Can't quite say exactly what got me into gaming in the first place really. Back in the day I was rockin' original nintendo with games like the ninja turtles and sky shark it was alwsys me trying to get that much further and see if i could beat it. Most of you, fondly or otherwise, remember the dark days before sony introduced the massively expensive memory card (honestly $40 for an 8mb card... while gig SD's were only 30...wtf)
But from there it had to be Metal Gear Solid that MADE gaming for me. I mean a game that was unconventional and had REAL characters that you cared about ( I got blisters on me fingers from rapidly pressing O to save meryl from ocelot). But then there are also the staple franchises like Final Fantasy. X is my current favourite, IX is the sentimental favourite... and ok ok I get that I am BLATANTLY COMMITTING HERESY for not putting FFVII there...BUT... when VII was released I wasnt really there for it... I had never played FF before and only just learning about the ways of the bandicoot and FFIX was the first FF that I played so steady on, and FF tactics... well if you played this game then you know. And then all the titles of Naughty dog - crash, jak, and most recently nathan.
[Note: I would just like to say from the get go that I have no problem with Halo as a game franchise since both the gameplay and the multiplayer are top notch but thereís something thatís been bothering me all these years after I finished the fight. More below]
How many times have you felt let down by a gameís story whether itís just irredeemable, somewhat boring or a complete fail when an epic moment was in order? For anyone whoís recently beat Borderlands or Fallout 3 they will know the feeling of great game play and notable characters to only be short changed by a fairly poor and rather disappointing ending sequence. Even the recently released Final Fantasy XIII, a notable franchise for great story-driven game play and narrative, has polarized many steadfast fans of the franchise (myself included) for a less than engrossing storyline and cast of characters that are confusing at best (seriously IS there a thing between Fang and Vanille?) But all of that I can forgive because at least in some regards we the gamers have been given something worth fighting for, something about that world that needs saving and at least something more interesting than good guys here, bad guys there, so have at it.
So when I saw the opening scene for Halo 3 I had high hopes that finally this game would truly give a true taste of the absolutely sprawling Halo universe...
... and was I in for a huge disappointment. Looking back on that opening scene of Halo 3 I couldnít help but feel that the game seemingly went out of its way to completely cut off the player from what could have been a great FPS experience by completely ignoring any story elements that could have otherwise made for a flawless game.
But before I get to that I need to tell you a bit about my life story to set the stage. Back when Halo: CE was first released a lot of people praised it with regard to how it redefined the FPS genre. Many people liked the improved combat system and the cool new enemies. Most agreed that the recharging shield more or less got rid of the whole ĎX amount of health until deadí thing and if a player was patient enough it would allow them to soak up enormous amounts of damage without having to go through the whole Ďreloading last checkpointí thing. However, what really confused me at the time was how people were praising the story of Halo, seemingly, above all else. Now donít get me wrong a lot of FPSís at the time did have stories but given games like Metal Gear Solid, Xenosaga, and even Beyond Good and Evil that were of such a narrative quality to say FPSs like Timesplitters and SOCOM had Ďstoriesí was kind of stretching the term to say the least. So I remained sceptical.
Now as much as I was interested in the game because of all the hype it was unlikely that I would get the chance to play it on the Xbox as it was a heck of an uphill battle just to get my parents to buy me a PS2 (even as a birthday present) and any thoughts of owning both consoles was nigh on impossible. For a while then I had to rely on second hand accounts of the game and all the comments from emerging fanboyism. Eventually I did find a partial solution to my problem at a local Chapters bookstore: ĎThe Fall of Reachí by Eric Nylund. Again I was sceptical of what I would find since, as with movies, book adaptations of videogames were also quite poor.
I was not prepared for what I read. The book outlined a universe of nobility and courage, impossible odds and desperate hopes. The outer colonies of Earth one by one falling silent, a mysterious alien menace with advanced technologies, government spinning propaganda over the disasters at the colony of Harvest, and a sense of impending doom at the hopelessness of the human cause for survival. But then a commander fallen from favour singlehandedly routes a battle group of covenant warships and in doing so gains notice from an ambitious scientist for a project of the utmost secrecy. Hard choices are made as children are spirited away in the night and so begins the start of the SPARTAN II project. After years of rigorous mental and physical challenges one child stands above all others and becomes their leader. They grow up to put on the mjolnir armour and begin their tales of honour, sacrifice, and friendship. And then the fateful day at Reach where comrades are both left behind or cut down...
... and so ends the prelude to Halo: CE. This book absolutely convinced me that all the early supporters of Halo were not deluded and in fact had been fortuitous enough to be able to play an amazing game with an IP of such unlimited potential. However it wasnít until almost a year and a half later that I bought a laptop for university and decided to pick up a PC copy of the game (yes I know gameplay-wise it was different from the console version but this is about the story) and even though I could barely even run minimal specs I was fired up to blow those covenant motherfrackers to hell and back for what they did to humanity and to the only family that the Chief knew.
