When I set out to write this piece about Halo 3, I planned to attack it from a more analytical angle. I actually got pretty far in – describing how collaborating gameplay systems served the dual purpose of evolving the franchise and further immersing me in Halo’s larger universe. As I wrote in my initial draft, when I turn off my Xbox, I wanted to jump on YouTube and watch lore videos, or run to the bookstore to buy a Halo paperback. This game isn’t simply a masterful first-person shooter, it’s a gateway into Halo‘s larger multimedia landscape.
Speaking first to Halo 3‘s success as an FPS, this is Bungie at its absolute best. The brilliant storyline of Halo 2 is continued with richer worldbuilding and heightened design enabled by the Xbox 360. Not only does 3 improve what I already loved about the past titles, it even endeared me to the facets that I didn’t. The Flood, which I used to hate fighting, literally evolved here, becoming much less faceless and frustrating. Here, they morph in front of Master Chief’s face in complex ways that deepen the Flood both mechanically and thematically. Halo 3 finally fulfills the Flood’s terrifying reputation, and not just by spawning in them Library behind you with a UNSC rocket launcher. This trilogy endcap polishes every aspect of its formula to its apex.
finishing the fight
The campaign is concise and economical. It ebbs and flows geographically and mechanically, offering set pieces which stretch the player’s understanding of the sandbox. That first Scarab tank takedown with its literal half-dozen approach strategies just stands atop the Xbox 360 system and screams, “this is Halo.” The new weapons and equipment systems offer fresh combat interplay, and the new vehicles like the Hornet zoom out the conflicts to a macro scale. For every moment of intimacy across the adventure, there is a moment of grandeur which pounds home the near-indisputable fact that Bungie is at the top of this genre here and has not been surpassed.
And don’t get me started on the storyline. Halo 2 ‘s cliffhanger ending is capitalized upon by an adventure that hooks the player from frame zero, from the first second that Master Chief makes impact with Earth. This third saga chapter is multilayered. The implicitly romantic tension between Master Chief and Cortana that exists at the edges of this all-ending narrative of religious zealotry and space aliens anchors the storyline with a lot of heart. Add in the campy dialog which sends us to war and reminds us that Scorpions beat everything, and you have a beautiful medley of plot threads and themes housed within an emotionally-fraught fight for survival and for love.
All these story successes are bolstered by the music. Martin O’Donnell is a maestro. He composed a score so sonorous that even the passing reminder of a gentle piano riff places me back behind Spartan armor in a heartbeat. It’s just so iconic and so evocative. Each campaign moment is tracked by a piece of music that elevates every action, emotion, triumph and defeat. Halo 3, through every vestige of its construction, is a bona fide masterpiece and one of the most refined shooters of all-time. And, it’s also a window into the universe that invites the very curiosity that I set out to explore in this article.
Bungie’s attention to detail and mastery over genre, both in the sense of the FPS genre and sci-fi genre storytelling, makes the player want to peek around each corner and learn more. Halo’s personality and its art direction collaborate with the level design, mechanics, set pieces, music and characters to latch onto the player’s subconscious. Design excellence, iconography, intrigue, interesting characters, all these ingredients comprise recipe for a ravenous fanbase. Bungie created a world so rich that the community wanted to expand it, to understand it. So they did, through Forge maps, YouTube machinimas, theory crafting and lore breakdowns. Other professionals in other fields expanded the universe too, through novels, comics, TV and more. As a relatively new fan, I’m in the enviable position of getting to experience all of this, and the excellence of the core games motivate me to do just that.
So, when I say that I can’t stop thinking about Halo 3, it’s for good reason. Bungie built the best version of its already genre-defining sci-fi masterwork which inherently piques my curiosity. When I see a new Brute weapon, I don’t just see a sandbox addition. I see a reminder that the Brutes as a Covenant faction have advanced and evolved since I fought them last in Halo 2. That pokes the same part of my brain that gets excited when I’m enjoying new Star Wars fiction and a fresh face appears. Excellent source material begets interest in engaging with expanded universes through external means: fanworks, literature, the like.
the (prophet of) truth
But the greatest secret of this discussion is that everything I just said was one big tangent. It was all the analytical discussion that I tried to center in this piece initially. However, I didn’t conceptualize the article to accomplish that, if I’m being honest with myself. The truth of the matter, I suppose, is that I just wanted to celebrate Halo and thank it. Halo has quickly come to mean a lot to me. This year alone, I’ve played through the entire series from Halo 2 to Halo 5, and then started it again from Combat Evolved and I’m almost done with Reach now. That’s a lot of Halo, and that’s a lot of replays for someone who typically doesn’t replay games.
The truth is, Halo has become my comfort series. We all have one, I think. I consider a comfort series to be a franchise that you can return to no matter how much you’ve played it and be equally immersed. A comfort series is a place to hide away and find respite from something, whatever that something is at the time. For much of my life, Pokémon was that series. But, I came to realize that Halo is quickly overtaking Pokémon this week when I dove back into my replay with 3 and Reach. I need a comfort series right now. My college semester is just draining me for so many disparate and overlapping reasons, both within school and beyond it. Everything will be fine with time, but my ass is getting kicked right now.
It’s a lot to handle and it can be overwhelming sometimes, especially since I’ve struggled with anxiety and OCD for much of my life. With all that heaviness it might seem funny to say this, but basically all that weight on my shoulders slips off when I boot up The Master Chief Collection. If only for a few hours, I can escape to the Ark or to Reach. This is truly why I can’t stop thinking about Halo 3. It follows me to class or to the dining hall and occupies my imagination, waiting there for me to draw upon it when I need to most. So thank you, Bungie, for building my refuge. And thank you 343 Industries for carrying that legacy forth. I can’t wait for Halo Infinite. I can’t wait to be swaddled in celebration of Master Chief’s next chapter, hopefully one that hits the same heights as Halo 3.