Vs. Mode: Newsweek And MTV News Argue Over ‘Halo 3′ (Round 1)

Every once in a while — meaning every day or two — I get into a lengthy video game debate with my friend and fellow video game reporter N'Gai Croal from Newsweek magazine. After years of clogging each other's IM windows with witty rejoinders about why "Zelda" is or isn't superior to "Metal Gear" and about what must be done to restore fighting games to their glory, we've decided to take our debates public. What follows here and will unfold over the next few days both here at MTVNews.com and at N'Gai's "Level Up" blog at Newsweek's site is our discussion of a game that has stressed us both out quite a bit: "Halo 3." N'Gai starts this one off pleasantly enough with a trip down memory lane — but this thing heats up, as you'll see over the next few days ...

To: Stephen Totilo
Fr: N'Gai Croal
Date: May 9, 2007
Re: I Want To Be Alone

Stephen,

One hour into my "Halo 2" refresher course — the high-pitched voices of barely pubescent boys coming through loud and clear in my headset — I find myself wondering whose bright idea it was to make the "Halo 3" multiplayer beta the subject of our second Vs. Mode pairing. (Damn my fellow Canadians at BioWare for their tardiness with "Mass Effect.") As if it weren't enough that our first exchange revealed my complete ignorance of the "Zelda" franchise, this one will expose my deep-seated indifference to the online component of action games. That's why every fiber of my being is screaming, "Let's scrap our plan and pick something else." Still, there's something perversely appealing about being forced to find something interesting to say about an aspect of action games — online multiplayer — that, while I recognize its importance, generally leaves me cold. Besides, isn't that why they pay me the big bucks? So, once more into the breach.

It's not you, "Halo 2." It's me.

The first online game that I remember playing was back in 1989 or 1990. I don't remember the name of the game, but it was a top-down tank combat game for DOS PCs, and it had a two-player head-to-head mode that could be played via modem. A classmate of mine had the same game and there was something subtly magical about the way a blazing-fast 2600 baud modem could collapse the 30-minute walking distance between our suburban houses into a you-are-almost-there experience. Unfortunately, I didn't have two phone lines, so the thrill of trash-talking my friend was limited to pre-game and post-game chatter. That's why we spent a lot more time playing the decidedly analog tabletop game "Axis & Allies" in my parents' rec room than we did playing tank vs. tank over the modem; the former offered a much more social experience than the latter.

During my time in college from 1990 to 1994, I didn't spend much time playing games. My freshman roommate had a PC, and when he wasn't using it, I alternated between playing two simulation games: an Apache helicopter title and a college hoops coaching game. As for multiplayer gaming, I do remember a number of occasions where myself and four other guys in my freshman dorm would cram into the computer cluster, commandeer all of the Macs and play Risk over the LAN. A good time was had by all, made more fun by the side-by-side game time banter.

When I got out of college in 1994, I went to work at The Washington Post in the wonderfully vague role of content producer for the newspaper's nascent online service. We worker bees were mostly in our 20s and 30s, and when we weren't swapping stories about how far we'd gotten in the greatest game ever made — yes, that evolutionary dead end called "Myst" — we were silently counting down the hours, minutes and seconds until quitting time. Because right at 6 p.m., all thoughts of work were obliterated as we fired up "Doom" on our office PCs and gleefully blasted each other to smithereens for the next 90 minutes, the only sounds being those of our playful insults and cheers bouncing off the cubicle walls. Ditto for "Doom II."

