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The UK Halo Championships: Blood in the valley

"What the??..." Faz has killed you. "Dammit, not again, I hate this guy." I swear under my breath as I'm subjected to yet another overhead shot of poor old 'Chiefly' lying sprawled in pool of his own blood.

Pro-gaming - the pressure to win can be too much for some weaker mortals... Death may be an inevitable part of videogaming, but a severe beating in pro-gaming can be a waking nightmare, especially when you know that the guy dispensing the pain is the unassuming short little figure playing on the Xbox pod to your left. Unfortunately for me he's short because he's fifteen years old. And he's kicking my arse all over the Blood Gulch map on Halo:Combat Evolved, but hey that's tourneys for you and if you cant take the shame dont sign up.

The UK Halo Championship Finals, organised by the Virtual Gaming Association (VGA) at the StuffLIVE 2002 exhibition at Earls Court, saw over 50 haloheads pistol whip their way down to four finalist who were going to walk away with some very nice Samsung goodies. Although not officially endorsed by the World Cyber Games (WCG), held annually in Korea, so that an all expenses ticket to the Games for the UK winner wasn't on the cards, but the event was still heavily supported by Xbox. They must have nicked every available demo pod from HMV, Game and Virgin stores across the country, not just for Halo, but for loads of recently released and demo titles for spectators to play. Microsoft even set up an Xbox Live taster with Moto GP online, so visitors could get to grips with the Voice Commander and hurl insults at their mates during the three-day event, which ends this Sunday.

It was an all male turnout, but from a wide age range, reflecting the depth and appeal of a game that has sold over two million copies worldwide. The standard of play, although not as awesome as the more highly developed multiplayer titles like Quake III Arena and Counter Strike, was still impressive considering the lack of multiplay opportunities most average Xbox owners have to practice. Let's face it, only the truly dedicated are going to lug three extra TVs to a friend's house, so they can play out the multiplayer scenario that the VGA had set for the event's final.

The rules were simple: Slayer mode on Blood Gulch map with Warthogs and normal weapons; no radar and no grenades at start, but pistol and assault rifle. The winner was the first to 15 kills (50 kills in the final) and the top two from each heat of four players went through.

The likely bunch

A handful of players set themselves apart from the rest of the fodder from the outset and from chatting to a few of them between rounds a pattern soon emerged:
Weggy (Elliott Lock) and Gregson (James Gregson), two guys from a crew of players working at Chessington Park of Adventures, were talented solo players that had obviously benefited from hours of multiplay with work mates and friends. From the first heats they were taking other players apart in pitch battles in the centre of the Gulch with pistols and grenades.
Indenial (Daniel Lacey) with his aggressive style (why use a pistol when a rocket up the arse will work just as well) was another whod got a lot of clan play and was shredding his way through the field until he was totally outgunned by the unstoppable killing spree of TeamP4 (Warren Murdoch) in the quarter finals.
In fact, TeamP4 and Future (Tim Ashton) ,both from the Midlands, rapidly turned the tournament into a friendly, but personal grudge match, which culminated in a last showdown in the finals. I can't talk about the finals, however, without mentioning one player, Shogun who decimated his quarter final heat only to disappear before his semis. Since he managed to soundly kick Faz aside for first place he was a sure bet for a place in the Finals so where'd you go mate?

The Finals

The final found TeamP4 and Future, slugging it out in their usual grudge match along with the young, but bloody terrifying Faz (James Farish) and the far more tactical and precision shootist, Ninja (Omar Johnson-Lewis).
Ninja was the dark horse of the tourney; a natural thinking player with a number of clever strategies that were eventually found to be too advanced for the gameplay on show this year. He openly admitted afterwards that simply slugging it out would have raised his kill rate. He also lucked out with the starting weapons, as the plasma pistol was made obsolete by the pistol and he wasn't able to show off his plasma/pistol combo - killing opponents' shields and finishing them off with a head shot.

Warren and Tim, both experienced online Halo players (thanks to a mix of broadband and a well known network bodge fix from Gamespy) set a frenetic pace to the 50-kill final and dominated it with their playing speed and sheer accuracy.
Faz, who eventually came in fourth, had only experienced link-up games (admittedly with some damn good players) and could only try and keep up by tackling the two Midland muggers on their own terms, mainly in the middle of the valley.
Ninja, who was running third for most of the game soon found himself facing an insurmountable ten-kill divide even after racking up a good score from pistol sniping from both bases and the hillsides. In the end he resorted to entering the blood bath in the middle with a highly amusing kamikaze run in one of the Warthogs, but it wasn't enough to get anywhere near the 'blood brothers'.

So for the first and only time that day, Future managed to get his revenge and snatch a well-deserved first place from TeamP4 with a 50 - 48 win. Future happily walked away with a Samsung TFT LCD TV, while Warren had to settle for a camcorder (ironically, the exact same one he already owned - cheer up mate, it's free!) and the other runners-up got a monitor and an MP3 player.

Faz & Ninja - Erhm...Faz is the shorter one Future was crowned Halo King, but both Future & TeamP4 dominated the Halo Finals

After taking a few snaps of Future, the new champion and the rest of the runners-up, I had time to reflect: I don't think I've ever covered a tourney that's run so smoothly. Delays are the norm with most PC tourneys and just part of the bowel-churning pressure of playing at that level for money or big prizes (last year's WCG qualifiers for Counter Strike were delayed for four hours, because of technical problems!). Halo has a bright future (sorry, bad pun) as a tourney game. Halo 2 with Xbox Live support will, no doubt, open up the field for more talent and if Bungie thoughtfully provide a spectactor mode feature it could easily lend itself to bigger public events.

Although this year the level of skill was more about who could get out there the quickest and pump as much plasma into opponents as possible, watching some of the best players in the country slug it out was a great way to waste time. Halo 2 should simply make it even more fun. No doubt at the next event some ten year-old kid called 'Psycho' will be able to demonstrate the 'rocket-snipe combo' to my Master-Chief. I'm so looking forward to that...

Chris Thornett