Maybe you read my review. Maybe you took the message – that it’s all about the finely-tuned shooting and the loot rather than story progression – and bought a copy to experience it yourself. Maybe you’re enjoying it as much as I was. It was going so well up to a point, but following a few moments of realisation, it’s sat dormant in my hard drive for a week.
Bungie’s Destiny is the biggest game of the year so far and apparently the highest-selling day one digital console release ever, but how does the actual game hold up against the massive expectations?
Well, if you’re a fan of Halo‘s tight gunplay, then you’ll be in heaven. However, if you’re expecting the kind of intense single-player narrative from Bungie’s days with Master Chief, then it may leave you wanting. But this is one of Destiny‘s main tricks; wide, open and full of excitement, it invites you to find your own stories.
I was once booked to play Charlie Chaplin in a commercial for a mechanic’s garage. (Context: I worked as a professional actor in Vancouver for two years before an incoming baby necessitated the need for regular income, i.e. not acting). It was a terrifying proposition. I knew that my years of training in physical theatre would come in useful for the signature walk, but Chaplin was always more than that. He had this very particular look in his eyes, one of innocence and reflection, which was so iconic it became placed front and centre in all of his posters. This was not a new character; this was someone who had a legion of fans from every age group and social demographic in the world. There was a good chance many Chaplistas would end up judging my facsimile, examining each and every gesture, comparing me not only to the real Chaplin but also to their emotional perception of him. So, I started where they already were: with every film and short I could find, slow motion frames on one side and my mirrored reflection on the other. In the end, I pulled it off; I often hate watching myself back – when is there ever anything that could not be improved? – but I was genuinely pleased at how authentic it looked. Of course, there’s someone, somewhere who rolled their eyes at some point, but that’s inevitable. It’s just the amount of eye rolling that you try to keep down.
With Halo 4, however, the tables are turned. This time, I’m the expert, the age-old fan who could talk you ragged about Master Chief’s armour, the effect of playing as The Arbiter, or the deep mythos that ties all the previous games together. Mostly, I’d want to talk about “I need a weapon”, or leaping on a Hornet just as a Covenant vehicle explodes, or even how Halo 3: ODST might be my favourite title in the series. I’m the one whose Xbox 360 game collection is propped up like this:
With series overlords Bungie finally walking away to line Activision’s pockets with the upcoming Destiny, it was down to Microsoft to assemble the best team they could find and wring some more Spartan cash out of the Chief’s thick green armour. However, as obviously talented as 343 Industries is, they had an impossible task – please all the Halo fans, all the time. After all, this wasn’t a splinter title but a direct numbered continuation of the series that, for many people (myself included), was solely responsible for the buying of whole new consoles. We would be holding up 343’s Halo to our own rose-tinted memories. It’s clear that 343 knew this, and Halo 4 directly references sequences from the older titles whilst introducing new features for the new trilogy. This approach leaves a paradoxical final game, one that can be two opposite things at once: exciting yet boring, precise yet sloppy, intense yet vague. It’s a schizophrenic campaign full of wows and what-ifs.
The ending of Halo 3 left the perfect jump-off point for a new game, and this is utilised fully. The last time we saw Master Chief, he was placing himself in sleep stasis after finally defeating the Covenant and Flood and destroying the control bridge for all of the Halos in the universe. Left alone in the remains of a ruined spaceship, he drifts through space with just the AI, Cortana, watching over him. Halo 4 uses this setup in its bombastic prologue, with the Chief rudely awakened not only by an invading Covenant force but also by the ominous scans from a nearby Promethean planet. Caught in its gravity, the Chief and Covenant forces are pulled to the ground and are soon joined by a human rescue team, before unwittingly activating the planet’s defence system in the form of New Enemy Types. Their leader, The Didact, is intent on getting a weapon to “catalogue” all humans, and Chief finds himself – apparently pre-ordained – to stop him. Cue beautiful vistas, a variety of weapons, and some moving targets to shoot in the face. Repeat for seven hours while attempting to make sense of the story.
