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Hello, Halo

One intrepid reporter tries to find time to play the biggest video game ever—and save the virtual world from the Covenant

By David King

‘He needs my help,” I tell myself as I accompany my young but hobbled friend into the 24-hour Wal-Mart in East Greenbush. My friend just had hernia surgery that has left him twisted and bent, walking like a brittle old man. It’s not just that he recently had surgery—on top of that, he awoke to find his basement apartment flooded, his TV remote floating in filth. So, “Everything I do tonight is a good deed,” I think to myself as I lug an ultra-jumbo pack of bottled water toward the register. My friend needs water to brush his teeth, flush his toilets.

But I have ulterior motives for being in this florescent-light-soaked, corporate-retail-purgatory at 2 AM: Halo 3.

I put down the water package and scamper over to the electronics section, leaving my heaped-over friend standing by a cookie stand. He is in too much pain to voice his displeasure.

The clerks seem fairly tired of this Halo nonsense, and I am still tentative, feeling the guilt of subverting such a noble mission for my own virtual frag-fest. The clerk recognizes what I want before I have to tell him. He guides me over to the case, his blue apron a bit disheveled, his smiley face looking worse for wear.

“You want the special edition or the regular edition?” he asks. Before I can answer he informs me, “You probably don’t want the special edition. It is 10 bucks more and we’ve been having problems; the discs come loose in the case and get scratched.” I try to make a witty remark about Bungie, the developer of Halo 3, having more important things to worry about than scratched discs, like Microsoft’s bottom line and the future of its gaming system (X-Box 360), but it falls on deaf ears. He probably didn’t waste his time reading months of speculation in Wired and the The New York Times about Halo’s impending success; even if he did, after watching the mobs of gamers storm through his section, Mr. Electronics Clerk just wants one thing.

“When I get home at 5 AM I’m gonna pop my copy in for just a little while and take it for a spin,” he says as he lovingly runs what is soon to be my copy of Halo 3 over the scanner.

I hurry my injured friend into my car, pop the trunk and drop the water, and in a flash I am escorting Mr. Hobbles into his plumbingless apartment. Before I know it I am at home in front of my widescreen DLP HD television.

It’s 3:30 AM. The light from the screen flickers to life, and the warm strings of Halo’s theme ring out hauntingly, as if I’ve just entered a church. Appropriate, as I have just entered geek heaven. Millions of little particles appear from darkness and begin to congeal into the all-familiar halo—like Paramount’s mountains or MGM’s lion, Halo’s halo has become undeniably iconic.

It is important to think about Halo 3 in terms of popular film, because like the Lord of the Rings or the Alien series, Halo has managed to brand itself and attach itself so solidly to the backbone of pop culture that fans of the game are eager to lap up the next installment. But unlike those films, Halo comes packaged not only with the epic story and adventure that lures people in, but also an interactive community that lets players continue to create their own adventures.

Microsoft insists Halo 3 is the future of video gaming: absurd production values, immersive game play, online communities hosting millions. And while in some ways they are right, game companies like Nintendo are more concerned about straight-out-of-the-box fun, production values be damned.

By 4 AM, the drawn-out cinematic introduction to the game is annoying me. I just want to shoot something. Master Chief, the game’s protagonist, falls from the sky. A group of space marines find him. A cigar-smoking higher-up treats Chief as though he is dead. I know better; he is the fricking hero of the game.

“We aren’t going to leave him here,” announces the marine, melodramatically. And then our fallen hero stirs, and I’m annoyed that this video game presumes to make me feel emotion. I just want to shoot something.

Finally, the shooting begins. But it’s not just me and my gun vs. the Covenant (the alien hordes). It is me, my gun, a bunch of yappy space marines, and one of the damn aliens called the Arbiter, who has pulled a Benedict Arnold on his evil alien overlords and teamed up with me. And I want him—and them—to leave me alone and let me take on all the evil alien bastards myself. But instead I am part of some bigger story: blah, blah, blah. Enough exposition!

I realize that as impressed with Halo 3’s massive scope, its addictive shoot-’em-up gameplay as I am, I just want some mindless game play, and I certainly don’t want to interact with other people online while escaping into my video-game world tonight.

I’m cranky, and as the sun rises I realize that this morning, Halo 3 is not that much fun for one reason: I have deadlines. So I stop moaning and clear my schedule for this coming weekend. Invalid friends and deadlines be damned; this weekend someone is getting fragged.

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