In the spring of 1995, I joined Newsweek and pretty much stopped gaming recreationally. It wasn't until August of 1999, when, curious about how much game development had evolved since the days of "Myst" and "Doom," I got my editors to send me on a three-week tour of the industry. Beginning with Bungie in Chicago and ending with Dennis "Thresh" Fong in Berkeley, I also hit id Software, Ion Storm, a slew of Gathering of Developers' studios, Sony, Sega and Microsoft. Since this was just a few weeks before the launch of the Dreamcast, for which "NFL 2K" was one of the flagship titles, it piqued my interest in online console gaming. But after a few random football matches with strangers, I lost interest. Many more of my multiplayer experiences on the dearly departed Dreamcast were had playing "Soul Calibur," and later "Virtua Tennis" and "Dead or Alive 2," with my opponents seated right next to me. (Ditto for PC multiplayer; I've pretty much thoroughly avoided playing such games online, but a fellow tech journalist who lives in Manhattan has for years periodically hosted LAN parties that last into the wee hours of the morning. Good, good times.)

My heretofore unexplored lack of interest in online multiplayer didn't change much with the release of the PlayStation 2 or the Xbox. Apart from playing a handful of games with publicists and fellow journalists at industry events and online hands-on sessions (i.e. "SOCOM," "Halo 2," "Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory" and "Doom III"), or dabbling with a few more titles shortly after they shipped (mostly "Madden," "Burnout" and "NBA Live"), I was pretty much M.I.A., or AWOL, depending on you look at it. And with the exception of a few quick bouts of "Gears of War" and "Resistance: Fall of Man," the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 simply haven't forged in me the love of online multiplayer that warms the hearts of so many gamers, like Level Up's own Xbox 360 correspondent Rolf Ebeling. But in the interest of Vs. Mode, I'm willing to use the "Halo 3" multiplayer beta as a springboard to see whether there's a place for me somewhere in this vast connected arena.

Cheers,
N'Gai

To: N'Gai Croal
Fr: Stephen Totilo
Date: May 19, 2007
Re: Is Halo 3 Baseball, Basketball or Survivor?

N'Gai,

It's been 10 days since you wrote me. Like a certain Nintendo-made first-person adventure game, I'm late.

I've been busy, as have you. Some of that time was spent playing the "Halo 3" beta, which went live since you wrote me. A lot of other things have happened in gaming since then. Sega, Square, Sony and Ubisoft showed off their 2007 games lineup in press events in America and Japan. Tecmo announced the return of "Tecmo Bowl." Blizzard announced a sequel to "StarCraft." The official release date for "Halo 3" was announced. And the people who track video game sales in America, the NPD group, reported a shocking disparity in "Pokemon" sales: the series' 2007 "Pokemon Diamond" outselling the counterpart "Pokemon Pearl" 1,000,000 to 700,000 in the games' first month. (I'm a "Pearl" man myself.)

Just 10 days brought all of that.

I'd like to say it's your e-mail that got me thinking about all that can happen during the passage of time. You certainly were in a reflective mood yourself when you kicked off this exchange. You even made me a little nostalgic: in that August of 1999 you cited we were just becoming friends, you were just beginning to find excuses not to play "Zelda," and your dreadlocks were just beginning, measuring at a couple of feet short of their current J Allard length.

But it wasn't your e-mail. I've always been reflective, nostalgic ... and I guess a bit of a sap. As a kid I used to get depressed on New Year's Eve. With the rest of my family in the living room I would go to my room and sadly remove the last year's 12-month calendar from my wall, flipping through the pages one last time to glimpse receding memories.

So ... "Halo 3." What does any of this have to do with "Halo 3"? It's got everything to do with "Halo 3," because I'm thinking about the passage of time and the amount of stuff that happens during such passages. How much do we expect to have happen in gaming between May 9 and May 19? How much do we expect to have happen from 2004 to 2007? How much can gaming change, and how much should a game series change?

I've heard a lot of people talking about how surprisingly similar this multiplayer-only "Halo 3" beta looks and feels to multiplayer of the first two "Halo" games. I've heard a lot of grumbling that those similarities are a problem.

Now you didn't play "Halo" and "Halo 2" much. Neither did I. I beat the first game in single-player. I went halfway through the second. I played less than 10 hours of multiplayer of either game. Never mind that. I've played enough and you've played enough to know what this "Halo 3" multiplayer beta indicates: they haven't really changed the game.