The first thing you’ll notice – and will keep on noticing for the length of the entire game – is how stunning it all looks. Really, truly amazing, and further proof that next-gen consoles are going to have trouble to prove their existence if all they offer is shinier graphics. Everything has a tangible solidity, the world-building architecture is breathtaking, and incredible lighting makes it all feel so movie-like. It’s easily the most attractive game in the series, and going back to Reach feels like a leap backwards to a whole previous generation. The engine is largely flawless, the only occasional drops in frame rate (usually due to loading) are notable due to their rarity. Enemies flood the battlefields, on land and in the sky, finally giving series fans the kind of huge battles that we’d been dreaming of since the first title. The UNSC weapons carry incredible punch, the DMR and Magnum again proving an almost unstoppable combination in the right hands, and the few flying sequences are astounding in their scope and potential.
It’s tempting at this point to imagine Halo 4 turning into a series classic, with the old thrills intact but with a shinier gloss. However, as the campaign unfolds, the cracks appear and sometimes threaten to swallow you whole. The problem isn’t the artistry of the development team – there can be no doubt that they are totally fine in that regard – but more so that, while the nods to “classic” Halo largely ring true, the new elements added just don’t have the same impact. In fact, they go a long way to ruining the whole damn thing.
The main problem, unfortunately, is that Bungie made the original Covenant enemies so damn good. From their chunky design to the flank-happy AI routines, it was always such a pleasure to crank up the difficulty and face off against the various types, each requiring brains to outmaneuver before hitting them where it hurts. The UNSC and Covenant guns were varied and powerful, each opening up gameplay options for every single firefight. 343’s new addition is the Prometheans, an enemy again split into three main enemy types, but it doesn’t take long into your first encounter with them that you realise something is wrong. Covenant Elites are aggressive and intelligent, rushing you directly with energy swords or flanking behind you before exploding out with destructive brutality, but the Promethean Knights just shoot and run. They frequently warp out of sight, with their only rush attach a quick warping zig-zig that often ends in unavoidable instant death. They have flying support, who also fly out of range after one shot, and not only provide shields but also bring dead Knights back to life. You can clear a path only to find it reset in seconds, all because you missed one enemy. So, they are designed to be a long-distance attack enemy, and that’s usually fine, but the troubles increase when you run out of ammo for the DMR and Magnum (which happens quickly). The only other weapon in any kind of abundance is the Promethean Suppressor, a rapid-fire gun that’s fairly effective close-up but borders on useless from any kind of range. The beauty of Halo has always lay in its invitation to approach battles as you see fit, but that is lost here. You’re forced to charge wildly into the fray, finger firmly down on the trigger in the hope that they’ll die before you do.
The third new enemy type is a quadrupedal beast with a gun in its mouth, often arriving in numbers to chip away at your energy as the larger enemies once again warp out of view. It’s all a little reminiscent of The Flood at this point, with intelligent attacks substituted for overpowering rush, and it’s not a welcome addition. The negativity created by 343’s new elements doesn’t end there, but instead is exacerbated by all of the new weapons. Even without the disappointing fact that they are all basically reskins of each other’s – even though the human, Covenant and Promethean weapons were created aeons apart for different bodies – you can’t avoid the fact that they feel hopelessly weak and underpowered. This is made most glaring when you’re forced to change from the razor-sharp accuracy of the Magnum or Covenant Combine to the Boltshot or Storm Rifle. Suddenly you’re not the most advanced soldier in the universe but more of a Stormtrooper on his first day in the Death Star. It’s annoying, unneccessary, and completely breaks away any feeling of fun or enjoyment.
