Saturday, September 15, 2007

Halo 3 Hype: For Those Who Love It....and Don't

There is no denying the fact that the Halo 3 hype has reached almost insurmountable levels in these past few weeks. From soft drinks to fast food to pretentious marketing campaigns, Microsoft is looking to permeate every facet of society in an attempt to reach the largest possible demographic.

And the question therefore remains: Is there too much hype for the game?

The answer to that would have to be both yes and no.

But before we get into the why's and how's of this situation, let me give you a little background on my Halo experience.

I'm a huge Halo fan. In the summer of 2002 I heard that if I was to purchase only one game for my Xbox, then Halo it had to be. After taking that plunge I was absolutely immersed in the world. While I recognized that a good portion of the storytelling was ripped straight from Aliens, I still loved it. The game was relatively easy to pick up, fun to play, and I didn't even play multiplayer that often.

Two years later, in 2004, I jumped on the marketing train and took it all in. While not an active participant in I Love Bees, I made every attempt to follow the story as that was going. I downloaded every commercial. I borrowed "The Fall of Reach" and "First Strike" from a friend and read them prior to launch. In essence, I was preparing myself completely.

And following the release of the game, I played multiplayer extensively. There was something about being able to just jump in and play and not have to worry about finding a decent match or waiting for people to join my specifically hosted game that truly appealed to me. On the other hand, I did feel that the single player was a bit of a let down. It didn't have the scope that Halo 1 had, despite having much better graphics. The narrative was a little disjointed and who could forgive that horrific ending?

Yet, here we are almost three years later and a similar situation is upon us. Except after the massive success that the hype had on the second game, Microsoft feels content to multiply that by what seems to be 100.

So back to the original question: Is the hype too much?


Not everyone likes Halo. There are a huge contingent of people that despise it with every fiber of their being. They see Halo as a substandard First Person Shooter that does absolutely nothing new with the genre, is not a graphical revolution, and regurgitates standard Sci-Fi plots in an uninteresting manner. And many of these people are the hardcore of the hardcore. And they have every right to their opinion. So when this section of gamers sees their favorite pastime being enveloped by this marketing machine, it angers them immensely. Why should such a horrible, barely better than average game be getting all this attention? It's a travesty to all TRUE first person shooters that SHOULD be getting this attention. On top of all that, it dilutes how serious they take their gaming life and packages it in a soda can to be sold to them later.

For those people, the attention given to that creates the perception that MORE games like Halo (in their eyes a substandard shooter) should be made. And this, of course, is a terrible thing to them. And in that regard, it's completely understandable.

And I do feel the most recent ads are a little pretentious in treating that diorama like it was truly from the future, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's disrespectful to current servicemen and women.

The hype is also creating a lot of unrealistic expectations for people. How is it possible that a game that pretty much says "If Jesus were alive today, he would be wearing MJOLNIR armor" could possibly deliver on its promise?

The thing is, it doesn't have to. Which brings me to the second answer.

....No. It's not too much.

What we, as gamers, sometimes don't realize is that Microsoft is out to make money first, and entertain us second. This is the way of the world. Whether it is a movie, or a new CD, or a brand new television show, or Britney Spears at the VMA's, these things are pushed heavily so that the parent brand can profit off of them. And what happened with Halo 2 is that suddenly the profits on that game justified them doing what they are doing now. Mountain Dew, Burger King, 7-11, all these other cross-promotional partners are USING Halo 3 to their OWN advantage. They certainly would not do it if they did not think it would drive traffic into their stores. They saw the raw data of what Halo 2 was able to accomplish and realized that there was this whole subset of the population they could use to make money for themselves. And so they did and are.

It's no secret that Halo is Microsoft's Golden Child. And the struggle to obtain profitability in the games division has been a difficult one. So when they opportunity arises to take advantage of this, people do. But what is different about this in comparison to other marketing endeavors is that Microsoft isn't telling you anything that you didn't already know. It's attempting to get the common man, the man who only buys a game or two a year, excited about Halo 3. They're trying to make it an event, something that can be shared between friends.

