Within seconds of seeing the trailer, I wanted Halo 4. Then the pesky, sensible part of my brain woke up
You won this time, brain! I won't buy Halo 4 (not yet, anyway). But I wondered why I craved the Xbox 360 sci-fi shooter so badly. That the trailer is brilliantly done is one reason. Another is that it made me think of the delightful days spent playing the great multiplayer modes of Halo 3 and Halo: Reach.
Cue flashback effects.
I missed Halo: Combat Evolved. By the time I bought an Xbox, Halo 2 was already out, so I got that instead. The first thing that struck me was the game's odd tone. I'm this bad-ass space marine in the middle of a shootout, yet I'm firing little pink needles at waddling aliens who yelp and make fun of me. I played through most of the campaign, enjoying some moments but finding others repetitive, being annoyed by the vehicles, and not discovering the same amazing universe that others did.
A few years later I got to Halo 3, which was a vast improvement on its predecessor. Fighting and driving were more fun, the game was more atmospheric … the Xbox 360's power had been put to good use. But Halo 3 was good, not great. Battles were still repetitive, and the parasitic Flood continued to annoy. The only level that truly spiked my adrenaline was a driving stage near the end. Yet gamers salivated at just the mention of the game.
What was I missing?
As ridiculous as it seems now, Halo 3 was my first in-depth multiplayer experience. I'd played a few PC games online but only sparingly. In my first ever multiplayer Halo game, a homie and I teamed up against other pairs of gamers. Despite my friend repeatedly saying what color of armor he was wearing, explaining that an indicator showed where he was, and constantly telling me his whereabouts, I shot him again and again. Multiplayer was tense, and it got to me. We moved onto team deathmatch where I met some new people, their abuse echoing through my TV's speakers when I accidentally fragged them.
Looking back, Halo 3's multiplayer looks slow and gentle compared to many other shooters. But to me it felt like war. I would literally sit on the edge of my chair, wide-eyed, heart pumping, waiting for an enemy to come around a corner, so I could empty my assult rifle into him. Meanwhile, said assailant would be standing behind me, laughing down his mic to his friends about my obliviousness, while he waited to melee me to death.
I improved slightly, getting some of the basics down: Don't stand still in the open, don't rush toward a guy who has a Gravity Hammer, and "Halo dancing" (a frantic side-to-side movement I'd never seen before) was a solid evasive tactic. I realized that winning team deathmatch games was simply a matter of numbers: cold "plus-minus." Regardless of your kill count, if your death count is higher, you're hurting your team. I'd use this reasoning to explain away my two-kill games as "strategic."
I finally ventured into the harsh world of Lone Wolf, a.k.a. free for all (FFA), a.k.a. dead all the time. This was different. Any tactics involving patience or camping were soon shot down (as I was). FFA was all about kills — attack attack attack. And when you died? Respawn and attack again. Joy came in sneaking up on two people engaged in combat, letting them wear each other down before finishing both off. Two more kills for me, none for either of them. Fun times.
Those were the good old days. Or maybe the bad old days, when my life was unbalanced and unhealthy, when I'd spend an entire weekend in my bedroom. I'd wake up, play a few deathmatch games to sharpen my reflexes and get mentally calibrated to my battle rifle, then move on to Lone Wolf. Day turned to night in a blur of scoping and unscoping, meleeing and fragging and respawning. Eating and peeing happened during the brief break between games. At some point, in the wee hours, I'd try and sleep, as visions of blue and red Spartans seen through sniper scopes danced in my head.
I scoured websites for details of weapon drops. I'd search for footage of good players and analyze their games. Sometimes I'd load up Construct — a map where birds fly along the edges — and practice sniping at the birds to improve my aim. On Guardian I'd work on floating out of a lift and sniping a fusion cell on the map's opposite side, despite the opportunity to kill someone this way rarely presenting itself.
Some of Halo 3's appeal lay in using those grav lifts and player-hurling "man cannons." Other games tied play to vaguely human standards of strength and robustness, but here I could be launched hundreds of digital feet through the air without injury. Here I could jump so high that doing so was a combat tactic in itself. There are few greater delights in Halo combat than being rushed by a player, only to jump, land behind him, and lay him out with one hit.
Sticky-grenading an opponent was also a blissful experience. It was almost worth being Gravity Hammered off a ledge and to my doom, just to fling one last 'nade and see it stick to my killer's back as he ran off, hear that satisfying sizzle, and know he'd be joining me in limbo, waiting to respawn.
Then Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare arrived. It was faster and more intense than Halo 3. Killing others in Unnamed Middle-Eastern Country seemed much more enjoyable than on some spaceship appendage. I soon gave my soul completely to developer Infinity Ward.
One day, bored with Call of Dutying, I dusted Halo 3 off, and realized the error of my ways. Yes, Halo was slower, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It demanded more strategy — I could recover from a mistake in Modern Warfare by sprinting and going prone, but if I wandered into the wrong place with the wrong weapon in Halo, I was done for. I could shoot someone down within seconds in MW, but to do the same with a Halo battle rifle required a steady and constant aim. Halo 3 was a refreshing break from the frantic fire.
Halo: Reach came out and was better again. Both campaign and multiplayer were improvements on Halo 3. And you could sprint (with the right armor ability equipped), giving a greater intensity to play.
Many of us Reach noobs jumped into the multiplayer and said one thing: Hey, jetpack! We chose it for FFA games before many of us realized that a perk that makes a lot of noise and floats you into view of your enemies might not be that useful. I replaced it with Active Camouflage and had a hell of a good time firing at people, getting them to chase me, then vanishing and sneaking up on them. Of course, sometimes I'd get overexcited and exposed myself … so to speak.
There I was, back in team deathmatch and FFA matches again. It was still easy to wile away hours racking up kills and deaths and accidental suicides.
More and more I realized that I was zoning out during these games. Some may call that "flow" and see it as positive thing, but it worried me slightly. Not in a "I'm desensitised to violence, and I hope I don't kill all my friends way," but I questioned how much intellectual nourishment I was getting from these longform killing sprees. On some level my brain was working at an incredible rate, computing distance and angle, planning steps ahead, processing any movement my eyes picked up on, and sending shoot messages to my fingertips. But the more conscious part was being dulled enough by working, and I wondered if gaming was exacerbating the problem. I cut back on the long bouts of multiplayer.
Now I barely do any gaming, never mind multiplayer. But I miss those days of sloth and deatmatch, of long-distance kills and shotgun take-downs. I had a great time.
Thank you, Halo.