How Call of Duty Beat Halo

Though many gamers were recently focused on the war between Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and EA's Battlefield 3, the whole thing was more of an elaborate PR stunt on EA's part rather than an actual competition. Not that I'm complaining, of course, as game journalists like myself got to turn off our brains for a few months and pump out ridiculous comparison editorials regarding the imagined drama. 

Interestingly, while this imagined war was still raging on, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was released. The game is admittedly unremarkable–a minor HD remake entirely overshadowed by this holiday's lineup of triple-A titles–but for myself, the release triggered a sudden bout of nostalgia.

I'm shocked to realize it's been ten years since me and my friends first locked ourselves away in Kyle Edelberg's basement, hooking up our consoles and playing into the wee hours of the morning, fueled entirely by greasy pizza and Mountain Dew: Code Red. For a while, Bungie's science-fiction franchise seemed insurmountable, with plenty of self-proclaimed "Halo Killers" failing to deliver. Then came Modern Warfare

Today, we take a look at how a true FPS war was won, how the once unassailable king of the genre was dethroned, and how gamers traded away an endless ocean of stars for the gritty brown and gray color palates of war.

1) Master Chief is a Poor Protagonist

If there's anyone out there who thinks Halo's storyline is worth celebrating for its originality, know that the "marines in space" thing has been done many times before, and often in much better fashion than this. The simple truth is that the adventures of big, scary, green suit man and his little A.I. girlfriend barely stand up to the level of truly awesome space epics. For instance… STARSHIP GODDAMN TROOPERS.

The real problem is that even though Halo's narrative is compelling, it's also very hard to connect with given all the fantastical elements. This is a problem common to the sci-fi genre–the struggle to make a story feel human despite all the ridiculous, futuristic nonsense going on. For instance, the live-action ODST trailer, one of my favorite pieces of Halo lore, works because it presents futuristic versions of concepts I already know and accept. At the funeral, there's no rocket coffin or whatever; there's no holographic priest. There's just a young man reflecting on the death of a soldier and resolving to take up the fight in the fallen man's stead. This is something I can empathize with.

The problem is that the ODST trailer does not at all resemble the actual Halo series, where my main character is a stoic super-commando seemingly incapable of expressing human emotion (especially since he wears a helmet throughout the whole damn game). I know some of you are thinking, "Well yeah! He's a badass! Like Boba Fett!" But this man is our protagonist. I don't want a super murder guy like Boba Fett; I want a regular farmboy like Luke Skywalker. I want somebody to act as my guide to this strange, new world; somebody who can witness the craziness erupting throughout the game's world and respond to it with a bit of gravity, as opposed to simply firing a plasma rifle in its general direction.

There have been entries in the Halo series (Reach and ODST specifically) that inject some much-needed humanity into this universe, but it's still very hard to connect to everything that's going on without an everyman like Luke Skywalker or Johnny Rico to act as our guide.

Now obviously, nobody gives half of two craps about Soap or Price or any of the other grunts featured throughout Modern Warfare, but what these men lack in star power, they make up for with their humanity. I connect with the characters in Modern Warfare's story because of how human they are. So while I can't fault Halo for being ambitious with its storytelling, I have to say that I'm much more interested in characters who seem a bit more fragile and real, as opposed to the mythical superhuman that is the Chief.

2) Call of Duty's Modern Setting Connects with Players

As we've established, Halo's storyline is a hard one to connect to. Not only are we lacking that human element to frame it, but we've got things like Halo 2's psychic plant monsters, which leave us standing in a world which feels entirely fantastical and more than a bit ridiculous.

Now to be frank, Modern Warfare's plotlines aren't anything to write home about. They're basically your standard "oh no, terrorism" thrillers, as if the developers just kind of ripped out pages from a random assortment of Tom Clancy novels and called it a script. However, I'm much more easily able to connect to Modern Warfare because of how topical the events are. Maybe it's a cheap trick, but Treyarch knows the American public has an obvious emotional connection to things like the "war against terror," and switching up the tired WW2 setting in favor of a more modern one is what made parts of the game's plot hit so close to home.

The game's modern setting not only made Modern Warfare appeal to a much wider segment of the population, but more importantly, made the game feel real. For instance, I could care less about accidentally shooting the random soldier allies in Halo, as they are imaginary men in silly future armor. In Modern Warfare, my allies look like some average army kid, somebody I might pass on the street. When I take out the artillery gunner at the far end of the field, I feel a twinge of pride, as though I've really just saved my squad from some serious damage. So even though the Call of Duty protagonists remain silent throughout the game, we get that needed human element from our comrades, whether working with a squad to clear out a building or working with a senior operative to snipe Russians. It's executed well and definitely something your average gamer can process.

You try and explain that psychic plant thing to Joe 6-Pack. I dare you.

3) Big Marketable Controversy Sells

When I first heard about Modern Warfare I thought, "Great, another army shooter?" I had just about completely dismissed the game. Then somebody linked me a YouTube video, and my head nearly exploded. It starts with a bunch of army grunts in a chopper, tearing ass out of the red zone after picking up a downed comrade. All of a sudden, BOOM. A nuclear weapon explodes at the heart of the city, and the chopper is engulfed in a white light.

The main character awakens in the wreckage of the crash, barely able to stand. Limping away from the crash site, he finds himself in a ruined playground, surrounded by the corpses of his comrades and the twisted remains of see-saws and swings all around. He looks up to see a nuclear cloud billowing in the distance.

