It only takes three notes. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never played the series before; the theme seems familiar – almost like an old friend. As its intensity rises, it becomes clear. Halo 4 is here and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Perhaps the worst kept secret of E3 2011, Bungie’s follow-up presented itself to the expected fanfare. The internet erupted. “Yes!” they cried - a new Halo. On the other side messageboards wept as the FPS moved closer to its untimely demise. The trolls had already begun to light the fires. The fanboys were assembling. War is coming.
Alongside Halo 4 was the reveal of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary – an HD refurb of the game that started it all. Ten years may have passed but do we already need a remake of a game that people still play. Perhaps it’s a stop-gap to keep fans entertained while Halo 4 is in the works. Numbers on existing Halo titles will dwindle as 2011 unleashes its heavy hitters. Have people begun to forget about the series?
I scream, you scream, we all scream for Warthogs
No other gaming franchise causes so much diversity in opinion. Call of Duty comes close, but Bungie’s mega-seller has managed to maintain the top spot for polarising gaming opinion. It seems impossible to explain why the series shifts so many copies. Proclaiming a definitive reason would be lying, but theories do exist. You’d expect heavy sales figures if it was a game known for breaking boundaries, but on the surface it’s a simple Sci-Fi FPS.
Let’s look at the original game – the story’s lacking originality – the graphics were decent for the time, but there were better games already out or nearing completion. You can’t even put it down to the genre’s popularity. Sure, it paved the way for the FPS to be a legitimate development choice on consoles, but years have passed since it made its debut. Arguably, it’s not changed one bit.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the beginning. By 2005 the game had sold 5 million copies. In today’s numbers, that’s still strong. It’s even better when you consider it was an Xbox exclusive; a platform that was new in an entertainment medium still considered to be the passion of socially inept males.
Genesis. Bungie brought on board by Microsoft. Everyone knows how production shifted to the fledgling Xbox – Microsoft’s shaky stab at a dedicated gaming platform. Never mind it had a platform (Windows) bursting with fans. The burgeoning console market had already demonstrated its lucrative prospects. Microsoft wanted in.
Long before it morphed into Bungie’s current opus, Halo was your typical FPS - a winding tale of one man against an alien invasion. Decked out in green armour, faceless – an individual sent to rescue the world from space hostility.
Never original, Halo still managed to muscle its way in and throughout its lifetime it’s continued to flex its marketing muscle with massive sale figures. But this isn’t a history lesson – rather, we’re interested in the fans, the converts, those who struggle to accept Halo’s popularity.
Hail high and low to the king
Hail high and low to the king
Halo is marmite. There’s no in between with it – you either love it, championing its graces or become a vocal despiser. To its fans it’s a brooding space opera, a melodramatic exploration of survival - the classic underdog story that never loses its appeal. It represents the pinnacle of console shooting. Half What? Biozzz. Call of Shooty: Boredom Warfare.
The other camp sees it as mediocrity personified. A simplistic shooter with repetition as its drive. It oozes faeces from its pores. Master Grief. Every single cash-cow edition of the series damns it to gaming hell.
Ugly or understated beauty? Refined gunplay or Fisher Price shooting? Goosebump evoking score or aural abuse?
What did Halo do to receive such criticism? It’s no different from any other popular gaming series. Could it be the exclusivity – the faith in the Xbox brand? Traditionally single platform games take the most flak. Haze, Killzone, Halo – they’re there to divide gamers. Halo is the Grand Canyon of gaming – a deep gash across popular opinion.
The very action of aligning to a single platform is a subconscious claim that silently shouts “we think every other system is inadequate, you are fools for playing on them.”
It’s either that, or a yacht full of money is involved. Disregarding motives, that still shouldn’t prompt such strong discourse. Fable, Final Fantasy (prior to XIII), Twisted Metal, Uncharted. They’re all exclusive series that have their fair share of doubters, but none of the volatility of Halo.
Licence to print money
Is it the success? After all, the wheelbarrows of money relentlessly roll towards Microsoft. It could easily be a primer for criticism. If it was a secondary tier series like it should have arguably become, it’d be different. New Halo games would come and go (much like Halo Wars) without fanfare or widespread discussion. Eyelids would stay un-batted. Halo and goodbye they’d say.
The catalyst of success, combined with an allegiance with Microsoft (the upstart of gaming) is enough to fuel criticism. It isn’t however enough to offer the polarisation we see on a daily basis. To understand that, a closer look at the game is necessary.
A lack of depth has turned many off – before Halo the FPS struggled on consoles and the reactionary-focus allowed with a mouse/keyboard combo was addressed by reducing the game’s difficulty and the introduction of aim-assists. What was left (and promptly copied), was a hollow shell of First Person Shooting and sadly the genre’s never really recovered.
This was enough to overturn the positive critique lauded on the series. It’s a game that drags the spotlight away from more deserving games, one that doesn’t deserve the success, money or focus. As Duke Nukem Forever said, “power armour is for pussies.”
But by reducing the hardware requirements of FPSs, the genre was suddenly a credible force on consoles. Surely this contribution to gaming should relieve it of its verbal attacks. Was it just a matter of time until someone else did it?
Cash-cow or bovine brilliance deserving of its place in history. You decide. The Halo effect is something that transcends the game itself. It’s not the strafing or shooting. Instead it’s the representation of fanboism, platform betrayal and iconic FPS meta.
War, the never ending struggle. The sounds, smells and stories; it’s those that make Halo what it is. The late night gaming sessions, the evocative advertisements willing gamers to Believe in a single-word mantra. That’s the real Halo. Master Chief is defunct, yet stronger than ever.
The call of orchestral monks. A raw holy desire that shakes the listener to the bone. A halo over Halo. It can do no harm.
Or can it? Isn’t it a critical darling? One that eats 10 / 10s for breakfast. Twitter and the extensive journalist pool that we call upon in these situations is far from praising. “I’m anti-halo,” “Halo? Meh.” The responses come thick and fast. Others chime in defending it like a besieged solider. “Without Halo I’d not have owned an Xbox site,” “Massive, massive fan”.
It's possible to claim that Halo was destined to divide - it's genre, marketing spend, and allegiances is a polarising cocktail - grinding through popular opinion, dividing and raising an army of advocates that blindly worship the disc it's burned on, there’s nothing quite like it.
And for that we love it. May it long continue dividing us all.