And despite what might seem to be a whoring out of the franchise, I would argue that Microsoft/Bungie are doing anything but. They're not allowing substandard tie-ins into the marketplace. All the comics and storytelling material is tied into the actual universe. It's not some shameless ripoff. Say what you will about the "Believe" ad campaign, but it's certainly well crafted. (Even though Bungie did recently say the commercials weren't canon.) I mean, they created a completely new DRINK. They didn't just put a face on a Dew can and call it a day. An entirely new flavor was invented. I think it's terrible tasting, but they get points for trying.

If you look at the marketing of something like Spider-Man 3, if you had seen all the trailers, you could literally put the movie together in your head. They marketed it to death but they gave away too much. In so many other movies, you see the same thing. Halo isn't doing this. Regardless of what you feel about the story, you're not seeing anything about it. It's guarded and protected and doesn't ruin the plot for those interested.

The cross-promotions exist mainly to create awareness in the everyday man. Of course, if you're reading this you're probably thinking "But EVERYONE knows that Halo 3 comes out on September 25th, regardless of whether or not they want to!"

I think that is not necessarily the case. As gamers, we often surround ourselves with other people who have similar interests. We scour the internet for news, we talk to our friends, and in that we are acutely aware of the existence of Master Chief and his fight against the Covenant. There is a HUGE portion of the population that does nothing of the sort. And THAT is who the campaign is primarily for, not us.

But why is this a bad thing? It doesn't have to be. What it is doing is raising awareness to the public that a good portion sees the gaming community as Wii Sports Players. The campaign is attempting to prove that this IS a legitimate entertainment event on par with any major movie release. That there is a hardcore game that can get everyone involved. These people who are being targeted have no idea what "Saved Films" are or what "Forge" is. They're thinking "Hey, this looks like a cool game, I should check it out." I do not see how more people purchasing game consoles is a bad thing.

Yet, ultimately the reason that I feel the hype is not a bad thing is because if you let it, the hype can be fun. A huge community is sharing in the same experience. A large group of people who all enjoy the same thing are able to come together and follow the progress of what I believe is a great franchise. And people are looking for different things. Some people think that story is king, others want to do nothing other than play multiplayer. The same game is approached from many different angles. The game will probably not revolutionize the genre or have a radical departure in storytelling, but at the very least it will be fun. Whether or not you think it's deserving of all the attention is yours to decide. This is the final act of the trilogy and while there will be other Halo-related projects in the future, I highly doubt they will acquire the same attention as this one did. For the sole reason that they will be different formulas. Halo 3 is operating on the same tried-and-true formula that has helped it succeed the last 6 years.

There is a difference between "hype" and "expectation." Hype is the experience that surrounds the release of a product. It tells you what it wants you to believe. And the more money a product has, the more hype it's going to give you. The more proven its been in the past, the more intense they will be in the future. They're trying to alter your expectations.

Except your expectations can be completely separate from the hype. Will Halo 3 be the greatest game I've ever played? Maybe. But maybe not. Do I expect it to be? Not necessarily. But I do expect it to be fun. And I expect people who I normally wouldn't see on Xbox Live to be there. (Hopefully a larger contingent of respectable humans. God bless the new mute button.) And even if the game is the worst game I've ever played, I can accept that. But I think some of the fun is in the waiting period and I've certainly had some up to this point. And knowing that there are more and more people each day who are enjoying it to is a fun thought to have and will hopefully bring more opportunities to gaming as a whole.

In closing, I understand the frustrations of those who cannot stand it. But the only thing you can really do is try to ignore it. And to the Halo community, while it's hard to believe that there are people out there who don't like this franchise, they have a right to their opinion just as much as we do. And I hope that one day when the tables are turned and they're in love with a completely hyped game that I could care less about that they respect that in turn.


