The acrobatic balance of Halo 3: My latest Wired News column

Wired News just published my latest column — which is my review of Halo 3, the long-awaiting conclusion to the trilogy of Halo games. A copy is online here, and a permanent copy is archived below!

Halo 3 Balances Hot New Guns, Old-School Cool

by Clive Thompson

So, here I am again: Standing on a sandy beach, near the edge of a pine-tree forest, hunched behind a stone outcropping — while an army of bellowing aliens singe my armor with 3,000-degree bolts of plasma.

Does this feel familiar? Of course it does. I’m playing Halo 3, the final part of the 15-million-copy-selling trilogy. And the designers at Bungie Studios are trying to satisfy the same sort of paradoxical longing from their audience that pop bands wrestle with: We want them to do exactly the same thing they did on their first album — but, y’know, even better.

So when I got to that sandy-beach level, I had a jolt of deja vu, because it looked eerily similar to the sandy-beach-and-pine-trees level in … the first Halo. Then I realized this was probably intentional: The designers are giving me the architectural equivalent of a wink and a nod.

Halo hype has been with us for so long that the backlash is already upon us, even before the new game’s launch. If you’re a gamer, you’ve heard the carping: What’s the big deal about Halo? The graphics are middling, it’s just another first-person shooter, the story arc is huge and trilogy-tastic, but hey — lots of games have all that these days.

Those critiques are all partly true. But having spent a weekend finishing the single-player campaign of Halo 3, I’ve found that it still has the elusive quality that the original Halo possessed, the one many games since have strived mightily to achieve: an effortless, acrobatic sense of balance.

In Halo 3, as in the first Halo, each fight is a lightning-fast game of chess. You’ve got three main ways to attack — firing a gun, throwing a grenade or running up and “melee” punching someone — and each battle inevitably requires you use all three. Like rock, paper and scissors, each attack solves a problem the others can’t, but none are dominant; you cannot simply rely on one technique. You have to master them all, and then make constant, split-second decisions about which one fits what sort of fight. Will a grenade break up that clot of nasty Brutes? Or should you fall back and snipe them? Or confuse them with the machine gun, then give each one strong whack?

Like I said, ever since Halo perfected it, most games have copied this style of play. But you rarely see it executed so sweetly. I love BioShock, in part because it has the same mental gymnastics: You have to constantly figure out which power-ups to use to fight different battles. But the mechanism for switching between power-ups in BioShock is just a wee bit more cumbersome than in Halo, forcing you to either cycle through different skills or actually pause the action while you select one — and either option breaks your flow. With Halo 3, in contrast, you’re carrying fewer weapons, so switching from one to another is instantaneous.

This distinction seems ridiculously tiny, but it makes an enormous difference when you’re fighting 12 shrieking enemies. The essence of good design is knowing when not to add complexity, and Bungie nails that with this game.

Mind you, Bungie’s designers are recovering from a stumble. Halo 2 did not posses the original game’s sure-footed sense of balance, because it allowed “dual wielding” of guns — a technique so overpowerful that I never used grenades or punches. I just shot my way through the game: a satisfying experience, but a duller one.

This question of balance, really, is why it can be hard to explain — particularly to nongamer friends intrigued by all the Bungie hoopla — precisely why Halo 3 is so good. Balance isn’t something that’s visible. It’s a property of a system, the way that equality is a property of democracy. It’s not merely the addition of a trillion-pixel explosion or a hot new gun.

Mind you, there are hot new guns, which is part of how Bungie kept Halo 3 from being merely a slavish copy of the original. My favorite: The Spartan Laser, which cuts through enemies with Olympian fury; I felt like a vengeful god with each pull of the trigger. Then there’s the bubble shield, which is itself a lovely example of balance. Retreat inside and you’re safe from outside gunfire — but powerless to fire yourself lest you die from your own internal ricochets. I actually found myself using it more often as a barrier — standing behind it, peeking around the edge and sniping enemies.

It’s not like I don’t have my complaints about Halo 3. The artificial intelligence of your fellow marines can be occasionally and annoyingly moronic. (Do not let those guys drive the jeeps.) And while the gameplay overall is nicely tuned, the relative difficulty of the levels isn’t. One level, out of nowhere, suddenly became so ridiculously hard that I mounted two dozen Sisyphean attempts on its dread summit, breaking down in hot, bitter tears with each failure, before finishing it. Yet one of the final campaigns — where you crave a crazed, hopeless, Custer-like battle to bring your adrenaline to a rolling boil just before the game ends — is a snooze.

And as for Halo’s epic narrative? It’s good, but not mind-blowing. While I won’t disclose the ending, for fear of being hunted down and killed by fanboys of the apocalypse, I can tell you there’s no cliffhanger similar to the WTF moment that marred Halo 2. But the truth is that you can find better narrative elsewhere these days, because competitors have learned from the first Halo and — as with BioShock’s superweird Ayn-Randian tale — they now outBungie Bungie.

Which is Halo’s true gift to the world of games. It did so many things right that designers have been cribbing from it for years. Including, thankfully, the guys who made Halo 3.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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