This might not be news to some of you, but it turns out that Halo is really good. I made this discovery rather rapidly just last weekend. Well I say “rapidly”. You’ll have to discount my previous 11 years of multi-faceted derision from the equation in order for that statement to remain strictly accurate.
You see I’d never got on with Halo. My attitude towards it over the years has been one of indifference at best, and one all too frequently typified by searing damnation of its generic universe, generic characters, and slow, generic, “my first FPS” gameplay. When I first played Combat Evolved on my uni friend’s Xbox I wasn’t impressed in the slightest. I was feasting upon a diet of Quake and Half-Life at the time, and the lumpen, broad strokes exploits of a faceless jolly green giant space marine in a cartoon sci-fi universe just did not do it for me at all. And as for all of those claims that Halo had changed the face of gaming forever by making FPS work on a console? Pah. Goldeneye had done that four years earlier as far as I was concerned. The N64 just lacked the Xbox’s second analogue stick.
I tried again with Halo 2, playing a chunk of the campaign in co-op with another friend. But again I couldn’t summon up even one iota of the effort required to care less about it. I had TimeSplitters 2 by that point, which was faster, funnier, more imaginative in its design and storytelling, and looked way better from an art design perspective. And then Half-Life 2 happened. Sorry Halo. Another nice try, but I wasn’t biting.
And so it continued until last weekend. Every new Halo was a bit shinier and brought a couple of new tweaks, but a quick dabble always gave me the unpleasant, sluggish feeling of playing Quake III underwater. It still felt like a training wheels FPS. A competent game that copied the basics of multiple better games, but didn’t execute them with as much finesse or flair.
Whatever Halo did, it never managed to shake my perception that the franchise had just got lucky. That it had gained an artificially high profile by simple virtue of being one of the stronger first-party exclusives in the Xbox’s launch line-up and had coasted along on undeserved circumstantial hype since then. So I kept going back to what I saw as the smarter, more interesting shooters, and left Halo on the shelf time and time again. With Half-Life and Portal and Bioshock and Battlefield multiplayer to occupy me, there was no way that the Chief could possibly grab my attention.
But now he has. I rinsed through about 70% of Halo 4’s campaign in one sitting on Friday night. I finished it off the next day, and I’ve been playing multiplayer during every spare minute ever since. I just really, really like Halo now. Completely and wholeheartedly, and I absolutely cannot and will not stop playing it unless I absolutely have to.
I’ve discovered that I was wrong about it, basically. That’s not something I say about anything very often, because I’m a) usually right about everything and b) always very stubborn. But I was wrong. Despite some flaws in its campaign, Halo 4 has completely won me over.
But how did I get to this point? How did I come to be in possession of my own copy of Halo 4, after so many years unwilling to even use a Spartan-based disc as a novelty beer coaster? The simple explanation is that things have changed a lot in FPS over the last 11 years, and what Halo represents to me now is a very different thing to what it represented in 2001.
You see for me, first-person shooters are about a lot more than simply shooting things from a first-person perspective. Given their viewpoint they’re potentially the most immersive genre of all, but personally that immersion has to come as much from gameplay possibilities as it does from visual fidelity. There’s no point giving me a beautifully rendered world if I don’t feel like my actions within it really matter.
I need to be able to have a meaningful effect on my FPS environments. I need my tactical decisions and the creativity of my thinking to shape or at least strongly influence the way things play out. And I need the game to accommodate my desire for a bespoke, self-authored experience and react to the one I create. To me, FPS guns aren’t weapons. They’re unique, functionally distinct tools with which to cultivate and choreograph eclectic emergent action sequences and mid-fight meta-narratives. And that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in FPS as much as it used to.