Unfortunately, this makes every level featuring the Prometheans one that is met with growing sighs and creative swears. However, as the campaign shifts into the second half, things get much, much better. There proves to be a very obvious reason for this sudden shift in quality; instead of forcing you through their new elements of the story, 343 focus on what made Halo the series it is – fighting alongside UNSC infantry, against Covenant Elites, under an azure sky. This really is Halo at it’s very best, the skeleton constructed by Bungie dressed in gorgeous new clothes. And explosions. So many explosions. As you move in a giant tank along a mountain path (which is uncannily reminiscent of the same sequence in Gears Of War 2), the old feelings come flooding back and motivation spikes. Enemies charge under and above you, tenacity winning over brutality every time. Things pick up even further as you head into the sky, first with Banshees, then to a Pelican, before a daring chase into a tunnel in a Broadsword, the ship that was flown briefly in Halo: Reach. Each of these levels are magical slices of escapism and thrilling to the end. In fact, the Broadsword level feel so much like the Warthog chase that closed Halo 1 and 3, it’s tremendously disappointing to find yourself back fighting the Prometheans on foot, once again having to destroy three of something before you can proceed.
However, the best is saved for last, with the Chief finally trying to secure the key weapon on an asteroid base above the third Halo ring. Of course, the Covenant want it too, leading to a busy set of combat arenas that don’t even try to pretend that they’re not reflections of earlier levels from the series. It’s a final move that, although successful, really brings the faults of the rest of the game into sharp, glaring focus.
Perhaps the most surprising element is how successful 343 Industries is with their telling of the story. Not in the complicated sci-fi premises it throws about (mainly in an exposition flashback that is truly bewildering), or in their inevitable decision to appeal to the Call Of Duty crowd with thankfully sparse Quick Time Events, but more in the focus on the Chief and Cortana as real, connected entities who may actually share something approaching love. It’s a very brave move, considering the established fanbase that they’re targeting, but their aims are achieved with surprising sensitivity and subtlety. Cortana, in particular, has been realised beautifully, her exemplarity facial animation revealing the desperation in her lost cause. The final endgame causes a separation that is genuinely moving, although this being sci-fi, you know perfectly well that no-one disappears for ever. I hope not anyway; Cortana is the key to the Chief becoming more expressive, and it would be a crying shame to not see that unfold even more.
So, in the end, you are left with a mixture of elation from the classic levels with the sourness of your experience with the Prometheans. It’s a shame that, in their bid to introduce new elements to the series, 343 Industries just shows how delicate the balance can be. What Halo 4 is, though, is a tantilising glimpse into what this amazingly talented collection of artists and coders can do to recreate the old magic, and it’s tempting to pin hopes on having even more of the good stuff in the next-gen Halo 5. Maybe, then, our own eye-rolling can be reduced to a minimum as we fight with the Chief, always pushing forward, back among the stars.
Note: This is a review purely of the campaign, but the game itself has a variety of extra one-off missions (Spartan Ops) and, of course, the ever robust multiplayer. However, as I don’t play any kind on online MP, I can’t really comment on it.
Bungie has finally drawn back the curtain on their first project since they left Halo behind them and sold their souls to Activision. Destiny seems to be an FPS MMO hybrid – a persistant sandbox galaxy that requires a mandatory internet connection. There won’t be subscription fees and they’ve been quick to pull away from the MMO connection, but the structure of the combat certainly sounds more like this genre than any other:
“Players love MMOs and open world games more for the emergent gameplay than the gameplay crafted by their designers. They remember the things that happened because players got together and did stuff, whether it be some dramatic boss fight at the end of an hour-long raid or the exploration of a cave discovered off the beaten track. Story lead Joe Staten expects Destiny will work in a similar way, with players building their “personal legend”.
It’s all a little vague still, with no gameplay or even screenshots to speak of. However, Bungie has certainly demonstrated in the past that they are able to single-handedly redefine online multiplayer, so they have the benefit of the doubt at this point.
Also, the concept art is stunning:
Check it out at Eurogamer’s comprehensive write-up here.
Two things become clear as we sink deeper into [Pete] Parsons’ canned presentation.
