Monday, October 1, 2007

Teh Haloz

I'm going to try to write something here every day if I can, even if I'm not feeling particularly inspired to do so. I figured I'd start with my limited experience with the Halo craze that has been rekindled with the release of the third installment.

I bought my Xbox 360 in December 2005, about a month after it launched. It was my first console since the Sega Genesis. In the couple of years before buying it, I had begun to get more interested in computer games and had built a high end gaming PC. I had also started reading various gaming websites like Joystiq and Shacknews. Information about the new Xbox was starting to come out and I closely followed all of it. This was more because of the constant flow news about it rather than any great interest on my part. The Wii and Playstation 3 were still a year away from release.

Between my time with the Genesis and 360, my time with game consoles was mostly limited to kiosks in stores and occasional encounters with friends' consoles. I missed out on the Dreamcast, Saturn, N64, Playstation 1 and 2, Gamecube, and the original Xbox. When Super Mario 64 came out with its newfangled three dimensional graphics, I had a very hard time figuring out the controls when I tried the game in stores. My first "real" experience with a console since the Genesis was when my boss let me borrow his Xbox, along with the game Halo.

I of course knew about Halo. It was Microsoft's flagship title for the Xbox. I suffered through the massive hype train that steamrolled through everything for the launch of Halo 2. The first day sales statistics for Halo 2 ($125 million!!) were burned into my brain simply because I read it everywhere. It was largely irrelevant to me though because I didn't own an Xbox and had no particular desire to.

One day, for reasons I don't remember, my boss brought in his Xbox that he had bought for his grandson. During lunch a group of us hooked it up to a projector and took turns playing. My boss told me he had never gotten comfortable with the controls, and as I attempted to play I could understand why. I had spent the past few years playing first person shooters on the PC with a keyboard and mouse. Playing with two analog sticks on a handheld controller was like trying to learn a foreign language. Despite that, I managed to have fun, and asked to borrow the Xbox for the night. That night saw several hours of me struggling to get comfortable with the controls and fighting for my life against hordes of aliens bent on my destruction. It wasn't anything life changing for me, but it was fun. Fun is the important thing, after all.

In December 2005 I found that the hype about the Xbox 360 had won me over. The games looked fun and the features of the console itself were cool, so I found myself at the local Best Buy three hours before it opened so I could secure myself a place in line. They had 15 available that morning, and I was number 8 in line. I believe I walked out with Call of Duty 2 and Kameo: Elements of Power as my first steps into the next-gen video game world. A few months later I had finished with those games and was smack in the middle of the post-launch release draught. There being nothing else I was interested in at the moment, I decided I may as well pick up Halo. It felt like one of those games that you have to have if you own an Xbox. Halo's Master Chief is to Microsoft what Mario is to Nintendo, for better or worse.

I began playing from the beginning again. It was still fun, but as I got farther in the game I found myself not being pulled in as much as I had hoped. Everything about the game felt solid and the battles were satisfying, but I didn't spend moments at work or in the shower thinking about the game. Around this time I believe Oblivion came out and promptly grabbed hold of all of my gaming time. Around a year later I picked Halo up again from where I left off and got far enough to run into the infamous repetitive copy/paste level design. I didn't get too worked up about it but it was painfully obvious. The build-up to the Flood was well done. Seeing the bodies of alien enemies piled up in a hallway with their bright blue blood smeared all over the walls, then watching the recording of the human marines vainly try to fight this new enemy was a highlight of the game. Eventually, though, I began to reach a painful conclusion: fighting the Flood was not fun. The tiny small forms that swarmed you were annoying, the exploding form that spewed the aformentioned tiny forms were aggravating because the explosions killed me instantly, and the melee fighters were frustrating because they moved fast and did an incredible amount of damage.

Before the Flood showed up I had been fighting the alien Covenant forces. The comical Grunts, quick Elites, and shielded Jackals complemented each other with their different fighting styles. Battles were intense but immensely satisfying in victory. Tossing plasma grenades and using the Covenant's own plasma rifles in open ended battles was a visceral experience, and while I tended to die often I never got frustrated or felt like the game was being unfair. Battles never played out the same way twice in replays because the enemy AI was generally very good. The Flood, however, felt like dumb pixels whose only advantage was sheer numbers. They swarmed in vast numbers and the game got to the point where it lost the Fun. I set it down.

Fast forward to about a month ago. The Halo 3 hype was (and still is) at full steam. Having just finished BioShock and having no other games to occupy my attention, I decided to once again see what the fuss was about. I started from the beginning again but blew through it on the easiest difficulty. I noticed that the battles were far less satisfying. They were too easy. The Flood were more manageable but were still aggravating. As I got further in the game the cookie cutter level design became even more prevalant. Overall the game just felt like work on this playthrough. I did finish though. I made a more conscious effort to follow the story, but the game didn't do a very good job of telling it. I got the gist though.

This is taking far longer to write than I thought, so I will continue tomorrow. Halo 2 and 3 will be discussed!

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