Scottish journalist William Lyon MacKenzie once said, "The promises of yesterday are the taxes of today."
Never has this been truer than with Halo 3, the eagerly anticipated Xbox 360 game developed by Bungie Studios and published by Microsoft. The promises of yesterday, especially from the first installment of the series, came in the form of an arresting storyline, a powerful new hardware system, tremendous scope in terms of visual panoramas, and a complete set of game modes, as well as fabulous multiplayer action.
Let's fast forward to 2007. The time for promises is over -- the taxes are due. Luckily, Halo 3 pretty much pays its dues in full. The game's scope is easily the equal of the first game's and manages to pin a great big "L" on the forehead of Halo 2, which most players agree took a step back in terms of level complexity and visual diversity. Halo 3 adds on or improves numerous features of the previous games, bringing them up to next-gen standards, including, but not limited to: replay mode, The Forge (the game's level editor), as well as multiplayer levels and various modes.
But this isn't a consumer review, and the taxes due aren't due for just one video game franchise. Rather they reflect a changing attitude for an entire industry. Based on Halo's runaway success, the paradigm for a successful video game studio -- and its relationship to its publisher -- may never be the same again.
Let's delve deeper into Halo 3's new features and they way they affect the playability of the game and the viability of Bungie, the developer. Hopefully you won't find that too taxing.
To Do It Right, You Have To End It
The test for any franchise is how it wraps things up at the end. The master, of course, was J. R. R. Tolkien, who managed to bring all the disparate threads of his The Lord of the Rings plots together in the third volume, The Return of the King. But not all authors (or developers) have been so lucky. Philip Jose Farmer, for instance, had so much going on that he had to wrap up his Riverworld trilogy in a fourth volume, and in my humble opinion, it wasn't up to the standard of the first three books.
In video games, epic trilogies are rare, and developers are loath to wrap things up anyway. For example, Final Fantasy is now up to XII (with the next element in the pipe for PlayStation 3), and the franchise shows no sign of slowing down.
Let's check out Return of the King in short form to see how it holds up: Return of the King depicts Frodo and Sam's perilous journey to Mt. Doom, and the rest of the fellowship's quest in aiding Frodo and Sam in any way possible and restoring Aragorn to his rightful ascension as the King of Gondor.
Then, compare it with Halo 3: Master Chief is on his way to Earth to stop the Prophet of Truth and his army of Brutes from taking down the universe. Cortana has been captured by Gravemind, and The Arbiter and his Elites have forged an uneasy truce with Humankind to battle against the greater evil that had arisen.
Boiled down to a single paragraph, this Halo 3 doesn't quite pack the punch of Return of the King. It is all there, of course. Hero bent on completing his quest, but where Tolkien's story hits the ground running, Halo 3 seems to descend into Seinfeldian yada-yada-yada speak. Where Halo 3 succeeds is in getting Master Chief back to center stage; that's where he belongs and where people expect him to be. Where it fails (though "fails" is an awfully strong term when referring to a game that has generated mega-millions in income, merchandises out the wazoo, and even a feature film in pre-production) is that it isn't able to satisfactorily resolve all the elements that popped into the narrative during the middle chapter. For instance, what is the role of The Arbiter in the story? It now appears that he's some kind of E.T. lap dog at the end of Master Chief's leash. Its AI plays that way, too. He wanders around, fiddles about, and generally gets in the way.
While its backstory may be less than engaging, the good folks at Bungie recognized that they desperately needed to wrap things up. The times, they were a-changing. The staff was getting restless and the notion of marching lockstep into another episode of the game just wasn't in the cards.
So, regardless of how clumsy it might have been (afterall, there's an old proverb that says, "Every end is a new beginning"), Bungie ended the thing.
Hooray for that, and stay tuned for new beginnings. Nobody really turns their back on mega-millions, do they?
The Difficulty of Difficulty
The success of the Halo franchise has led to a need to appeal to a wider collection of gamers than just those labeled "hard core." As a result, in Halo 3 the easy and normal settings are easier than they might have been prior, and the heroic and legendary settings are likewise more difficult. Casual gamers will be overjoyed with the easy setting, but they'll miss out on numerous cool features of the game, including hidden skulls and cool enemy AI. Dedicated gamers, the ones who have invested hours mastering earlier incarnations of Halo, will want to jump in on heroic or legendary, lest they risk becoming bored from the start.
The secret skulls were first included in Halo 2, but then they nearly always activated some challenging feature, such as not being able to see anything on your HUD. In Halo 3, the system of skulls is much more challenging (read: fun) for anyone choosing to find them and activate them. A skull might make it so you can't see your gun scope, or enable enemies to throw grenades faster. Activating a golden skull makes the game harder for the player, but by surviving you earn a lot more points.
