I’ve had some negative experiences playing Halo in the past, mostly due to the nature of the X-Box Live community. This caused me to hop on the bandwagon of people hating on the games. I picked up the Anniversary Edition of the first game for my wife, and have sat beside her during her first playthrough of the campaign. In retrospect, I may have been too harsh on the game in the past.
It’s easy to see that Halo comes from fertile sources. There are elements of Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, though the latter also informed the most direct influence, which was Aliens. I’m sure there are others, but those are the most prominent. Anyway, the game does take steps to do something new with characters like Cortana, Captain Keyes and 343 Guilty Spark. And as a cypher for the player, looking back, I’m kind of amused by the fact that not only is Master Chief taciturn and seen as somewhat foolhardy, he’s also not necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer.
On top of being planted in fertile source material, the gameplay is solid. Since Halo came to be before the chest-high wall advent of Gears of War and its ilk, it feels, in retrospect, a lot more like Doom or Painkiller, in which our hero fights a seemingly inexhaustible horde of bad guys. Health kits still exist, with the shield being a dubious stopgap between you and certain death depending on the difficulty. Instead of velcroing you to cover, it trusts you have the wherewithal to simply duck out of the way if your shield needs to regenerate. The fact that later games would apply this to your health and undercut their difficulty severely as a result is hardly Halo‘s fault
Despite apparent restrictions, there’s freedom to be found. While having only two available weapons slots can seem a bit of a bummer, you can swap your weapons around at pretty much any time. My wife even demonstrated how to get a weapon you want from a nearby Marine despite the fact this was before the convenient context command to do so. Let’s just say that guy’s squadmates were a bit more afraid of Master Chief afterwards. Anyway, the ability to hijack enemy vehicles as well as drive or man the turrets of your own opened up new ways to deal with one’s opponents. I know this isn’t terribly new for fans of, say, the Battlefield series, but again, Halo can hardly be faulted for the results of its own success.
So why was I harsh? The fans. Consider fans of The Hunger Games, calling for some sort of boycott or action because Rue and Cinna are played by black actors. Or Homestuck fans, many of whom seem fond of depicting 13-year-olds having sex. I could bring up Mass Effect and the failed initiative to “retake” it or even the fans of any given sport who think smashing in the face of a fan of the other team is perfectly justified. Fandom unchecked leads to zealotry and even particular kinds of hatred. Halo is, at its core, a decent series of decent shooters and given the lion’s share of credit for saving the original X-Box. Just as it’s foolish to blame this particular game for every folly in shooters that came after it, it’s foolish to blame the game for the behavior of its fans. That was a mistake I let myself make repeatedly over the last few years.
With the benefit of hindsight and experience, I can say I was wrong about Halo. The first game, at least, holds up on its own with the benefit of a high-quality graphical touch-up. It just goes to show that fans of any stripe, no matter how enthusiastic they might be, need to check themselves. They otherwise run the danger of wrecking whatever the object of their affection might be, as well as themselves.
So a few years ago this new sci-fi franchise got started. It had some interesting ideas based on established literature and the first entry did a lot better than anybody could have expected. It spawned a couple of sequels that really didn’t measure up to the original but people really ate it up anyway and there were a couple of spin-off projects, too. Then, somebody got the bright idea to get Japan involved, and some of the best material ever associated with the franchise, as well as some mediocre disappointments, became collected into a series of shorts called… the Animatrix. No, wait, sorry, I meant HALO Legends.
Okay, that might be a little unfair, there are actually big differences between HALO and the Matrix. One’s a movie franchise, the other’s an X-box franchise. One’s based on shoddy poorly-written post-modern philosophy while the other cribs notes from Larry Niven and Robert Heinlein. One’s got a rabid fanbase of diehard fans who won’t brook any dissention against their beloved universe, and the other’s got a rabid fanbase of diehard fans who won’t brook any dissention against their beloved universe AND will teabag you if you don’t play the game as much as they do while calling you queer and saying how good your mom was last night. And when the collection of anime shorts was announced, one fanbase considered it a worthy addition to and refreshing change from the established material, while the other fanbase… well, let’s just say the words “RUINED FOREVER” were screamed more than once across the Interwebs. But how is the end product of HALO Legends? I’m going to go blow by blow and it might take a while, so grab a drink or other refreshment if you’d like.
Origins begins the project with a two-part history of the HALO universe narrated by Cortana, ranging from the Forerunners’ attempts to sterilize the Flood to mankind’s expansion into the stars. In another interesting parallel with the Animatrix, this is a rich, comprehensive narrative that is unapologetic in its characterization of mankind and his many follies. However, it belies the lack of this sort of substance within the game itself. It forms the spine of the games’ stories, but most people just want the meatier parts. I’ve seen at least one review of this bit saying it “needs more explosions.” Anyway, the challenge for the rest of the shorts is to take these concepts, these characters, and move in new & interesting directions.
This art really needs to be seen to be believed.
