June 7, 2009

The Prodigal (Part One)

> — Vociferous @ 3:59 pm

It’s sometime in 2003.

I’m hovering over a 16-inch cinder block of a monitor in what could possibly be the loudest place on Earth – my job’s cafeteria. About fifty people occupy the large, angular portico of the room I find myself in; most of them take slow bites of their lunches while absorbing CNN’s atonal chatter on the overhead televisions. The rectangular area is cobbled together with sectionals, tables and fold-out chairs and has a small, somewhat stunted “cyber café” in the corner. In truth, it’s a trio of the company’s oldest computers tethered to their oldest monitors and the internet – yes, both had that yellowed, ivory look of classic aged white plastic. They were grimy, bundled together with wires which would seem hazardous by today’s standards and smelt like burnt plastic.

I’m oblivious to all of this though – because I’m here, sprawled out over this hulking beast of a monitor which could easily kill a man if someone could figure out a way to lift it high enough, and I’m watching something closely, very closely. My ears crane forward like extensions of my neck, hearing – trying to hear, rather – the faint sounds in sync with the pictures on screen. What I’m watching is a video, but not any video. I’m watching the Halo 2 demonstration being given by Joseph Staten during the E3 expo of that year. At the time, I didn’t even know who Staten was, nor did I really understand what Bungie was, despite the company having a nifty logo at the front end of my favorite video game.

And although I had heard of their work before and was a consummate fan of the Halo game, this was easily the day in which I became a fan of Bungie. The demo was spectacular and I watched it more than a dozen times before the end of the day, probably more than a hundred times since then. The first game’s campaign had me at hello, just in the first few seconds spent traversing the UNSC Pillar of Autumn. And the game which they’re now calling Halo 2 seemed to have all of the trappings which entranced me in the original. It was massive in scale and unapologetic in splendor. I can still hear the demo’s intro ringing in my ears: “It took two in the nose and then dropped into the atmosphere…” Melodic fixtures made complete the sheer epic nature of that moment as the Chief and Johnson made landfall in the hell that was called New Mombasa.

The Halo 2 announcement trailer was the first real indication of where the Master Chief was headed – and it was pre-rendered and impressive. That said, the real-time demonstration which followed afterward somehow even managed to trump this.

The E3 2003 trailer was a significant draw into the Halo and Bungie community, creating a fervor for the franchise which had only been moderately tapped into on a grassroots level in prior years. In the demo, the Spartan found himself in a seemingly massive cityscape, at first moving around on foot, and then witnessing the obliteration of a Covenant mortar emplacement roughly the size of a skyscraper. Immediately following, as the music escalated into a masterful and memorable cadence, a pair of Warthogs arrived and the Master Chief found himself racing around city block after city block, in what appearred to be a complex collection of open city streets which were pocked by Covenant patrols.

Eventually, and after a tour de force display of Gauss gallantry, the Spartan returned to the streets on foot and eliminated a new ‘brutal’ enemy before the unprecedented jacking of a Ghost from a charging enemy. Cortana ordered Chief to draw the Phantoms away from Marines, and in response he boosted across a bridge with a bevy of Covenant machines in tow. There, we witnessed him narrowly escaping the chase, skidding across the sun-drenched blacktop and coming to a stop in the shadow of the Covenant assault carrier which fuels this invasion. And it’s here where we come to learn the Chief’s real purpose to being in the city – to board that ship and halt the enemy’s invasion at its very heart.

And if you might have thought that the challenge wasn’t difficult enough, or perhaps that the adrenaline-driven nine minute voyage across the center of “Earth City” wasn’t as tough as it could have been, the sky begins to rain death. All around the city, drop pods descend like crystalline daggers into the flesh of the human homeworld. Emerging from them is the most cunning of all Covenant enemies: Elites.

“Betcha can’t stick it,” Cortana wagers.

And as the music reaches an enormity seemingly to large for a mere video game, the Chief responds in typical fashion…

“You’re on.”

