Ten years ago Halo 3 was released in Europe for the Xbox 360. A dozen years ago I lived in England's beautiful Lake District, in a cottage at the top of a very big hill. It was a nightmare if you ran out of milk, but behind that rustic stonework lay gaming nirvana. I shared the house with another guy, let's call him Mike, and we had two TVs and two 360s set up in the living room.
Mike and I went to work every day and, when we came home, we'd make dinner then play Halo 2 all night. This was our lives, and it was bliss. We changed our Xbox Live gamertags to accommodate our dual identities in Team Slayer, me driving and him on the cannon, becoming the Hog Man and Gunner Justice. And above all else, we scoured magazines and the web for news of Halo 3, the sequel to what we knew was the greatest game ever made. To this day I can recall that living room perfectly — and the giant Halo 3 poster on the wall, equidistant between our TV screens, with that unforgettable tagline.
"Finish the fight."
I give this background because it's easy to forget, in these sad days for the once-great franchise, that Halo 3 really was the biggest thing around. The Xbox 360 had stolen a march on PS3 thanks to its earlier release (and standout titles like Gears of War) but that meant an almost two year wait for the faithful as Bungie toiled on the game. By the time Halo 3 was released I had left the Lakes, I didn't see Gunner Justice much anymore, and even the Halo 2 mania had dried up. My anticipation, still, was white hot.
Halo 3 was one of the few times a sequel has deserved the build-up, and the reasons why say a lot about the nature of Bungie as a studio — and where it would subsequently go. This was a visionary shooter, establishing the template that would eventually lead to Destiny.
Let's take something like the campaign's giant, open environments, and consider how Bungie constructed them and how a player moves through them. Most shooters even now load in the level's elements as they're required, spawning enemies behind doors and triggering events when the player crosses a given line. Halo 3 included a brilliant feature whereby you could record your entire playthrough of a given area and then watch it back — with full camera control.
Here you could see that, as you and a friend began to push through the opening area (Halo 3 offered four player online campaign co-op in 2007), the enemies at the end of the level were already there. You wouldn't reach them for maybe 40 minutes, but there they were. Grunts tottering back and forth, Elites patrolling their patch, and Jackals periodically checking their sights. You could see the ripples as the Master Chief got closer, and witness enemies reacting to your presence well before you'd ever realised. Most games, and this is not a value judgement, have a lot of smoke and mirrors going on. Halo 3 does too, but its construction gives the appearance of absolute solidity and integrity.
The nine enormous worlds of Halo 3's campaign saw the Master Chief save Earth before blasting into space, discovering a secret control world for the Halo structures, and saving the galaxy in spectacular fashion. Where Halo 2's campaign was hugely enjoyable but ultimately a hodgepodge, this has a classic hero's arc and revisits great moments in order to render them definitively — not least the many wonderful Warthog sections.
It's easy enough to call this a fantastic FPS campaign, but Bungie pushes further than it ever had to and sows the seeds that would become Destiny. These were levels designed to be replayed, and the game incentivises this through a meta-game of skulls and challenges, which allows players to go through in co-op with certain comparative statistics being tracked. The structure as a whole is far from the holistic online focus of Bungie's later work (though the online was also light years ahead of the contemporary competition), but here you already see the studio transitioning from corridor-based and linear shooter design into online co-op sandboxes.
That's far from Halo 3's only forward-thinking innovation. Bungie didn't just make a beautiful game, but a beautiful user experience. As well as the theatre mode for replays and editing clips, campaign co-op, and a party system that smoothly moved groups of players between activities, it also introduced Forge mode — allowing players to 'build' new things out of Halo 3's elements. Not only this, but Forge was 'live' — players could build on-the-fly with other players in the same world.