I ran through the Pillar of Autumn blowing away all those who opposed me but despite my efforts the ship could not be saved and so I took one of the last pelicans down to the mysterious world of Halo. Not long on the ground I ran into a group of marines in trouble, but soon after my trusty assault rifle once again overcame any covenant-based objections for their safe rescue. With the marines in tow I went off to the rallying point but unfortunately the marines died soon into the trip. To be honest though those bumbling morons were more of a hindrance than a help (obviously they werenít the badass marines I had read about) so I went on...
See it eventually got to the point where, while I knew what was going on... I didnít know what was going on. Why am I still engaged in a series of skirmishes with no end in sight? How come Iím not trying to attack a stronghold or helping regroup stranded UNSC forces? How come this supposedly massive threat to humanity is so easy to kill (and I donít mean difficultly) since between the beginning to now Iíve probably taken down a battalionís worth of ground troops single-handedly. Yeah I know Iím the most bad-ass guy in the whole damn UNSC but come on where is the FEEL of being out-numbered, out-gunned, and out-manoeuvred that was conveyed in the book? Anyone? Oh there are Ďfloodí creatures to shoot now... sure thatís cool... what are they? ... Oh they are a race that simply consumes and assimilates things... okay...anything else you want to tell me... no? Okay. Well a few levels later I had beat the game and then it hit me. The game conveyed nothing of the Halo universe other than the bestiary of weapons and enemies. There was no back story, no character development, no supporting cast, and no real reason given for why the covenant had a beef with you other than a traditional Ďgood guys here, bad guys there, so have at ití.
Now I never actually played Halo 2 (Iíve heard good gameplay vibes despite it 'just ending') but despite that I kind of get the feeling that I didnít miss out much on the plot there either. The thing that bothers me is the basis for the plot in each of the games is just. So. Damn. Similar. It goes something like this: ďThe covenant have found something, I donít know what it is, but it might just be the key to the whole damn war.Ē In Halo 1 it was the Halo ring, Halo 3: the Ark, Halo wars: a snazzy new fleet of ships, with ODST as the exception but Iíll get to that. Nonetheless though, I mean ...seriously? Thatís ALL the writers could come up with?
So that brings me back to my original point on the opening cutscene. Cortana narrates it and says something to the effect of, ď...but you had something they didnít ... something nobody saw but me... can you guess...luck...was I wrong?ď Honestly I know I donít speak for everyone but did anyone else think that was the biggest screw you a game could have from a storyís perspective. If you didnít read Fall of Reach that whole dialogue sequence by Cortana means nothing to you, and the game doesnít bother delving into it further or even doing a mini-flashback... or anything. You basically do what you did in every other game... get ordered around by EVERYONE (seriously the Chief even obeys the random troopers when they order the Chief to go somewhere... and then those same troopers run into fire and get killed seconds later) and fight a series of skirmishes that somehow allow the UNSC to win the war with you as the hero. Yet you never once feel badass and you never care about anyone. It bugged the hell out of me watching the developer diaries when they were explaining how they wanted to make a really good story to wrap up the main trilogy in Halo 3. But then when Captain Keyesí daughter randomly dies trying to save Sergeant Johnson... what was the point of that? Why didnít she have a squad of marines in that pelican... she IS a commander right? And what about the rings, apparently if Truth fires them all life in the galaxy will cease to exist. Maybe I slept through that debrief but did the game even bother to elaborate as to why that was other than that the rings are weapons? I could go on about other points in the game that are either inconsistent with the both the in-game and the greater universe but I think you get the idea and Mr. Burch has much better ranting skills than I do.
The only game that comes close to a good story in the Halo franchise is Halo: ODST simply because it didnít try and pretend to have one. It was about a handful of ODSTs on a mission that went to hell and told a story of them trying to get regrouped in an occupied city. And you know what; if nothing else it got the FEEL of the Halo right. As the rookie you felt like you were screwed when you had to navigate through streets filled with wreckage and covenant patrols with each just as capable of wasting you as the last. You felt Buckís anxiety as he tries to track down Dare before she gets captured by the covenant for interrogation and you feel the uncertainty of the team as to whether or not theyíll survive this mission and live to fight another day. Itís simple, but itís done well.
So now Halo: Reach is on the horizon. Likely as good a place as any to see the franchise wrapped up, but understandable if it continues. If you didnít already figure it out I was blown away by the book and really want to know if it can FINALLY bring together a good narrative, but once again I have my doubts.
I love the Halo universe with its absolutely rich history and amazing tales of heroism. Between all the novels, literature, the Halo Legends short stories collection movie, the comics, the music and heck even the commercials it seems like this great sci-fi atmosphere but for me itís just the most noble of failures that the games which inspired all this devotion and hard work just cannot seem to get a compelling narrative together for a player to enjoy.