The Halo marketing storm has well and truly hit, if you haven’t heard the meaningless phrase “Remember Reach” then you’ve been living under a rock with no cable and internet. The web has been plastered with Reach coloured wallpaper, you can’t escape the positive vibes coming off this release. For those who believe this may be an overhyped, over marketed completely average game, there’s not many voices online supporting your view. Let this be the first!
For a long time I’ve been the only Halo hold out. My friends moved away from the franchise; they proclaimed it was overrated and bereft of innovation or improvement to the game engine, the gameplay or the awful storyline. I defended Halo. After all, I like being a space soldier from the future fighting an evil alien empire rather than some cigar chomping genocidal American’s pwning poor middle eastern peasants. I liked the first Halo, I tolerated the second and I even stood up for the third with its uneven mission design. I couldn’t with good conscience say the missions with the Flood in Halo 3 were good, but I made excuses for them.
Now a new Halo is here and Microsoft has gone insane. Don’t tell them that Halo isn’t relevant any more, Microsoft are partying like it’s September 2007. You won’t find many lists like this one online today. Advertising for Reach is ubiquitous, even reviewers luke-warm on the title still want you to buy it. Sales of big titles are good for the games industry, aren’t they? Everywhere you look it’s a Halo love-in. Stories of queuing up at midnight and jetpacks in the streets are everywhere. Its got all the noises of a big release, but the truth is it’s all bullshit. Sure it might be a decent game. It might even be a good game. It’s definitely a media event and the PR is machine is at top gear. Don’t be fooled though gamers, there’s a million reasons that Halo Reach is not a big deal, and here’s the five main ones:
1. Too much hype for big releases
Are these big launches good for the industry? I would say no. Huge sales of a key titles bury smaller competitors. Publishers used to be accused of releasing too many big titles at the same time; the Christmas rush was the worst of these with uncounted classics disappearing beneath a tide of derivative but profitable sequels and franchises.
This has changed and the publishers now plan their release schedule to avoid competing with the big releases. Last years game changer was MW2 which forced every other title to ground as it canabalised the market and shifted all other releases into early 2010 rather than Christmas 2009. This has resulted in many commentators justifying the poor state of the releases in Q4 this year with the strength of the releases in Q1.
No one can deny that big releases get gamers into the public eye with television news channels interviewing queuing gamers and portraying them as reclusive, pasty maniacs exposed to the bright light of the sun for the first time. The price we pay though is that we become a homogenous group, all playing the same bland sequels; the movie equivalent of a gigantic cinema showing only Michael Bay movies.
2. You already know what happens
The fans complain loudly that Reach is based on a popular spin-off book and the events of the story are important to the Halo universe, but the truth is the franchise is done. The whole series had a story arc that is well and truly finished, Reach is the only space in the fiction they could go back to and even then, who wants to play a prequel where you know the bad guys pwn the planet?
Every review starts with a defense against this accusation: “but even though you know what happens its done well” or “the sense of inevitability does not detract from…” but the truth is no one comes up with a good reason why you would choose a setting like this one. You can TRY and make the setting work, but the truth is the developers wrote themselves into a corner and this is a misshapen appendage stitched on to an otherwise healthy body.
Inevitably kills tension. Sure, World War 2 shooters can get away with it, but they often frame it within a story filled with personal drama and characters. Halo’s focus is broader and tries to tackle the whole war while presenting you with a protagonist so bland he might as well be called Vanilla McAvatar. Who wants to spend time on a doomed planet with a bland hero experiencing a narrative campaign you already know all about?
3. The laughable seriousness of the advertising
The original Halo blended a great, self-contained story with good level design, engaging, open-ended combat and a pinch of humour to create a hugely enjoyable and fun game. The smaller enemies running in fear were a great touch and the cartoonish nature of the enemy weapons never detracted from the game as the environment was so atmospheric and convincing. Sticking explosive grenades to flying enemies was just the slapstick icing on the ring-shaped cake.
Once a game becomes successful though, developers have a desire to “get serious”. The lazy writers way to win over fans is to say the next installment will be “darker” and that’s very much the path Halo has tried to tread. The problem is that as atrocities escalate and the stakes are raised to whole planets being wiped out, we still have those adorable aliens running around with their comedy voices. The legacy of the lighter, funnier original makes all the cod-seriousness seem ridiculous. This is only exacerbated by the preposterously overblown operatic score seen in the advertisements and used in-game to limited effect. We’ve seen all of this nonsense three years ago with Halo 3, you really expect us to be as emotionally invested in this today?
4. Childish competition with COD
Theres been a lot of back and forward with Reach and the new COD Black Ops over who will sell more. This is bad for gamers. This pointless dick waving will act as a smoke screen for all the other good games that will be released around the same time as these two.
As anyone who reads here knows I’m no fan of the COD games so if anyone expects me to slate Halo and venerate COD then you’re out of luck. The newest COD game will have little to do with MW2, its made by Treyarch. Treyarch have a long history of making the crap Call of Duty games; anyone expecting big things from them are assuming that they will randomly become a good developer based on the success of a previous entry in a franchise they did not contribute to. What we can expect is a mildly refined MW2, with some poorly judged additions and no new, good gameplay additions with the possible exception of Treyarch’s trademark zombies.
So if the new COD is bad, why do we care if it outsells Halo or not. Well, it effectively creates a version of the two-party system. You don’t like Halo? Well buy COD then! Not a Master Chief fan? Then you can be Soap! I bet many people who started reading this article assumed it would be some COD or MW fan calling Halo “Gay-lo”. Well its ok to dislike both, you don’t have to buy either. Vote for the Green party, and by that I mean buy Vanquish instead!
5. Same old Halo
Seriously, the same weapons, the same enemies, essentially the same character. Its even set in the past so they have to do that weird thing where they do slightly worse versions of all the vehicles, just like the rubbish prototype Tie fighters in the new Star Wars movies that everyone hated.
The gameplay is quite simply more Halo. If I hear one more “this is Bungie’s love letter to the Halo franchise” I’m gonna go nuts. They already did that with Halo 2 and 3 and that one with random letters that no one bought. They’ve failed to innovate for three straight games, why would I want a new Halo that sells itself on going back to what made the original classic. The few additions they have made are awful. Just like Resistance Fall of Man they have a health system with all the drawbacks of health packs and recharging shields at once. You have to backtrack for health but you have to hide to recharge too. Halo introduced the recharging shield mechanic, why fuck it up now!
Halo is an anachronism, a bankable franchise that the suits think we will buy again and again. The truth is that games of this type have moved on. Don’t be manipulated into buying this by the omnipresent marketing machine. There are lots of us who don’t care about this game. If you’re a fan then go buy, but if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about I’ll let you into a secret: they think you’ll buy this shit just because it says Halo on the box. Prove them wrong!