2020: Year of Halo – Part 4: A Lesson in Fight-Finishing

The dream is dead. Early on while I was writing this, Microsoft made the disappointing but very understandable announcement that 2020 would not be ending with Halo Infinite, due to “multiple factors that have contributed to development challenges, including the ongoing COVID-related impacts affecting us all this year.” Instead, we can now look forward to its release in 2021, hopefully as a better game made by healthier people. In the meantime, a true classic has graced the PC market for the first time in its history. And after another few months of clashing co-op schedules and progress delays, I finally feel like I understand why it has earned that reputation. I finally, as they say, finished the fight.

Once upon a time, I was a teenager, and I was lucky enough to own some videogame consoles. They were all produced by Nintendo. There were a heap of amazing games on those consoles. This was all fine and dandy for a good long while. But then in 2009, roughly two years into the stratospheric success of the Wii, Nintendo stopped making the kinds of games I wanted to play. So, soon after starting my first job, I began looking elsewhere for them. I ended up with an Xbox 360, although Halo wasn’t high on my list of reasons why. The days of playing the first game on the original Xbox at other people’s houses were long gone. Halo 2 had been a non-event for me. I just wanted the Banjo-Kazooie games, Tales of Vesperia, and Borderlands.

But I’ve never been the kind of person to let entire corners of a console’s library go unacknowledged, and once I had a taste of HD gaming I wanted more. So I began to explore more 360 titles. I joined the Call of Duty train. I checked out Viva Pinata and Crackdown. I had my videogame preconceptions shaken by Braid. I gave Gears of War a spin. And even though almost nothing about it felt recognisable to me, I eventually found my way to Halo 3.

I did try the campaign – my first-ever taste of one in the Halo series – but without the context of the prior games I lost interest a couple of missions in. I moved on to multiplayer, which did hold my attention thanks to some extremely flashy controllable vehicles. Though it took a while to grow accustomed to the deluge of combat options that were brand-new to me, and I got bodied in several online matches, my relationship with the game improved drastically when I found a group of friends at uni who were keen to play. Thanks to the wonders of Xbox 360 System Link, I hosted my first LAN party with Halo 3 as the centrepiece. Then, my second. And so on and so forth. It took time, but Halo 3 became my default, my ground zero, the yardstick to which I would unconsciously compare every other game in the series.

A decade later, playing Halo 3 on PC feels like coming home.

More recent Halo games may have refined or expanded the formula even further, but playing 3 feels comfortable; every piece of the physics engine feels like it was tuned with confidence. The punch of almost every weapon feels substantial and worthwhile, particularly right after playing Halo 2. The weapon sits lower on the screen than any of the other PC titles thus far, allowing for a wealth of visibility. Dual-wielding returns but feels like just another option, rather than the occasional necessity it was before. We’ve gone from two to four possible grenade types, and the weapon selection is a comparative embarrassment of riches.

The game’s heads-up display is crisp and delicious, marking a generational leap forward in clarity. Even though the textures, geometry and especially character models on show make it very clear that this was an early Xbox 360 game – a step down from the mighty polish of Halo 2 Anniversary – every static element layered on top of the action feels worlds more contemporary than the bulky, solid-colour UI elements of the first two numbered Halo games. There is an actual, honest-to-goodness objective marker in the campaign, and it doesn’t take an age to show up. But I’m getting ahead of myself already.

This seemingly never-ending marathon project of mine has been built around getting the main Halo stories in my ‘played’ pile at long last, and though not one of the staggered PC game releases so far has failed to throw down a pile of technical hurdles to elongate the experience, there’s something about Halo 3‘s sheer scope and level design that makes it feel like the longest in the series so far.

That’s not a bad thing: it’s definitely not technically the longest; my mate and I didn’t actually get stuck like we did at points in the last two games (thank you objective marker!) and there’s far less environmental repetition in the levels. But the game is certainly not shy about signalling a shift between areas and story beats by bringing up cinematic black bars every couple of minutes, cleanly emblazoning a pithy line of relevant wordplay while the next bit loads. The flow of the gameplay feels a tad stifled at times as a result, but the main effect of this technique is an added sense of momentum to the ever-shifting story. Halo 3 feels EPIC.

