Don’s review of the Halo campaign mode made a lot of points about the difference between PC and console FPS. Namely, one is for those who are strong like the Ukraine, while the other is for metrosexuals and males who have yet to have their balls drop. Such strong words despite a fair review. With the task of reviewing Halo 3 multiplayer upon me, I looked at it as a challenge. You see, I was once part of that cult as well; the masochistic, PC hardware and shooter junkies were once the tribe I called my own. But I left them a long time ago, and Halo 3 multiplayer is the best proof yet as to why I did.
Let us begin with a story. Once upon a time, I was addicted to Unreal Tournament 2004. I thought it was the best you could get, that no shooter could be this robust, this complete. This was because in many ways, it was true. UT2004 had everything you could ask for, and both its performance and interface seemed entirely too friendly. This was a game we could all enjoy.
My infatuation lasted no more than four months, if it was even that long. It was somewhere around the point when I realized that after all that time, I could count the number of good objective-based matches I had played on two hands. Every other match boiled down to both teams playing Deathmatch, with me alone trying to grab capture points or defend the convoy. I learned that in truth, PC shooter fans were, on a whole, as dumb as Halo fans.
It was also at this time that I realized that the ultra fast, twitch gameplay of UT deathmatch really was something else. Something that I had a hard time getting used to, that is. I love a game filled with action and explosions, but when the entire game involves people flipping and dodging and catapulting around while pouring out unending streams of fire, I am reminded of how wire-fu Chinese action films went from being cute to ridiculous.
Still, I kept coming back, only to consistently find myself being crushed by much better players. Learning curve? It is hard to say there is one when you never get a real chance. I learned that PC shooters were at least as bad, and likely worse, than Halo when it came to domination by elite players. If only there were a way to level the playing field.
I used to love Counterstrike. I still think it is one of the best multiplayer games out there. I remember a time in college when my roommates and I played CS:Source every day. It was always the same routine; someone scout our handful of favorite servers for one with enough space and low lag. If that failed, find a random new server. Try to get everyone to connect in. Hope the admins in-game didn’t pick crappy maps. It could be upwards of twenty minutes before we were really enjoying ourselves or even starting to play.
I also remember playing CS 1.6 with my younger brother, his first time with the game. I wanted to show him the ropes, but he was kicked out of servers for not knowing the maps, including the ones that said “be nice to newbies” on the intro splash screen. To say this was frustrating would be an understatement. I learned that there had to be a better way to play with your friends.
These are all personal anecdotes. I’m sure that for every one of me, you can find five or more people with better experiences. But I am willing to guess that few PC gamers have gone through life without experiencing some of these issues, and on a personal note I find it difficult to say any of them are minor. I’m also not a fan of keeping my rig constantly upgraded, making sure other applications don’t conflict, having to bypass custom games that force me to download dozens of sound clips, and hoping by sheer luck I find a good server or join a decent clan (which of course means I have to play on their schedule).
Don’t kid yourselves, guys. PC shooters are an absolute pain in the ass to set up and play. I’m glad you are having fun after finally setting it all up, but all you have proven to me is that you have more money than I do, and a higher tolerance for bullshit in your attempt to find something to feel superior about. Which puts many of them in the same category as audiophiles and beer snobs. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a huge cross section between PC shooter fans and PC hardware junkies.
Granted, there was a time when I could pour myself into this world, and it was good. But that was when I actually had time, to both play and fiddle, as well as extra disposable income. Times change. I’m not just pressed for time as I get older. My tolerance for games rapidly shrinks every year. I want my entertainment to be entertaining.
Halo 3 is Bungie’s attempt to take the potential of Xbox Live and use it to eliminate these woes. For the most part, it works. Thanks to Xbox Live, you can assemble a group of six friends in three minutes. You can stick together for as long or as short as you like. You can add new comrades to your group as you go along during the night (and quickly friend them for later if you want). Much of this is simply inherent to Xbox Live, but the Halo lobby system makes it even cleaner. For extra nerd points, think of Unix. There everything is represented as a file. In Halo, everything starts off as a game in the lobby. My welcome to quick and seamless online play was a joy.
Bungie has also done their best to add balance through rankings and matchmaking. A player gets two values assigned to him (or her). One is the officer ranking, which is a general marker of experience. The second is actual skill level, which will go up and down and lets you know how truly good a player is at the game. It’s a wonderful setup that gives you a good sense of how well you might fair in a match, and who to avoid playing with. All of this leads to one of the highlights of the Halo series: matchmaking. It isn’t the only game to do it, but Bungie’s constant diligence in providing good matchmaking is something to respect. There will be times when you play against a clearly better quality team, but more often than not you should get a fair match and a good game.
