Considering that Halo 2 just stopped rather than ending, I had to start Halo 3 immediately. Just think, though — imagine you’d played Halo and Halo 2 on PC the first time around, and then they just… didn’t release Halo 3 on PC at all. That would have been truly awful, and right here lies the vindication of my decision to avoid all contact with Halo until I could play the lot. At least if the Master Chief Collection had never come, I wouldn’t have been cut off mid-swing.
And after all that… Will Halo 3 be even more of the same?
Master Chief Collection: Halo 3
Short answer: yes.
Longer answer: shiny graphics, a couple more guns. Bonus deployable items were also added; I kept forgetting I even had them and barely used them.
Longest answer: I’m leaning back towards “why is this franchise such a prominent cultural phenomenon?” It’s a nice setting, looks cool, good banter… but… It seems to be missing something, and I’m not really sure what. I never actually felt compelled to play it by much desire beyond my commitment to seeing this whole thing through, my own obsessive tendencies. It’s fine.
The thing is, I can feel its influence in other games. I can look at Unreal Tournament 2004 and trace almost one for one which vehicles it nicked from Halo. I can see the same curves in the Geth ships and architecture of Mass Effect as I do in the Covenant ships and architecture of Halo. The whole time I’ve felt I’m playing some kind of knock-off Crysis, but Halo and Halo 2 predate Crysis so it’s clearly the other way around (even Far Cry is from 2004, making it of an age with Halo 2 and long after the first game).
That’s not a slight on these games — there is nothing original under the sun and tasteful recycling is an important part of the creative process. What surprises me is how much influence the Halo franchise has clearly had, despite being… Well, nothing special. It’s pretty. It’s well-made. It’s fine. Halo 3 is more of the same.
You can still dual-wield and it’s still as annoying, as you discard your second weapon to throw a grenade. You still fight the Covenant and then the Flood conveniently arrive when it’s time to shake things up. You drive around in a warthog a lot, or get somebody else to drive you around in a warthog. There’s a halo. Cortana flirts with the Master Chef.
Boxes, I’m trying to say, are thoroughly ticked.
Actually I’m being unfairly cynical again. The giant four-legged Covenant mech, the Scarab, makes a glorious return. Firing at its legs for long enough brings it to the ground, where you can jump on the back and shoot out its power core — or you sit back in a tank, blast its back end off and shoot its core from there. This is the sort of thing that the Halo franchise has been consistently excellent at: huge, mobile chunks of scenery that you can actually walk on even while they are moving. The Scarabs trundle around their allotted areas with little regard for the tightly-scripted tracks that would have powered the same encounter in any older title. Scarab fights can be difficult, but they’re more than fine; they’re cool. They play into the grandeur of the whole thing. All it’s missing is an end boss where you get to beat one in a giant mech of your own.
There is one genuinely annoying problem, and that’s that it still refuses to show any subtitles even though I’ve explicitly set them to “on”. I figured I wasn’t allowed subtitles in the first two games because I played them in Classic mode instead of Anniversary mode (assuming that the original titles simply didn’t have subs at all), but then when Halo 3 didn’t have any either and I wasn’t sure what to think. There was a brief moment at the end of Halo 2 when I somehow got them to show, so maybe it’s just a bug.
Maybe all the dialogue I missed because I was, I don’t know, in the middle of a firefight would have made me feel something more.
Actually, I think dialogue is something of a problem, or more importantly, how little of it there actually is. This manifests itself in two ways: big plot moments lack gravitas because things haven’t been emphasised enough in the run-up, and you’re sometimes left kind of aimless because nobody actually points you in a direction.
I will commence with the spoilers here, but I’m hoping the statute of limitations applies because Halo 3 is Old(ish).
Later on in the game, you must infiltrate the Flood-infested Covenant home-city of High Charity to rescue Cortana. Excellent — the game without Cortana just isn’t the same. It’s all fine as you dive in; you don’t know where she’s being held so you’re expecting to explore a bit, take your time looking for doors and mulching you way through the nasties. Of course you successfully find Cortana, then… Nothing. You need to escape but are given no indication of how you might actually achieve this.
Turns out you go back the way you came. Okay, fine, the Halo franchise has honed our retreading instinct at least. But it turns out that you’re supposed to head for a crashed Pelican transport ship you passed by earlier. I found this rather disorientating — when I passed the ship, it looked broken and I couldn’t interact with it in any way. There was a body and some human weapons nearby, so I assumed it was just an environmental prop, an excuse to give me some weapon choices and ammo.
To me, the moment when I had successfully rescued Cortana would have been an ideal moment for the Master Chef to say “I passed a downed Pelican on the way in, maybe we can use that to escape”. But Master Chef says basically nothing, ever. Which is broadly okay; he’s an FPS protagonist and he speaks with his guns… But there are many moments like this when just one extra line would have made things a lot smoother.
(Consider the level in Crysis where you enter the alien mothership, and on losing radio contact, Nomad starts narrating his progress, recording a video diary for the outside world. This thinking out loud conveniently allows him to direct you, the player, in the absence of a commanding officer actually giving directions, without resorting to out-of-game hacks.)
My second example issue is a bit higher level, but I think it emerges from the same root.
It’s made pretty clear throughout Halo 3 (and less forcefully in the previous two games) that humans are the long lost descendants of the Forerunners who built the titular rings in the first place. The thing is that while it’s obvious from a load of quirks as you go — everybody suspiciously needing a human to press the buttons to activate things, the fact that the Ark is on Earth — it’s never really discussed in dialogue. I don’t remember a single person going “how the fuck is the Ark on Earth?!” (Not to mention “how did we never dig this up by accident before?!”)
More to the point, the Forerunners are barely mentioned except as “those people wot built the rings to wipe out the Flood”. I stumbled into a side chamber during one of the Ark levels and got a garbled account of the last Forerunners “archiving” sentient species before they fired off the rings which pretty much sealed the deal, but again, this was optional — this big pillar of foreshadowing could be walked right past.
So when 343 Guilty Spark finally goes “no, Master Chef, you are the forerunners” it is utterly robbed of any grandeur. If you hadn’t picked up on any of the hints you’d go “so what?” and if you had you’re like “duh”, but either way, none of the characters gives a shit and it has no effect on anything. That should have been a huge revelation! Should have been fanfares and fireworks and screams like I am your father!
Instead, it meant nothing. We finally got to blow the daft little C3-P0 off-cut to bits and then we drove off into the sunset.
Now this is no slight on the premise of the narrative — I like this kind of bombastic space-operatic nonsense, and okay, yes, despite my misgivings I was able to piece it all together, presumably as intended. I just feel like the entire game undersold this aspect of it, and I wonder if the lack of Master Chef responding to and processing what he’s seeing is at the heart of that. Once Cortana is back in your helmet and giving you instructions and odd comments, some back-and-forth from the Chef could have done a lot to build up the big moments and give them the heft they surely deserve. I mean, you wouldn’t just tack on a “by the way, humans are important” to your story at the last minute… would you?
Case in point — in Unreal II, a game I suspect owes a lot to Halo, has numerous two-way conversations between the protagonist and his equivalent handler during gameplay. While it’s deeply flawed as a game, all of that build-up means that when you get to the end it really fuckin’ hits you. (Or at least it really hits me, but I guess I cried when Godzilla falls into the volcano at the end of The Return of Godzilla so maybe I’m just made of mush.)
Ahh well, it’s still a serviceable sci-fi romp. Halo 3 is more of the same, and the same is all right. It’s fine.