So I just finished playing it, rather annoyingly I also don’t have internet at the moment, so this probably won’t go up for a while. Anyways, here be spoilers, so don’t read if you don’t want to know.
Still with me? Then I’ll begin.
So, what’s good, what’s bad. Often the same things. This is still Halo, so that includes everything from the two previous games. The Flood are still really, really dull to wade through, you can only carry two weapons at a time, and most of the story meat is delivered in cinematics.
Altogether I didn’t have much complaint about the gameplay, and it was really robust in a very Halo-y way. Everything’s been sharpened and refined a little, so the dual wielding interface is better, and there are a few new grenades types, and new “equipment” that has various effects, but for the most part that’s extraneous noise. I hardly ever actually picked a type of grenade for instance – for me grenades are for when you want an explosion to occur; the exact type of explosion is immaterial.
The main take-away from all of this is that if you liked Halo and Halo 2, you’ll probably like this.
On to story matters! I’m actually really disappointed. There’s a few gratuitous character deaths; clearly someone thought that being last in the series means it’s time to start killing people off. A main thrust of the story is that Cortana is in the clutches of the Gravemind and it’s all a bit sucky for her. This apparently translates to her transmitting a bunch of indecipherable nonsense to you that only makes sense if you’re clutching the Halo story bible. Seriously, her insane rantings require you to know some really peripheral stuff like Cortana being an AI made from the cloned brain of a-never-seen-in-the-game character, Dr Halsey, otherwise it just sounds like garbage.
Of course, Cortana’s absence would hit harder if not for the fact that her main role, being generally helpful and banterly with the Chief, is now undertaken by Miranda Keyes jabbering in your ear all the time, so you never really have a cause to miss Cortana anyway.
But never mind such trivial issues – the story itself feels like it’s made of Swiss cheese. There’s no explanation what-so-ever of how the Chief came to be falling from the sky at the start of the game having last been seen on Truth’s ship. The weirdass Ark portal on Earth is left entirely unexplained, with no hint of why it’s there. There’s barely a mention that the human race is on the verge of extinction, no hint of this being a desperate last stand. The “fight for Earth” feels entirely limp and pathetic.
Soldiers quip about it being taken out of your salary when you prang a Warthog, for instance. Maybe it was intended to be black humour, but it was delivered all wrong, and so you get a serious lack of any kind of gravitas. I’m not sure I could be so cheery if I was one of the last few remaining human beings. Apparently the entire defence of Earth is being undertaken by about 50 people, or at least that’s what it feels like; according to the game’s fiction the Covenant has been a threat for 30 years, and they’ve made no attempt to make it possible to fully mobilise the population of Earth?
Not to mention that the resolution of the plot MAKES ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE. They wipe out the Flood by firing a replica of the Halo that was destroyed in the first game being built at the Ark. I can see why they did it; it gives the plot a nice, halo-esque even feeling of circularity, and they probably couldn’t think of anything better. Of course, this relies on the Gravemind, the Flood’s collective super-intelligence, being retarded enough to take every single member of the Flood to the Ark instead of consuming the Galaxy. Jesus fucking Christ.
Never mind that, a handful of unbelievably cryptic hints aside, there’s no explanation of why the Forerunners left the Flood alive, what the fuck they were doing with the Halos anyway, or hell, even what the fuck that weird planet at the centre of the Ark was. Apparently human beings are the “children of the Forerunners” and that’s apparently the reason the Covenant were trying to wipe us out, which apparently is being treated as Awesome New Information, but was actually something you could figure out fairly easily from the first game given that the information presented in this game was entirely fucking insubstantial. There’s absolutely no clarification on what “children of the Forerunners” actually means, and nobody ever thinks to ask.
No doubt some smug git at Bungie thinks that he’s terribly clever weaving this huge story and then putting only a tiny, random and nonsensical sliver into the games themselves. The rest, it would seem, is for a no doubt endless stream of spin-off media and tie-in novels. Then you watch the “Making of” video on the story and see this was indeed entirely a case of the smug-gitted-ness. They genuinely believe they’re telling a compelling story played out through the medium of cinematics and “viginettes” (translation: Half-Life-esque scripted sequences). I especially like the characterisation of the latter as a compelling innovation.
Game developers: pull your heads out of your collective arses and play the Half-Life games and then try and figure out what exactly you’re doing wrong. Seriously, it’s not fucking hard. Exposition is not a dirty word. Your story is allowed to be vague without being nonsensical. Characters are indeed allowed to ask 343 just exactly what the fuck is going on once in a while. Never mind sodding Cortana being inside the core of Halo and finding out precisely nothing.
Basically, it boils down to this – if you’re the kind of person who skips the cinematics anyway to blow more shit up, then everything’s fine. Otherwise you’re going to find the story lacking. Insipid boom-fest indeed.
Maybe my standards are just too high, but I feel like this year’s crop of highly-hyped games are just not as great as some people make them out to be. I’m just praying that the Orange Box games (Episode 2, TF2, Portal) don’t let me down. I have faith that Valve, I think still the only company who have the good sense to hire dedicated writers rather than relying on the amateurish literary pretensions of computer programmers, will actually deliver a story and experience with some actual meat.