I’ve kept quiet for long enough on this subject. I find it difficult to speak about; simply because the total onslaught of opposition I have on the topic. It’s no surprise to anyone that a good portion of video gamers are ridiculously devoted to certain games. Some gamers would defend them, even in face of indisputable evidence, that a certain feature was poor in comparison to another. Some of them are ‘fan boys’, some are people who genuinely enjoy the game and some are just jumping on the bandwagon because they love a good bit of mindless devotion. It’s for these reasons that I tentatively approach the subject of one of the world‘s biggest first person shooters: Halo.
The Halo series is one of the most popular games of all time and has achieved not only a world wide following but allegedly a certain level of perfection amongst the gaming community. For a long time I refused to believe it. If ever asked what I thought of the series, or if someone began talking about it, I’d immediately feel compelled to tell what a poor title it was. The problem with this was that my experience was limited to Halo: Combat Evolved and half of Halo 2 (I got bored, and played a proper game on my Wii instead).
Being a decent human being I didn’t extend my thoughts and opinions past that point, knowing that full well the latter games may appeal to me if the quality improved (not that I thought it could get much worse). After the release of Halo: Reach I took it upon myself to play through the entire series again for two reasons: Firstly to see if perhaps revisiting the early games would give me a different reaction then my initial findings. Secondly so that I could give a definitive opinion on the whole of the Halo games. After playing through Halo’s 1-3, ODST and Reach; I can say without a shadow of a doubt that If I never ever play Halo again I will die a happy gamer.
Yes, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it at all, even that’s a massive understatement. I pushed through wave after wave of Covenant and Flood to come to the conclusion that this is one of the most over appreciated games series I’ve ever come across. I wouldn’t mind so much if people didn’t heap constant praise on all of them for their “contributions to first person shooters’ and how they helped ‘redefine a genre that didn’t know it needed redefining’. Now I don’t know what moron said that latter quote, I happened to come across it while browsing wikipedia, but the very essence of this statement makes me want to smash my own head in.
To start with I would argue that the genre itself was already going through a redefinition This was brought to us three years prior to Halo: Combat Evolved by Half Life. Half Life, regarded as one of the finest example’s of the genre even by today’s standards, showed us that a first person shooter can be about more than just gameplay but can focus on an immersive plot, detailed and varied environments, and useful non combatant AI. This showed us that it isn’t necessarily the gameplay but what the gameplay revolves around, something that had been considered an afterthought prior to now. I would argue that the original Halo took some of it’s cues straight from Half Life rather then defining the genre itself. I appreciate that there will always be a case for one game learning from another in order to better itself but it’s important to understand where the original creativity came from. Everyone’s quick to label certain first person shooters as Halo clones, due to the god awful template they follow, so it’s equally important that we appreciate where Halo’s roots stem from.
While playing through the entire Halo series, it also struck me how bland and repetitive the levels are. I can concede that ODST and Reach did approve on this but at least for the first three titles the stages just seemed to merge into one. If you showed me a screen shot, even from a specific part of one of the games, I would not be able to tell you which one it was from. In fact I’m pretty certain Halo 2 and 3 have just merged into one large grey / green mass in my mind. The levels seem to follow a simple design of open area and closed areas. I understand that games do have a mix of this but it just seems so forced rather then something that flows. It just seems that every time we need to get somewhere new, it’s just an excuse to go outside and have to fight a total onslaught of vehicles usually aided by a Warthog. This is a Jeep that the UNSC decided need to have springs installed on it’s base so that it gave an effect similar to Flubber hitting a wall every time it hits a bump. As you can imagine this is totally helpful when facing down a Wraith and multiple Banshee’s, Choppers or Spectres. To focus more specifically on the levels themselves: Every single interior of a ground based building is grey. The exterior is grey. The area leading up to it is either sand or grass. The lack of features, detail and general content on the inside is shocking, unless it’s a plot specific area, and then it’s simply littered with all kinds of crap you don’t need. Generally I consider the aesthetics and variety of the levels to be poor for a game so highly regarded. It seems that ODST and Reach again picked up on this and actually had some slight variance to it’s interior areas.
