[b] If my body were a car, I'd be thinking about trading it in around now. I would like to upgrade. I would be actually on the lot somewhere and some guy with a loud sports jacket would be sizing me up...kinda lookin' around goin--maybe kickin my knees.
-- Ellen DeGeneres
I'm not going to spend my time trying to convince you that Halo 3 is worth playing. Over the course of its life, Halo has joined the Madden series as a kind of radioactive No True Gamer pox. These are titles lauded by beefy males: individuals who enjoy sports, rush Greek and are familiar with the mechanics of the Deadlift. Or so goes the cliché.
Chances are, you've already aligned yourself with the camp that enjoys the game. Or possibly, you're one of the people that blocks out its mere existence.
In any event, one should be aware that Bungie has just finished the final coat of wax on their promised Title Update 2, which by now has sped through the many copper-coated wires of the internet and parked itself into countless Xboxen. Why should you care? Well, for one thing, it marks a fulfillment of the promises and prophecies that were made when the current slate of interconnetted systems were envisioned.
First a quick glance at the suspension tweaks. Note that the changes were carried out on the Halo 3 multiplayer experience, and not the single player campaign.
- Playlist Rankings - Players now earn game-specific ratings for Halo's mulitplayer modes. This was engineered to provide more immediate feedback to players, allowing them to see their individual progress in game-types as opposed to basing their worth on TrueSkill numbers and insignias. It will also enable tactically invested types to gauge their opponents quickly, based on their game-specific rankings.
- Achievements - Ten new relevant achievements have been added which deal specifically with the Legendary map pack. Great. Bungie's revolutionizing the gamescape by adding more achievements, right? Underwhelming feelings aside, it's an interesting way to promote the new map material that Bungie's producing. Appealing to the completionist/achievement-farmer is hardly new, but including a dangling carrot after the release of a map pack is somewhat unexpected.
TU2 also revealed a host of achievements that will be applicable for the upcoming Mythic map pack. These are a bit juicier than the ten mentioned previously, as they include new Skulls, hinting towards an expansion of the single-player campaign at some point in the future.
Down the Road
What I take away from the update (particularly the presently-useless achievements) is a notion that Bungie has a longitudinal plan for Halo 3. I haven't seen an astoundingly game-changing addition here, but the idea that Bungie is not content to rest on their obscenely large piles of cash is quite appealing. They could easily have let the game roll along, adding only the slightest of physics or weapon damage tweaks along the way. Instead, we're seeing small (but well-reasoned) changes to the way the player conceptualizes his rank in the online world. His relation to his virtual counterpart is now accessed through a global rank and a per-game rank. He is offered a multitude of assessments for his in-game metamorphosis.
In more succinct terms, Bungie is thinking about the way people play and they're thinking that ways to improve the model exist. They're not out to fix the game, they're attempting to expand it.
This is a business move, make no mistake. They've already shipped a vast number of Halo 3 discs, so what better way to push the Legendary map pack (and create buzz for the Mythic pack) than to offer a numerical e-popularity reward? This creates an implicit player expectation: “Bungie will release more maps for me to play on. There is more fun to be had from this title.” But it's one that's based on player desires. That player wants the variety that a new pack will include. He wants to work towards those achievements, learn the intricacies of the new levels, experiment with new game settings and tactics. He wants a fresh start, albeit one with the knowledge accrued from months of playing.
This era of gaming is defined by the online sphere. I judge a game through its content, but also hunger for the vast networks of interconnection that the Myspace and YouTube generation thrive on. I seek to add a friend to my game, to speak with them across missions, to gloat and complain about my experiences. I have recontextualized an aspect of gaming that was previously accessible only through a multitude of physically present friends and a large couch. I consider the social part of these machines to be wildly successful.
Now these publishers and developers have a responsibility to us. We've acknowledged the online components of these games, shopped at the virtual taverns these consoles have opened, but now need the wares peddlers to hold up their end of the bargain. I need new content. I want them to see the revenue generated by their work and think “How can we make this better? How can we offer a new experience? How can we reward the player?” I want my game to be constantly evolving.
You might be citing Mass Effect's “Bring Down the Sky” expansion here. The example's not without merit, though it somewhat feels like RPG expansions come out of cutting-room floor material that couldn't be worked in. We need something that doesn't feel like bolted-on content. Something that can be grasped as an organic outgrowth of the game, one that adds new complexities to the existing project.
Halo's updates are a small step in this direction. Even if the major work done is on behind-the-scenes code and bugfixes, there's still a minor thrill to be had when the Xbox gives you the update notification. What would really quench my thirst, though, would be something along the lines of the bonanza that is The Witcher: Extended Edition.
Developer CD Projekt struck upon unexpected gold with their release of The Witcher last October. While the title wasn't without its problems - the combat system and wooden cutscenes were points of contention – its capacity for moral hazard turned a number of heads, earning generous critical praise. Instead of embarking on the expected course of action (for the record, that would be declaring The Witcher as part one of a seven part multi-console multimedia initiative), CD Projekt began work on the mother of all patches: a comprehensive bug termination job coupled with extensive additions to the animation system, script rewrites, code optimization and two additional missions. The result? A two gigabyte download that is free to registered owners of the original (also available as a stand-alone commercial product). Now that is a way to reward your fanbase.
If Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords had been able to follow a similar path, the game could have lived on as a brilliant title whose dents were ultimately hammered out. Instead, it exists as a hobbled, incomplete Quasimodo.
Halo 3's Title Update 2 may be preaching to the choir, but I think Bungie will work in some surprising notes before their show is done. At the very least, they're showing that a shipped, working game is capable of humming a new tune, if coaxed slightly.
The update also includes some online multiplayer playlist changes. Yeah. Like anyone cares about that.