Until recently you could’ve said I wasn’t a serious video game player. I’ve always enjoyed them, sure, and I was always happy to check out games owned by my friends or roommates, but that was about it. But Halo 2 got a hold of me a few years back, and when Halo 3 came out this year I finally got Xbox Live. And now, as all of my friends and co-workers have to hear me talk about endlessly, I’m completely totally hooked.
Everyone knows that Halo 3 was a huge hit—the biggest entertainment launch ever, actually—but if you’re not into video games you might not know why. The Halo games are first-person shooters, like Quake, Counterstrike, Call of Duty, Bioshock, or Gears of War. There are obviously lots of these games, and on a certain level, they’re all the same: Learn the weapons, flank your enemies (computer or human), kill them before they kill you.
Newer entries to the genre have fancy features that Halo 3 lacks: Gears of War, for example, added a cool cover-focused feature that made the game involve a lot of ducking behind stone pillars and sandbags. But for my money Halo 3 is still the apotheosis of the form, simply due to the details. The rendering engine lets you play in epic battles with dozens of combatants over large swaths of outdoor terrain. Walking in snow leaves subtle footprints, and if you fall dead in a river the water will flow around your corpse. Stand in a deep forest and look up at the sun, and the light will dim slightly as your virtual eyes adjust.
And Halo 3’s wide array of weapons have been finely balanced by Bungie, which intensely analyzed more than 3,000 hours of gameplay testing. Shotguns are brutal up-close but terrible if you’re in an open field. Sniper rifles can kill with one shot, but you can’t see your radar when you’re zoomed in, so an enemy can sneak up from the side and kill you. The needler’s shots aren’t powerful, but their homing ability means that it’s easy to kill an enemy at mid-range if he’s has no access to hard cover. Flamethrowers and missile pods are ungodly powerful, but you move slowly while wielding them so you could lose to a more agile apponent. A punch can kill someone whose shields are even a little weakened—but your opponent could kill you before you get close enough. Et cetera, et cetera. This balance was one of the reasons that people kept playing Halo 2 for years, and that’s likely to be the case with the newest version as well.
And the Xbox Live? Mostly astounding, with some major caveats. First, the good stuff. At any given point of the day there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people online playing Halo 3, and combined with a fairly subtle matchmaking system this means that you can start a new game with people close to your own ability in less than 60 seconds. I play a lot of Lone Wolves, where you’re one of five players each trying to score the most kills against everyone else—and believe me, you learn the weapons very quickly this way, mostly by trying to not get killed in the way you just died.
I’m also pestering everyone I know to sign up with Xbox Live, since the four-on-four games are tremendous fun. You play with headsets on a team with your friends, so you’re constantly staying in contact over chat: “He’s coming up the side”, “I’m being double-teamed”, etc. It’s fun to kill strangers online, and it’s a lot more fun to do it with your friends. How does that line from The Breakfast Club go? “Demented and sad, but social.” Fair enough.
And yet, and yet. Sometimes I get on the “Big Team Battle”—that’s an eight-on-eight game that’s not very strategic but sure does have a whole lotta killin’—and there’s a lot of chatting between strangers before the game starts. Of course, some of that chatting is not so high-quality. The odds that some 13-year-old is going to call you “queer” or “gay” or talk about tea-bagging you are way too high.
I don’t want to hop on the anti-videogames bandwagon, but I do think that this is an issue. A game like Halo 3 on Xbox Live arguably serves much the same socializing function as, say, touch football in the backyard did for a previous generation. But there’s a substantive difference between playing face-to-face with seven other people you know personally, and being dropped into a faceless, tranistory interaction with people you may never speak to again. Thus the too-predictable result: For some players, online game spaces like Xbox Live become a place to act out their worst antisocial behaviors.
This isn’t really Bungie or Microsoft’s job to fix: There’s no good way to centrally police the verbal behaviors of millions of anonymous users. Xbox Live has “Gamer Zones”, which are coarsely grained ways of describing certain play styles, but they’re not policed tightly, and they shouldn’t be. I’d love it if it were possible for groups of players to create their own semi-open playlists, with the ability to set social policies, and then invite and ban other players based on those policies. My enjoyment of Xbox Live would be greatly enhanced if there were channels where people played hard, but were punished harshly for homophobic and racist insults. And is it too much to hope that some really good 13-year-old Halo players would actually prefer a place like that, too?
On a similar note, I’ve been searching for queer Halo clans, ‘cause with all these kids calling each other “fag” all day it’d be awesome to see them go up against real-life fags and get owned, and hard. There are women-only clans, but the closest I’ve seen of a queer clan is a post from 2005 regarding Halo 2. Nothing as of yet for Halo 3, alas.
By the way, I don’t know if this was a feature in previous versions, but Halo 3 lets you set your gender to female. Since you’re either a marine covered in sci-fi armor, or a member of an alien race, there’s no visible difference between men and women. But when you kill somebody who’s set her gender to female, she grunts with a female voice as she dies. Sometimes playing with my friends on a team we’ll bring it up: “so-and-so is a girl, I just killed her.” So that’s recognition, of a sort.