The Duel is not only interesting, it’s visually stunning; I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I’m not entirely sure how the visual effect of this short were achieved. I think the animation was CG but I can’t be sure, as the different patterns and shifting colors seem to have a life of their own. It’s like a muse blowing onto an oil painting, and the brushstrokes moving of their own accord in response. Underneath this artistic achivement is a story both lush and lurid told from the other side of the great war than engulfs the HALO universe. The Covenant always seemed more interesting than the games might have allowed them to be, but this casts them in not only a deep, nuanced light, but a very human one. It’s not easy to establish empathy for a character in so short a timespan, but The Duel does it very well, and the fact that the protagonist is a hostile alien makes the work all the more impressive.
When Homecoming began, I couldn’t help but smile not only when the SPARTAN not only doffed her helmet, but also at the sight of the tiny stuffed bear hanging from her armor. When you’re sauntering down one of HALO’s many metal corridors gunning down aliens, you never stop to think of the cost necessary to put a soldier like a SPARTAN there. Like The Duel, it humanizes an element that lacked that nature in the games; but in this case and by way of extension, it’s the player’s character that gets depth and emotion. While leaving the main character of a shooter an empty vessel for the player to pour themselves into makes sense, I can’t shake the feeling that just a glimmer of this sort of storytelling would elevate the games to a much higher level than the one they currently occupy. The story of HALO, Origins’ expounding notwithstanding, is a touch on the forgettable side; Homecoming is anything but.
Putting the “1337” in elite.
While those entries add some serious depth to the stories, Odd One Out takes the HALO universe in an entirely different direction. It’s just here to have some FUN with things. In this case, SPARTAN 1337, who may well be the Deadpool of this franchise, gets a powerful monster thrown at him by the Prophet of Truth, seen here as King Zarkon’s cantankerous little brother more than a diabolical yet eloquent if cryptic space-pope. (Crap, I think it’s rubbing off…) Even 1337’s astounding and manly heroism can’t beat this threat into submission alone, but thankfully he crash-landed on a planet that might be populated with characters from Dragonball. HALO’s done a lot of things, but this might be the first time the universe has made me laugh out loud in genuine humorous glee. I think it was 1337’s impressive introduction to the little kids that had me rolling; that, or the sight of his legs sticking out of the maw of a tamed T-Rex.
Prototype has some techno-geek fun with the idea of the UNSC developing a Macross or Gundam-style combat suit and unleashing it against the Covenant. The man inside the suit could have been a bit more interesting, but it’s still delivering more story and characterization than the games usually do. While it’s no Homecoming, it’s also not bad in the slightest, though it did signal a steadily declining trend in story quality as HALO Legends wore on.
As ambivelant as I felt about The Babysitter, this is still a poignant image.
The Babysitter is more typical HALO fare. It’s trying to tap that Starship Troopers/Band of Brothers vein and stabbing the wrong part of the arm a couple times before getting it right. While it’s nice to see an ODST story, if it were a touch more original it might make the Helljumpers seem like more than just a sci-fi send-up of Easy Company. Like Prototype, it isn’t necessarily bad, just nothing terribly outstanding especially when compared the earlier entries. And if you don’t see the big plot twist towards the end coming a mile away, you should read & watch more stories.
Don’t think HALO fanboys go completely unloved in Legends. Appleseed director Shinji Aramaki puts SPARTAN 117 through his paces in The Package. Once again, this bit can’t objectively be called bad, as there are no technical issues to speak of and it looks somewhat impressive in its execution. I was reminded of the CGI used by Skywalker Studios, particularly in the opening of Episode III of Star Wars. However, let’s leave that comparison behind before I start drawing more parallels between franchise characters and get angry emails from HALO fans saying that their beloved Master Chief would never slaughter children. Well, not human children anyway. He can kill as many Covenant kids as he wants, after all they’re different from us, right?
Think about it. Master Chief could be Darth Vader without the asthma.
All in all I feel relatively the same way towards HALO Legends as I do towards the Animatrix. It’s done some of the best storytelling in the franchise and lets some of Japan’s premiere visionaries take a Western narrative concept in new directions. Unlike the Animatrix, this is front-loaded with quality entries and the original stories and fun factor slowly peter out towards the end. Which is not to say that the latter bits are unwatchable by any stretch, they just don’t do as much with this universe or its characters. By all means, if you’re interested in this franchise, some recent successful science fiction or the work of the attached anime studios, queue this up on Netflix. I have to say the two hours watching this was probably more fun for me than playing HALO for two hours. As unoriginal as some of the entries feel, at least none of them ever tried to teabag me.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
The follow contains mostly my personal opinion and can probably be disregarded.
The game Halo and I have something of a history.
I grew up with shooters in one hand and space flight sims & strategy games in the other. When I was fed up with the politicing of my AI opponents in Master of Orion and had rescued humanity from the clutches of the Kilrathi in Wing Commander, I fired up Wolfenstein 3-D or Doom. Now, neither of those games had anything approaching a complex narrative – “here are some Nazis/demons, go shoot them in the face” about sums it up – but this was long before motion capture, voice acting and model rendering had gotten to the point that video games could call their experiences “cinematic” with a straight face.