Custom gametypes had always been a big part of Halo, and the game had a machinima tradition exemplified in Rooster Teeth's Red Vs Blue, so this early incorporation of user-generated content was a logical enough progression. But here's the theme with Halo 3: again, Bungie pushed it further. Forge wasn't just for building stuff, but enabled easy downloads of what other players had built. Soon enough various custom modes spread like wildfire, from competitive rulesets to the knockabout Halo Karts and deliriously hammer-happy Grifball.
Halo 3 keeps on going. Sharing game modes is one thing, but thanks to integration with Bungie.net players could now upload their videos, screenshots and modes, as well as customise their 'social' presence. This is pre-Twitter, pre-Twitch, and Youtube had only been around for a year or two. Halo 3 was enabling a community to grow around it, and focusing on the kind of social features we now take for granted but — in 2007 — were almost unheard-of. Not to mention the experience of starting up a console game with your mates, downloading what were basically mods, and jumping straight in.
It says everything about Halo 3 that, having gotten this far, I haven't even mentioned the beautiful multiplayer. Halo 3 made extensive changes to Halo 2's multiplayer, mainly to get rid of the overwhelming focus on dual-wielding and BRs. It wasn't entirely successful in this, and the speedy melee meant plenty of 'noob combo' weapons remained (like the ridiculous handheld shotgun), but Bungie's gorgeous aim assist and exemplary multiplayer map design made it the ultimate Halo experience.
For myself, it would be impossible for any Halo game to recapture the feelings I have about Halo 2 — simply because of the era I played it in. But with hindsight Halo 3 was as good as Halo multiplayer ever got. Its major addition, single-use pieces of equipment like shield drainers and the bubble shield, was a judicious one and the individual items were overpowered in the right kind of way. I'd even argue for the Destiny lineage here; these single-shot deals, which either make a big difference or are easily wasted, do seem like prototypes for some of the Guardian abilities.
"With hindsight, Halo 3 was as good as Halo multiplayer ever got."
This multiplayer package was so good that Bungie's next Halo game, Halo 3: ODST, simply included the whole thing with the DLC, while Reach — for all its qualities as a singleplayer campaign — introduced rocket packs. By the time of Destiny Bungie had mastered the floaty double jump, but Reach's attempt only had me yearning for Halo 3's more grounded action.
When I think of Halo, I still think only of Bungie's Halo games. Perhaps that itself is nostalgia. But it's impossible to deny that the Xbox division, ever since Halo entered its stewardship, has failed to live up to the original developer's legacy of ambition and quality. That is much easier said than done, of course, and I'm not here to bash 343, but in ways both big and small the series is long-dead to me. As this article suggests, I moved with Bungie onto Destiny, and now look back on those early Halo games more as the journey's starting point than the destination.
One of the reasons I feel like that, perhaps, is that Halo 3 really did live up to the tagline. Bungie threw everything but the kitchen sink at this campaign, and ended it perfectly — with Earth saved, the baddies in bits, and Master Chief sent floating into the void in cryosleep. ODST was a side story, and Reach was a prequel. Marty O'Donnell's score is elegiac and, in places, almost haunting — but builds to a thunderous climax that left no doubt of an ending.
Halo 3 is where me and the Master Chief finished our fight. I'll tell you one thing I miss about that guy: the humour. Bungie may be all glory and grandeur these days, but the studio retains a self-effacing and often very funny strain about its own work. This is a marked feature of their Halo games, and means Master Chief was once I character I held genuine affection for.
It's not because he's a super-soldier who blows away thousands of aliens, or the avatar through which you experience all this wonderful FPS design. It's because Bungie's Master Chief shows self-knowledge in the quiet moments, when the bullets stop, and his sense of humour always has a shared foundation; we all know what we're here for.
All I can do is give an example, one of my favourite lines in video game history. Down in some room with a self-destruct sequence triggered, surrounded by an army, Cortana asks simply "got an escape plan?"
Even ten years on, I remember what the Chief says like it was yesterday.
"Thought I'd try shooting my way out. Mix things up a little."