Checkpoint: Halo

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This column originally ran on October 15, 2009.

The Halo series recently went back to its roots with the release of Halo 3: ODST (which Shaun reviewed a couple weeks ago). As such, Checkpoint takes a look back at the original trilogy, and discusses the exact point where the series went downhill. And no, there’s no mention of Halo Wars.

We loved Combat Evolved. The evolution of that evolved combat, however...
We loved Combat Evolved. The evolution of that evolved combat, however…

Halo: Combat Evolved

Shaun: Halo was probably the biggest reason I purchased an Xbox. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Lee: The first thing you run into when you turn on the game is the music. I’ll admit, it was a great part of the game.

Chris: I never even owned an Xbox. Halo was one of the few things I ever played on that system. But right from that menu screen, it had my interest. Choirs and guitar? Sold!

Lee: Suckers, I played it on the PC. Didn’t have to buy a system for that.

Chris: I think my old computer would have melted if I tried to run anything except Number Munchers.

Shaun: Yeah, every element of the presentation was well done. Good story. Good music. Tight controls. To this day, it’s one of the best First-Person Shooters I have ever played. If you take out the fact that you had to play it with that god-awful Xbox controller, it was pretty close to perfect. Seriously, who has hands that big? What were they thinking?

Chris: I’ve got some pretty big hands, since I’m kind of a tall dude, and even I struggled with that thing. I think the whole black/white button thing was the worst.

Lee: Prior to Halo, I was a big Perfect Dark fan, and before that it was Goldeneye. I think they really stepped up the FPS for this game. Finally, I could throw grenades and shoot without having to switch out weapons in my watch menu.

Chris: And sticking plasma grenades was a lot of fun.

Shaun: Yeah, the grenade-gun dynamic was one of the reasons the game was so well balanced. A balance they destroyed with later entries, but we’ll get to that.

Chris: I really enjoyed the story. We’ll get into the travesties of the rest of the series later on, but this one was pretty simple: Humanity was in danger. This ring thing could destroy an entire galaxy if it blew up. You had to stop it. Go Chief Go.

Shaun: Yeah, and the great twist with the Oracle? Not to mention all of the characters (save for the chief) were very well done. The chief wasn’t bad. He just wasn’t really existent.

Lee: Master Chief was half robot. Unfortunately, that half was a malfunctioning emotion chip and some power armor.

Chris: It’s possible he was the worst video game character in terms of individuality, at least until Gears of War came out.

Shaun: God, don’t get me started on the Gears characters. Those guys are some of the worst designed characters ever. Except for Jack the Invisible robot. It’s an invisible robot, so why doesn’t it just go kill everything? …I’m getting off topic here.

Chris: I’m supposed to believe that a person can be a badass by actions alone. Sometimes that’s true. In the case of Master Chief, his bland personality takes away any interest in him whatsoever.

Shaun: I didn’t need to see the chief’s face. I just needed him to say more than three things throughout the entire campaign. And one of those lines of dialogue was a scream when he was killed, so that doesn’t really count.

Chris: Let’s not forget the best aspect of Halo 1 (and maybe of any FPS games out there): the pistol.

Shaun: At the time I played it, I never knew the pistol was so powerful. I never really tried it. I guess I just assumed it was going to be like pistols in every other shooter out there.

Lee: Not just a pistol. It had an invisible scope on it, and apparently some mystical hollow point rounds that disappeared in subsequent games.

Chris: Yep. What a balanced weapon. Scope, good power, quick reloads…it was versatile. It might’ve been a little overpowered, but that’s no excuse for the treatment it got in the rest of the series. Wasn’t very useful against the Flood though.

Lee: “Our bullets cut through them like butter” – Crazy Johanson, the marine who didn’t survive the Flood.

Shaun: Probably the most innovative aspect of the series was the vehicle segments. So well done. Never in a game before that were vehicle sequences that non-linear and fun.

Chris: Yeah, I was a big fan of driving around in a Warthog and running stuff over. My friend and I probably spent hours doing that in high school, playing through the co-op campaign. Wraiths were fun too.

Lee: I was great at driving the Warthog. Every time I played multiplayer I was the driver. I would drive over the enemies and have my cohorts jump out and grab that damn flag.

Shaun: Speaking of multiplayer, that was possibly a selling point even more compelling than the campaign itself. Goldeneye got me into FPS multiplayer. Halo made me addicted. And I don’t even like competitive multiplayer.

