Halo 4: The O is for Obligation
November 15th, 2012
I came with a purpose. Halo 4 was my goal.
I had just started a new job the month before and finally paid back enough of my debts to feel comfortable purchasing a brand new game. One with the original packaging and everything – what a delight!
Before I got to the store, there was no question as to what game I would squander my loose cash on. Halo 4 erupted onto store shelves only a week earlier. Halo. Master Chief. The series that made the Xbox a thing people gave a shit about. It was obvious; of course I was going to pick it up. Yes, of course.
I entered Gamestop, saw the treasure immediately, walked over to the shelf, and stopped just shy of grasping my prize. In that split second between my hand brushing the smooth plastic cover and actually clutching the box, a single thought shot through my brain.
“Do I really want this?”
It’s not such a strange thought. When you haven’t got much of a gaming budget, each title must be carefully weighed against all the other possibilities. Without carefully measured restraint, I could end up walking out with not enough money to eat and pay rent. Or even worse, with a game that sucks. This has always been my most important series of decisions.
But this time, with Halo 4, I suddenly wasn’t sure why the decision was so “obvious” before. I hadn’t invested time into a first-person shooter since the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (I’m much more of an RPG/action adventure gamer). My interest in the Halo franchise waned long ago. I never even touched ODST or Reach. For fuck’s sake, there was a point when I actively hated the games for their pervasive influence into the FPS genre! (1)
So why was this something I had jumped so quickly and blindly to buy?
November 15th, 2001
Being twelve, a new console launch wasn’t something I had ever experienced before this night. In truth, it still wasn’t. I didn’t buy the Xbox, my oldest brother did.
He worked at a toy store at the time, so getting his hands on the must-haves was never really an issue (this was previously true for a Furby and later still true for a Nintendo DS). The Xbox graced our doors sometime in the early evening and made residence in the family room for the next five years. It arrived with just one game.
My brother and I grew up playing Id Software games like Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom, and Quake. To us, these were the games that defined what first-person shooter meant. Clunky controls, terrifying monsters, and endless nights of slowly working through areas over and over again, saving when we made it through with comfortable health and ammo counts. That’s how you played an FPS, right?.
No, we had not played Unreal Tournament or Counter-strike before this night. We left the PC for the welcoming shores of console gaming a few years prior, and FPS games didn’t follow. So for us, Halo was like the heavens opened, God itself showed up, and called us morons while shoving an assault rifle in our hands.
We couldn’t stop. Every night, for weeks, the two of us would suit up and battle our way across Halo’s landscapes. The smooth controls, the invigorating music, the thrill of perfectly aimed pistol sniping – we devoured it all like starving men at CiCi’s Pizza(2).
There was a new ruler in the throne, and we were its willing servants. We all were. Halo became the game to play, the reason to have an Xbox in your house. For years, I knew people whose only Xbox game was Halo. To have an Xbox without it was a badge of dishonor, and frankly, just strange.
Not having other people to play with in multiplayer, and no bots to my childish dismay, the campaign mode was bread and butter to my brother and I. Even on that first night, my mind went on rampages about what possible sequels could do to serve more action on an already bursting plate.
My brother laughed and scolded me. Just because we like a game doesn’t mean there’ll be a sequel.
June 17th – August 14th, 2005
Four years later, I found myself working as a lifeguard at a Boy Scout summer camp in Maryland, and it was here that Halo 2 found me.
The camp was a live-in job where a bunch of teenagers taught swimming and nature classes to kids during the day and retreated to cabins at night to play sixteen player deathmatch games until they passed out. Halo 2 was the ruling monarch presiding over our free time. I don’t think I played another game that entire summer. One kid was even fired for ignoring his job and pulling people into deathmatches all day.
Halo 2 was serious business, guys.
The game had actually come out almost a year before I spent this summer living with it. Between John-117’s first adventure and his record-breaking second time in the spotlight, I developed into one of those Xbox-hating jerkoffs walking around trying desperately to explain why Halo sucked all the dicks.
Not just one. Not even two. All the dicks.
I despised Halo for what I saw as an irritating disease spiraling out and plaguing the FPS genre. In its wake, console FPS games were suddenly everywhere, chugging along slurping up buyer’s money with bland color palettes and gruff protagonists taking themselves too seriously. The fast-paced highs of Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 were gone as every series slowed itself down to Halo’s overburdened-with-money pace.
