Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
It is the future. The brightest scientific minds have achieved faster-than-light travel. Humanity has united in a common purpose. We have probed the depths of space, and we have discovered that we are not alone. Alien life exists in the universe, and it is not friendly. A loose knit coalition of alien species known as The Covenant has not welcomed us with open arms into the galactic community. Rather, they view our existence as an abomination, our flesh as sacrilege. They have devoted themselves to our annihilation. We are at war. They are superior to us in many ways, and they are winning.
So Halo: Combat Evolved begins. If you didn’t know better, what I just described could be a glimpse at an epic science fiction movie. But in actuality Halo: CE was a video game (a first-person shooter or FPS) released for the Xbox gaming console in 2001. But of all the games released that year, none seemed to make as big a splash as Halo: CE. Phenomenal sales and glowing reviews have ultimately led to the wildly successful franchise that exists today. Halo: CE spawned two sequels (the latest drops tomorrow), another game set in the Halo universe but outside the central storyline (out later this fall), several novels, comic books, action figures, and at one time a major motion picture adaptation that had Peter Jackson attached as a producer (shameless plug: look for a review of the script later this week on CC2k). What is it about these games that has created a “Halo Nation”? Are they really “the current generation’s Star Wars”?
Drawing such a comparison is a tall order for any film, and seems a monumental if not downright impossible task for a video game. Invoking Star Wars calls to mind not just the films, but epic heroes and villains, a grand story, and an entire mythology that have been discussed, debated , imitated (but never duplicated), and enjoyed for decades. I will admit that Halo, nor any video game can go toe-to-toe with that galaxy far, far away point-for-point and come out any better than Luke at the end of Empire, in other words having taken a sound beating and likely short a limb or two. But if any is up for the challenge, Halo seems capable of going the distance, which, as Rocky taught me, is all that matters, right?
Like any good underdog, you might think Halo doesn’t have a prayer since it is just a video game. But as I said, it possesses a quality that sets it apart. The best way I can think of to begin to describe that quality is to say that Halo: CE was one of the few truly “cinematic” experiences I’ve had while playing video games. What do I mean when I say that? Well, consider the following:
What you just saw is a clip of the opening “cut scene” that begins the game. It has all the look, sound, and feel of a movie. Clips like this one are seamlessly integrated throughout all the action of Halo: CE to reveal the storyline and drive it forward. Additionally, these cut scenes are used to great effect to add to the tone and atmosphere of the game. Case in point, take a look at this:
I said those cut scenes looked at felt like they were from a movie. But that isn’t all that I mean when I say Halo is cinematic. Films at their most elemental are a form of storytelling. One of the biggest reasons I think so many video games have been getting adapted into movies is that more and more they are becoming an alternative way to tell stories. They’re the digital offspring of the old “choose your own adventure” books. Remember those? How you’d read the first 50-100 pages and then reach a point where you’re given two or three options, and then directed to different parts further into the book to see how the story plays out based on your decision? Side note: when is someone going to figure out to do this sort of thing with direct-to-DVD movies? I’ve got to think that there’s a market for this.
While there have been games light on story (e.g. Doom) and others with fairly ridiculous stories (e.g. Super Mario Bros.), Halo has joined the ranks of games with deeper, richer storylines. As you saw Halo: CE begins in the middle of a war between the human race and The Covenant. As Master Chief, the product of a secret military program, you lead the fight against overwhelming Covenant forces that, as you saw, followed the Pillar of Autumn in a “blind jump” through space. Discovery of that mysterious ring-structure takes the fight to its surface, and later leads to a discovery of something much more dangerous than any Covenant fleet. Glimpsed decimating friend and foe alike, The Flood is unwittingly released and threatens all sentient life in the galaxy. Facing insurmountable odds with the fate of humanity on your shoulders Halo: CE ends with nothing short of a bang. Master Chief may have won a major battle, but the war was far from over.
While it took 3 years for Halo 2 to be developed and released, the sequel picks up not long after the end of the first game, as you can see:
Halo 2 offered not only continued conflict between humanity and the Covenant, but new insight into the civilization and religion of this alien alliance. Having discovered the existence of additional Halo installations, the Covenant are obsessed in a way that only religion can inspire to activate them, thinking this will lead to something they refer to as “the Great Journey”. Master Chief once again must become the tip of the spear for Earth’s defense. But Master Chief is not alone in his fight. Much of the insight gained into the inner workings of Covenant society and beliefs is through another character assumed by players. The large humanoid alien seen in the above clip in the yellow armor (as you may have surmised) is the unseen commander of Covenant forces from Halo: CE. He returns in disgrace to face the punishment for his failure to protect "the sacred ring". Rather than be put to death directly, he is bestowed with the mantle of the Arbiter and is sent on suicide missions for the Covenant governing council. The Arbiter slowly begins to learn that the Covenant leadership is so blinded by their faith so as to not realize their "Great Journey" means self-inflicted extinction. The end of Halo 2 sees the Covenant in a civil war, Master Chief and the Arbiter joining forces to stop a Halo's firing, but the war between their species still ongoing.
Which brings us to tomorrow, and the release of Halo 3.
Halo 3 has a lot to live up to, and plenty of issues left to resolve. There are still multiple Halo installations that have been primed to fire (due to events in Halo 2). Though the Arbiter seems to have brought two factions of the Covenant to humanity's aide as potential allies, there are still multiple species that will carry the fight onward with fanatical devotion. What is the nature of the apparent connection between the human race and the Forerunners (the ancient civilization responsible for construction of the Halos)? Are we ever going to get to see what Master Chief really looks like underneath that helmet and gold visor?
I think that it's still an open question if the legacy of Halo can rival that of Star Wars. There's something about video games that tends to limit their longevity. While films seem capable of being continuously renewed as the formats change (from VCR to DVD to HD DVD to whatever comes next), games are often left behind to collect dust with the out-dated consoles required to enjoy them. Whatever the legacy of Halo is, it's certain that this is a series of games that has raised the bar for all that come after. An accomplishment that, aside from everything else, has earned a place in history for Star Wars. Perhaps there's room on that shelf for Halo too.