Halo is that one game series I can pick up after many years and almost instantly feel my old reflexes come online. I remember the feel of crouch-jumping to clear a ledge, where to toss a grenade around a corner, where a sniper rifle spawns on a particular map. The muscle memory is there, even if my Halo muscles are long atrophied—I was only ever a pretty good player at my very best a decade ago. That is, unless you put me on the back of a mongoose in Halo 3’s Rocket Race game mode, which I am still, inexplicably, extremely good at.
I love Rocket Race. I love it more than any other novelty mode in any other videogame, and I love it more than most other videogames, period. When Halo 3 launched in 2007, Bungie would rotate through a number of sillier playlists every week, breaking out dedicated game modes like the community-created Grifball and Living Dead into their own matchmaking queues. But Rocket Race was the one that stuck for my friend and I, partially because we won a lot.
In Rocket Race, four teams of two hop onto Halo’s mongoose ATVs and drive around to random checkpoints on a map, scoring a point for driving through first and spawning a new checkpoint somewhere else. The first team to 10 wins. The key to Rocket Race’s brilliance is that everyone is invincible, and the players on the back of each mongoose can fire rockets to send other duos cartwheeling across the map.
On the bigger maps, landing these rocket shots is a joyful trigonometry. A lot of the fun—and unpredictability—of the mode comes from the fact that Halo 3 and its physics weren’t designed for this experience at all. This is not Rocket League, where the entire game has been fine-tuned around the feeling of smacking your car into a ball. In normal Halo, rockets blow things up. But here, with invincible players and vehicles, a direct rocket strike might barely cause the mongoose to move at all, while the explosion from a shot right beside a mongoose could send it into a quadruple barrel roll.
Being able to lead and hit a target in Rocket Race isn’t enough. Too often you could send someone ahead of you flipping into the goal, rather than knocking them off track. Shooting ahead or to the side of a fast-moving ‘goose—with a slow-moving rocket—takes real finesse. But the physics are wacky enough that you really never know how a shot’s going to land, which makes Rocket Race the perfect novelty game mode. It will always be goofy and surprising.
At some glorious point in 2008 or 2009, if I recall correctly, Bungie made the wise and correct choice to give Rocket Race a permanent playlist. I don’t remember how long that lasted, but I do remember that well after my crew had stopped playing Halo 3 day-in and day-out, one friend and I would hop on Rocket Race for an hour or two and rack up the wins.
Our real secret was knowing when to go for a checkpoint and when to ignore it—we’d position ourselves on one side of a map, letting the other teams race to one point while we gambled on the location of the next one. It wasn’t exactly a galaxy-brain strategy, but between that and our rocket skills—including deflecting incoming shots with our own rockets and shooting the ground behind ourselves to propel our mongoose forward in an explosive gamble—we rarely finished outside second place.
Sadly, the Rocket Race playlist didn’t last forever. It was never properly appreciated by the wider Halo population, and in its waning days we would often play against the same handful of opponents match after match. Thanks to Bungie’s incredible stat-tracking, I can tell you that the last game of Rocket Race I played was on July 21st, 2009. (We won).
I didn’t expect our Rocket Race skills to still be there a decade later, but when 343 Industries added Rocket Race to Halo 3’s Master Chief Collection playlist this week, we had to give it a try. And then we didn’t just win; we crushed it. We won our first match, and our second, and our third, and most of the ones after that.
Are we mongoose whisperers? Are these wack-ass physics somehow burned into our memories forever? I don’t know, but I’ve never been so pleased to come back to something I once loved and to love it just as much and kick ass at it. This must be what it felt like when Thresh joined a PC Gamer Quake server in 2016 and absolutely curb stomped everyone.
We’re not as good at Rocket Race as Thresh is at Quake. But I’d still be thrilled to have Rocket Race back in my life even if we lost more than we won. Long live this ridiculous mode. Follow Bungie’s lead and make it a permanent playlist, 343—as long as there are six other players out there on PC, we’ll keep it alive.