Ahoyhoy internets, DaveHowitser here with something a little off topic for me, little bit of video game discussion. Now the word on every fanboy's lips today is "Reach" the grand finale of gaming's love affair with Halo and Bungie as it's creator. Now as you may or may not know, Halo will live on in the hands of 343 Studios, a splinter Bungie group that will deal with the IP but this will most likely be the final Halo game of the generation. Hype as well as expectation is high, but from what the reviewers have been saying around the internets, we are not to be dissapointed a la ODST. So now I'd like to look back at the series and chronicle a little of what Halo means to me.
Halo: Combat Evolved (15th November 2001)
After a brief stint trying to create the first Halo game for MAC Bungie were offered the chance to create a launch title for the first Xbox, and boy did they make one. Set in the 26th century, Halo: CE (Halo 1) told the story of the last SPARTAN II, simply known as the Master Chief and the crew of the Pillar of Autumn as they escaped the alien alliance known as the Covenant's invasion of the planet Reach, the powerhouse of the UNSC's millitary might. After making a blind slip space jump (kinda like hyperspace) the crew find an ancient ring like planet/structure known as the Halo. After skirmishes with the Covenant and an ancient race or parasites known as the Flood, the humans discover that Halo is a superweapon with the power to set the galaxy aflame. Through the heroics of the Pillar of Autumn's crew and the unparalleled force of will that is the Master Chief the human forces manage to destroy the Halo ring, but leaving only the Chief and his A.I. companion, Cortana alive and adrift in space to tell the tale. Halo: C.E. is considered widely to be the game that made the Xbox the powerhouse that it was and is regarded as one of the greatest feats in video game history. With over 5million copies of the game sold by November 2005, it is due to this game the terms "Halo Clone" and "Halo Killer" were coined, showing that through the rest of the FPS genre's lifespan, every game would be compared to this masterpiece. Today, many Halo fan's consider this the best of the core Halo Trilogy. Truely an evolution in the art of combat.
The Bungie team were hungry to feed us more of their signature hero and began work on Halo 2 quickly after release of Halo: CE. Huge hype and speculation surrounded the development and a release date was released relatively early in production, giving the Bungie team a real headache in terms of creating a finished game in time. In Halo 2 we see the Cheif returning to Earth and fighting against the Covenant forces, led by their mysterious leaders, the Prophets. Halo 2 included a plethera of changes and upgrades from the original game, the exclusion of a "health" system that the first game had -so no more running to find pesky medpacks- meaning the player had to conserve his shields more, because a few hits with no shields and our hero would be significantly less heroic and more...gooey. The inclusion of the Arbiter - a disgraced Covenant Elite - in the campaign as a playable character in hindsight was an excelent move on Bungie's part and really did flesh out the story, letting us see first hand the Covenant heirarchy, their beliefs and the repression within their society. Many players however felt that the Arbiter levels were dull and wanted to get back to their beloved Master Chief -admittedly I was one of them at the time. So another Halo ring and a Covenant rebellion later, we were left with one of the biggest cliffhangers in gaming that pissed off EVERYONE - the "finish the fight scene."
What really made Halo 2 great was the multiplayer, an experience that, like the campaign in the first, defined a generation. Halo 2 was the most played game on Xbox Live over the Xbox and the Xbox 360 up until the release of Gears of War. With intensive gameplay, vehicular combat and above all immaculate level design, Bungie had once again broken the mould.
Everything however was leading to the Chief's grand finale...
Halo 3 (25-27th September [Worldwide release at the same instant])
Now this was a game and a half, widely thought of as Bungie's swan song and farewell to the series. Maybe we were wrong there, but it was our last goodbye to the hero that had carried us through 2 whole console generations, the Chief. In true awesome hero Spartan style, the chief rocked into the next generation of consoles as a comet crashing into the jungles after escaping the Covenant ship he arrived in. Yes folks thats right...he can survive goddamn re-entry. Now explain to me why he can't survive sustained plasma pistol fire on Legendary and I'll give you a chocolate medal! Anyway! This was a great yarn, telling of the Arbiter and the Elite's story of redemption, Chief's struggle to repel the invasion of earth from Covenant and Flood and then stopping the Prophet of Truth from inadvertantly destroying all life in the galaxy. All in a day's work ain't it. What else is there really to say on the campaign...it was stunning, visually supreme to any other game that had been out at the time save perhaps Gears, the score was incredible, Marty O'Donnell really outdoing himself and the gameplay was excelent. Even the level's I disliked (anything Floody except for the final mission) I can't really fault in any significant way. Our hero's "end" was actually moving, especially for those who had followed the series closely like me. I felt sad that my Master Chief had sacrifieced himself for the sake of everyone, even though as we did find out, all was not as it seemed ;)
The multiplayer too was superb, taking the Xbox 360 top spot initially from Gears of War and then sparring with CoD4 right up till the release of Modern Warfare 2. Improvements in character design, level design, weapon design and balance really made it enjoyable for everyone. Further the powerful Forge tools meant that players could even create their own levels! A game designed for longevity! Fantastic!
I'm not going to go into ODST, A) because I didn't take to it and B) because I didn't finish it and I don't want to go into something without knowing about it, but I was dissapointed by it. I know many weren't but I was and not just because it wasn't Chief, I felt the whole experience left me going...well...this is a bit meh. I don't expect "meh" from Bungie. I want "HOOOOLY SHIIIIT". And that's what the original trilogy gave me and that's why I put it up there with Ocarina of Time and FF7 as my favourite games of all time, and there they will stay.
I have that clip of the memorial on Halo 3 (the above video) on right now writing this article and I can feel myself welling up, O'Donnell's music, the superb voice acting, the impressive visuals but most of all, that sense that Halo was for me. I think those of us who truely loved the original trilogy can understand that bond. I hope this inspires some of you to go back and play what, for me, has defined Microsoft's journey into console gaming.
I almost think of the core trilogy as the original Star Wars Trilogy; A New Hope (Halo:CE) beaing the tale of a single man who can bring about the change needed against all the odds. The Empire (Covenant) Strikes Back, the evil empire goes on the offensive and by the end we are left wondering how the good guys are going to overcome the terrible odds. Return of the Jedi (Chief) our hero survives against the terrible odds in the previous installment with incredible will and masters the enemy. Further our previous evil adversary finds redemption by killing the evil emperor (Prophet?) that was his master. Think about it actually and it will make sense.
Now, with Reach under 12 hours away, we can see how the war really started with the Chief and though we will not see him or play as him, we will see the events that drove the Pillar of Autumn away from Reach all the way out to the first Halo ring. We will not bond with one of these lonely Spartans, but with 6 of them, and I have every confidence that Bungie will have created characters that we will fall in love with and will break our hearts when the inevitable happens. This is the culmination of a 10 year series, and Bungie's true farewell to their IP and for a lot of us gamers it's going to be how we remember the series going into the next generation.
Remember the Chief, remember Bungie.