And then he dies.

The main character.

I went out and bought the game the next day.

This moment definitely ranks among the greatest moments in gaming, and quite honestly, probably clocks in at #1 on my personal list. It was an incredibly ballsy moment and really showed gamers what Modern Warfare was about. Again, that video clip was directly correlated to me buying the game, and I'm sure it sold plenty of copies to similarly impressed consumers.

If you think that fact slipped past Activision, you're a damned fool, as the big shocking set piece has now become an essential part of the Call of Duty formula. After the "No Russian" scene from Modern Warfare 2 leaked, the game received more free press than it could ever hope for. Most recently, we had the whole "Exploding Child Sadtimes" moment in Modern Warfare 3, subject to a similar "leak," and again whipping up frenzy for the game. 

This is marketing 101: put the best stuff in the trailer and blow people's minds. By having these scenes, which honestly push the boundaries of storytelling in games (though the aforementioned exploding child was a bit much), the Call of Duty series remains relevant and topical. And again, given the game's modern setting, these sequences are much more compelling, and much more real, than anything Halo ever blew up. The actual storylines are still the stuff of generic action thrillers, but c'mon, you know that when you first saw "No Russian" your head exploded.

4) More Kills = More Fun

I am pretty sure that I've devoted more hours to the original Halo more than any other videogame in history, with roughly 99% of that time spent on the multiplayer. For those who somehow missed out on the original Halo multiplayer, know that it was broken as hell. This was mostly due to the fact that the game's innocuous-looking pistol was apparently forged in the hellfires of ragnarok, capable of murdering foes from clear across the map with just a few well placed shots.

Like I said, though Halo's multiplayer was fun, it was also broken.  So when Halo 2 promised to fix all of the weapon imbalances, we were pretty excited. The thing is, these "fixes" ended up making the game pretty boring overall. Firefights were now a bit more varied, but it usually seemed as though they were won by whomever started firing first. Halo 3 added even more weapons, vehicles, and stages, but at its core, the multiplayer just hadn't changed. It was still a bit clunky all around.

A big offender seems to be the whole shield aspect of Halo, each kill requiring an absurd number of clean shots. Maybe that kind of thing is rewarding to some people, but to me, it's exhausting, not to mention wildly upsetting when the guy I've just lit up like a Christmas tree finds some cover and gets his shield back up.

Ten minutes into the Modern Warfare multiplayer and not only was I hooked, but I knew what had been missing from the Halo multiplayer. Killing people is fun, and I make this statement knowing full well that it'll be a damn good piece of character evidence if I'm ever on trial for killing somebody (I don't know who, but I'm sure they deserved it). Modern Warfare lets you not only kill people, but get it over with quickly. No need to wear down their shields, no need to unload a whole clip into a guy–just put a bullet in their head, then rush off to find more bad guys.

Not to mention that knifing a guy in Call of Duty is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. Clean, simple, efficient. Compare that to the chunky feel of awkwardly punching somebody using Halo's melee. Knife for life baby.

5) Call of Duty's Multiplayer is Psychologically Addictive

I currently have a friend who's job is to advise social game developers on the best way to trick gamers into spending money on crap like Farmville. Most of what he does boils down to the idea that people like to chase after the next best thing, which is what keeps them playing. For instance, Pokemon is a terrible game which has failed to meaningfully evolve since its original Gameboy release. Yet people keep playing, because every new Pokemon captured floods their brain with pleasing endorphins.

You need to offer constant and tangible rewards to players–that's addictive game-making 101. Other games have attempted this, but Call of Duty perfected it. For starters, we have the whole "barracks" section of the game, where players rank up and earn new gear by completing various objectives and earning XP during multiplayer. Though getting a kill during multiplayer will always be thrilling, decades of deathmatches later the thrill will be diminished. But a kill that directly correlates to an XP reward and the promise of a cool new gun? No wonder we can't stop playing.

If the XP system represents a slow burn towards tiny guaranteed perks, then Call of Duty's killstreaks are the opposite, rare but instantly gratifying rewards. If you've ever played the multiplayer seriously, then you've felt it. The anxious awareness of knowing you're just one kill off from the big airstrike. Getting shot then is a scream-worthy disappointment, while landing the kill and bringing in the big guns results in a satisfying wave of euphoria, with your brain overwhelmed by the sheer joy of murdering those who oppose you. These moments feel like genuinely earned accomplishments, and many players endlessly chase after the killstreak like junkies in search of a fix.

In Halo, if you get a killstreak, somebody yells out "Killing Spree."

Oh boy.

In Summary:

Obviously, this list isn't comprehensive; there's plenty more to discuss regarding Halo's downfall and Call of Duty's supremacy. With Halo now in new hands, it's possible the series could rally back following the mediocre offshoots that were ODST and Reach.  However, Activision definitely seems to be betting the house on CoD, and it's possible this whole "ELITE" social gaming service they've cooked up could actually be a major factor in the series' continued success. All I know is that while the Call of Duty series strives towards ever new heights, releasing its best-selling entry of all time, all Halo has to offer this year is an HD remake of the first game. It's as if all the series can do is reflect on its former glory, rather than truly forge ahead.

Whether Halo 4 can redeem the franchise remains to be seen.