It's not easy for critics to come back to something they liked, or hated, and deal with the division their copy failed to anticipate. But that shouldn't stop us facing up to and exploring differences of opinion. We've tried before, of course, with the infamous BioShock: A Defence, but that wasn't quite the right approach (even if we did enjoy ourselves), so we've come up with something we think is better. In this, the first of our Retrospective pieces on major games of the past 12 months, Oli Welsh and Alec Meer use the hindsight afforded to them by the five months since Halo 3's release and consider the arguments on both sides of the divide. You can read our original Halo 3 review first, if you like, to put it all in context.
Good Cop - Oli Welsh
Take a step back.
Don't pore over the textures and geometry too closely, or the action-figure faces and clumsy hands. Get some distance, some scale, find a vantage point and drink in the incredible view Halo 3 has to offer. Dozens and dozens of men and vehicles swarming and cartwheeling around skyscraper-sized walking tanks, explosions everywhere, coruscating death-rays raking the earth, and in the background a lurid vista of impossible scale, straight off some late-'70s airbrush sci-fi poster. Look at Halo 3 too closely, and it doesn't look too different from what came before. Take in the whole picture at once, and it's nothing short of breathtaking.
Take a step back from the storytelling. It's easy to scorn the pomposity, mawkishness and clunky machismo of the script. It's easy to pick at the loose threads in the story, unravel the gaping holes in the plot. For sure, Halo 3 is not a highly evolved example of the narrative form, and the minutiae of its universe seem both bewildering and pointless. But the grand sweep of it is something else, something universal.
It's far too old and too big to be called a cliché; it's a heroic archetype from mythologies around the world, the doomed journey of the soldier-king. It's a hugely populist story that everyone wants to hear, but Hollywood has failed to tell it in a science-fiction setting in recent years, certainly with the ambition and sheer self-belief that Bungie has. It's no wonder that people have flocked to the tale's climax in Halo 3, even if the details were fudged.
Take a step back from Master Chief. Literally - start a Theatre mode recording, zoom out, and pan the camera across the entire level. See everywhere you're going to be, every enemy you're going to fight. Try to catch the game out in a lazy spawn or sudden lurch into action; there aren't any. It's all there, alive, running and waiting for you. If Sergeant Johnson is going to meet you later, you'll see him emerge from a door and battle Flood on the other side of a building you're nowhere near yet, talking to the Chief and Arbiter on the radio as he clears a path.
It's mind-blowing that Bungie would take the trouble to write that in and use up runtime for it, when most players wouldn't even dream it was there. The developers have been knocked for not pushing or innovating enough with Halo 3, for just giving players what they wanted, but there's no "just" about it. They gave us what we wanted and made it real, every inch of it, nothing missing, nothing broken, nothing faked. They let us use and abuse it however we liked, and they didn't cheat or compromise on one single detail. In its own way, that's revolutionary - it's just that for all the noise the game makes, the revolution in Halo 3 is a quiet one.
Take a step back. And then another, and then another. Drink it all in at once. Halo 3's brilliance is all in the big picture.
It's in the complete absence of smoke and mirrors used in orchestrating the action. This is something Halo 3 shares with both its predecessors, and to be fair, it doesn't advance its basic combat systems very far beyond the usual 'bigger, better, more badass'. But to knock it for that, when those six-year-old systems are still far in advance of its competition, is ludicrous.
Call of Duty 4 stole much of Halo 3's thunder and critical acclaim at the end of last year, and it's certainly an extremely well-crafted and overwhelmingly powerful experience. But beneath its bluster it's all show, a rudimentary assemblage of the oldest tricks in the book: heavy scripting, respawning enemies, crude event triggers. You don't have to push far past the boundaries of its tightly controlled corridor of fun to see the wizard pulling the wires.
Halo 3, on the other hand, is truly emergent, a game where terrific action storytelling occurs organically from the interaction of the player, multiple AI elements (interacting with each other), and the precarious-but-perfect balance of its weapon, vehicle and enemy designs. It's what aeronautics engineers refer to as "inherently unstable" - an aerodynamic phenomenon where a fighter jet has a natural tendency to change direction, making it harder to control, but much more agile.