Another thing that confounds me is the combat. With a name like “Combat Evolved” I expected something well, ‘ Evolved.’ Instead I was treated to the most boring and repetitive combat I have come across since I played Time shift; and even that had the ability to manipulate time to make up for it! Fighting in Halo boils down to one of three things. If you are fighting the Covenant in an open space, just take out a ranged weapon and pick them off. They won’t come near you, they won’t fire back, they will just get picked off. (Once you’ve got through the shields. Oh regenerating health how I hate you ) When there are vehicles involved it literally becomes a case of pot luck if you manage to live through the odds that are stacked against you. If you are fighting them indoors; it’s just a case of waiting them out as they rarely come looking for you. The fact that you also have regenerating shields just makes the whole thing a waiting game. If you have to engage the Flood, it’s a case of back tracking while fireing, as they have a habit of just throwing themselves at you, regardless of what’s going on, making them extremely easy to kill and more of an inconvenience than anything else.
The problems with the combat don’t end there either. For the majority of Halo you are playing as the Master Chief, the last of the Spartans. Labelled as humanity’s last hope, it falls upon the shoulders of a man who can only carry two weapons at any one time to save mankind. Well I’m relieved. For a minute there I thought we were fucked. This is ridiculous. This is the future, we are fighting aliens, I’m driving a trampoline on wheels, I’ve got an artificial intelligence plugged into the back of my head, and yet carrying a rifle and a pistol is my limit. I won’t hear any arguments about realism. If the protagonist is some super-soldier then I should be able to carry what I want, when I want. The whole two weapon system stifles the gameplay so heavily because you literally have to have a long range weapon if you want to survive an encounter with a large number of enemies and the number of short range weapons is so high that some are woefully underused or forgotten.
My concerns continue onto the feel for the combat itself. Despite the fact we are in the future all the weapons feel so weak and under powered. The shotgun feels more like a loud cracker that fires what I can only assume to be a minor nasal irritant than shotgun shells. The opposition on occasions stumble back, confused by the sudden change in odour. It doesn’t feel like I’m handling a weapon from the future. The machine guns and rifles feel and sound so weak. I might as well grab a hose and spray them with water for all the effect it’s having. A first person shooter should (routinely at least) empower the player when using the weapon. Not make them feel like they would be better off with their fists.
That said when you do have to get up close to the opposition you have an awful melee attack, which I can only describe as appearing to look like a nervous jerk rather then someone who wants to hurt a murderous alien race. A melee attack should flow, as it comes from the arms in a swing or push movement, rather than like someone who’s receiving electric shock therapy.
So the real question in face of all this: is if I’m right then why does the series always score so high? Why is it one of the biggest games of all time? To quote a phrase from an equally highly regarded game:
“The right man in the wrong place, can make all the difference in the world”
I would use that same logic when looking at Halo, in that the wrong game in the right place can make all the difference in the world. Halo was a launch title for one of the most anticipated consoles of all time. It had a cooperative campaign, supported 16 player LAN multiplayer and generally marked an important step in video gaming consoles being able to compete with PC’s in the first person shooter genre. My theory is that Halo’s short comings were massively overlooked in the face of the fact that this a first person shooter for a console that offered the sort of experience that only PC gamers had been able to experience. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark are also of high quality but could only offer four player multiplayer. I believe it literally arrived at the right moment to receive a reception that it does not deserve. There were simply better games out there such as: Perfect Dark, Medal of Honour and Time splitters, that were not in the position that it was in at the time of release.
Overall I can’t explain the phenomenon that is the Halo franchise. I can concede a slight improvement in Halo: ODST and Halo:Reach but I think that’s due to a much better story line and a more dramatic feel to the proceedings at hand. I can’t see why people regard it as being a perfect example of the first person shooter genre because for me: it’s one of the worst.