The Backlog: Halo 3

Summer may soon be coming to a end for those in grade school, but the season is still here and releases are still slim. With that in mind, we bring you another edition of The Backlog. If you missed list week's tale of Temeria and Witchering, check it out here.

Almost eight years after the launch of the Xbox 360, I finally got around to buying one on ebay.  They are finally cheap enough, and the exclusive library has reached the point where I feel like it is worth owning the console just for those games.  When my Xbox 360 arrived in the mail I immediately inserted a game that I have wanted to play for about 6 years – Halo 3.  When it was initially released, I hoped that Microsoft would eventually bring a version to the PC like they did with Halo and Halo 2.  Alas, after a couple of years, I gave up on that idea, and I waited to play it on the Xbox 360.  My opportunity finally came this month.

Before I get into this game, I should point out right now that I am a huge fan of Halo: Combat Evolved.  It wasn’t just a great console shooter.  It was great on the PC too, and it got a lot of things right that lots of shooters still struggle with today.  The soundtrack was incredible – I loved it so much that I bought the CD, and it still stands to me as the greatest FPS soundtrack of all time.  The great (for its time) AI and unscripted firefights were a huge improvement over the glut of tightly linear, scripted Quake 3-era shooters.  The addition of a separate button for grenades also made them useful for a change.  For most other games at the time, having to put away your gun was too much of a hassle to make grenades worth using against anything besides stationary enemies.  The wonderfully balanced weapons and the two-weapon system gave the game a dynamic, strategic element that hasn’t been surpassed since.  On top of all of those benefits, Halo featured lots of wide open areas and it seamlessly integrated all kinds of vehicles into the game.

I was disappointed with Halo 2, whose single player campaign felt tacked-on and phoned in (and Microsoft made it a Vista exclusive -- LULZ).  I had high hopes for Halo 3 because it came out for different hardware, but I am not in love with it.  The six years between Halo: CE and Halo 3 didn’t produce six years of improvement.  The game is sort of pedestrian.

Halo 2 ends with “I’m finishing this fight”.  Halo 3 begins with – the Master Chief plummeting to the Earth from the sky like a meteor and making a huge crater when he lands?  The Arbiter and Sergeant Johnson are waiting them for him.  Did something happen that I miss?  According to the game’s Wikipedia page, apparently so, because Halo 3 doesn’t pick up right where Halo 2 left off.  It picks up where one of the tie-in comics left off.  This little discontinuity is the first sign of a chronic problem with Halo 3’s story – it seems to be written exclusively for hardcore fans, and not for people like myself, who are somewhat agnostic on the Halo fiction and don’t have Halo Underoos or a poster of the Master Chief on the wall.  Unlike Halo: Combat Evolved, the game spends lots of screen time on ancillary characters like Sergeant Johnson and Miranda Keyes.  Was I supposed to feel some sort of attachment to these people?  They are both throwaway, one-dimensional characters who spout generic dialog and instructions for completing generic quests.  Miranda's acting is particularly wooden.  On the whole, Halo 3 seems like a game that is hopelessly up its own butt with its fiction.  In that respect, it kind of reminds me of the Matrix sequels.  Ironically, the one character that I wanted to know more about, The Arbiter, sort of gets punked in this game.  After Halo 2, I thought that he was going to play a much more interesting part in the story.  He has one important scene late in the game, but other than that, he is in the background as little more than window dressing.

It's not that anything about Halo 3 is bad per se, but so much of the game feels half-assed, like the attempts at comic relief that come from Covenant grunts.  They spout lines like "I'll get you, you big jerk!"  I remember the occasional comic relief from the grunts in Halo: Combat Evolved to be amusing and effective, but in Halo 3, it feels amateurish and awkward.  The game also has numerous self-aware sections that feel like shout-outs to the original Halo but don't end up as anything special themselves.  The most blatant example is the ending, which is a gigantic shout-out to the first one.  The first Halo's ending is probably my favorite game ending of all time, but the ending of Halo 3 doesn't produce anywhere near that same level of emotion or excitement, because its attempt at appealing to nostalgia is so obvious.

Despite these issues though, I still enjoyed and finished Halo 3, and that is because its core mechanics of the series are so excellent that they can be fun in almost any circumstance.  I find it interesting that almost twelve years after the release of the first Halo, the only series that still does certain things right is Halo.  The regenerating health + two weapons core gameplay has been imitated now by dozens of shooters.  Very few, though, if any, have been able to make the two weapon system work as well as it does in Halo, because it seems as if most developers don't actually understand why it works in Halo.  The reason why it works so well in Halo is because every weapon has appropriate strengths and weaknesses.  They are probably the most perfectly balanced set of weapons in the genre.  Each weapon requires different tactics, and no matter what weapons you choose to carry, you always have some kind of weakness.  It is these strengths and weaknesses that force you to constantly adapt your behavior to the situation at hand, and the relatively limited ammo means that you often have to switch weapons in the middle of battle.  The games are designed so that no two battles play out exactly the same.  Most games that have mimicked the basics of Halo since then have failed to achieve this.  Bioshock: Infinite, for example, has a large set of mostly redundant weapons that don't require the player to think or adapt.  Halo 3, to its credit, also fixed what was always the most significant complaint about the first two games (and especially the first) -- the repetitive level design.  The pacing in Halo 3 is much better than in 1 and 2, and there aren't any parts where you feel like you are running through the same hallway over and over and over again.

After playing Halo 3, I still want to experience more Halo, but I don't have much of a desire to revisit this storyline or these characters.  I still like the art style, the weapons, the firefights, and the vehicles, but if you want me to love your game, you've got to do more than just toss in the staples of the series and call it a day.  What I have read about Halo 3: ODST makes it sound like it might be more up my alley.  That game currently holds a spot on my backlog, right next to Gears of War 3 and Fable 2.

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That's it for this week's Backlog. Be sure to check back next week for more backloggy action. Until then, let us know what you thought of Halo 3 and if there are any other Xbox 360 exclusives that need checking out.