Late to the Party: Halo 3 (Part I)

So after two games and countless aliens killed here we arrive here at the finale to the Halo trilogy. While I didn’t have to wait four years and purchase a whole new console to get around to this installment, I did give myself a bit of a break to allow the anticipation to build (and I was lazy and wanted to take a break for a bit). Sadly, there was a lack of promotional-branded Doritos and Mountain Dew on store shelves when I did get around to popping in the disc so I still felt like I was missing some of the trappings you original Halo fans had at launch time. Kind of a bummer but I managed to make do with Dr. Pepper and a box of Goldfish, and with both in hand I set out to wrap up this little adventure.

That slogan was slapped over everything around launch time. The fact that said slogan was uttered in the previous game means that the copywriter for the Halo 3 campaign had the easiest job in the world, the lucky bastard. That said, it is actually a great slogan, one that implies the finality and uniqueness of the upcoming title as well as one that actively engages and challenges the reader, prompting them to be a part of the game.

While here I’m just a guy who plays games, in the real world I hold a bachelor’s degree in advertising and have several years of campaign-building experience. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that I’ve ruminated over this tagline and the marketing ventures surrounding the series just as much if not more than the games themselves.

Anyway, upon firing up the game we’re treated to a lovely next-generation cutscene of Master Chief’s vessel entering the atmosphere, a task which it was apparently not designed for as it appears to break up upon entry, two flaming contrails standing out in stark contrast to the night sky. Over this shot Cortana monologues about why Chief was her SPARTAN of choice, a decision she says was ultimately decided by the Chief’s unnatural run of “luck”, though she fails to elaborate on this in any meaningful way.

At this point we see that the second fireball in the sky was not actually another piece of the ship, but was instead Master Chief himself, who then impacts with the ground at what has to be an absolutely ludicrous velocity.

And with that, we come to our first nitpick of Halo 3 (I know you were all holding your breath in anticipation).

When a vessel enters Earth’s atmosphere it has to withstand an incredible amount of heat and pressure, so much so that any kind of structural failure that would result in destruction of the vessel generally compounds to a degree that shreds said vessel to pieces, which then typically burn up under the intense heat of entry. Some of you may remember the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Easily the most striking memory I have of that incident is how the ship broke apart into so many brightly-lit fragments, spreading out like some kind of morbid firework, clearly visible even during daylight.

However, the scene we see here consists of only two fragments, one of which is the Chief. This leads me to believe that the Forerunner ship didn’t break up at all and Chief just… jumped? I guess? That would explain why Chief’s lateral angle of approach is a good 90 degrees different from that of the ship, whereas if he had simply fallen out as part of the destruction of the vessel (and provided the laws of physics are still in working order) his trajectory would be the same as that of the crashing ship.

What it doesn’t explain is why the hell he’d jump out of a ship nearly 100 km above the earth’s surface without a parachute. Cortana’s right: the Chief has to be lucky or else he would have died a long time ago thanks to all the stupid crap he always pulls.

But anyway, a squad of Marines eventually find you in a crater somewhere in the jungle and wake you up, you seemingly being no worse for wear despite having fallen farther than Charlie Sheen’s career. They then proceed to walk you through the same old song and dance.

By the third game, this little tutorial feels charmingly familiar. I can genuinely say that if it hadn’t been present here, I probably would have missed it. Really, this is kind of like one of those staples like the shooting range in Call of Duty or the line “I have a bad feeling about this” in Star Wars. And as much crap as I give this series, I’m actually quite glad to be a part of this particular tradition now.

This brief nostalgic moment is interrupted and nearly ruined when Chief gets a look at who’s tagged along with the Marines: our old pal the Arbiter. Despite working together in the previous game, Chief immediately jumps up and sticks a magnum under Arby’s face (not a euphemism) and nearly blows the poor guy’s head off before Black R. Lee Ermey calls him off. Perhaps Chief doesn’t place much stock in the brief moment of cooperation they shared in the last game, or maybe he just doesn’t recognize the Arbiter from another hostile alien (the racist bastard).

Anyway, after a brief standoff, Arby and the Chief once again team up as grudging buddy cops from different cultures to take on the forces of villainy.

Smell that? Smells like ratings.