The first is that it really isn’t canned; Parsons knows every intimate detail —
the memories are ingrained, not memorized. The second thing we discover is
that Parsons’ affection for the Bungie Pentathlon trophy wasn’t a punt after all; of
all of his company’s many accomplishments, crafting the perfect, nearly-insoluble
team is the one of which he is absolutely most proud.
He describes how he meets with employees on their first day, then again, a
month or so later. He describes the indoctrination, the counseling, the nurturing.
He uses the world “family” — a lot, and sincerely. He tells the story of how
he finally conceded the studio needed an IT department after he became too busy
to troubleshoot computers and lay cables himself. He lovingly describes every
feature of the studio building — custom built from the ruins of a defunct bowling
alley (downstairs) and movie theater (upstairs) — not in the way of someone
describing their new mansion in the Hollywood Hills, but rather the way a
librarian might describe a new reading room. As if it’s not a monument to his
own largesse, but rather a construction for the benefit of others.
He describes the intensive security measures: key-card coded front door;
the beefy, menacing guards at the front desk; the cameras; the second set of
doors guarding the stairway to the production floor and the third set of
doors at the top of those stairs. And then he ushers us behind those
layers of security to see what few have seen before.
Be sure to check out the embedded video as well. It’s always awesome to get a good behind the scenes look at a group doing work that you love.
My father tells me that my stubbornness comes from my grandfather. Albert/Bill/William Best (still not really sure which were his given and associated names) was a huge ginger-haired man who subtly smelled of sweat and tobacco. He would hold me up in the kitchen of his house in Colchester while my grandmother told him to stop tormenting me. I hold the idea that he was a bit of a trickster and liked to joke around, whilst still effortlessly maintaining the intimidation of size and stature. Apparently he ran an internment camp for Nazi POWs – in Ipswich, maybe? – and played poker with the captives. It’s not too hard to imagine this as totally true, he was a bug guy and my father’s strong sense of respect must have come from somewhere. My son, almost two, has inherited the light ginger locks and round face of my wife, while taking on my side’s eyes and mouth, and it’s uncanny how he matches the single strong memory I have left of Albert. Genetic tracing paper, one layer laying over the features of the other.
Someone told Granddad once that there was no way he’d ever give up smoking. The way my Dad tells it, he threw away his cigarettes there and then and never smoked another. No reduction, no action plan – just the iron-coated stubbornness of someone who would never be told that he couldn’t do something.
I came to the realisation at the end of 2011 that I was buying a lot of games. Not spending too much – being a new father pretty much removes any disposable income – but constantly trawling through the used bins in EB, hunting out bargains, sniffing for deals. The less said about Steam, the better. Little purchases over the weeks, drip-feeding the idea that I loved playing games. The only problem with that idea was in the truth – I wasn’t actually playing anything. Each would be briefly checked, like an antique dealer examining a table, before my focus moved onto the next must-have bargain. A combination of my free time disappearing (again, see: fatherhood), exhaustion at the end of the day, and losing patience with any game that didn’t get me straight to the action meant that playing these games had become a bit of a chore. There was a palpable sense of frustration sinking in as I accepted that I was getting nothing from playing. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember that I’d seen, done, heard or felt, led stumbling towards the checkpoint marker with a ready finger on the kill button. These minutes that poured into virtual worlds became hollow and meaningless, wasted opportunities mocking my army of unread books and dusty guitar. I found that I was enjoying buying the games more than playing them. Something had to give, I knew that well, but it didn’t fall into place immediately.
