The warthog rolls. Rolls. Say a quick prayer… Rolls! Yes! I’m back on my wheels, crew fully intact. I thank the UNSC for the divine gift of roll-cages. Oo-rah!
Yes, it’s unmistakably Halo. I think the game gets a bad rep: that it attracts an audience of what might be (unkindly, but not uncommonly) termed idiots. This is the meta-story of Halo: the game for jocks. Also, the game that saved a system (Microsoft’s first Xbox). Sometimes people talk about the infamous 30-seconds-of-great-gameplay idea.
But most of the time: it’s the shooting game for jocks. And, admittedly, it’s never going to be a classic example of Games-as-Art. Even a rabid fan like me (if I was doing an RPS-style Gaming Made Me– and I might yet- the first Halo would have to be on there.)
I think that the reason for this status it that Halo, in multiplayer at least, is as close an example to sport as exists in gaming. A pure set of rules, occasionally tweaked, presented clearly; an environment for competition to flourish in.But there’s more to it than that. In its best incarnations (not Halo 3– a finely tuned sport for sure, but lacking a truly satisfying campaign), the singleplayer is a triumph. And here’s why that bit works, for me: it lets you role-play.
I think it might just me be but… my fellow marines. In another favourite, Bioshock, the bittersweet triumph of felling a noble Big Daddy hurt. In Halo, losing the ally riding shotgun in my Warthog (the imaginatively named Rocket Guy) in a volley of purple laser causes me to emit a Vader-like “NOOO!” in mourning.
Reason? Well, because I’m obsessively compulsive about keeping them all alive, the way I used to be about having 100% health (and a round number of bullets in each gun) in GTA3, a perfect record in Splinter Cell.
But, more importantly, because in very basic ways these marines feel human. They shout like the marines from Aliens at opportune moments, and have individual accents. The much-mourned Rocket Guy, for example, was Australian, and knowing even that gives me something to grasp onto. Because, ultimately, half of the joy of gaming is role-playing.
(The other half being rules, testing yourself against them, and testing their limitations. I know a lot of people who enjoy this element of Halo, too- seeking out the highest possible point on a given map, or investigating the “grenades under a Warthog” rumour.)
Back to the point- I want to believe I am Master Chief, quietly iconic, as I crush a car under my tank tracks. The Master Chief would never leave a man behind. Even when it meant sacrificing the flow of the game a little- going back and replaying the last 10 minutes because . Testing the limits of the rules, again, but for a purpose. The replay becomes a mechanic in its own right, something that couldn’t exist in any other medium.
It’s for this reason that the first level of Halo 2 is so brilliant. It knows exactly how excited you were going to be, dropping the hot-off-the-presses disc into the tree, and cribs from the Half-Life pre-game pre-amble, 10 minutes before you can even pick up a gun. But, with marines cheering me on as I stroll around a military base, I feel like a war hero. A celebrity. Later, my alien adversaries running away, screaming warnings of “The Demon”. An icon.And soon I’ve played too much and I have to put the Xbox away for a while. And then, the Bungie.net website steps in and lights up that excitable young boy in me (the one who never played D&D or any hardcore roleplaying, but looked at those fat glossy books of figures and descriptions and …wondered). Being able to read pages from the Halo Bible describing weapons, enemies and vehicles, sounds pedestrian -every game manual, surely- but the fiction runs deep. Reading marines’ accounts and comments on each topic gives a further edge of authenticity, next time I’m fighting to keep marines alive. It’s especially fascinating to see the fiction interact with the gameplay: a Ghost’s fuel tank is on its left-hand-side, so that is its weak point. It’s a world as immersive as you want to make it.
(All of which is a little jarring next to the aforementioned sport of the online experience. A world of brillo-pad-to-the-soul-American-teenager-accents and racist abuse. A brilliant game, but with an execrable community behind it. That reputation is perhaps rightly deserved, but I’ve had some real tense, competitive games of Halo, more than anything else I’ve ever played.)
So, Halo isn’t a piece of art. I don’t think many other people feel anything for their marines (in fact, I know people who purposely kill them, an idea which makes me wince as much as someone pulling the wings off a fly.) I know this is the last of the great Halo campaigns.
But, the truth is: crouched behind a boulder as plasma bolts chip away at it, with Cortana whispering advice into my earpiece and fingering a magnum, I feel like James Bond, so why should anything else matter?