I’m so glad you wrote that piece about how much you hate Halo 4 – glad because I’ve been dragging my heels coming up with a review for the piece, but you gave me a good framework to build on. You see, I’m a guy who likes to have fun when he can, although between editing writers, a consuming day job, and penning explanatory public rebuttals to the more cagey members of my staff, fun can be pretty elusive. I had fun reading your insightful piece, though, and I’m having fun writing this, so a sincere thanks to you for helping me consolidate some of those elements into one.
I’m a long-time Halo fan. Admittedly and unabashedly. I’ve retreated to the basic joy of the Halo series for a decade now, and I play each title exponentially more than the last. But I’m not writing this to apologize for Halo, or to defend it to the death, because I actually carry a lot of the same emotions that you do. I think there’s a thin, neon-emblazoned line between where you stand, and where I stand.
I wish I could sit here and say that you missed the point of the narrative – that the “cryptic babble” between Master Chief and Cortana is actually the product of some opaque genius whose depth of Homeric knowledge blankets all you could ever learn about the subject. I wish I could say that because it would validate the franchise’s success beyond simply being a well-funded mainstream shooter in this day and age – and because Microsoft would’ve made a billion dollars off of a true epic instead of a big, sprawling, nonsensical series of events held together by a couple of familiar faces and canonical alien species.
I can’t, though. Halo 4 sets itself up to tell a story that could span a trilogy of hefty books, and pulls from historical lexicon to give itself some kind of weird ethos. Save the world. Save the girl. Introduce the Spartan origins. Reveal a new species of alien with a large influence over the greater story, and a deep backstory. Eight hours of cinematic storytelling might be enough to do the scope justice, but there would be precious little room for shooting things.
To deal with this (and make a more safely marketable game) the development team at 343 developed an abridged, distilled version of the story and packed the game’s innards with explosions and massive battles that serve enough shots of adrenaline to make the player forget for a few minutes that they really don’t have any idea what it all means. Some people never snap out of that hormonal high, and when it is all over, they’re met with satisfaction. For you, Jason, the drug simply doesn’t take. For me, the high fades when the bullets stop flying.
You see, if you remove yourself from the desire to be captivated by a game’s story, all those gun fights end up being, at least on a fundamental level, pretty fun. Take it a step further and play only against other players, it hums like no other game. When I sit down after a long day at work, and I just want to focus on getting away from the weight of everyday life, I turn on Halo and dive into the world of exhilarating competition. Not to be moved – I’ll roll through BioShock or Papo & Yo if I want something that’ll draw me in emotionally. Not to be puzzled – Portal is just fine for that. But plainly, to feel enjoyment in nothing more than the sport, replete with its hyper-tuned features and mechanics and pace. It’s like going to a club and enjoying the thumping bass that drives each Top 40 hit, while you save the Mozart for the quiet of your living room.
Not that it forgives Halo of its impressive shortcomings. Poor storytelling and superficial emotional triggers are starkly apparent in the game, and critics should be quick to point it out. But what it does well isn’t meant for you – it’s meant for me.
To play Devil’s advocate – for all the praise heaped onto Dead Space 2 for its lurid visuals and surprising storytelling, it’s multiplayer component was pretty terrible. It was flat, boring, and not built to be a sustainable ecosystem for competitive gamers to thrive. Yet, it’s hard to fault the end result for trying to reach a broader audience and failing, because its core competency was delivering thrills with a few measures of emotional depth, and it did just that. Halo is just the reverse of that formula.
And no, I don’t think you missed anything by not shaking that Redbox until Disc 2 fell out and opened up the world of competitive Halo 4 to you. Frankly, I don’t think it would’ve mattered. I think Halo’s core competency just isn’t enough to make the experience worthwhile for gamers that aren’t drawn in by its multiplayer aspect. And that’s completely reasonable.
But I would wager that for many, including myself, tapping into that level of gutty “fun” is enough to keep us drawing from the bottomless well of the Halo enterprise, and worth the $60 every time we do it. Despite all of its downside.
That’s the thin line I was talking about before.
Maybe in 10 years you will have discovered your own brand of “fun.” And maybe it’ll be in the form of a Halo game.
Probably not, but it’s always worth a look.
About the Author:
James Hawkins is the founder of Bit Creature. He's a published poet, dabbling sportswriter, and former Senior Editor of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.
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