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Versus Mode is a special feature that we're doing today, and it focuses on two editors debating the merits of a particular game or series. This entry features senior features editor Matt Helgeson debating the Halo series with senior previews editor Matt Miller.
Helgeson: To start, we'll set the table: Miller is a huge Halo fan, perhaps the biggest Halo fan I know. Miller, can you confirm for our readers that you've actually read expanded universe fiction Halo paperback novels before?
Miller: Can I plead the fifth?
Helgeson: I'm establishing your credentials!
Miller: Fair enough. Yep, I'm that guy. In fact, not only have I read a bunch of Halo novels, but I've also dug into some of the comics, the mini-episodes/live-action film, and the anime film.
Helgeson: That's impressive, or scary.
Miller: Yeah, but it actually plays into part of the whole reason I like Halo — I think they do a really excellent job of tying the different elements of their fiction together into a larger universe. Some gamers out there are confused when people like me make claims that Halo actually has a lot of cool story elements, because some of the most exciting elements of that story come out in the stuff outside of the games.
Helgeson: Well, I guess I might point to that as a flaw in itself — assuming that even five percent of your audience is going to read that stuff in a series as mainstream as Halo seems a bit odd to me, especially if, as you say, there's actually really cool and vital stuff in the spinoff novels, etc. Though I do admire the fact that they don't — as many game series do – treat that stuff as throwaway.
Miller: Exactly. I hate reading expanded universe stuff from a game that doesn't offer any real new insight into the world or its major characters. The games, by their nature as first-person shooters, are not going to lend themselves to complex character development or long backstories about where the aliens came from, or why Master Chief is in a giant suit of armor. But the other elements of the fiction allow enthusiasts to get those answers, while more casual fans are free to enjoy an action-focused shooter from beginning to end.
Helgeson: Well, for one, I think a series I know we both admire, BioShock, has proven that being an FPS does not preclude having characters with depth or really amazing and inventive stories. And – again – I have no beef with doing good work in expanded fiction, but it does beg the question: "If the stuff was so good, why didn't you put in in the actual games?"
I guess, from my perspective, a phrase you just used sort of gets at why Halo is a game that I enjoy but have never really loved: "Master Chief is in a giant suit of armor. " He's the core of the game, and he's always felt like a cipher to me in a way. There's a certain hollowness to Halo to me.
Miller: Yeah, I think that's a totally fair point. I think that, over the life of the series, the developers involved (including Bungie, 343 Industries, and Ensemble) have often done a poor job taking the richness of the fiction and finding ways to express that in the midst of an action campaign. As a big fan, I'm often sometimes disappointed that we don't get a little more of that meaty sci-fi storytelling as part of the experience. I will say, I think that Halo 4 moved things in a good direction in that regard.
Helgeson: I guess part of me feels like Master Chief is almost the accidental gaming icon. I think Xbox fans needed some character who was a symbol to rally around, and obviously Halo was the best of the early Xbox games and so by default he kind of became the "hero" for them, but he's never really felt like someone who people really related to. Then again, I guess it's not like there was anyone to replace him – I mean, I have my problems with Halo's storytelling, but it's not aggressively bad like the dialogue or characters in Gears of War, which was the game that could have supplanted it on Xbox 360.
Miller: You're hitting on another point that I think is significant about my own personal enthusiasm for Halo, and an aspect of the fandom that I share with a lot of people. When Halo released in 2001, I was a poor college student without the money for a fancy gaming rig – which was, at the time, the only real way to engage with FPS on any regular basis. Not only was Halo a standout title for Xbox fans to rally around at that time, but it was also a title for the wider console crowd to get excited about. Here was a brand-new fictional universe filled with interesting science fiction ideas (like the Halo structure itself), tight and exciting shooting, and story intermixed with the action, which was not the standard at the time, even on PC. Modern FPS developers owe a lot to that first Halo game, from control scheme to the structure of fights. I think part of my excitement about the series remains that it was so amazing to me the first time I played it, and that sense of enthusiasm remains even over a decade later.
Helgeson: At this point, I should give a shout-out to our old colleague Adam Biessener and my PC snobs out there by restating their old complaint – that Halo got a lot of credit just because it was on console and was just managing to do what PC FPSs had been doing for awhile! Not that I totally agree, but I don't think it's a totally baseless comment, either.
Miller: Even if that were true, I'd argue that making that step over to console was no small feat. People don't always think about the way that a console shooter works on the controller, but Halo's controls were a major innovation in their own right. Plus, I think that few shooters on PC in 2001 succeeded at all the things that Halo did right, all in one game — fun multiplayer, richly imagined and illustrated game world, compelling enemies, engaging fiction, and surprising, distinct weapons.