Bungie realizes that everyone needs a chance, and new players in particular need a way to learn the ropes. Matchmaking allows you to square off against those of similar skill and ultimately get better. It means that in a ranked match of Territories, you can damn well be sure that most people are going to go for the Territories, or risk taking a loss and missing out on experience. I cannot say enough how much stress this takes away from the entire Halo experience.
Matchmaking also presents the biggest dilemma that Halo 3 faces. In order to make their utopia, Bungie turned multiplayer from a democracy into a dictatorship. If you want to benefit from matchmaking, you don’t have much of a say as to what you get to play. For example, you can say you want team slayer, but it’s up to the game to decide whether you play Team Rockets or Shotty Snipers or just classic Slayer. If you veto a map, you’re forced to play the second offering. This can lead to even worse map choices, but it is also necessary to teach the whiners to shut up and play. You can set up a custom game, and share it with your closest buddies, but you can’t browse for them. The fact that your soldier ranking carries to all games but your skill level varies between game types can make it difficult to truly size up an opponent (you can look at their max skill level however, which will certainly help).
Finally, matchmaking can make the delay between games just as long as on a PC shooter as it tries to find the best game for your skill. There is also of course the biggest question of them all: a year from launch, what will the Halo community find? What exploits will they uncover, and how well tiered will the competition be? The matchmaking system could completely blow up in everyone’s face. Just look at Halo 2 to see a game where newbies fear to tread today.
This shows the distinct differences, both good and bad, between PC and console multiplayer. One is accustomed to complete and utter freedom in every sense of the word, right down to cheating. It allows for so many ways to play, and yet it also leads to all the woes that anarchy brings. The other is used to control, to having things set up for them for the sake of convenience and quality control. This costs them dearly when their idea of fun doesn’t match up with that of the developer’s or other players.
There is no easy answer to this dilemma, and it makes it harder to comment when you know that Bungie could have added things like custom games browsing and clan support, but you also know that they will refine and improve matchmaking and multiplayer for a long time into the product’s life. Ultimately it is up to you to decide what you want, but for my money the Halo experience has been seamless, balanced and virtually lag free. That makes it worth my time.
There is more than this. Aside from standard multiplayer, Halo 3 features four player co-op, and oh my, does it work well. While it makes even Legendary that much easier to beat, there is something to be said for the hilarity and insanity that ensues from four friends dicking around in a level and creating as much mayhem as possible. It becomes even harder to care about the paper thin story and repetition when you’re having fun trying to get more air with the Warthog than anyone else. It is made even better with campaign scoring, which takes the simple idea of the high score and implements it through punishingly hard stipulations with the reward of points and achievements. Co-op is fun, but it is even better when you add a blatantly competitive flair to it.
The crowning achievement of Halo 3 however, is Bungie’s commitment to community. Forge mode allows players to quickly and easily modify levels to create their own custom game modes, without the hassle of installing and managing mods. The Theatre allows us to view film of an entire match, not only to learn new techniques, but to take screenshots and videoclips of our favorite moments. I’ve seen more than a few amazing snapshots on the internet, some that simply look cool, others that show off true skill, and still others that practically tell a story of the battle. You can track your and your friends stats throughout your Halo careers and see what your best matches and highest achievements were.
And the best part? You can share all of these things via the 360 or Bungie’s website. No need for Xfire, no need for extra cruft. Easy, seamless, yet robust community involvement. After this, I don’t want to hear about how you can emulate Halo 3 with other games via a ton of different apps and accessories. That’s not the point. I shouldn’t have to do that anymore. This game proves it can be done all in one place, and Bungie is far from the only FPS developer with tons of resources at their disposal.
In the end, all of this could mean nothing. With less than a month of time out in the open, the game is still fresh and fairly wild. Unfortunately this is probably the best Halo 3 is going to be. There are still so very many racist, frustrating Halo fans with seemingly infinite amounts of time on their hands, and they will shape this into a very different beast before long. But Bungie has the right idea, and we can hope they’ll keep fighting the good fight. This is not just value, this is the evolution of the concept of FPS multiplayer.
Or, this is the way the gaming world ends. I intend to fight. Grab a rifle. Shoot any Hayabusa that moves.
Excellent review, Christian.