the Halo series certainly doesn't get a free pass for being sci-fi. Just because it substitutes its human targets for alien ones, it's still a series that glorifies the whole notion of military force. Halo 4 can try to re-frame the picture all it wants to with its opening cinematic (and whatever follows … like I said, I haven't finished the game), posing the question of whether it's the Master Chief's humanity or utter lack thereof that makes him an effective fighter. At the end of the day, we're still shooting sentient creatures in the face.

I wonder, is every shooter in a post-Spec Ops: The Line industry going to have to make some kind of straw-man attempt at justifying its own violent systems? BioShock Infinite is probably the most notable recent example of this dilemma. It's really no secret what's going on here. We're no different from all these gruff, battle-weary protagonists in our games. We've sustained ourselves for so long on shooting for shooting's sake—it's the Rambo effect. We don't know anything else. The industry can't help but transfer and project this weariness into its own games, and these moral questions are merely circling back on themselves in an infinite loop. All this immense effort of stuffing meaningful narrative into these games isn't going to work if we're still making the same games at heart.

Did I mention I do enjoy the Halo games? I do, and I meant all those nice things I said earlier. But I'm not going to be sad if this is the last Halo game I ever play. There's just no getting around it—this series is tired. Master Chief is tired. That's not to say he won't or can't fight. He's a Rambo character. He's invincible. But there's just no joy in victory anymore—no joy for this series. Remember when the Halo games still had humor? They cast David Cross as the voice of the human soldiers in Halo 2, for Pete's sake—and it was great! The Halo games lost whatever semblance of humor they still had with the passing of the original Xbox. So, yes. Master Chief is tired, and frankly, he's also a little cranky. If we could peer behind that golden helmet visor of his, I know his expression would prove me right.

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