The skulls make a return in Halo 3, but have been re-imagined so as to be more accessible to gamers and to make replaying Halo 3 more interesting. The skulls (most of which can be found at normal, heroic, and legendary difficulty) can be activated before a level to increase the intrigue. Most skulls make things a lot tougher. The grunt party skull, for example, offers confetti celebrations for headshots, and there's no better way to say, "Olé!" than by throwing a confetti laden fiesta in the midst of a firefight. Others remove your motion sensor display, HUD or reticule. And a third empowers enemies with incredible grenade skills. Lastly, some are really just for fun.
Most of these skulls are really in amazingly difficult locations. The fog skull, for instance, is found on the floodgate level, and you get to it by walking down from the anti-air gun you destroyed in the previous mission, encountering the checkpoint near a ramp next to a missile launcher. A nearby marine shouts, "There! Over There!" and you're supposed to look up and over to the right, directly at the roof of the building next to the missile launcher. Kill the single flood form that is holding the skull, but before he jumps. Do so and the skull will drop where you can collect it. But your timing has to be just right. Kill him too early and the skull gets stuck on the roof; too late and the flood form will jump away with it.
Sound like fun? Well, it is, even though skull scores really only affect your metascore. The developers of Halo 3 recognized that the average player is only going to play through the game's story mode once (if that), but that the game's difficulty settings and the skull system are the kind of features that make a game fun to play regardless of whether it's the first time or the fiftieth. Heck, the original Halo is a game that friends of mine still dredge off the shelf from time to time. So while they toyed with it, fiddled with it, screwed with it, they didn't screw it up.
And that's perhaps the single lesson to walk away with if you're a developer looking to establish a franchise: Don't screw it up.
Calling All Players!
Developing three titles within one strong franchise should account for something, and for Bungie that meant having the time to perfect the game's multiplayer offerings.
The meat of Halo 3 truly is its 11 multiplayer maps (and more via download over the run of the game). The maps are diverse. Large, open maps like Sandtrap enable snipers to lurk about scoring kills, while other maps, such as Isolation and Snowbound, provide open upper levels and constrained subterranean levels. These maps allow players to practice the widest range of skills to date, long-ranged and close-ranged combat, for instance.
What's most exciting about this multiplayer offering is that it is possible to adjust the maps by using The Forge. It is possible to rearrange placement of power-ups, weapons, spawn points, and objectives. It's even possible to drop objects, equipment, and vehicles. To make a long story short, while you can't freshen up the geometry of the level, you can change just about everything else! Even better, you can buy and drop objects into the level while you're playing, so it's possible to buy yourself a rocket launcher and drop it into the level so your character can find it right away and begin using it to blow enemies away.
The final thought from this section has to do with reuse of technology. It is perhaps the core of what Bungie has going for it. If you develop all these cool features for one blockbuster game, why shouldn't you be able to shove them under the hood of another game idea? And, as Bungie began to discover, the answer to that is: You should!
Play the Game, Be the Game
Who needs Barbie Fashion Fever when you've got Master Chief and his modifiable helmet?
In Halo 3, customization is the name of the game. Not only can you use The Forge to modify levels, you can also change the look of your characters by modifying helmets, armor styles, colors, and symbols.
You can also edit your camera on the fly by detaching it and recording the action so it can be enjoyed frame by frame at a later time, down to the visuals, explosive particles, sound effects, and such.
As for the downers of the game, there are a few, but not many. Let's trip over these lightly. The campaign mode is a bit skanky. There's still too much backtracking. The companion AI is ludicrous. In the end, Master Chief saves the day, but does it really pack the punch of other epic trilogies? You be the judge.
For fans of the series, Halo 3 measures up. If it were a feature film, well ...
Doing the Splits
"Sex appeal is 50 percent what you've got, and 50 percent what people think you've got." -- Sophia Loren
As a part of Microsoft, people figured that the Halo franchise was all Bungie had going for it. However, the appeal of Bungie began to be the 50 percent that folks thought they had. And, to carry the original metaphor over the top, making Halo games under the overly watchful eyes of Microsoft must have been more taxing to Bungie than anyone ever thought. Despite the fact that Halo 3 moved off the shelves faster than Britney Spears left rehab, Bungie and Microsoft Corp. announced on October 5, 2007 that Bungie Studios was to become a privately held independent company, Bungie, LLC, one in which Microsoft will hold only a minority equity interest. The new arrangement will enable both parties to expand their partnership to include new IPs created and owned by Bungie.
There's no first-person shooter on 360 that can equal Halo 3's blend of cinematic action, adrenaline-pumping shootouts, and male (and female?) bonding gameplay. But stretching out a story across three installments, coming up with a satisfying ending (especially for a video game franchise that must also include lots of interactive elements), and satisfying everyone who might want to play proved almost too much for Bungie. The fact that they will now be able to do other than Halo games and to take home a much larger piece of the pie shows how successful their efforts actually were.
Stay tuned. The appeal of a liberated Bungie, free to do its own thing, might just be sexy indeed.
Tom Carroll is a video game environment artist and freelance writer in southern California.