I’m not a big believer in resolutions, and of course I’ve broken hundreds of them in my journey to that opinion. I should frame my selection of gym membership cards, each with a small plaque detailing the exact time of failure. However, I like ongoing challenges, something to push back the boredom of necessary predictability. I was looking for something that could mark out 2012 for me, somehow. Read more, write more, sing more; all great ideas but all underpinned my the knowledge of who I am – without motivation, I will flutter away from good intentions as soon as something pretty distracts me. I was at a party with some good friends, people who have shifted past that initial polite barrier into the realm of those that can truly reflect on who you are. I’m a sucker for a good pun, and The Year Of Living Gamelessly drunkenly popped up as we were talking about 2012 changes. In truth, I had to spontaneously give meaning and structure to what, up to then, had only been a fun play on an established title. What if I, a resolute and (seemingly) passionate gamer, go a whole year without…buying games? Kat responded with a laugh – friendly, winking, knowing – that found its echo in the group. “You’ll never do that”, she said.
The idea took hold immediately. A whole year without buying games sounded so insane that I couldn’t resist.
I started gaming on my neighbour’s Atari 2600 at the age of twelve. Up to that point, it was only the infrequent visits to Southsea seafront that allowed me to take in the sounds of the arcade, feet sticking to sticky carpets in crowded, badly-lit pier buildings. The 10p pieces would be rationed and savoured. The singularity moment of walking into his game room and finding this wooden panelled machine, pads out, ready to play without a coin slot to appease…I can still clearly feel that moment, seared very deeply in my pleasure centre. We played games that were little more than blocks on blocks beeping and chirping away like fat sparrows while we pretended that we knew what we were doing.
Next was a Sinclair Spectrum 128K +2, a box of copied cassettes and a tape deck that clicked happily to itself every five seconds. My Commodore Amiga came to university with me, disk box full of classics like Lemmings, Speedball 2 and SWOS also hiding the terrible digitized porn disk inconspicuously labeled “Pics”. My first TV console, a SNES, was the worst purchase of 1996, Tetris Attack and Mario Kart slowly chipping away at my study motivation. PS1 led to PS2 and many, many happy hours playing TimeSplitters 2 by myself and Tekken Tag with Steve. (Steve, incidentally, used to make gamenight pints of whisky and coke that were 50/50 measures which led to End Of Days level hangovers). I can still pick up Tony Hawks Pro Skater 3 and use pure muscle memory to ace every level. Halo changed my life. XBox, 360, PS3, Gamecube, Dreamcast, Nintendo DS, Gameboy Micro, PSP, PC, Mac, iOS, Android…games, games everywhere, at all times, in all places. Gaming has been a major part of my life for almost as long as I can remember.
After the party, I formulated the firm rules for my endeavour: none of my own money was to be spent on any video games in any format, whereas vouchers, gifts and store credit was fine. A single own cent spent would be failure, even if it meant missing out on an absolute bargain. The simplicity and totality of the rules attracted me even more. Clear lines and instructions, so all I needed to do was make it through twelve months.
I knew straight away that the hardest part would be the fight against spontaneity. I often would buy a game on the spur of the moment, convinced that I absolutely had to have it, only to leave it collecting dust after a few brief days. To see something at a special price, or find myself with a free Friday night and a game I wanted sat on the shelves, was almost more tempting than I could take. The first few months were relatively easy due to Christmas and my February birthday, and distance from home meant that Amazon vouchers were the present of choice. I pondered over these purchases, knowing that I needed a few titles that could essentially get me through to Christmas (I had already conveniently forgotten about the piles of games virtually unplayed from the previous year). Gran Turismo 4 and a WWII plane sim called Birds Of Prey arrived a few weeks later and completed the usual cycle of initial play falling into disinterest.
Journey and Trials Evolution had been planned for, and Amazon vouchers spent accordingly, otherwise that would have been the end of my challenge right there. However, past these releases in March, the bite started making itself known. I had to physically force myself to walk out of stores on a number of occasions, shiny boxes calling me back like sirens in the deep. The worst find was a fresh discount bin in Future Shop with a number of genuinely interesting titles at $1 each. At one point I had six piled up in my hands, feet itching to run to the counter before my brain kicked past the barriers. My strategy of truthful reasoning began there and continued to get me through the rest of the year. I held up each title in turn and asked myself two simple questions:
1) Have I ever really thought about wanting this?