Helgeson: Okay, I don't think this is as adversarial as it's supposed to be. HALO SUCKS! The Needler blows! Remember all those repeated environments??
Miller: Hmm. I'm not sure if I speak internet that well. Let me give this a try. No, you suck! I don't think I'm very good at this.
However, I will agree with you about the repeated environments. Even when the game came out, that really bugged me. So, here's a loaded question — what do you think of Halo multiplayer?
Helgeson: I've always enjoyed it. Though to be honest I'm not sure if I really play at a high enough level to totally judge it in terms of being a competitive game. I will say that I, like a lot of people, tended to gravitate towards Call of Duty after awhile just because it was faster paced and the perk system was so well done later on. I've actually been speaking with some pro gamers for a piece in an upcoming issue and a lot of the Halo pros feel like Reach ruined it. I definitely acknowledge its place in console multiplayer, but in some ways it feels like its time has passed away, and has been overtaken by either Call of Duty for more casuals and Battlefield for people who want something more complex.
Miller: I feel for the Halo multiplayer designers, and really any game developer working on competitive stuff these days, because it feels like a no-win scenario. It's nearly impossible to create a game system that is going to cater well to new players, longtime fans, and the professional gaming scene. I'm sure some of the same things that pro players might not like about Halo 4 are some of the things I enjoy about it.
So, another question — what would a Halo game have to do to make you excited about it at this point? Or has that ship sailed?
Helgeson: Honestly, I think they have a good opportunity now. I'd really like to see them make a clean break with the past – understanding that this will be a sci-fi shooter in the Halo universe. But, I think that they need to take some kind of risk with the series, in multiplayer, storytelling, and gameplay. Now, I guess Destiny, which is Bungie probably continuing on where they wanted to take Halo, might scratch that itch – but the problem with that is so far it feels even more generic as a sci-fi universe than Halo to me. I do expect 343 to try something along those lines. I think now would also be a great time to really take some chances with the storytelling, and maybe try to strike a different tone or come at the universe from a different perspective. As a longtime fan, what's your feeling?
Miller: On the Halo front, I actually agree. As much as I like the existing games, I feel like it's a franchise that is scared to deviate too far from its established tenets for fear of angering a very vocal fan base. The problem is, that fan base is only going to dwindle if there aren't attempts to try fresh ideas and risk failure. I'm heartened by that first image they've shown off of Halo 5, which seems to indicate a new playable character. Plus, Halo 5 will be the first new game in the franchise on Microsoft's new-gen console. If Titanfall acted as a calling card for what a new franchise can do on Xbox One, Halo 5 needs to make a statement about how existing franchises can move forward on the system. That's not just important for Halo and 343, but for Microsoft's larger games initiative.
On the Destiny front, now I feel like you're just baiting me. Generic? I think Destiny looks amazing. But that may be an argument for another day.
Helgeson: Halo 5 should be great…when it finally comes out in 2017 (*rimshot*). Seriously though, I do think Destiny's concept has a lot of potential, but it does feel pretty boilerplate sci-fi to me. Okay, here's a test question to see how much of a Halo rube you are: Did you like Halo: Forward Unto Dawn?
Miller: I feel like this is a trick question. But yeah, I thought it was pretty neat. It speaks to what I mentioned earlier — taking the existing fictional universe and putting a new spin on it, and from a different perspective. Don't tell me you actually saw some of it?
Helgeson: I did! I watched two episodes! Man, it was…well, it felt like they were shooting for a Marvel film and ended up closer to a SyFy Original.
Miller: I'm not sure I'd disagree with that. Then again, I have been known to enjoy a SyFy Original from time to time.
Helgeson: I never saw Sharknado, maybe I should. Well, it seems like we're winding down here, and maybe we found more common ground than we thought. I just wish Halo 5 was coming out this year so we could have some resolution to this.
Miller: You and me both.
Versus Mode is a special feature that we're doing today, and it focuses on two editors debating the merits of a particular game or series. This entry features digital editor Bryan Vore debating the merits of BioShock Infinite with senior editor Jeff Cork.
Bryan: BioShock Infinite was in contention for my game of the year in 2013. It was just edged out by The Last of Us. Let’s start from the beginning on this. I loved the introduction to the floating world of Columbia. I think it starts wonderfully, initially seeming like a utopia with the fairgrounds section and quickly turning to a nightmare when you’re handed the baseball and told to throw it at the defenseless prisoners.