Chris: I never cared much for the online multiplayer (I rarely do for anything, really), but getting together 16 people and playing a massive LAN game was awfully fun.

Lee: Yep. Get together with a couple of televisions and just make a night of it.

Shaun: Yeah, exactly. At that time, online wasn’t real solid yet. LAN was the way to go, and that was probably the most fun I have had with competitive multiplayer. The co-op is not bad either, considering the campaign was designed solely for one person.

Chris: Nobody ever really explained why there were two Master Chiefs, but it was fun enough that I didn’t care.

Shaun: Master Chief clone. That’s what I told myself.

Chris: I know there were like 200 Spartan soldiers out there, but it wasn’t just another Spartan — it was a second Master Chief. Not that it was hard to copy his personality.

Lee: ROBO CHIEF HATES COVENANT

Chris: CORTANA YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. LET US DISCUSS THE MATTER OF RAM. THIS IS APPARENTLY ROBOT TYPING.

Lee: ERROR, NOT ENOUGH UPLOAD SPEED

Chris: ABORT

Shaun: If it wasn’t for Cortana bringing out the smallest bits of his personality (like when he crashes the Banshee just to spite her), he may have been the most boring character ever. So thank god for her.

Chris: I always liked Cortana. She didn’t take any of the Chief’s crap, and she was actually useful for someone who didn’t really exist. Plus, her voice actor (Jen Taylor) is pretty prolific. She showed up again as Zoey in Left 4 Dead recently.

Lee: Cortana was pretty much the lead. Master Chief did the fighting, but Cortana was the brains.

Chris: And the body. The virtual body.

Shaun: And the humor. She was pretty fun. And later on, she provides the only emotional investment in the series. The subplot with Captain Keyes getting Flood-ified was also pretty tragic. Poor guy.

Chris: I never really felt that bad for him. Grossed out, maybe.

Lee: Yeah, he was a poor guy before we got to that point. Four plasma grenades each + letting Keyes out of prison + arbitrary point system = blow up Captain Keyes.

Chris: The Flood were pretty effective as enemies, though. You got the fear element in there, and sometimes you don’t need a massive backstory for evil folks to be effective. They wanted to eat people, and that was good enough. Apparently not good enough for later Halo games, but hey.

Shaun: The ending was pretty sweet, too. Escaping from the exploding ship was pretty intense — the first time, at least. It’s notably less dramatic when you are forced to do it again in the third installment.

Chris: Yeah, and I liked that it involved vehicular stuff again. Made it more epic.

Lee: The final boss was okay, but that last stage made the game memorable. Bigger boss? No. Shut down reactor? No. Drive through a ship and ramp over stuff? Yes.

Sometimes a beam sword makes everything better.
Sometimes a beam sword makes everything better.

Halo 2

Shaun: All these elements made me really excited for Halo 2. And here begins the point where most people begin having problems with the series.

Chris: Like me.

Lee: Well, before we get into what was wrong, let’s talk about what was right. Two weapons, for example.

Chris: That’s a plus. Covenant Carbine. That’s a plus.

Lee: Dual wielding allowed you to vary your combat options a bit.

Shaun: Dual wielding actually didn’t add much for me. I thought it threw off the balancing too much (which is why I love ODST’s lack of it).

Chris: It always seemed strange to me, carrying a huge grenade launcher and then a tiiiiiny pistol.

Shaun: Yeah, I don’t know what it is about me enjoying second installments that other people hate, but I loved Metal Gear Solid 2 (Raiden and all), and I loved Halo 2.

Chris: It probably has something to do with you being a terrible person.

Shaun: The more elaborate set pieces (like dropping down on a scarab and taking it out) gave the game a really nice pacing and variety.

Lee: Scarab is just Barac(k)s spelled backward.

Chris: As far as story pacing went, I didn’t really mind the Arbiter, but adding in a second character with little to no personality wasn’t exactly the way to get me to buy in the story.

Shaun: I liked his arch. Maybe this is just because he is being directly compared to the chief, but I thought he was interesting, and I loved seeing the conflict from the other side, and how someone so devout would handle discovering that everything he believed in was a lie. And he was a badass who could turn invisible, which added an interesting element to his levels.

Lee: At least the Arbiter had a solid voice actor. Same guy who did Goliath from Gargoyles.