2) Will I actually play it?
Putting back the games that failed either question, the pile soon reduced itself to nothing, and my pride did the rest. I knew the failure would hang over me for a long time if I broke, and there would be no way to reverse it. The honesty of my situation became a hard, belligerent motivating force. Actually, it felt incredibly exciting to break the spell of bargain entrapment and that pushed me on ever further.
This circle repeated itself occasionally as the year rolled on. However, there was one major flaw to my plan. I had assumed that, if I just stayed out of the game shops, then I could resist the temptation of new titles. What I hadn’t accounted for was the game shop in my pocket, winking at me every time I used my phone. I’d be the first to admit that iPhone gaming could never fully replace the console experience, but what I started seeing was many reviews of apps that not only used the limitations of the device to great effect but also were exactly the kind of arcadey games that I loved. Turns out it’s easy to not spend $60; not spending 99c is an entirely different prospect. The fact that you could press one button, enter one word and a new game would magically appear in your hands was almost too much to resist. Almost. What had started to kick in, fuelled by the insistent reasoning, was a far more honest and shrewd opinion of what I wanted from games, and this gave me the edge over the persuasive itch to buy, buy, buy. I managed to resist.
Until Super Hexagon.
My first play of Terry Cavanagh’s hypnotic puzzle experience came in a review of the iOS version that linked to the free Flash original. It didn’t take long before I was hooked, and a brief run on a friend’s iPhone version just compounded how I absolutely had to have this RIGHT NOW. My options were limited, however; App Store credit had long disappeared, no more games to trade in, not a birthday or Christmas in sight. I turned to the gift app option, offering my wife all manner of things to secure the $1.99 present. She didn’t bite, of course. I’d load up the game page and stare longingly at the BUY button before forcing it to close. Resolution finally came, of all places, in a casino. In true Run, Lola, Run style, I watched with gleeful eyes as my five dollars slowly rose, dipped and finally inflated into eight. I walked out of that casino like a hero, the only man to beat The House. The original money went back into my pocket and the winnings – not my earnt money, technically – went to my wife, to the App Store, to my e-mail, and finally to my phone. Six months later and it’s not only my game of 2012 but also one of my favourite games ever.
Summer heat took away much motivation to sit in and play anything, which helped, but I was surprised when my console attraction didn’t really return as the Fall chill returned. I played a little bit here and there, and the library rentals certainly scratched the itch to play something new, but I was nowhere near as committed as before. Worse than that, there was a real disconnect of focus – where I would once have been able to stare at the screen, entranced and reactive, I found myself now barely able to even stay awake. The interest had all but gone, more simple iPhone experiences frequently filling the few minutes I had spare. I thought Halo 4 would be a serious issue – I had owned all from Halo 2 on release day, even sitting through an uncomfortable midnight opening surrounded by teenagers for Reach – and didn’t have a strategy for getting through this challenge. Luckily, Matt is as big a Halo fan as I am and we were soon sat playing his copy, raging through the campaign, split-screen. Even more luckily, I became so frustrated with it that the thought of owning it completely left my mind.
The strangest sensation connected with all of this was in November. As the gaming releases ramped up for Christmas, and the titles from earlier in the year were heavily discounted, my palms actually started itching. Not metaphorically. I desperately wanted to buy and play something new, the closeness of the next year doing nothing to alleviate my urges. It was very strange indeed, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even about playing, the repression of my spending patterns was finally staring to burst at the seams. The final boss battle came in the form of Super Hexagon on Steam, running at a ridiculous frame rate, all shiny and tempting. By that point, thought, Christmas was almost upon us, so my putting that at the top of my list actually made it child-level exciting once again.
