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.