A few days ago, I was heard to yell at my television. Or, specifically, at Halo: Reach, the sixth official title in the Xbox video game series. I loudly reacted as a squad of aliens, flanking my every angle of escape, set their phasers to "kill." Afterward, my housemate walked up, pulled out his earplugs and asked how much longer he had to listen to my future-war failures.
"Once I beat the game," I told him, "I can write my review."
He groaned. "You know you can't really beat Halo, right?"
Though his line came flippantly, mocking my loss, he was on to something. Halo: Reach, like most other popular first-person shooting games, is built to be played repeatedly. Just like the word "Nintendo" used to be a catch-all for gaming, so has "Halo" become synonymous with online war games, mostly because it was the first finely tuned online shooter for home consoles rather than PCs. In its most popular modes, players group up in 8- or 16-man battles, using all matter of gun, grenade, and gizmo to out-kill their opponents.
Since then, other Xbox and Playstation games have caught up, particularly the Modern Warfare series—a realistic, military yin to Halo's alien-infested yang. With that competition in mind, it's weird that this is Halo's last stand of sorts. Its original creators, Bungie Software, have jumped ship to start new projects, and any future Halo games will be made by different developers.
So here, then, is a goodbye with the biggest of bangs. Bungie has delivered a farewell so large, so packed with content and options and modifiable doohickeys, that fans will spend years trying, and failing, to "beat" it.
Technically, there's an ending here, attached to a quest. Halo's decade of sci-fi lore has always talked about an epic loss for the human race, and this prequel retells the defeat that got the Halo ball rolling. You control one of six super-soldiers, and your mission—to deliver a package that will save humanity—comes with the series' most bleak moments yet. Teammates die. Cities fall as you fly past and watch helplessly. Sadly, H:R wastes its five main characters with steel-faced archetypes and melodrama; the few characters who show signs of personality die too early for us to care, and the other stoic teammates run past the corpses with little reverence: "We have a mission!" etc. etc.
The original Halo trilogy had more time to liven up its brain-dead, sci-fi stereotypes, but H:R rushes its heroes into their graves. The 10-hour quest, too, feels rushed, even though its environments are among the liveliest on any Xbox game. You wander through mountainous, desert landscapes that look like fresh oil paintings, dripping with dusk's purples and oranges. You drop into sprawling cities, their corridors and scaffolded buildings worn down by battle, only to take off in a four-man helicopter that zips from skyscraper to skyscraper. And those set pieces have nothing on the space base whose panicky combat scene is stricken by the silence of outer space.
Most of these sets are used the same way: reach one, wait for waves of enemies to show up, kill 'em all, see a door open, run to the next spot. No puzzles, not much exploration. That's why the game seems rushed at first. But H:R does this intentionally to focus attention on combat—on the crafty enemies who team up to take smart positions, then dodge, weave, and sneak up behind. No other modern shooting game boasts such intense "artificial intelligence," and fighting waves of H:R baddies can have the same appeal as playing an endless game of Tetris... if the t-shaped piece threw grenades, anyway.
As the rest of the game's battle modes unfold, H:R contentedly wallows in its own slop. When a series tops $2 billion in sales over a decade, it can probably get away with not holding players' hands into over two dozen types of online fights, a mix of old and new for Halo. Basic team battles. Car and tank races. "Headhunter," which asks players to take tokens from dead bodies and score them in buckets, almost like a game of American Gladiators. "Invasion," which splits players into super-sized teams that have three military objectives to complete. And each of the modes comes with hundreds of adjustable options—add ships! change the way points are doled!—which can be tweaked to create whole-new games and shared with friends.
H:R assumes you have friends, by the way. It wants you to play these endless fights with pals, whether teaming up against punky teens on Xbox Live or against the super-smart computer baddies in a huge range of cooperative modes—the idea being that H:R can be enjoyed without ever taking on a teenager. (Sadly, the new online content filter, with adjusters like "chatty"/"quiet" and "rowdy"/"polite," doesn't seem to work yet, based on my matches against young bigots who yelled rudely after virtually killing me and then virtually squatted on my corpse.)
There's plenty more to analyze, like the weapon selection and the super-sized arenas; both are mighty fine, as far as this kind of game goes. Most impressive is the "Forge" mode, a make-your-own-battlefield toy that has grown massively since its debut in 2007's Halo 3. Bungie gives players miles of sprawling, hilly terrain, pock-marked with sea and lakes, to dot with bases, barriers, towers and other architecture. On this playground, players have already built thousands of custom battlegrounds—many with their own custom rules. I remarked that Forge's sandbox looked like a golf course, and sure enough, fans have already created Halo "golf"—with rocket launchers as their 3-woods.
Having done a lot of this online killing stuff before, I'm content to say that H:R delivers the most play of any console shooter ever made. Assuming, of course, you can hurdle the 10-year learning curve and you get a kick out of despair-ridden battles to the death. A bit of a caveat, I suppose. But, again, this is a bit of an ending for Halo—at least, for Bungie's brand of highly customizable, gut-reaction combat—so the makers are leaving the same way they showed up: with a faceless, super-sized helmet, an arsenal of alien guns, and a trail of corpses littering a Technicolor space dreamland.