I was playing Ticket To Ride with some good friends, heavily inebriated, when I realised that I’d done it. I’d joked that I’d probably see the New Year in on the Steam store, finger hovering over the BUY button as midnight chimed. Truth was, I barely even noticed until an hour later. What had seem like an impossible goal had passed unheralded, buried underneath wine, friends, food and laughter.
My Christmas present stash was a good one for new games. Between actual presents and Boxing Day discounts, I’d suddenly accumulated Lollipop Chainsaw, Far Cry 3, Sleeping Dogs, FTL and Thirty Flights Of Loving. It was like having giant bowls of ice cream after a year of occasional spoonfuls. I went into a few game shops at the beginning of January, giddy at the prospect of being able to buy something again, but left empty-handed. Interestingly enough, not because there wasn’t anything I wanted; more that the frugal nature of my justification hasn’t left, and I’m starting to wonder if it ever will. Those two questions still ring loud when I ponder a purchase, and I’m finding that I’m putting bargains back when once I would have spent without a second thought. My first game in over a year was, predictably in hindsight, on iOS. Hundreds was followed by Repulze, then Amnesia on Steam, then a PS+ subscription and the wonderfully batshit mental Tokyo Jungle. The spending already feels like it’s spiralling again, but this time there’s an important difference – I’m also not buying things. Even if they are cheap. Even if I absolutely must have them OMG. Whatever, a new part of my brain is saying. You’ve got plenty to play. They’ll be available later if you still want them.
And that, right there, is how my gameless year has changed me forever. It’s made me what I could not be before – realistic. The impulse has changed, and with it the love for sprawling console epics has all but vanished. Right now, I want games, not interactive movies. Not realistic depictions of street life. Not liberating your friends from island mercs. I want to instantly have three minutes squeezing my triangle through techno-backed mazes, I want to survive as a Pomeranian in neo-Tokyo, I want to savour the sublime squelch of a beautiful cheerleader dispatching zombies. I’m even playing Far Cry 3 purely as a spacial puzzle game (which works surprisingly well). Minecraft, ever-present and absorbing, is pure exploration of a Lego fantasy. Not a QTS cut-scene in sight. This is what I want now. Maybe it’s a call back to the singular experiences of Southsea arcade. Maybe all I needed was to be reintroduced to the sticky carpet and aural pleasures of games that are games.
Someone once told me that I would never be able to give up buying games for a year, so I did it just to prove them wrong. It probably tells you everything you need to know that I did it out of pride rather than an attempt to change a bad habit. What emerged, though, was an outlook on my decades-old obsession that was entirely fresh, mature and finally free of knee-jerk enticement. Rationality born from stubbornness. A gift from my grandfather.
With the next Master Chief-led addition to the Halo universe looming around the corner, I’ve been doing a fair bit of introspection. The series of increasingly serious space epics has always felt like my perfect kind of FPS, from the orbital base jumps and gun-butting of Covenant Elites, to the dense growing layers of mythology and enemy headshots that reward you with explosions of ticker tape and cheering children.
The final game in the series from Bungie – 2010’s Reach – gave the player a unique close-up view of that entire world being wiped clean. However, Reach didn’t always “feel” like classic Halo to me – too somber, too light on day-glo purple – and that pushed me to try and pin down my favourite video game take on the mythos, at least so I could be mentally prepared to judge Halo 4. Interestingly, my final decision neatly contradicted a former strong set of opinions I had, and took me back to the time when Bungie decided to be a little more human.
Originally planned as DLC missions for Halo 3, ODST for the first time puts us in the boots of plain old humans. Highly trained badass humans, admittedly, but still far removed from the augmented flesh and seven-foot green armour that gives Master Chief such a brazen disregard for bullets. The game rotates around a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (voiced by enough Firefly alumni to justify a dreamy insistence that it’s an official tie-in) who are fighting away the invading Covenant in the lead-up to Master Chief’s explosive re-entry at the beginning of Halo 3. Microsoft’s insistence to turn it into a full retail release seemed to require more padding, so the set of missions is linked together by the silent Rookie searching through the city in search of clues. Every new clue prompts a new playable flashback.