A ton of ground is covered by the final chapter in the Master Chief’s fight against the Covenant armies, and not just narratively. Halo’s expansive outdoor areas have felt emblematic of the series’ strengths since my early days of Blood Gulch splitscreen sessions at friends’ houses, and finally playing the campaigns has done little to shake that feeling for me. That said, Halo 3‘s outdoor campaign levels are easily my favourite thus far. That aforementioned commitment to scale delivers some truly fantastic vehicle-based battles across sandy canyons, destroyed roads and wide-open greenery. The size and intensity of the enemies in these heavy-weapon skirmishes kept me perpetually on my toes whether I was in the turret on the back of a Warthog, zig-zagging around in a fully-mobile Ghost or shredding foes behind the wheel of a beautifully ugly Brute Chopper. I think I’ll remember Halo 3‘s gameplay the most fondly for these sections.

And yes, there’s the narrative too. From my understanding of Halo 2‘s premature development cycle, I was expecting that game’s cliffhanger to be resolved in a blaze of glory, but I wasn’t expecting it to be resolved so far from the end of the game. A massive Covenant chase effort takes centre stage for most of proceedings – as 2 naturally foreshadowed – while every voice line focuses doggedly on toppling the biggest loose end left over from that game, the megalomaniac Prophet of Truth. Then a frustrating corridor swarming with tanky Brute enemies leads straight to Truth, who goes down in an appropriately dramatic fashion at the hands of the Keith David-voiced Arbiter (who I played as once again). By that point I had experienced more forward momentum in the story than the original Xbox Halo games combined, and I was reeling.

But just as the end seems near, the manipulative god-like parasite Gravemind reveals its duplicitous nature and Chief/Arbiter dive into the depths of an overrun vessel, smashing through the Flood’s most horrific incarnations on the way to Chief’s captive super-AI companion Cortana. Cue a host of intermittent image-warping effects between Flood encounters as the Gravemind does it’s best to sound as capital-E evil as possible while Cortana shares some of her darkest peak-2007 emo poetry. By this point I had played two Halo stories that get hijacked by the Flood back-to-back, and yet this fake-out finale still got me. Maybe it’s the fact that the Gravemind has you fighting alongside the Flood in that earlier ‘final’ corridor, which is admittedly pretty surreal in a year when I played Halo: Combat Evolved‘s Library for the first time.

Regardless, the game’s indoor arena design takes a step up within the final couple of levels, rising to meet the standard set by its outdoor areas by evoking a Lovecraftian anthill of sorts. Flanking paths and close-quarters verticality suddenly rule the day, and staying on the move becomes both crucial to survival and even more fun than usual. Many of the earlier Halo games’ indoor locales feature enemy encounters in and around intersecting corridors, which make for engaging high-risk grenade shenanigans that can nonetheless end very quickly if you mistime an aggressive push. Halo 3 packs a whole lot fewer of these, populating interiors with more offensive and defensive options like walkways and side pockets; this is probably why I barely noticed the game toning down the appearances of that crispy shotgun. That alien hive vibe is the ultimate excuse to throw in pathways and pockets that would never make sense in a room designed by humanoids, and the result is my favourite indoor Halo encounter yet.

The actual finale that soon follows takes a leaf out of the Hollywood action trilogy book: Do the thing you did at the end of the first one that people loved so much, but do it BIGGER. Once again we’re in a warthog escaping a Halo ring that’s about to destroy itself and everything in the immediate vicinity, but this time the path is snaking and wide, there are enemies and explosions absolutely everywhere, and the backdrop is a scorching-hot space sunset. But we have an objective marker and a lot of 2020 Halo behind us, so we get to that final explosion, which sees my boy Arbiter safely back to earth and then to his rebel ex-Covenant faction, though separated from the now-adrift Chief. As John-117 goes into hibernation he asks Cortana to wake him when she needs him, and she may still have some unresolved issues from being plugged into a giant zombie squid…

As we now know, the fight wasn’t technically finished after Halo 3 wrapped up in 2007. There were more stories to be told, some of which I’ve played more than others. But since Halo Infinite‘s delay, the pace of the Halo game rollout on PC has slowed, which at least in theory gives the developers a chance to iron out more bugs in time for their launches. By the end of this year The Master Chief Collection may still end up crossing the line as a feature-complete release, but 3 will be my last Halo post in 2020. With new consoles and the end of the year hitting mighty soon (in theory), there are other things to write about. But if we all make it to Infinite‘s actual release day, I will have played all the campaigns leading up to it; that is still the plan. In the meantime I need to give a huge shout-out to my good friend Toby Berger for sticking with me this year in co-op play through more interruptions and troubleshooting sessions than anyone needs, especially these days. It is done. It is (sort of) finished.


NEXT > Halo 3: ODST


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