Like the first two installments, "Halo 3" plays out as a quickly-paced first-person shooter that rewards strategic team play. A good offense requires map memorization and a skilled hand at making your character hop and shoot at the same time. A good defense requires management of the series' signature regenerating-health system. "Halo" experts will scoff that I'm oblivious to some profoundly subtle developments in "Halo," some key tweak to character turning speeds or Warthog handling.

The introduction of new X-button-triggered gadgets like the bubble shield and the trip mine is the one definitive addition. At best that's like the NBA's 1979 introduction of the three-point shot. It may tweak the game, but it's not overhauling it.

The passage of time just hasn't changed "Halo" series a lot. Is this a problem?

When last we debated, I railed against repetition in game sequels. My Kratos critique was that "God of War II," although lots of fun, was too safely cut from the cloth of the first game to impress and impact me the way I hoped it would. Ready to call me a flip-flopper? I'm here today to tell you: I like that "Halo 3" is playing it safe. I like the lack of radical change.

The difference between "God of War" and "Halo" multiplayer is that one is an adventure of narrative and gameplay. The other is enjoyed as a sport. I crave constant re-invention in the former. I assume perfection and stability is possible in the latter.

Sometimes a sporting formula just works. Take baseball. About a century ago someone figured out that 90 feet was a good distance between home plate and first base. Since then pitchers and batters have gotten stronger. Runners have gotten faster. Baseball strategies have changed. Pitchers' mounds have been modified. Yet nothing has ruined those 90 feet. It still is just long enough — and just short enough — to make for exciting plays. The dimensions just work.

Is "Halo" baseball? Has Bungie already nailed the 90 feet?

Or maybe "Halo" is basketball back in 1953, just before the introduction of the 24-second shot clock. Before the clock was added basketball was played at a slower pace. The sport was still about tossing a bouncing ball through a hoop, but the shot-clock forced play to be much more swift.

The "Halo" formula might well be baseball already. Then again, it might be basketball before the shot clock was added.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe "Halo" isn't a sport and maybe it shouldn't be treated as if it can be as pure as one. Maybe it's more like "Survivor." You know the show, right? A bunch of people are sent to a jungle, get forced into all sorts of odd tasks and get to vote each other off, one TV episode at a time? I used to watch it regularly, and back when I did I noticed that the rules changed regularly. Those fundamental voting rules didn't, but many of the specific day-to-day ones did. Challenges changed. Tribes were shuffled. Monkey wrenches were thrown.

"Halo" multiplayer games have always been full of tribal challenges: Capture the Flag, Slayer deathmatch, King of the Hill. We've got VIP mode and Oddball mode. The challenges get mixed every time, even if getting voted off the island consistently involves getting tagging from a hop-and-shoot enemy. If "Halo" isn't baseball. If "Halo" isn't basketball. If it's "Survivor," then, yes, it could use more of a remix.

Brian Crecente from Kotaku told me that he is disappointed that "Halo" doesn't allow players to fire from a protected hiding spot behind cover. He believes "Gears of War" popularized that element of shooter action and that "Halo 3" could use that ... or something. On his blog, he wrote:

"I suppose I shouldn't have been expecting them to reinvent the wheel, but it would have been nice to see some sort of shift in gameplay, something that Halo 3 most certainly doesn't do."

He's looking for a significant change. Me? I'm thinking the "Halo" formula is pretty well locked, more of a "Mario Kart" or "Gran Turismo" than the constantly reinvented multiplayer of "Splinter Cell" or the still up-for-dabbling "Burnout."

I leave you with this question: what do we need from our multiplayer sequels? Constant change? Consistent execution of a proven formula?

What do you think? And how about you open this up to that other element of the similarities between "Halo 3" and the previous games: the looks. Should they have overhauled the graphics?

-Stephen