Halo is one of those games, isn’t it? Doesn’t matter if you’ve ignored the cover in GAME. Doesn’t matter if you’ve never touched the books or studied the lore. Doesn’t even matter if you’ve played it, quite honestly. You know it’s a sci-fi shooter as well as you know there’s a dude with a green helmet and a blue lady, uh, hologram thing. You know it set the template for what a modern multiplayer mode is expected to be. You know it. Somehow, through the power of gamer hivemind osmosis, you know Halo.
- READ MORE: Radiohead’s ‘KID A MNESIA’ exhibition is as untraditional, warped and magical as the band itself
I knew about it in the same way, really. I had friends who played it – friends who raved about it – but at that time, Halo encompassed two things I actively avoided; shooters and competitive play. Multiplayer lobbies are unpleasant places for anyone who isn’t a straight white dude even today, but back then, they were even less welcoming. So despite what a cursory glance at my PS5 library might tell you today, I grew up with a penchant for story-driven adventures, horror, and fantasy RPGs; essentially anything that didn’t involve playing with other people or putting on a headset and mic.
All that changed ten years ago. Halo Reach – the first Halo without the dude in the green helmet, incidentally, and the last Halo game to be wholly developed by its creator, Bungie, before the series was passed on to its current caretaker, 343 Industries – was fully co-operative. This meant that I – an FPS newbie with the reflex speeds of a limbless corpse – could play alongside someone better than me and watch, and learn, as they took me through Halo‘s incredible world.
Together, we worked our way across the campaign and for the first time, I realised first-person shooters weren’t mindless murder simulators. There was a connection between me and the characters on the screen. I cared if they lived or died. Every combat sequence was accompanied by the soaring strings of Marty O’Donnell and even now, if I need to gee myself up with, it’s the Halo Reach soundtrack I reach for (Winter Contingency still gives me chills). I finished that campaign with a lump in my throat and an all-new appreciation for a genre of games that, up until that point, I’d ignored. Intentionally.
Unlocking the potency of Halo Reach‘s storytelling went on to reveal a whole genre of games I’d steadfastly avoided up until that point. No, I’m not a particularly gifted player – I like to think my fireteam pals keep me around to ensure they’re never bottom of the table – but once I shrugged off the shame of playing badly (most people are average, by the way – that’s why it’s called average – and if you find squaddies that love and accept you as I have, you honestly don’t have to worry about that stuff) and began to understand the rhythms of a multiplayer session, I started to really, really love it. Finding my fireteam and my place within it – even if that happens to be at the bottom – sealed my fate, really.
The magic of Halo‘s multiplayer back then was that all players were equal. Whether you’d played Halo Reach for six hours or six solid months, all players kicked off with exactly the same loadout. Sure, you can switch to better guns if you’re lucky enough to find them – and knowing your way around any multiplayer map makes you a more formidable foe – but you didn’t unlock additional perks the longer you played, and you didn’t get skills or special abilities, either. It was the original battle royale, really. Your survival depended on your skill and a bit of luck, not your opponent’s ability to play 24/7 and unlock grenades that you won’t get to use for another six months.
That’s the problem today, I suspect. Games like Call Of Duty have popularised levelling up and loadout systems, so the more you play, the better your weaponry will be. I think that generates an uneven playing field; there’s a stark difference between how much a fifteen-year-old school kid, a 20-year-old with a part-time job, and a forty-year-old with three kids and a full-time job can game. It’s not fair that those who are time rich can unlock all the combat advantages when others cannot.
That’s why I’m enjoying the Halo Infinite beta so much, I think. It reminds me of the old days. Yes, you can “rank up”, theoretically, but there’s no competitive advantage in doing so. The battle pass doesn’t give you a leg up, either. It’s exactly how it should be.
Sometimes, though, I wonder what might have happened if that someone hadn’t convinced me all those years ago that Halo Reach was worth my time. Would I still have downloaded the Destiny beta, do you think? Or given Apex Legends a go? Would I be writing about games if I hadn’t have broken out of my comfort zone and broadened my tastes? How different would my library look now?
What would have happened if I’d spent the rest of my life mistakenly believing that shooters weren’t for the likes of me?