Things haven’t changed much. Except now I don’t hold Halo solely responsible for the epidemic.
I never managed to play much of the campaign mode that summer. I think the ridiculous difficulty of Legendary had a hand in that, but team deathmatch and capture the flag more than made up the middle ground. It was action action action, all day, every day. What I craved as a kid, I gleefully overindulged in as a teenager alongside the millions of players left wanting the multiplayer games rarely possible with the first Halo.
Blasting shards of metal(3) through your friends’ torsos and gleefully cackling as you ran off with the flag or whatever was the essence of Halo 2. Sorry, Master Chief, you were ousted as headliner by close friends and strangers online handing out free teabags.
Who cared about the story?
Late December, 2007
Apparently, Bungie. A lot. The tagline for Halo 3, the series jump into the next console generation, was “finish the fight.” There’s a story here, dammit, and characters, and drama, and lots of other stuff you guys should care about more than how funny it is to stick a plasma grenade on an opponent’s face!
Despite Halo 2 being the most played game on Xbox Live for years and carrying the service into the homes of millions singlehandedly, we were still supposed to care about Master Chief and his bestie gal pal, Cortana. In fact, players were supposed to care so much that the game came with an expected reading list.
The story didn’t pick up right after the previous game. Instead, it connected to a short comic book series which explained what happened since the cameras were turned off at the end of the second title. I’ve only ever met one person who read it, but he’s also the only person I know who read the novelization of the first game, so take that as you will.
Unsurprisingly, my time with Halo 3’s story mode was limited to a single night. A friend and I, home on break from college with a free night on our hands, plowed through the entire adventure in a single sitting. We finished the fight on normal and were satisfied.
Much more surprising was that this was the only time I’ve played Halo 3.
Even after the passionate summer fling with its predecessor three years before, I just never wanted to play multiplayer. Halo had become synonymous with adolescents shouting into their microphone that your mother was, and is, a whore. Sometimes if you were really lucky, the child would simulate the noises one makes while engaging in intercourse with your mother.
I never even gave Halo 3 a chance to stand on its own among friends. I didn’t care. Call of Duty 4 came out that same fall, and by the time I got around to Halo 3, Modern Warfare was already doing what Halo did six years before – completely dominate any and all facets of the genre.
So I just let it drop. The story was over, the matches decided. Later games Halo 3: ODST and Halo Reach weren’t even blips on my radar. The ‘killer app’ died in my eyes.
November 15th, 2012…Again
And yet, even after all that, there’s still something alluring about slipping into Spartan battle armor one more time. Or hundreds of times in online matches and the two sequels already promised to flesh out a new trilogy.
There’s a new beginning for Halo, one that doesn’t necessarily depend on nostalgia or the historical importance of the series for video games (although those things certainly helped it crush the competition so far).
Time has been good for this series, with the last five years erasing many of the reservations that held me back from ODST and Reach. It’s a core game, not some spin-off or prequel I don’t particularly care about. People don’t really talk about Xbox Live’s community or the immaturity anymore (it’s still there, we just don’t hear about it as much). Maybe the time is right.
“Or maybe I’m just a sucker with $60 in my pocket and a compulsion to buy ‘good’ games,” I thought. “So do I buy it or not?”
After about ten minutes of me standing in front of that box, thinking about the last eleven years and mumbling nonsense, I realized that I was being watched by the store staff. Composing myself, I made a choice.
I took Halo 4 up to the counter and laid it down.
“Finally decided, huh?” said the clerk.
“Yeah, it took a while. I wasn’t sure whether I was buying the game ‘cause I actually wanted it or whether it’s Halo, and you’ve gotta buy Halo. Still not sure, actually,” I replied, my usual jaunty attitude restored.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure either.”
1For additional information, see Timesplitters, the balls out crazy FPS series killed by ‘meh’ sales figures because it dared to have fun with itself.
2If you’re unfortunate enough to live in a place without a CiCi’s Pizza, it’s an all you can eat pizza and salad buffet for five dollars. The pizza is crappy, but it’s also five dollars and infinite. Yes, I understand if you want to leave and find one right now. I’ll wait.
3Otherwise known as bullets. None of that pansy plasma stuff here.
4Just like your mother’s.