Here’s the thing; I’ve been playing the 360 for years now. I just got a new gaming PC and have been pushing it to the max making everything as pretty as I possibly can. It’s probably just the transition from the original Xbox era of Halo to it’s shiny new next-gen follow-up, but Halo 3 looks great. The HD update in conjunction with Halo’s already good use of color contrast makes for a very visually appealing game. This is only amplified by Bungie’s decision to place the first level in a lush jungle, with lots of foliage and plenty of opportunities to filter light through overhead branches, which adds yet more contrast in the form of varied moving shadows.

The instinctive first action of an experienced player is to push every button on the controller until you know what it does (it suddenly occurs to me that this is not a quality that would be necessarily beneficial in other professions, and the fact that the friend who loaned me these games is a nuclear reactor operator fills me with dread). However, since Halo 3 is a continuation of a previously-established franchise I neglected this particular introductory routine and paid for it shortly into the first mission here. Because Halo 3 was the first game on a new console (and a new controller) the reload action was relocated from the X button to the right bumper, a change that had me dropping bubble shields when I was out of ammo and swapping out mags when I needed a defensive boost for a few minutes before I managed to get into the swing of things again. Still, it’s an improvement over my typical mistake of hitting the grenade button at inopportune moments, something which has become something of a running joke amongst friends.

In hindsight, maybe it punches more like Ivan Drago, seeing as how it kills people.

Spoilers for Rocky IV, by the way.

Remember all those reservations I had about Cortana? Well, she’s now seemingly invaded my mind and is interfering with my combat readiness by presenting a warped overlay of herself in my vision and rambling on about something or other. I was pretty upset about how we couldn’t copy/paste her in the previous game, but obviously some of her underlying architecture was left in our suit’s system. Or at least I sincerely hope that’s what’s happening here and Halo hasn’t just started dealing in literal psychic visions with absolutely no previous hint that such a thing was possible in the Halo universe.

Just a theory, but we should always apply the scientific method.

Rarely is experimentation as fun as hitting aliens in the face with a massive hammer, though.

So far all I know is I’m in a jungle on Earth somewhere. Seeing as how the last game ended with a Covenant invasion of Earth, I’d like to know that what I’m doing at the moment is important.

This is actually something that I really genuinely love about the world that Halo has crafted. Brace yourselves, because this might be the most praise I’ll ever heap on the Halo franchise at once.

Think for a moment about how many games where aliens/demons/Russians/etc. have attacked someplace of such strategic importance as New York, with its hundreds of tactical deli markets and highly-trained commando transient population. In much the same way as science fiction writers will center a threat on a previously unimportant Earth because of the mistaken notion that the audience will care about their real-world connections in a fictional story, many writers in general will focus on high-population urban centers, thinking that just because more people live in New York and LA it will somehow make the threat more menacing. Well, not all of us live or have even been to New York or LA and indeed have seen such cities ravaged in fiction so many times that it’s become commonplace to the point of being downright boring. At this point I’d be more emotionally invested in an alien invasion of Lincoln, Nebraska than I would Manhattan, which in the fictional realm must be prepared for this kind of thing by now anyway.

It would have been extraordinarily easy for Bungie to center the Covenant invasion in a major US city that we’re all familiar with, but they didn’t. Instead, and to my eternal joy, they did what all science fiction should do: they crafted a scenario and a society that is built around speculative future events. It’s been said that science fiction is a genre that can be summed up as “suppose _” where the “_” in question is some event, invention, or other such thing that is accepted to be truth within the confines of that narrative, and from there helps shape all events within it. In Halo, the new economic and technological hub of Earth is located not within the United States but in Kenya. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t really know why that is, but I don’t especially care: that’s something new and different and interesting that we haven’t seen a million times before. Hell, even Star Trek kept Starfleet Academy stateside in San Francisco. Furthermore, the city we saw attacked in the beginning of Halo 2 had obvious strategic importance as it housed one of the planet’s space elevators leading to the orbital defense platforms above.

This is all really fascinating stuff that makes logical sense within the narrative and in my mind embodies one of core elements that makes science fiction so much fun: it explores where we can go and what we can do in the future. I love it, and my hat’s off to the folks over at Bungie who decided to do something different with their setting and implied societal background.

Phew, all that positivity really took it out of me; I don’t think I’m built for protracted complimentary writing like that. Think I’m gonna call it here and see about maybe prescribing some overly-critical griping for next time in order to cleanse my palate. I don’t think any of that will be in short supply: after all, we’re just getting started.

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