What makes "Halo 3" special? Is it the multimillion-dollar ad campaign Microsoft is using to push the game? Is it the gameplay, graphics and musical score that combine to earn "Halo 3" high review scores? Is it the game's easily accessible fun that has helped turn it into a global pastime?
Maybe. Maybe not. All that could be said about "Halo: Combat Evolved" and "Halo 2," which boasted the same attributes. There is something new in "Halo 3," though, which may earn the game comparisons to the likes of MySpace, Facebook and YouTube, instead of just to "Doom," "GoldenEye" and "Quake." The big new thing is a cluster of franchise-first features called Saved Films, File Share and Screenshots, a cluster for which the game's developer actually doesn't have a catchy name. Why not? The combo seems like a big deal and will certainly be the talk of many "Halo 3" gamers. GameFile suggests: "HaloTube." Too clunky? How about "Chief-Cast"?
So what is it? How do the three parts work? To convey how important it may be is to explain how it's already transformed the way "Halo 3" is played at MTV News. The tale of how the image that accompanies this article was taken will explain all. It opens doors few gamers have ever walked through before.
The above screenshot was taken in-game from a single-player GameFile session of "Halo 3." But no one affiliated with GameFile or MTV News took the shot. Nor did anyone at Microsoft or Bungie. So how did it come to be?
The GameFile "Halo 3" session related to that shot occurred Saturday morning during a play-through of the game's first level, Sierra 117. The session lasted 65 minutes, according to stats logged on the "Halo 3" Web site, Bungie.net. "Halo 3" automatically recorded that session to the hard drive of the Xbox 360 on which it was played. The game does this every time it's played, automatically saving a film of any experience in the game's solo or multiplayer modes, logging it into a part of the game's menu called Theater. The film isn't saved like a QuickTime movie or a YouTube clip, which can only be viewed from the angle they were shot. Instead, it's saved as a file full of gameplay data, the series of instructions and decisions made by the player of that session and all the computer-controlled enemies. When a Saved Film is loaded up from the "Halo 3" Theater, the Xbox 360 uses the data to re-create the recorded session, move by move, jump by jump, kill by kill.
Better still, when the Saved Film is played back, it can be viewed from any imaginable camera angle within the game. The "camera" is controlled by the player and can be flown around the level as the recorded action unfolds. Picture being able to play back a recorded episode of "American Idol," "TRL" or "24," with the ability to "fly" the TV camera through the set, even as the action unfolds, slow the playback down or even pause it while smoothly gliding from a bird's-eye view to one inside a Jack Bauer-triggered explosion to a shot right up a favorite TV personality's nose.
The YouTube resemblance comes in because the movies can be shared. That Sierra 117 session was uploaded to Bungie.net with a few button presses of the Xbox 360 controller. Saved in a section called "File Share," it was immediately made accessible to anyone who knows the Gamertag of the person who played that session (try looking up the Gamertag "StephenMTV"). Any "Halo 3" owner can download that file, and up to four Xbox Live-connected "Halo 3" owners can play back a Saved Film together. One player controls the speed of playback, but all four connected users control their own cameras and chat with each other over their headsets.
None of this yet explains how the above image was made and who made it. The "who" is Newsweek reporter N'Gai Croal. On Saturday he got a tip about the film mailed to his 360. He opened the message and downloaded the GameFile Sierra 117 film to his console. He then played back the mission, flying his game camera away from the game's main character, Master Chief. Croal wanted to know what some of the computer-controlled allies of the Chief were up to on the periphery of the main battles. He tracked down the computer-controlled human character Sergeant Major Avery Johnson. Croal found Johnson manning a machine gun, trying to take out bad guys. Eventually Johnson was captured, but not before Croal found a striking camera angle and paused the action. A violent flash had briefly turned the world orange. Croal took the screenshot. It was automatically uploaded to his own Bungie.net File Share, which he called "johnson@work 4." What he had just snapped was a scene even the player of the Sierra 117 level hadn't seen.
Unlike "Halo 3" Saved Films, the screenshot Croal took — and the other shots any other "Halo 3" players take — can be viewed without a copy of Bungie's game. They are accessible on Bungie.net, linked to Croal's personal page and those of anyone else who has downloaded the image. They can be downloaded to computers and programmed into articles like this one.
This entire unnamed cocktail of features — the saved films, the screenshots, the file Share — isn't a new invention. A similar set of options was included in the 2000 PC game "Battlefield 2," which allowed sessions of that game to be seen by players who owned that title. The "Battlefield" game allowed users to export their movies into AVI files so that anyone with a computer could view them, though with a fixed camera angle. Both major skateboarding games released this fall, "Tony Hawk's Proving Ground" and "Skate," offer console gamers a version of the Saved Films technique. Still, as popular as these other games are, the console-bound "Halo" series, phenomenon that it is, stands a great chance of making this feature standard in future games.
How does the experience of playing a game change when every moment is recorded? When friends can fly through other friends' adventures and snap photos of highlights and lowlights? When it becomes fun not just to do something in a game but to show it to other people, or to watch recorded exploits with them? Did the developers of "Halo 3" just re-create an interesting novelty? Or did they finally push gaming to a place where YouTube and MySpace have nudged the Web?
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For much more on "Halo 3" — including the developers' review of our time with the game as well as video of a Master Chief Lego sculpture — check out our gaming blog at Multiplayer.MTV.com.