By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Halo 2 Halo
I FIRST SAID IT BACKin July, and I was only half-joking: If George Bush wins, at least there’s Halo 2. That fleeting thought became an unfortunate prophecy; Bush eked out a "mandate" on November 2, and exactly one week later long lines formed across the country again as people waited to get their hands on the most anticipated video game of all time. There couldn’t have been better timing for such virtual relief. With James Dobson’s religious-right strike team already hustling Arlen Specter to the pillory for suggesting caution in Supreme Court nominations, and Senate Democrats announcing that their strategic response to 2004 was some new institutional complacency called the Third Way, the need for escape was urgent.
That’s how I saw it, at least. The 300 other people massing around the Electronics Boutique at Universal CityWalk to await the game’s release last Tuesday night may not have been as politically motivated.
"Plain and simple, Halo 2 is the best thing that’s ever happened to me," one kid at the end of the line said. Nearby was a man clad in the battle armor of Master Chief, the game’s "biologically, mechanically, technically enhanced" protagonist. Any politics in the conversation revolved exclusively around decisions by Bungie, the developer, or by Microsoft, the overlord publisher, regarding the shifting release date, last-minute changes, fidelity to the previews, the capacity of the Xbox Live servers.
Up front, the most devoted had stood in line for up to 18 hours. "I asked if I could bring a sleeping bag and stay overnight on Monday, but they said no," explained David Jimenez, who had the coveted right to step in the door first to pick up his pre-ordered copy. "So I got here at 6:30 this morning." By noon, a hundred more had gathered. By 9 p.m., there were drinks and a DJ, and PR teams from Electronics Boutique (E.B. for short) and Microsoft were organizing gift bags and handing out raffle tickets for a life-size sculpture of Master Chief.
If this sounds like movie-type fanfare, it’s meant to. Halo 2 received the kind of extended weekend rollout reserved for summer blockbusters: a Wednesday opening, preceded by a frenzy for the faithful at 12:01 a.m. the night before. E.B. alone had 1,300 locations open Tuesday night for the 1.5 million people with pre-orders. That’s $75 million paid in advance, and within 24 hours, Halo 2 added another
$50 million, making the day’s total higher than the record single-day grosses of the Harry Potters, the Matrixes, and both Spider-Men.
The first Halo, for those confused by such hoopla, was not just a good video game; it was an unusually great video game. So great that Microsoft, ever the clever monopolists, bought the entire Bungie studio in order to ensure the game would be available only on Xbox and thereby force people onto its new game platform. It was a quid pro quo: Microsoft got Xbox converts, and they in turn got one of the best video entertainments ever made. That was three years ago, and the gaming magazines and Web sites and chat threads have been trading whispers about the sequel ever since.
By 9:30 p.m., East Coast gamers were in possession of Halo 2 for half an hour already and reporting back to those in the E.B. line via cell phone. Their accounts spread around like news from the front: "The Elites have jet packs or something"; "you can do flips and rolls when dogfighting in the Banshee"; "the rocket launcher has a new targeting device."
To non-players, it’s hard to explain what distinguishes Halo as something so many people would line up for. The details, the design, the way things fit together — in every respect, both Halos are more skillfully conceived than most science fiction movies. But it’s hard not to notice that they are also driven by a fundamentalist subtext that perhaps unintentionally alludes to our own troubled times. Gone are the sci-fi villains modeled on conventional 20th-century secular monsters like the Nazis, spiced with a bit of Bergsonian élan vital (for example, the Empire). Collectively called the Covenant, the aliens of the Halo realm are intergalactic religious fanatics. Halo 2 also unfurls an arcane storyline involving a lot of sin and redemption, characters called Prophets and a schismatic millenarian sect that wants the world to end.
"Why does the future always look like the past, but with lasers?" a friend asked rhetorically when we played the first Halo together. With Halo 2, the better question is why the future looks so much like the present.
THERE ARE MANY ESTABLISHED WAYS to train a horse, some involving loud noises and physical restraint, others focused on carrots and praise. So far as I know, however, none involve jogging closely alongside an unbridled stallion murmuring secrets in French as Frédéric Pignon was doing when Normand Latourelle, the congenial and sparkly-eyed producer of the Canadian equestrian show Cavalia, escorted me into the show’s vaulted tent next to the Santa Monica Pier. As Latourelle busily explained certain technical aspects of the show — how the performance space was planned to accommodate a stallion’s full-on gallop, how each row of seats is exactly a foot higher than the next, so that everyone can see the horses hooves — I couldn’t take my eyes off Pignon and his horse. For a moment, to the embarrassment of the young woman publicist standing by, I struggled to blink away tears.