Jeff: I completely agree with you so far. The beginning is definitely amazing. I loved the part where you see the barbershop quartet float by singing The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” That pretty much encapsulated everything I was so excited to see in the game: a bizarro alternate history full of surprises. Then the baseball part happened and whatever nuance I was looking forward to disappeared with a skyhook to the face.
Bryan: So you would have preferred a more gradual introduction to the xenophobic, racist elements of Comstock’s world?
Jeff: Exactly! Wait, no! I’m not going to fall for your tricks, Vore. Maybe my problem started once I turned that dude’s face into hamburger and began my career as a virtual psychopath on history’s longest killing spree. Maybe my bigger issue is that the setting (which is awesome) was undermined by the way you interact with it. As a shooter, it ain’t great, and unfortunately, well, it’s a shooter.
Bryan: I see this “murder spree” argument come up regularly with Infinite, The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, and others. I think it has to do with the stories and characters in games advancing while it’s hard to conceive of another way to handle the gameplay. We’ve been killing non-stop since the dawn of video games, but now that there are more realistic, well-formed characters pulling the trigger instead of Doomguy it creates a juxtaposition.
Jeff: You’re forking my argument up! While I totally agree with people who say games need to evolve past killing thousands of people, that wasn’t my big beef with BioShock Infinite. (A quick aside though: I think Irrational cultivated a mindset of creating interesting places, and it wasn’t shocking that The Fullbright Company was formed by people who worked on BioShock 2 and its DLC.) My complaint is that the gameplay was boring and repetitive. Dudes appear. Shoot at dudes with pistol, stunning them with Murder of Crows. Catch a coin from Elizabeth. Maybe get her to summon a turret or some cover. Or don’t. I just didn’t find it to be much of a leap from the first BioShock, let alone its sequel.
Bryan: I agree that the combat mechanics could have been better and it was easy to lean on a few skills. (Those crows were pretty great.) But there are plenty of shooters that are just about shooting the same pistols, shotguns, and machine guns. Irrational was able to incorporate special powers that tied the player into both the portal-ripping story and the character of Elizabeth. Catching those coins got old, but you can’t deny that she was a compelling A.I. person, served a real purpose by your side (not just hitting switches), and most importantly didn’t require any babysitting.
Jeff: You’re absolutely right. There are plenty of shooters that are just about shooting the same pistols, shotguns, and machine guns. And they’re not generally considered to be The Best Games of All Time. People really seemed to latch on to Elizabeth, and I did think her story was interesting. Unfortunately, I thought she was most interesting when I was learning about her from audio logs. When she was with me, she reminded me of Ashley from Resident Evil 4 in a Disney Princess dress.
Bryan: C’mon, Ashley could at best help push a dresser in front of a window. Elizabeth can possess mecha-George Washington and make him shoot bad guys!
Jeff: Good point. Did you feel that Columbia was as fully realized as Rapture? That was another disappointment. I really enjoyed exploring BioShock’s worlds. The environments in Columbia felt sterile, and I was rarely encouraged (or rewarded) for moving off the critical path. Rapture had lots of optional areas to poke around in, and it didn’t seem like I was walking around a set.
Bryan: I felt that Columbia was an excellent followup to Rapture. They both are these small dens whose leaders had to go to enormous lengths to create so that they would be able to create their ideal society. Both become rotten from the core outward and are constantly risking complete annihilation from the sea or gravity. That said, I don’t necessarily remember Rapture having tons of off the beaten path areas, but it’s been a long time since I’ve played. I do agree that digging through every trash can and desk drawer was not fun in Infinite. Even then I couldn’t help but do it in every room on the fear that I’d miss some awesome pickup or a big bag of cash. What did you think of the ending?
Jeff: I thought Irrational did a nice job of illustrating the way that parallel universes can spiral into infinity (or as far as last-gen processing power could permit). I’m a big fan of endings that have interesting callbacks to a story’s beginning, like the film The Conversation, and I liked having context to those weirdo Lutece twins. Honestly, those two were probably my favorite part of the game. The ending generated a lot of conversations in the office, but it didn’t feel completely baked. I still need to play the DLC. In spite of whatever I’ve said about the game in this conversation, I did buy the season pass right after the credits rolled. It was a very good game, but there were so many great games in 2013. We can still agree that The Last of Us was the best though. Right?
Bryan: Haha, yes! Maybe our next debate can just be agreeing on how great The Last of Us was.