Chris: At the very least, I liked the two of them more when Gravemind was introduced, because I hated Gravemind (and giving the Flood some kind of purpose) with a fiery passion. Hey! Let’s have a cutscene where we grab Master Chief and the Arbiter with tentacles and wave them around for 10 minutes while spouting nonsense! That sounds like plot progression!

Shaun: Yeah, I didn’t like that scene either. I generally dislike scenes where the heroes would have died, but are saved by a Deus Ex Machina device. Bothers me.

Lee: It was better than having another Master Chief. What’s better than one Spartan? Two Spartans. Yay, yay.

Shaun: I still thought that the Flood having goals, although very simplistic, was a nice addition.

Chris: I guess I could have been okay with learning about those goals through the story another way. Just not Gravemind.

Lee: I’ll be honest, I did not really understand that part of the game. It was this thing that kind of looked like Audrey II that just popped in on my shooting free-for-all.

Shaun: From the beginning, where the Arbiter is exiled, I really liked the story. The plot could have been a complete rehash (some would argue that ultimately, it was), but I like that they tried for more complexity. The ending didn’t really bother me all that much either, because that sequence was obviously the end of the game for people who followed the plot progression.

Chris: The ending was a copout. What’s worse, it only serves to magnify what a poor character the chief is. That “finishing the fight” line did absolutely nothing for me, and an obvious cliffhanger ending to set up Halo 3 just killed the pacing for me.

Shaun: Yeah, but it was so cool! They are all like “there is a master station, but where?” and then it shows the earth, and I was like, “Oh snap, Halo 3!”

Lee: Actually, it did make the beginnings of a great song. One sung many a time during all Halo games.

Chris: That’s true. Singing “Finish the Fight” to the tune of the Halo theme does make things better.

Shaun: Never tried that. It sounds like I absolutely should though.

Chris: There’s at least one positive about Halo 2 that everyone should be able to agree with: We got rid of old man Keyes in the first game and replaced him with his hot daughter.

Lee: Sorry, I was always fond of Cortana. And it is old dead man Keyes.

Shaun: Ha, Miranda Keyes was a badass, too. Not as badass as Sergeant Johnson, but close.

Lee: Dead Sergeant Johnson.

Chris: Dead hot daughter.

Shaun: Oh man, that was great, too! Cortana getting left behind at the end. That’s what I was referring to when I talked about providing some emotional weight to the story.

Chris: Yep. And it pretty much came down to just her. She gave the story any emotional weight. That, and people dying all over the place.

Lee: Halo 2 was to Halo what The Lion King 1 1/2 was to The Lion King.

Shaun: Wow, come on. Lion King 1 1/2 was just terrible. Unwatchable.

Chris: Those are harsh words. If Master Chief had feelings, he’d be crying right now and writing in his Xanga.

Lee: He can’t write. All he knows how to do is shoot the keyboard and hope Cortana bails his ass out.

Apparently he's going to finish the fight all over your face. Or something.
Apparently he’s going to finish the fight all over your face. Or something.

Halo 3

Lee: And then we get to the game where we are supposed to finish the fight. Doesn’t really happen as quickly as Master Chief made it out to be.

Shaun: That fatigue that you were all talking about having with Halo 2? I got it in Halo 3. Blah.

Lee: Radio: Master Chief, what the hell are you doing here. Master Chief: Finishing this fight. Radio: Thanks for marginalizing our war, but the help is appreciated. Master Chief: Hold on, I need to travel to other planets first. Radio: But good men are dying right now. Master Chief: I don’t care, I have a fight to finish.

Shaun: Sure, there were these fancy-shmancy new items, like bubble shields and what not, but the level designs seemed uninspired, especially near the end.

Chris: I really didn’t care about the new shields and stuff, to be honest. Their uses seemed limited at best. At worst, they destroyed that simple gun/grenade balance that the first game worked so hard to implement.

Shaun: And yes, the same overall plot. Again. One of the lead designers of Halo once said that the key to Halo is producing sequences of 15 minutes of fun, and then replicating these scenarios. Well, I think Bungie took this a bit literally.

Lee: It seemed like the game was a series of ambushes, like all of the scouts for our side just gave up.

Shaun: And I am so damn tired of the Flood at this point. They were introduced, and I started crying.