Halo 3 is permanently teetering on the brink of total chaos. It never quite goes there, but that instability makes it truly, gloriously unpredictable. From the same checkpoint save it will never, ever play the same twice, and it's the only shooter in existence you can honestly say that about; that's worth a thousand moments of Call of Duty 4's scripted, cinematic intensity. Learning from that is still as vital to the future health of gaming now as it was in 2001, and the way that thinking has been rigorously scaled up in Halo 3 - in the more complex hierarchical structure of the enemy AIs, for example - is all you could ask for.
But the picture gets bigger still. Bungie took this world-beating formula and split it wide open for you, the players, to test to the limits of its endurance. You can play through the campaign in four-player co-op, online, with a customised rule-set of hilariously, viciously extravagant new parameters. You can record hours-long play sessions automatically and obsess over them from any angle. And still the game refuses to break, to stumble, to let its mask slip for a second.
Now take a step back from the campaign. This no-compromise, big-picture philosophy is applied in every corner of the game. Forge's support for 8 players online breathes enough life into this fairly basic map editor to make it an irresistible plaything. The multiplayer, for all that it's a rumbustious show-stopper of a game, would have been left behind by the more sophisticated COD4 and Team Fortress 2 if it wasn't for its support from Theatre mode and Halo 3's own personal Facebook, the insanely detailed and feature-laden bungie.net. Those two facilities make it the most forward-thinking online gaming experience out there, one that the "Game 3.0" era is still racing to keep up with.
Take one last step back, and look at the biggest picture yet. It's right there, on the matchmaking screen: a live map of the world, with glowing dots showing concentrations of online Halo 3 players. This detail sums Halo 3 up. It's a game that puts itself in context, a game that's made by the actions of players, a game that's all about the thrill of the now. That makes it, naturally, ephemeral; firing it up now is never going to be as exciting as it was in the autumn of last year, in those heady weeks when the whole world seemed giddy with Halo 3 madness. But nevertheless, it's a glimpse of the future. One day, all games will be made this way.
Bad Cop - Alec Meer
It's very, very easy to say terrible things about Halo 3, and there are doubtless thousands of gentlemen currently doing so across the internet. It's entirely the wrong approach. Halo 3 is Quite A Good First-Person Shooter. Much of the bitterness towards it stems simply from Bungie giving their hordes of fans exactly what they want, and not bothering to cater for the unconverted because, well, there's only four of them. Progressive it isn't, but sensible it surely is.
The real reason to kill it with fire is less for its own qualities and more for its status. Its ubiquity makes it something of a figurehead for gaming. And so a non-gamer's best idea of modern gaming is one that reinforces so many negative stereotypes of the form - all space-lasers and evil aliens, mindless violence, teenagers hurling abuse at each other, and grown men whooping when they pick up a bigger gun. When I'm trying to convince someone of the many wonders within the medium, what I'm fighting against is the preconceptions they've developed because of Halo 2 and 3's omnipresence.
It's like trying to convince a new girlfriend that your group of friends are smart, interesting people she'd get along well with, but when the first one of them turns up, he immediately drops his pants, bends over and sets fire to a fart. I'm not so precious that I can't enjoy a big, dumb shooter, but I'm not fine with it being so hugely successful that half the industry tries to ape it - so we don't get another Thief game, but we do get another Turok one. There's this endless queue of men clutching matchsticks, with their trousers around their ankles.
It's worth noting I don't have any kind of serious reservation about Halo 3's multiplayer. It's a slick and easy take on console deathmatch, and the community stuff it's doing with replays and matchmaking is close to unparalleled. While I'd personally much rather be playing Team Fortress 2, I entirely appreciate why a vast number of people prefer Halo 3's straighter, broader multiplay. It's single-player that's refusing to be dragged into the modern age, whose success and acclaim risks holding back mainstream gaming from great things.
I've come to expect a sequel to do more than revisit the first game with a few bells and whistles. I'm aware that's possibly a false sense of entitlement, and certainly it's a feeling informed a little too much by Half-Life 2. Sure, that's a game as hamstrung by conventional FPS values as is any Halo, but crucially one that's a very different breed of game to its more claustrophobic, puzzle-heavy forerunner, even going so far as to be set in what's essentially a completely different universe. It experimented. I wasn't surprised that Halo 2 was as flat and unadventurous as it was - its driving force was simply to get a sequel out as soon possible. But with new technology, an infinite budget and a huge gestation period, I was genuinely convinced Halo 3 would take the series to new places.