Saturday, September 8, 2007

3:10 To Yuma Review

As has been written numerous times before regarding the subject, the modern western seems to be dead. Given that there have been very few westerns over the last few decades, one might venture to guess that Hollywood has just lost faith in westerns in general.

But my personal philosophy is that if you can tell a good story, regardless of the genre, then that film deserves to be made. Fortunately, despite my predilection against westerns as a whole, 3:10 To Yuma is an incredibly well made movie that showcases even more evidence that Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are some of the finest actors around.

The plot of the movie as it exists is rather simple. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is suffering through a harrowing drought on his farm. Since he cannot farm his own land, he has nothing to see to make the payments on his barn. If things don't change soon, then Dan and his wife and two children will be forced off their farm and into poverty. When the outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured, Dan volunteers to help escort Wade to a neighboring train station for $200 to help pay the bills. The one catch is that Wade's psychotic gang led by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) is on their trail and will certainly not hesitate to kill and maim every person in the party.

Yet, this movie is less about the plot and more about the characters being able to explore what it means to survive in this world. Evans is a man who is beaten and broken and has something to prove. His son looks at him like he's a joke since he cannot even seem to provide for his family. His wife has been rather distant towards him lately. On top of all that, he has one wooden leg from a Civil War injury. Despite the danger, this is all that Dan can do to provide for himself and for his family. So he goes on the journey. Bale plays Dan with such quiet desperation that it is easy to feel for the situation in which he resides.

On the other hand, Ben Wade is a killer. He takes what he wants, and has no problem killing anyone who gets in his way. Yet, this is not with malicious intent, no. These people just happen to be between him and what he wants, so he takes care of the situation. Wade recognizes that no one is out there to do him any favors and that everyone is out for themselves, therefore he feels that he is not going to do any favors for anyone else, and just kill them.

This leads to the juxtaposition of the two men in a very interesting situation. The two of them are able to communicate and slowly begin to understand one another. They may not completely respect what the other is doing, but at least they being to have some understanding of it. This, ultimately, is why the film works as well as it does. The fact that these two archetypal men are given such layers of complexity in their characters speaks volumes about the quality of the film. Going in, one might think that Bale is the good guy and Crowe is the bad guy, but to come in with that assumption would be completely incorrect. No, these are characters with their own motivations that go beyond "I like to kill" or "I'm the hero." Gone is the idea that the Old West was so black and white and people now show up in many more shades of gray. That isn't to say that one cannot understand who is good or who is bad, but there is a deeper exploration of those themes that allows the viewer to contemplate the ramifications of the characters' actions and their reasons for ending up in the situations in which they ended up.

Yet, Bale and Crowe aren't the only strong actors in this movie. On the contrary, the supporting cast is filled out with a number of excellent actors, both young and old. Peter Fonda shows up as a Pinkerton agent named Byron McElroy who may be fighting for the side of the good but can be a bit of a ruthless man himself. This exploration of good vs. evil when coupled with Wade offers an interesting insight into the character of Wade himself.

Alan Tudyk is also excellent as the reluctant veterinarian Doc Potter who is forced on the trip in an attempt to make sure that McElroy does not suffer from his recently acquired gunshot wound. Despite his complete inability with a firearm, he moves on the journey with the rest, accepting the fate that stands before him.

This truly is one of the best character pieces I have seen in a long while. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line, Copland) crafts an excellent picture that rises above the stigma of a Western and can be placed in the same category as such westerns as "Unforgiven" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Yet, it's not all character work. The action is also rather brutal and well-shot. The numerous gunfights throughout the movie are engaging and add to the intensity of the story. Even if you are not even interested in the subtleties of the actors, then I could recommend it based on the action alone. But when the action means something and this is recognized, then it amps things to a whole new level. The last scenes in particular are the ultimate culmination of everything that came before it. There is a new understanding for the characters and one that leads to an incredibly satisfying emotional conclusion.