I was kinda late to the gaming party wagon. I didn’t have a Nintendo, or a Sega, as it was deemed more educational to have a Spectrum 128k+. This was great; it has its own built in tape deck and a light gun that actually kinda worked. It was, however, not a great, or lasting, gaming platform. In the house there was also a megalithic Ferranti PC with twin 5 ¼” floppy drives, one of which was always used for the boot disc that loaded DOS. GATO was too complex for me at the time and The Ancient Art Of War had a map editor, where I spent my time devising scenarios that I could easily dominate (in my defence I was probably, like, 8 at the time).
Then came Big Green; the original squat, menacing Xbox. It was so powerful compared to the Playstation and PS2, so exciting… when Halo: Combat Evolved arrived even I was tempted to try. I had sat down with a few FPSs and 3PSs in the past, at the PC of a friend who proudly demonstrated Unreal and Jedi Academy games and, while they were exciting and beautiful, I simply found them too stressful to play; always certain that something outside my field of view was going to destroy me, that the strange mouse and keyboard combo control system would always be too complex to master.
Despite this, I dropped the disc for Halo:CE into Big Green’s disc caddy and booted it up.
It was amazing. The beauty and scope of the world I was presented with were a sight to behold and the audacious scale of the conflict – with giant arenas, dozens of clever enemies and vehicles that I could hop into and out of at my whim – staggering. I managed to play for several hours before the stress got too much and I relegated it to the pile of games I would never complete.
The real turning point came with Gears Of War. I knew my history with shooters was poor, but damn! Did you see that trailer? The first Mad World trailer for Gears Of War was unbelievable.
I mean, literally, I did not believe that they could make a game that came anywhere close to looking that good in motion. I wasn’t alone, either; the general consensus was that either they were lying, or something astounding was coming our way. When the reviews began to drop and it seemed like the impossible had occurred, I once more set my troubled history with shooters aside because seriously, I had to see that happening on MY telly in real time.
I had never played a cover shooter before (I’m not even sure that Gears Of War wasn’t the first) and something about the pace and the added layer of strategy just clicked with me. I still wasn’t good, I still found it stressful, but I had discovered a shooter that I understood. It rewarded thought and placement and the instinct not to stand in the path of dangerous things. It still took me a long time to play. First time through I stopped after that damned berserker had killed me god-knows how many times. It was a personal victory when, several months later, I started the game again and managed to wrestle my way past her and on to the rest of the campaign; a validation that I might not be a great gamer, but I was improving. Maybe if I could beat her, I could beat the whole game. Maybe if I could beat the whole game, I could beat other games too…
That was when I started playing shooters. Anything that I could use my grip on Gears Of War to help me understand… and I think that was my problem with Halo. I had hung my ability to play shooters on a game that had almost nothing in common with Bungie’s flagship. I liked cover and slow pace and iron sights. Master Chief’s frenetic, kinetic world was a long way from that and… grenades on left trigger? Seriously? Just… just what the hell, man? I didn’t like the requirement to constantly swap weapons to avoid running out of ammo; I liked to find a gun I understood and stick with it, damnit. Halo was too strange, too… alien for me to enjoy. I couldn’t understand it.
Not that I hadn’t tried. I have played the first hour of every Halo shooter there is. At the end of each and every one of those hours, I laid the game down with a frustrated sigh which reinforced my exasperation; obviously a lot of people found some merit in the games, but I’d be buggered if I could see it.
The next step in my troubled past with Halo is the slow release of early titles for Xbox One and PS4. I was so bored of having nothing original and exciting to play that, even after a beta that totally underwhelmed me, I – and a good chunk of my friends – went straight out and bought Destiny when it launched. Despite everything that was (and shamefully still is) wrong with the game, the core running and shooting mechanics are great – albeit not my usual fare – and the opportunity to play alongside friends in such a beautiful playground was irresistible.
But the shine wore off. The thirteen billionth time I saw the library on Venus proved to be the last straw and I could no longer bear the tedious, repetitive grind and uninspiring mission structure of Destiny. Enough was enough.
What I hadn’t noticed at the time, however, was that Destiny was the perfect stepping stone between the world of shooters as I understood them and Bungie’s previous form. Destiny has the same basic flow of combat and the same range and type of mob diversity as Halo, but driven by a more familiar interface; a sprint button, aiming on left trigger, a gun I could rely on. Sinking enough time into Destiny to learn to enjoy the way its combat moved had, unbeknownst to me, drawn the gap between my understanding of shooters and Halo shorter than ever before.
So when last month I was again presented with nothing I knew I wanted to play, I once more took my sanity in my hands and launched the free copy of Halo: Reach on 360 that Microsoft had given away some time earlier. It wasn’t an immediate revelation, but slowly I realised that I was having fun. After a few hours I stopped accidentally grenading things when I wanted to aim at them and learned just to keep moving, keep firing, to anticipate the actions of the Covenant and to be pleasantly surprised when I was wrong.
The combat felt like Destiny, but with a few odd tweaks which I could overcome. Something in me had changed; the route between my late-starting Spyro-playing beginnings and an appreciation of Halo was complete, like some obscure game of Ticket To Ride.
Am I a total convert? No, not really. I wasn’t there from the beginning, so I don’t share the same mythical adoration that some of my friends have, but I can understand it now. I can feel the shape of how awesome the original must have been in its day. I have completed my first ever Halo campaign and now I’m working – unhurriedly – on the Master Chief Collection (incidentally, giggling with idiot joy when I press the back window button to see the old graphics next to the new). I suspect I will meet the Flood for the first time ever soon and I’m keen to find out what the fuss is about.
And, in truth, the remastered Halo: Combat Evolved on the Master Chief Collection is a remarkably robust game, considering its age. I’m in no rush, but I hope to make my way through all four episodes and see the Master Chief through his story. I look forward to finding out if the Scarab tank battle in #2 is all that legend has led me to expect.
I’m late to the party, but I’ve brought a bottle and a bag of cookies. I’m intrigued, though; have you had any similar experiences, with shooters in general, or with a game that everyone raved about, but you just didn’t get? Let us know in the comments!