It doesn't. It merely clings onto the past. Vaguely pleasant over-familiarity even atrophied into misery come the Flood levels. Made to repeat something I'd loathed in two previous games, I became very angry. I just couldn't understand why this prolonged section of corridor-confined grinding against respawning, rush-tactic foes, further agonised once again by cheerless backtracking, was here, given so many people had been moaning about it since the first game.
Now, I understand. Rather than all that success presenting an open goal to attempt something bolder next time around, it crippled Halo. Don't mess with the formula, because the formula sells. Halo 3 could only ever be like Halo 2, because Halo 2 earned an impossible pile of money. It's the reason Eastenders recycles the same plots and character types, that Oasis always release the same record, that Transform-a-Snacks still have an after-taste of weird alien chemicals. The Halo fan says if it ain't broke don't fix it; the former Halo fan (that's me) says unbrokenness is not the same as greatness. To my naive mind, a series with this much clout and influence has a duty to gaming, to push things forward, to set new standards.
And so I just found high-definition variations on the same themes I'd tromped through before, peppered with some admittedly mighty oudoor setpieces. Gotta have the Flood bit, gotta have the tank bit, gotta have the Banshee bit, gotta having the climactic high-speed escape bit. There were so many old boxes to tick that there was no time to come up with new ones.
I was vaguely conscious of the 30 seconds of fun theory puppeteering it all - Bungie's intensive player focus-grouping ensuring I stayed in the right area, walked the right direction, spotted the right Grunts. I'm sure thousands of man-hours went into it, but I yearn for all that money, all that effort, to be have been shovelled into something other than mere refinement, new experiences overwhelmed by sanitised ones. All I want from a Halo game is to feel, no matter how briefly, as I did in those first, breathtaking moments of Halo 1: arriving on a world at the same time bewildering and yet familiar, one that felt impossibly vast but somehow navigable on gut instinct. There isn't a single moment like that in Halo 3. 30 seconds of fun is all well and good, but not when it's simply the same 30 seconds repeated 300 times.
Where I lose all sympathy is Halo's idea of narrative, which is backwards, self-indulgent, incoherent, devoid of self-awareness and frankly no better than someone's scratty fan-fiction. It's a bland mess of action poses and droning exposition. Worst of all, it presumes intimately familiar knowledge of what happened in the two previous games, of exactly who each one-dimensional support casting member is and what relationship they have to all the other insipid ciphers. I played Halo 2 and immediately forgot most of what happened - thus finding myself with very little idea what was going on in Halo 3, because it makes precisely no effort to set the scene.
"Nobody cares about your stupid story," Bioshock's Ken Levine told GDC last week, arguing that pages of back-story about a developer's bespoke fantastical universe are of almost no interest to most players. Halo is the weird exception to that, birthing novels, comics, spiralling Wikipedia pages, boundlessly enthusiastic fan-fic... A whole lot of people really care about the Halo universe, and I suspect it's for the same reason a whole lot more people really care about the Star Wars universe. Both present a very broad sci-fi palette upon which simple white hat/black hat action-adventure is propped up by a loose mythology cobbled together from parts cherry-picked from other fiction. It's really about nothing more than cool guys with death rays and laser swords, but talk of destiny and prophecies and fallen empires grants an illusion of profundity. Sure, include some of that stuff for the guys who really care, but I fear those voices distracted Bungie from what was really important. Halo 3 interrupts itself again and again with meaningless information. I desperately wanted to skip past it all, but couldn't, for fear I'd miss something genuinely important.
I can't tell you how pleased I am that Call of Duty 4 is snapping at Halo 3's heels; though often as conformist a shooting game as Bungie's latest, it experiments with means of storytelling that are specifically about being a videogame, not a movie. While Halo 3 defaults to old-fashioned cut-scenes that simply throw up reams of expository dialogue and insultingly demonstrate Master Chief performing epic stunts the player isn't allowed to carry out himself, COD4's gobbets of storytelling are concise and interactive. They're always from your perspective, and always provide a good reason why your freedom is briefly curtailed. You're a prisoner, you're badly wounded, you're really badly wounded. If even a fraction of people who bought COD4 realise that Halo's traditionalist storytelling just doesn't cut it anymore, mainstream gaming has an opportunity to move forwards a little.
You can read our original Halo 3 review elsewhere on Eurogamer.