When I first played Halo, I liked it. I liked its control schemes, I liked its portrayal of the conflict between humanity and the Covenant, I liked the mystery behind the Halo itself, and I liked Cortana. Spunky AIs always appeal to me. Note that I’m talking about the single-player campaign, here. I did play multiplayer with a few friends, and was mostly reminded of deathmatches in Doom. I didn’t really see anything new other than the initial gee-whiz of the graphics. Still it was fun and hearkened back to simpler days when demons roared at me from within brownish spikey ghouls that seem laughably rendered by today’s standards. Even after a couple years, when I found out a place I was working was maintaining its own Halo server, I jumped in. Unfortunately, my boss never showed up – that guy needed a sticky grenade on his backside something fierce.
I played Halo 2 once, just to try and get the story. And while there were a couple “HOLY SHIT!” moments during the cutscenes, the gameplay felt vastly unchanged. Characters returned but really didn’t grow at all. It wasn’t necessarily bad by any means, it just felt like the story was beginning to take a backseat to the multiplayer. Again, it was fun to play split-screen with a couple of friends. But that was about the extent of my experience, and by that point, Half-Life 2 had come along and, in my opinion, completely blown Halo 2 out of the water.
I can’t come out and give a solid opinion on the Halo series as a whole, as I haven’t played Halo 3 or ODST. In terms of story and gameplay I have no idea how they stack up. They remain in shrink-wrap on the local GameStop’s shelf and I admit to a somewhat passing interest, since I do find myself curious as to the fate of Cortana and the experience of being an average Joe in generic space armor fighting the Covenant, instead of being a genetically engineered hyper-masculine superman in generic space armor fighting the Covenant.
Two things bug me about the Halo series that have nothing to do with the games. One is the parade of copies that have come in the wake of the franchise. Gears of War, Haze, Turok, and Too Human, just to name a few, all feature characters very similar to Master Chief: gruffly voiced manly men wearing futuristic (if not powered) armor, grimly facing down hordes of gruesome creatures, handfuls of hot heterosexual automatic fire in their grip. For the most part, though, I can ignore these things. I played a little bit of Gears of War 2 and immediately found myself wishing to play a different shooter with a more interesting premise, character or setting – like Painkiller, or BioShock, or Half-Life, or Mass Effect.*
But the advertisements for and attitude towards each new installment of Halo would have you believe that you will not have an experience even remotely resembling what you get out of that game. And that’s the other thing that really bothers me about the franchise. Call me out for being a dull gutless effeminate story-loving dweeb if you must, but the screaming cursing teabagging fist-bumping Beast-drinking backwards-baseball-cap-wearing hair-frosting (yet completely straight) core demographic of Halo’s multiplayer really turns me off of the game. I feel like I’m missing a point somewhere. Halo, to me, is a sci-fi shooter with limited weapons capacity, lots of guys in generic space armor and a couple of interesting weapons and maps. What’s the big deal? The story’s half-decent, the physics are all right, the weapons all feel very sci-fi and the vehicle sections are well done. Again, I’m only talking about the first two games here, so maybe the third one or ODST will suddenly start delivering Battlestar Galactica-scale narratives or reveal that Master Chief was a disenfranchised orphan who was driven into the Spartan program and defied the nay-sayers who said he’d never amount to anything by becoming the savior of humankind many times over. Or maybe both he and the story will remain on the bland side of things. I can’t say either way.
It sort of reminds me of a wine called Yellow Tail.
Yellow Tail is a mass-produced wine specifically designed to be sold at a reduced cost and be more palatable to most pedestrian drinkers than those who have discovered a particular pinot or cabarnet that they enjoy. I’ve tried Yellow Tail, and while it’s drinkable, it isn’t as good as wine from a vineyard. The advertisements for it, on the other hand, would have you believe that Yellow Tail is the sort of wine that tastes delicious, leaves you plenty of money for expensive aperitifs and will probably get you laid. Based on this scheme, Yellow Tail rakes in the cash, much like Halo does.
The original Halo did its shooting very well, had great vehicle sections that were fun to do with others and even had something resembling a story to tell. I feel that as the series goes on, there’s less story happening while the amount of gameplay and features remain largely the same. I could be wrong, but it doesn’t stop Halo in general and a generous portion of its fanbase from bothering me. Maybe if I pick up the Halo games for my wife and take some time to play them myself again I can form a more solid opinion on the matter. But that’d require money. And I need my money for other things.
And Assassin’s Creed II.
* I know both Mass Effect games are more RPGs than shooters, but they still have solid sci-fi shooting action. And while Shepard and his team tend to wear space armor, especially in the first game, the characters have at least a little depth to them.
I originally had a post here that wasn’t written very well and was full of failure, so until I can properly articulate my feelings on first person shooters in general and Halo in particular, here’s a picture of my cat looking at some snow.