With the imminent release of Halo: Reach I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and explain why I won’t be buying it; I just don’t ‘GET’ Halo. And I have tried. I got a copy of the first game free with my first Xbox console. I played the second game through in a co-op multiplayer, but there my experience ended, for a while anyway.
Halo is huge, I understand that. Aside from the games, which have sold more than 34 million copies worldwide, the series has spawned 6 best selling novels, comics, toys and other merchandise making the Master Chief and the non-oiled-up Spartans icons of the modern gaming age. But, for me, Halo just doesn’t do it. I have had cause to consider why recently, and what I found has surprised me.
I love sci-fi. I enjoy StarTrek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica (old and new) and films like Serenity and 2001: A Space Odyssey rank among my favourites. From a gaming perspective I grew up playing Elite and other Space based games as well as early FPS games such as Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. More recently tiles such as Mass Effect and Dead Space have sapped countless hours from my life so Halo’s setting, themes and back-story should have me gripped right? Sadly no.
Then what of the FPS genre itself? I have played and enjoyed more FPS games than any other genre I can think of. From Goldeneye to Wolfenstein, Band of Brothers, Call of Duty, Left 4 Dead, Rainbow 6; there’s nothing I like more than running around a well-rendered map staring down the sights of weapon at my enemies and then ending them. Again, Halo ticks this box as one of the archetypal titles in the FPS genre, so why don’t I care about stopping the Covenant from overrunning Earth and destroying humanity the best way I know how?
One of my biggest complaints about a lot of FPS games is the formulaic nature of vehicle-based levels. Sitting on the back of a Jeep firing mindlessly at anything that moves tends to bore me and many excellent titles fall at this hurdle, in my opinion, but the Halo games don’t. They do vehicles well, with multiple vehicular positions, driver, passenger and gunner, giving variety to the portions of the game that they occupy. But it still doesn’t grip me.
So what about graphics? Is it that the colourful settings and characters, the brilliant blue skies and the bright green or purple vehicles have soured my perception? Again I don’t think so. Games like Borderlands have much more bright and cartoon graphics than any of the Halo series and yet I thoroughly enjoyed rampaging around Pandora’s bright wastelands.
And what of gameplay? Halo was one of the first FPS to integrate more complex console controls into an ergonomic and instinctive control system. It’s multiplayer, whilst not new, was a great addition and dominated Xbox LIVE for a very long time, even after Xbox 360 came along. I used to play Halo 2’s multiplayer on split screen with my friends and we had a lot of fun, but I still preferred Soldier of Fortune’s multiplayer, which seemed more considered and somehow less ridiculous. Recently, when trying to organise an online get together with my friends we discovered that of all the games we collectively owned Halo 3 was the top hit, and out of all my friends I was the only one without a copy, so I acquiesced and bought it from Amazon for a mere £10.
When it arrived I decided to give Halo another chance, not just for multiplayer shenanigans, but also on the single player campaign. This was when I had my epiphany. A mere two levels into the game I realised why it was that I didn’t love the other games, or care about the release of ODST; the missions seemed fake. I’m not talking about realism, I have written before about how I feel realism is not required or indeed possible in games, but a feeling of pointlessness and fakeness about the motions of the game. The player seems herded through the story rather than driven or lead, the voiceovers seem strained and unconvincing and you can’t aim down your weapons sights! It’s a minor thing, I know, but I ‘feel’ more involved in a shooter if my left trigger raises my sights to my eye so that I can take better aim. Halo’s weapons feel like toys too, with the colourful beams of light slowly causing damage to the enemies rather than short, sharp, loud explosive thumps hammering against your foes with thunderous impact. The sound distracts me, the weapon noises are dull and the enemy vocals are just plain annoying, especially those squealing little buggers.
For all of its individually excellent aspects, Halo just doesn’t come together for me or make me want to care. I don’t feel driven as I progress the game and I don’t get that feeling of achievement when I pass a particularly difficult section of the game. The drama of Halo is lost on me and I think it is mainly my fault. With so many fans of the series around the world I’m clearly the difficult one here, but I won’t apologise for it, and I won’t pay for something that I know won’t entertain me.
So this year while many of you are spending your time with Reach, I’ll be happily battling Dead Rising 2’s zombie hordes, enjoying some post-apocalyptic gambling fun in Fallout: New Vegas and giving more of my money to Activision for the latest Call of Duty, but I won’t be sharing in the Spartans’ adventures. I’ll still be playing Halo 3 multiplayer with my friends, mainly so that I can spend some time having fun with them, but I won’t be buying any more Halo games and I don’t feel that I’d missing anything anyway. I don’t hate Halo, I just don’t ‘get’ it.