So it was late last night and our son awoke with much crying and inhalation of mucus. This preempted the scheduled viewing of 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' as my lovely wife diligently moved herself upstairs for what was to be the night shift of nursing a cold-stricken infant. Left to my own devices I was contemplating a grind to the next sparsely laid out save point on the unforgiving Ninja Gaiden Sigma when I remembered something. "Oh yeah," I said to myself out loud. "Halo 3 goes on sale in fifteen minutes."
I was unimpressed with Halo's first two offerings. As someone who until recently only played off-line I never sampled the true strength of the franchise. In starting the original 'Halo: Combat Evolved' I thought the enemies were childish, the architecture bland, and the environment somewhat ridiculous. This was trying to be a space epic played out on what looked like a well-manicured golf course. Even on the shooter-starved PS2 there were games that had better atmosphere and story, something vital to the single player experience. I took a pass on the Master Chief and the original X-Box thereby.
Things are a bit different now though. For one the 360 has proven itself to be a gutsy shooter box. Sure she sounds rickety and runs hot but the controller is aces, the wireless on-line is dependable, and the well-stocked library of exclusives and high-end PC ports has more than paid for itself in hours of entertainment. I reasoned that Halo 3 was liable to show as much improvement over its predecessors as the 360 has over the original X-Box. As well I have been increasingly getting into tracking the medium in and of itself and that means experiencing the milestones as they occur. So with these final rationalizations in mind I skipped out onto Dundas and headed towards Young.
On my way I passed three different guys clutching small bags that could only contain a disc package of some kind. The only two likely options that came to mind regarding what lay within was pornography or the midnight selling video game. One of them was on the phone as I passed him and I heard him say; "I'll be there in three minutes!" with all the urgency of Ethan Hunt in the midst of an Impossible Mission. Either I just missed out on one hell of an intense circle-jerk or Halo man-love was in the air!
I passed by the big outlets; the Electronic Boutique and the HMV in favour of the local, non-franchised Game Shack. Support your local retailers, right? In truth I was going to buy this game with a gift certificate I received on my birthday (thanks Mark!) I will happily put down my hard-earned coin on a Bioshock in order to have my vote on capitalism shape the world but when it comes to over-hyped, mainstream-hungry titles like this, I much prefer to spend other people's money.
I would imagine that in the grand, shining cities of the States there were launch parties, booth babes, game-inspired costumes, fireworks, a P. Diddy performance and uncorked bottles of champagne aplenty but in downtown Toronto the game store had all the buzz of a methadone clinic. Two rented guards allowed the junkies in one at a time. We were to inform them ahead of time how we were going to pay. Once directed to the proper teller we could then state what edition (Regular, Limited, or Legendary) we desired. Eye contact with the store clerks was not encouraged. Only when the attendant had completely let go of the aforementioned little baggie could we scurry out, free then to hiss at the remaining clientele as we disappeared into the night.
Once home I was feeling tired and contemplated what to do next. My wife would certainly roll her eyes at my little foray into fandom and for a moment I thought that I would leave the game in plain view, still wrapped in cellophane. What a show of strength and maturity that would be! Yes, I went out and bought the game in question as alleged but so intact are my priorities that I went straight to bed without sampling nary a cranny on the crumpet.
Then however another thought crossed my mind; a giddy epiphany unsullied by responsibility, or parenting, or even the love of a good woman. The game is brand-spanking new. The on-line playing field is as level as it will ever be and this golden opportunity, this near-magical moment in time and space will last for only a few hours before the all-nighters establish the age-old hierarchy of pwning noobs and dominating casual players like me. I had the chance to strike quick, strike hard, and best of all, strike first!
The time was precisely 12:38am when I fired up the console. Thankfully the game came with a large diagram explaining all of the button functions so I didn't even need to open the book. Ignoring the pull of the single player campaign I dove into matchmaking. The game said that over 17,000 players were on-line at that moment and less than 3,000 were in Basic Training, or the novice arenas. The odds, my friends, have never been so good.
I jacked in and liked what I was seeing within ten seconds. The game moves well and the images are crisp and to the point. I was in some kind of multi-levelled military installation nestled in a jungle by night with four other opponents. One of them came within range and we duelled. Well, I duelled, he died! YES! My first kill and to the immense stroking of my ego I got it in before I was fragged. That has never happened for me in any on-line game I've played. Usually I must perish in a dozen unholy fires before I claim my first victim. Curse words came over my speakers but I don't yet have a microphone. I would be a mute, remorseless killer, incapable of taunts or boasting. I would be Old Death himself; silent, inexorable, pitiless... I died about seven seconds after my kill.
The map wasn't too large and one could memorize it after about five minutes of play. Weapons lay scattered about and I quickly found a couple of favorites; a heavy-duty 'spiker' handgun that you could dual-wield to horrible short-range effect, and a kind of grenade launcher with a six-shot magazine that could double-kill if you happened to come across a duel in progress. I found that to be a cunning strategy. Keep a low profile until signs of conflict made themselves known, then swoop in and lay waste to both preoccupied combatants. After one such bit of skulduggery I made sure to use the crouch command continuously over the dead and 'hump the corpse' just as YouTube has taught me. By the Hammer of Thor I humped their corpses in the name of my forefathers as did the Norse gods of old!
The time eventually ran out on our first match, none of the players achieving the 25 kills needed to end the game. I came in first place - tied actually - with another opponent and I claiming 14 kills each. I fittingly came in second place in the second match, scoring 18 kills to the winner's 25. I played a few more matches and acquitted myself well staying in the top half of the roster, but I would never claim victory again that night and heap further glory upon my name.
And you know what? I'm liable to not do so ever again. The magical moment has passed, the game has been out for many hours now and all the serious players have no doubt begun to master each weapon, memorize each map, and further hone their skills making victims out of better players than I. From now on and with increasing frequency the corpse that will be humped will probably be my own.
It was fun to take part in that first hour of Halo and from what I've seen the game has promise. There seems to be a dedicated film and screenshot component for you to store your more memorable moments, and a map editor so that you may make your own arenas. In just my cursory perusal of these functions I could sense a real effort put forth to give the players something worthwhile. Even if the single player campaign winds up to be short and lacklustre I think this game's inevitable hit status is going to be well-deserved.
So if you ever hit the matches and happen to find a Dyno 360 player don't bother to say hello, I can't hear you. I can only smell your fear and taste your pain. Should you happen to beat me down then hump away young Spartan, you've earned your eternal glory!