Its taken around 15 years for video games to legitimise themselves. As far as the right of centre dirtsheets go, video games are responsible for broken Britain, the dissimilation of the family unit, the worldwide financial meltdown and that woman putting a cat in a bin.
But at some point at the turn of century, video games started making headlines for slightly more enviable reasons. Whether it was selling more units than more ‘socially-acceptable’ forms of entertainment, revolutionising the way music is distributed or making more money than the average Hollywood blockbuster. Like it or not, the gaming industry is now officially a substantial form of interactive media.
Last year I went to the ‘premiere’ of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in a velvet-roped Leicester Square: a central London cinema showcase of the trailer, development and gameplay, with full red carpet treatment. Later, branded Hummers would transport assorted glitterati, blaggers and liggers to Baker Street for a big party with a performance from Dizzee Rascal. I spent most of the night quaffing everything I could see (wine, mojitos, beer, Champaign) with one hand on a joypad, stumbled out and decorated the floor of the Metropolitan line with everything I had consumed earlier.
You’ve probably seen the cryptic ‘Welcome to Noble Team’ adverts mid-WC2010 matches. The last 2 weeks schedules have been spattered with the surprisingly emotive Halo Reach ads where multicoloured cyber-Stigs get all NFL with a time bomb. You’ve also probably muttered ‘its all very nice, but what is it about’. Let me enlighten you.
Halo Reach is the spiritual prequel to the three numerated Halo: Combat Evolved games, and the most recent back-story incantation Halo ODST. The creation of US developers Bungie and the financial backing of Microsoft Game Studios, the Halo series has proved both Microsoft’s Trojan horse in penetrating the console gaming industry and a genre defining game that debuted the hallmarks of many of today’s FPS (first person shooters) games.
Halo debuted in 2001 as Microsoft’s in-house launch killer app for its new baby platform. It was a histrionic gung-ho epic of symphonic set pieces, chattering alien combatants and some fiendish artificial intelligence not yet seen in this genre before. The story of the towering lead Spartan II super soldier, Master Chief (imaginatively entitled John, in a nod to Sly Stallone’s titular one man army in Demolition Man) and his battle with alien race The Covenant debuted to a willing audience ready to soak up some intelligent sci-fi hokum.
An original story by Bungie, fed on a diet of Iain M Banks, Christopher Rowley, Larry Nivens and Robert Stately, the story of the mysterious rotating planet Halo was perfect fodder for sci-fi fans at the turn of century – complete with plenty of self-referential nonsense and thin veiled digs at US politics, on par with the hugely successful Battlestar Galactica re-invention.
The most striking thing about Halo would be how many elements it introduced (or at least quantified) in the FPS genre. What Wolfenstein birthed and Quake grew, Halo was the FPS coming of age. In 2001, the FPS scene was dominated by the PC. Tournament battlefield games like Unreal Tournament were ruling the roost. Console FPS were often poor PC ports, usually let down buy their lack of use of the joypad interface, versus the PC’s mouse and keyboard double act. Halo was originally developed for use with the Microsoft Sidewinder joypad, so its successful mapping onto the new Xbox controller proved a game changer, allowing the protagonist to jump, duck, instant melee and fluid mid–reload switching added advanced tactics to the title.
Lets talk about the ‘shield recharge’. Now a hallmark of almost every FPS on the shelves of your local peddler, Halo debuted the recharging energy bar. Battles altered from waves of tin-can alley shoot-outs, to fleet-footed hide and seek battles, seeking cover to recharge and reload mid-shoot out (the stop-start dynamic that lead to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 killer-app Gears of War and the sub-genre, the cover-based shooter).
Tag onto this a class structure of assailants, with a squad approach of flanking, luring and covering and you’re presented with a logical, intelligent opponent. It’s not exactly Skynet, but after years of whack-a-mole style target practice, it proved pivotal.
But it’s the fans that truly define a game’s success, that elevate it from software to cultural icon. And the in the increasingly social digital community we all partake, every brand is seeking to achieve the status that Halo has risen to. Ardent fans will quote Sgt. Johnsons butch quips like a TV Evangelist reeling off fruity slabs of Bible. They’ll recant battles with the same dewy-eyed poignancy of WW2 vet reminiscing about the beaches of Normandy. Blood Gulch, Valhalla, Sandtrap, Tower of Power – all locations peppering the cartography of the Halo universe, each with its own heritage, mythology and spirit, entirely bestowed by the audience. One minute we were all bitching about Microsoft Vista crashing, next we were talking about how the Xbox is the only console choice for the ‘hardcore gamer’. That’s PR you just can’t buy.
These fans were implicit to the success of Halo 2, when Master Chief took the fight online. A fresh-faced Xbox Live network immediately populated by a feverish audience, pledging allegiance to Covenant or Spartan. A legacy that continued from its launch in 2005, to April this year (when the servers were finally closed). Not before an influx of Halo-fans paid their last respects to the game that had swallowed up so many hours of their lives.
Halo Reach brings the story full circle, placing you as the sixth member of Noble Team. Early versions of the Spartan soldiers, defending Reach – one of the last bastions of humanity from extermination at the hands of The Covenant (on a mission from God I might add… dare video games take on religion?).
Capitalising on the humanistic story of Halo ODST and its squad of drop-ship warriors, Reach brings in elements of class systems. Adding grade techniques such as a hologram decoys and jetpacks to the Spartan arsenal. Tweaked air combat vehicles, the fan-favourite Warthog jeep, all wrapped in the familiar Halo palette of primary colours. Individual customisation of each Spartan provides the chance for you to decal your solider to a level not dissimilar to an F1 game and the medal-based awards system as per the Battlefield games adds a collectable aspect to the longevity and the reward for the hours whiled away.
Halo Reach will provide a sombre, inevitable climax to one of the most idolised franchises of this century – yet its legacy will live on as the lynchpin of one of the most revered of console game genres. Whether you remember it for its impact on the mechanics of the shooter gameplay, or you giggle at the chattering incidental dialogue of the Covenant grunts, the overblown orchestral score and the epic vistas of alien worlds – it will be remembered.