This iconic moment – even the demo as a whole – embodies the experience of Halo for many people. For some of them, it is because this was their first real introduction to the series; and for others, this moment shares a significant preeminence because it represented the evolutionary possibilities from Halo’s early beginnings to what could one day materialize. This demo offered a promise of extraordinary potential: nonlinear environments which allowed a surplus of exploration, urban warfare against an unrelenting, occupying enemy contingent, a brilliant sandbox of weapons and vehicles, and choices like boarding… all in addition to what Halo had already been dishing out since 2001: its unparalleled ability to make encounters insanely and immediately fun.

But like any promise once made, there can be only one real outcome. Either the promise becomes true by its own delivery or it becomes a lie when it is never accurately realized. Now, one would be extremely hard-pressed to classify Halo 2 and Halo 3 as failures. Each game offered its own flare of innovations, cultivating gameplay which was years beyond their current respective crops. But even then, when one looks back across the landscape of the trilogy, we see clear deviations from not only the model set by the first Halo game, but also by the grandiose demo of 2003.

Now, this is not to say that the first Halo game and the E3 demonstration were flawless – the former was unquestionably wrought with design mistakes and shortcuts, while the latter, although real-time, was largely smoke and mirrors. But both, however, presented a picture of what Halo was and where it was going – and the fans loved it. If the first game was the trunk of this franchise’s tree, then the E3 2003 demo was the proverbial budding limb offering an extension and evolution of the things which made the first game great.

So what happened? Why was the limb rent free and in its stead we received Halo 2’s campaign, which, although featuring an impressive narrative, was overtly linear and its encounters were made somewhat spiritless by a watered down sandbox and the excessive use of simple-minded enemy AI – the Flood and the Brutes. And though dramatic improvements were made in Halo 3, its campaign was still unable to fully capture several of the profound elements of the first game, as well as the open, unrestricted environment which was hinted at in the E3 2003 demonstration.

Also interesting to note was that although Halo 2 and Halo 3 were both billed as the Master Chief defending Earth, neither quite offered the same desperate thrill we witnessed during the 2003 demonstration. Halo 2 only saw a pair of levels, “Outskirts” and “Metropolis,” which were brief and short-lived, before taking us off-planet; while Halo 3’s first few levels, though fun, completely lacked the urban vibe seen with the 2003 demo’s cityscape.

The quick and dirty answer for this may well be development time. Bungie has openly admitted that as Halo 2’s development reached critical stages, they had to dismantle their original plans and start from scratch. The result was a game which did many things on an impressive scale, but never came close to capturing the feeling engendered by the 2003 demo. In many respects, Halo 2 failed to even capture some of the more common campaign elements of Halo: Combat Evolved.

The E3 2003 demo had it all, including an open urban environment, an occupying Covenant force, ODST units, drop pods, SMGs and even a powerful single-fire weapon with a scope; but this presentation never made it into Halo 2. Six years later, we have something very similar – only this time, it’s entirely real.

The more obvious answer, however, seems to be related to the casual gamer. As Halo grew in popularity, the variety of players in its audience grew also. Bungie may have felt inclined to try to compromise their conventions from the first Halo game in a way which would offer hardcore fans what they sought, while still being able to usher new fans into the fold with ease. It’s clear that this design philosophy shift has impacted most elements of the Halo experience, including multiplayer, but the campaign was what took the most egregious hit.

The levels went from large, sprawling environments to oppressively linear ones which could be easily navigated by even the most inexperienced of gamers. The encounters went from multi-pronged, complex and wide-spanning to simple paint-by-numbers affairs. Soft walls encroached the player on every side and death barriers became more prominent as the trilogy progressed – stifling all attempts to explore beyond the playable area. In addition, the frenetic urban guerrilla warfare advertised in Halo 2’s 2003 demonstration was and has never been effectively captured.

Somewhat like the prodigal son of biblical history, the gameplay witnessed in the first Halo game, and with the sequel demo which followed, left its home for a time, its fans staring out of the window pane while the things many of them had longed and hoped for slipped far beyond the horizon and out of reach.

[Proceed to Page Two]

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