There’s a clear noir-influenced direction in ODST, probably a result of circumstance – the game’s hub is the city of New Mombasa after a complete emergency evacuation, so its dark empty streets are the perfect place for pulsing neon billboards and dangerous lurking shadows. Even the soundtrack reflects this tonal shift, the classic Halo strings backing off to let in some crooning sax and light piano refrains. After the repeated chaos of the previous Halo games, this quietness at first feels…wrong. I remember rushing through these sections, desperate to find the highlighted helmet or gun that would activate the next story flashback. The way I rocketed past entrenched enemies, map waypoint dead ahead…it did feel a little like I was some kind of sci-fi streaker.
The missions, thankfully, were fantastic the first time and age has not damaged them. The split focus between the squad members – each with specific skills and weapons – meant that Bungie could really mix up the variety of objectives and locations. With a sharp script and snappy vocal delivery, it’s very easy to feel the jolt of going back to a silent protagonist at the end of each section. The final mission in particular is fantastic, a desperate fight across a bridge leading to a dug-in battle as you wait for extraction with a valuable asset. It felt enough to balance out the initial feelings of frustration and separation.
So, for me, that was it for a long time. A disappointing beginning that led to an exhilarating finale, in a package that just filled a gap before we got to be Spartans again. An interesting but flawed side project that put up a decent fight, but ultimately could never compete with the Chief.
Then time passed, other games got played, Reach got bought (amongst a gaggle of teenagers) at 12:30am, and ODST quietly sat untouched in my Halo collection. My fervent anticipation around Reach resulted in quiet disappointment over the end result (I’m not sure how it could have ever lived up to the Halo prequel my imagination conjured up) and the series finally felt like it had moved from my present into my past.
Thing is, ODST wouldn’t stay quiet. The idea of the human troopers was pervasive, not just the show-stopping orbital torpedoes that they insisted on using but also the fact that they had to fight in a very different way. Master Chief is designed to take the heat and stand tall as he fires a million rounds into an unlucky Brute’s face. That’s a vital part of his charm and the reason why players keep returning to him. ODSTs, however, don’t have this luxury. They are fragile, delicate meatsacks with a weak shield and paltry layer of metal being the only things keeping away the volleys of energy blasts and bullets. This calls for a distinct strategy – part stealth, part positioning and planning – and felt all the more human for it. We can never “be” the Chief, just daydream through his eyes, but the Troopers are only a few degrees removed from us in comparison. Self-preservation is a very strong motivator and it heightens every small victory.
It was actually through Reach’s lens that I grew to understand just how much I loved ODST. Firefight mode, which debuted in the latter, just didn’t feel as much fun in the former. Spartans don’t carry the same level of desperation in packs. Coordinated groups of these super soldiers are like sets of oncoming dumper trucks. This revelation led me to the realization that I missed the vulnerability of the Troopers as they provided a different kind of battle that required more of me as a player.
This is what made the muted shady structure of ODST’s hub finally fall into place. As I replay it again, I no longer have the urge to sprint. Now, I’m the human trooper up against absolutely massive odds, barely scraping through blazing battles with enemies that massively outnumber me, using strategy to win as much as weapons, before sneaking off down the streets, keeping in the shadows, listening for movement in the rain.
The quietness suddenly makes sense. It allows me to pick my route and plan my attack, which was never a real requirement of stronger warriors from previous games. The solace of being separated from your squad, of being forced to fight alone, is perfectly reflected in the gloom of the deserted city and the meanderings of the soundtrack. The back-heavy structure of the game allows me to find my feet and prove myself, before thrusting me back into the squad for the fight for my life against an army that is stronger in everything but intelligence and spirit.
And as Master Chief prepares to take my gaming world by storm once again, I find myself in the strange position of wishing I could be back as a Trooper, sneaking in the dark, battling in desperation, fighting the human fight.