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An old guy plays Halo: Part 1...

Part 1 –  Halo: Reach

Last year I turned 41. My birthday present to myself: a brand new Xbox 360.

The games that had gotten me excited about Microsoft’s console were, in no particular order, Alan Wake, Mass Effect (the first one, which was a 360 exclusive), and any future iterations of the Fallout series, which suffered from almost unforgivable bugs on the PlayStation 3.

I was also quite aware of the Halo franchise.  I can’t imagine that someone could know that there was an invention called an Xbox, and not know there was something called “Halo” that was symbiotically connected to it.  Just in case you’ve been living in a cave for the last 11 years or so, Halo is a series of first-person-shooters (FPS), the first installment of which was one of the launch titles for the original Xbox back in 2001. The universe in which Halo unfolds is 500 years or so in Earth’s future.  The United Nations Space Command, or UNSC is at war with the Covenant, an alliance of hostile aliens, grouped together by a shared religion.   Starting with Halo: Combat Evolved, the player steps into the armor of Master Chief, a member of the Spartans, a group of physically and mentally enhanced super-soldiers. Through Master Chief’s high-tech visor, the player discovers a gigantic ring-world floating in space.  The purpose and history of this ring are the underpinnings of the story, so I won’t spoil them here.

It would be hard to overstate the credit and praise that has been heaped upon Bungie Studios for their creation.  Check out The Halo Nation Wiki, and you’ll see what I mean.  Some have compared Halo’s cultural impact to no less than that of Star Wars (I’m not quite sure I believe this one).   Others have claimed that without Halo, and its unprecedented commercial and critical success, Microsoft might not be in the video game business today (this one I completely believe).

So there I was, in the store, buying an Xbox 360.

There it was, the most current Halo game, Halo: Reach. The “Limited Edition” version happened to be on sale for a full ten bucks less than the standard, green DVD box version, so what could I do?  By the way, I am a serious sucker for things with names like “Collector’s Edition”, “Limited Edition”, “Double Secret Edition”, you get the idea. I admit that I do in fact own a Bobblehead, a Jack-in-the-box, a deck of cards, some strange poker chips, a number of “The Art of…” books, and several “Making of…” DVDs, all based on video games.  But I digress…

On the way home from my console quest, I stopped in at a game store that I frequent, and asked one of the clerks about where the best place was to start into the Halo experience.  This is when I found out that Reach was a prequel, and actually the beginning of the story, not unlike Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  He also pointed out that the original Halo: Combat Evolved was being reissued with the Reach graphics engine, and would be a great place to continue the story.  So I went ahead and pre-ordered that as well.

At first, I actually found Reach to be a little disappointing.  It seemed to me to be a First Person Shooter (FPS) that was more along the Rambo, charge-in-with-all-guns-blazing approach, where I am a little more into the hang back, be patient, pick-off-the-bad-guys-before-they-know-you’re-there type of game.  I’m also not terribly into public multiplayer games that involve a bunch of strangers shooting each other over and over.   I put Reach away and played Alan Wake.  I started wondering if pre-ordering Anniversary was a good idea.

It was actually a couple months later, after I trekked out to GameStop at midnight to pick up my copy of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary that I decided to really give Reach its due attention.  I wanted to give CEA a fair shot, and figured that in order to do that properly, I needed to at least run through Reach‘s campaign once, if only for the story continuity.  So I selected “Normal” difficulty, and off I went.

This time, something clicked.  After the first couple of missions, things really got rolling.  When the fourth mission, Nightfall,  opened with one of the supporting characters advising me to stay quiet and use my sniper rifle carefully, I knew the momentum had shifted.  The sneaking around was so much fun that when it eventually (and inevitably) turned into an open firefight, I was way too hooked to stop.  A couple of missions later, when the battle went into space, I knew I was enthusiastically “all-in”, and thoroughly enjoying the ride.  By the end of the final mission, which I was sure was over at least twice before it actually was, I knew that I truly “Got it”.

While Reach represents the beginning of the Halo story, it is also clearly the fourth chapter of a widely arcing storyline that goes way beyond the basic “blow stuff up” appeal of many FPS games.  There is a certain bitter-sweetness to the way the story unfolds.  Perseverance in the face of hopelessness, commitment to comrades and duty, great personal loss and the fine, occasionally indistinguishable line between victory and defeat are just some of the themes that are explored.   All of this occurs, of course, against the backdrop of knowing that in some important way, this is in fact the finale of something that has been wonderful.  Kind of like watching the two-hour special final episode of a TV show you’ve been watching for years.   Completing the campaign was both challenging and rewarding.  The gameplay was quite varied, and the game mechanics were smooth and consistent.   I also found the setup for Halo: Combat Evolved, Anniversary to be just about perfect.