Chris: They ruined that last level, plain and simple. There’s so damn many of them, and they’ve taken over Elites and Brutes and I think they actually ate a Warthog and turned that into a Flood somehow. Just terrible.

Lee: The Flood were really original in the first game, but the creators tried to make them evolve over Halo 2 and 3. They would have been fine as zombies.

Shaun: Speaking of the Brutes, I was sad to see them be the main enemies. They were good when they balanced out the Elites. Them being the main adversaries just felt a little off. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but I didn’t like it. It was sort of an example of the story dictating the gameplay, and in this case, it was negative.

Lee: You were so invested in killing Elites in Halo, and then they get to be the good guys. Great plot twist, but you don’t stop a jihad because the other team surrenders.

Shaun: I mean, it’s Halo all over again, so it was solid. But it was Halo all over again. It would have been nice to see something really new for this installment. Something like….ODST! But longer than five minutes.

Chris: Again, we had co-op introduced into the campaign — four-player co-op this time around. Yet it still had no explanation. It’s the Chief! And the Arbiter! And…these two guys! I’m a big fan of co-op in just about every situation, but it just seemed tacked on and threw off the story for me a bit. Still enjoyable, but concept-breaking.

Shaun: By the third installment, it would have been nice if they had paid some attention to the co-op. Maybe some co-op moves to reach places normally not accessible? I don’t know, but something other than “now there are more Master Chiefs.”

WARNING: MOVIE TANGENT

Lee: It reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean. The first movie could have stood on its own, but they just had to make more money.

Shaun: I actually liked the second one, Dead Man’s Chest. The ending to the third one is the worst ending I have seen in cinema.

Lee: Any other number twos you are a fan of? Beethoven’s Second, maybe?

Shaun: Yeah. The Two Towers was the best Lord of the Rings, too.

Lee: I think I see a pattern.

Shaun: Attack of the Clones sucked though.

Lee: Technically, Attack of the Clones was number five.

Shaun: Yeah, I don’t know why that is. Ah: I liked Return of the Jedi more than The Empire Strikes Back. Score.

Lee: Now you are just being a contrarian. Everybody knows Lando Calrissian was the best thing that happened to that series.

Shaun: I did like that. Except I thought he should have just died for reals. I liked the Ewoks though.

THANK YOU. THIS HAS BEEN YOUR MOVIE TANGENT

Chris: That whole “done to make money” thing is how I feel about Halo 3. Let’s review: hot Keyes dies. Johnson gets killed by a laser to the chest, after surviving everything the Halo universe threw at him (four games, multiple books, etc.). The final boss is freaking Guilty Spark. You escape exactly as you did in Halo 1, except now there are inexplicable floating platforms. And then half your ship makes it through, but not the Master Chief half, so he’s dead and everyone bloo bloo bloos about it the end.

Shaun: I didn’t much care for the people around me dying when their A.I. was only good for collecting gunfire with their faces. They deserved it, as far as I am concerned.

Lee: My heart did not go on when Johnson kicked the proverbial bucket of disappointing, shameful death.

Shaun: Yeah, I was okay with him dying in an epic fashion. Getting bitch-lasered by the Oracle? Less than epic.

Lee: Y’know, I did not mind the return to driving for the last level. It was like a return to something that worked. They should have given you the original pistol and had a big sign that flashed “Sorry” for the last level.

Chris: I would have been much more okay with that. Instead, we get Cortana (yay) and Master Chief (boo) floating in space, and they say his name WHOA CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT.

Shaun: Ha, the best thing they could have done was to have him die epically. For someone with as little character as that, it would have been so iconic. Instead, we get a cliffhanger ending that we really didn’t need. It seemed very contrived. They had a chance implement some emotional gravity, but they copped out. Then again, this is coming from someone who thought Harry should have died at the end of The Deathly Hollows, but still.

Chris: Snape kills Dumbledore.

Lee: Nooo, you bitch. Anyway, I didn’t say he should have died. He should have shot himself, after realizing Voldemort didn’t exist, it was all Harry.

Chris: I guess the whole Master Chief lives ending leaves open the possibility of a Halo 4, which I really don’t care about.

Lee: I hope they don’t make a Halo 4. Three is enough.

Shaun: I would like a Halo 4, but only if it is not a rehash. Take the opportunity to give the Chief some character, make some changes to the gameplay and level structure, and we are set.

Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

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