Halo players are disappointingly unimaginative.
Okay, yes, that’s an awfully broad generalization for an awfully large group of people.
A Halo multiplayer match is the sort of thing that you enter into knowing an awful lot about what the game is going to give you. There’s a relatively small map with a few nooks and crannies, a few strategically placed weapons, and a pile of opponents spread out fairly evenly between quiet assassins, confused newbies, and adolescent showoffs. It’s been this way since Halo 2 turned the franchise into a multiplayer phenomenon (turning Microsoft into a viable console peddler in the process), and it remains this way to this day.
While Halo: Reach has the potential to surpass any Halo multiplayer experience to date, it generally comes off as merely equal to its predecessors. Granted, those predecessors are some of the most celebrated examples of competitive multiplayer in the last ten years and to be merely equal to those experiences is itself something of a success, but it’s also a disappointment.
What’s disappointing is that Halo: Reach has the potential. It has all of the components necessary to transcend the established Halo competitive baseline, but it doesn’t and the failing is largely with its audience. The core Halo audience plays multiplayer not for the fun of gameplay but to exert some measure of superiority over the opponent. The purest measure of Halo skill is and will always be Slayer (Deathmatch) mode, thanks to its simplicity. You’re dropped into a map and told to hunt down and kill every other living thing in that map. This purity of play results in extreme popularity, as it is a mode instantly familiar to anyone who has played Halo before, and it rewards pure skill over the mastery of any game-playing technique. Slayer is what the elite (with a small “e”) players play.
Still, having jumped into the “Rumble Pit” (the default every-man-for-himself multiplayer playlist) enough times to have experienced the highs and lows of the multiplayer experience, the new (and old-but-still-kinda-crazy) multiplayer modes turn into bigfoot. You’re pretty sure they exist, you even catch a glimpse of them every so often, but never long enough to take a picture.
Once eight players have been matched up for a round of multiplayer, The Rumble Pit presents those players with three game options. Some form of Slayer (vanilla Slayer, Pro Slayer, Elite Slayer, etc.) is always an option. AND IT ALWAYS GETS PICKED. Even when Headhunter—a new mode that involves delivering headshots to other players, collecting their skulls, and cashing in those skulls at a rotating checkpoint before you get blown away—is available, Slayer gets three or four votes. Even when oldie-but-goodie Oddball mode is available—a mode ripe for collecting multi-kills, it should be noted—Slayer gets three or four votes. Not even Race or Rally modes, included for the first time since the original Halo, can manage to muster up any support. Even if one moves to the new, team-based Invasion multiplayer mode, four times out of five the game reverts to a Slayer-oriented version anyway. Sure, you still get the vehicles and the new maps, but in the end, it’s just Team Slayer with fancy dressing.
People just want to play Slayer. That’s their right, but it seems a terrible waste of the variety that Bungie has put into the Halo: Reach multiplayer package.
The problem is that it is the same devoted Halo audience responsible for this overwhelming sameness in multiplayer play that is responsible for the near-perfunctory nature of the narrative of Halo: Reach. The campaign of Halo: Reach is quite plainly geared toward the player that has studied and more or less memorized the narrative to this point. To be fair, even if you have no idea what the planet of Reach represents or the eventual importance of, say, Cortana’s role in the series, you can sympathize with characters on a mission destined to end in defeat (as the opening quite clearly foreshadows). Despite a finale that is nothing short of spectacular, the narrative exists as merely an excuse to run from one checkpoint to the next. Gamerscore is at least as powerful at least in terms of motivation.
Still, one of the most underrated aspects of Bungie’s skill with this franchise is the outside-the-game infrastructure that they’ve set up. If you log on to Bungie.net and go through a quick sign-up process, you can take a look at every single thing that you’ve ever achieved in the game, your progress toward Gamerscore enhancing achievements and prestige enhancing “commendations”, see how much progress you’ve made toward managing the next multiplayer rank, and take a look at the daily and weekly challenges. The navigation is smooth, and in this outside-the-game interface, what you notice is that you are almost always thiiiiiis close to doing something. Maybe you’ve racked up 237 kills on the day and there’s an open challenge to rack up 250. Maybe you’ve assassinated 94 players in multiplayer, and you realize that it’s only six more until you manage the silver level commendation for that (which, hey, also happens to be an achievement). There’s always low hanging fruit. There’s always something to work for, something you’ll be able to achieve with only a little bit of playtime in terms of investment.
(Although, now that I think about it, would it have been so hard to toss a few commendations in there for hitting rally checkpoints or cashing in skulls?)
Given that Halo: Reach is Bungie’s last go at the franchise, it makes sense that they would want it to be devoted to the devoted, that they wouldn’t turn the franchise upside down for the sake of some sort of attempt at artist cred. Reach feels like the limits of iteration on a franchise. Now, at least, we can watch with some intrigue as we see where Bungie heads next, not to mention where the Halo series might head without its longtime developer.