Halo: Reach was the fifth and final game of the Halo franchise to be produced by Bungie Studios.  Starting with CEA, the baton would be passed to 343 Industries  (being new to the Halo universe, it wasn’t until halfway through CEA that I realized where the “343” name came from).   Just before the credits roll, there is a slide from the people of Bungie Studios to the fans, thanking them for the great ride and support.  By the time you get to that slide, if there wasn’t already a little bit of a tear welling up…  Well, you get the picture.

So, did Reach have me at “Hello”?

No. But it had me by Nightfall

Part 2 – Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

So I’d finished Reach, and was ready to move onto the next episode, which was actually the first episode, but had been re-released, so it was really the sixth episode… Yeah, whatever.  I still don’t get why prequels are such a hard concept to so many people.  The newest episode of Halo picked up right after Reach, so that’s where I went.

CEA represents a very interesting point of transition between one studio and the next.  On the one hand, it was the exact same story, the same level design (including some maddeningly frustrating game mechanics – especially checkpoint design!),  but with new, state of the art graphics, newly remastered audio and a few extras that do not affect gameplay, such as achievements and terminals (interesting cutscenes that help explain the back story of the game).

I found CEA to be an absolutely fantastic way to experience the original 2001 game for the first time. This was my first introduction to Master Chief, the iconic hero of the Halo franchise.  From the moment he emerged from his cryo-tube and jumped into action, I saw what all the hype was about.  If Reach felt like the final chapter of a long and glorious story, CEA felt like watching the pilot episode of a great TV show, where you can’t believe how young everyone looks.  The overall structure of the game was wonderfully variable, moving between short, frenetic missions like the opening Pillar of Autumn, and moving through wide-open spaces, then back into claustrophobic and creepy (The Library),  then back to fast-paced and high energy (The Maw).  It certainly wasn’t perfect.  There were some seemingly interminably long and repetitive missions, and as I have already mentioned, the checkpoint structure at times got absolutely infuriating.  I have to say though, this was the state of the art for game design in 2001, and I am glad that 343 Industries chose to keep the original structure intact, warts and all.

CEA includes what I think is an extremely cool feature: with a single button press, a player can switch between the gorgeous, new, state of the art graphics, and the original 2001 renderings, so it is possible to recreate the original experience almost completely, but without the extra hassles that always seem to come with playing an original Xbox game on the 360.

Halo: CEA was also the start of a slippery slope for me.  I am a sucker for achievements.  I love to see the pop-up, and hear the beep when one of those little guys unlocks.  It’s a feeling of accomplishment that comes with a nice dose of instant gratification.  The achievement list for CEA was actually rather modest, and seemed to be reasonably doable while still remaining challenging.  Most importantly, none of them required doing anything completely insane and unlikely in some specific kind of multiplayer matchup (I hate those!).  They did, however, require me to raise my game quite a bit, or at least raise the difficulty.  Nearly all of them require that something be done on Heroic or Legendary difficulty (the two hardest settings).  Seeing as one of the achievements involved completing each mission on Legendary, the choice seemed clear: Do everything on the highest difficulty!

So how does one go about doing all this stuff on the hardest difficulty setting?  Why, go to YouTube, of course! As I was researching how others had managed to unlock all those wonderful achievements, I learned that there is, unsurprisingly, a large community of Halo players who have taken the game to places I’m sure Bungie could never have imagined.  I learned terms like “Mythic” and “LASO”, which refer to playing the game at the highest difficulty, and as if that wasn’t tough enough, turning on all skulls, which are objects that can be collected during the game, then activated to increase the difficulty even further.   I also learned about “Speed Running”, in which players try to complete the game’s missions in a race against the clock.

After completing a few achievements in CEA, I got the idea to go back and complete Reach on Legendary.  I quickly discovered that the Halo player community is large, diverse, and very, very helpful.  On YouTube, I was able to find a series of videos geared toward achieving the exact goal I had set for myself.  The guide was put together by a highly skilled Halo player who goes by The Tyrant on halo.bungie.org (HBO), or MythicTyrant on YouTube.

In addition to being ridiculously good at playing Halo, The Tyrant is also a very generous contributor to the Halo player community as a whole, and in particular to the hardcore, campaign-oriented, challenged-obsessed Mythic player community.

With Tyrant’s guide at my side, I  set to task.

Running through on Legendary really shows just how progressively the Reach campaign is constructed.  On the first day of my quest, I got through the first four missions.  I averaged about a mission per day for a while, then the final mission took me about three days of trying.   Now, I wasn’t going for Mythic or anything, this was just straight legendary, so I died a lot,  but it was still plenty challenging, and seeing the achievements finally pop was truly gratifying!

"A Monument to All Your Sins" and "Gods Must be Strong" Achievements

So, with that done, it was time to either go back and finish off CEA on Legendary, or work my forward in the story, and on to Halo 2.  I found that some of the missions in CEA were just plain tedious on legendary.  I’ll eventually get to them, I’m sure, but for now, I was intrigued to learn what happens next to Master Chief!  See part 2 of this series to see how it went!

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