Gameplay Notebook – Wed 9/15/2010

Games “currently” playing:

-Global Agenda (PC, TPS/MMO hybrid)

-Torchlight (PC, Action RPG)

-Metroid: Other M (Action Adventure)

-Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS, Action Adventure)

-Mass Effect 2 DLC: Lair of the Shadow Broker (Xbox 360 TPS/RPG hybrid)

-Halo: Reach (Xbox 360, FPS)

Exercise 1: Halo Reach

Halo: Reach is essentially the 5th game in the “core” Halo line developed by Bungie, the previous four games being Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, and Halo 3: ODST. As such its a bit hard to consider it in a vacuum, and therefore I won’t necessarily always do so. A lot has been said about the evolving Halo “formula” by both designers and reviewers, and a lot of older information is still relevant in this iteration.

I’m only a few hours into the single-player campaign and will discuss only that portion. Halo games are well-known for being “total packages” with mutliplayer as well as meta-game features such as rankings, recording and playback options, and even game design tools, but while those certainly influenced my purchase decision, they will not directly influence this writing.

The game begins with a gender decision and character creation. Previous Halo games featured some limited character customization, but for the single player campaign the player was “The Master Chief”. Though Bungie has kept that iconic hero faceless so that the player identifies with him, I think that aspect has become diluted as the Master Chief has progressed along a linear story. Its easy enough to project an image of the Chief in one’s head, but I think at this point its hard to feel one “is” the Chief, rather the Chief is like a character in a play that the director (Bungie) has given you some wiggle room to interpret as you “play” him. By letting you choose the gender and appearance of “Noble Six”, and keeping that custom appearance in all cutscenes, I immediately felt more attached to the character. Also, by making custom armor parts “purchasable” with in-game credits, another reward mechanism is added to the game. I hate to admit it, but it’s pretty effective. Most of the armors already available look appealing to me and therefore I can’t wait to see what else I can unlock through play. I get the impression I’m not done tweaking my Noble Six, not by a long shot.

The second decision I faced was choosing a difficulty level. This is an old standby of action games. Its purpose is pretty straightforward; keep the game challenging enough for veteran gamers yet accessible enough so that more casual players can still enjoy it. For some time now, however Bungie developers have been making the choice to widen the gap between “normal” play and “heroic”. Ostensibly this is because as more Halo games are released and players master the formula, the “veteran” players become more numerous and crave a challenge beyond the previous games. I think this might be a mistake however. I have played previous Halo games at “Heroic” difficulty yet I must admit that at several key moments during my early playthrough I became a bit frustrated. Upon further analysis, this was because I did not feel like I was playing badly. Quite the contrary, I felt I performed some amazing heroic feats, only to be killed in some foolish way or simply because I became overwhelmed or killed by a minor threat after having been weakened by defeating some great obstacle. This then reset gameplay to the last checkpoint, where I’d have to face that obstacle again.

I then switched to the game’s “normal” difficulty, and quickly noticed a diminished sense of accomplishment that went beyond my wounded pride. Bungie codes some devilish enemy AI that is definitely satisfying to beat at higher levels. I wonder then if the real problem is the considerable difficulty gap (an area I could simply not get past in Heroic took only one try in Normal) or rather the seemingly arbitrary “checkpoint” system. If I could manually save my game after beating the particularly daunting challenges in Heroic, I’d face a lot less repetition and perhaps less frustration. I realize a save system can be prone to abuse, however, but I wonder if that is why Bungie has stayed away from it, or if its a limitation of the hardware, or worse, simply a legacy mechanic that was determined by the previous hardware limitations of the original Xbox. It might simply be an unwillingness to stop the flow of gameplay to save or the problems of applying that system to multiplayer matches. Regardless of the reasons or possible solutions, I don’t think the developers got the difficulty balance quite right. Its possible however that my skill level just happens to be stuck at the worst possible spot between “normal” and “heroic”. Perhaps a self-adjusting difficulty? Definitely not easy to pull off but its been attempted before. It might water down the achievements and therefore the reward system. Definitely a balancing act to keep in mind.

At this point I’d like to talk about the gameplay itself. Bungie developers have sometimes mentioned that the goal with Halo is to make 20 seconds of perfect gameplay, and then extend that to game-length by creating unique and changing situations. Those “20 seconds” of Halo gameplay are now very familiar and perhaps repetitious to longtime fans of the series, but after 5 games they’ve certainly been perfected. But beyond a style of play, movement speed, and responsiveness that we have come to expect from Halo (run, jump, fire, toss a grenade, hide to recharge, run out again, etc) what Bungie succeeds in doing very well, and perhaps more consciously than other developers, is create a sandbox environment that leads to well defined yet simultaneously unpredictable results. What I mean by this is that there are many predictable aspects about the gameplay (warthog vehicles skid a lot while driving, jumps are a little floaty, grenades arc a certain way, weapons have set ranges, rates of fire and damage capacities, etc) but because of the quality of the AI, and the unpredictability (yet constancy) of the physics, the player is constantly making informed but time sensitive decisions about when to attack, what weapon to pick up, etc. I noticed while I was playing that I was constantly making decisions and varying my approach. Certainly I favor certain weapons, but I honestly believe that preference to be personal, and even when I was forced to repeat an encounter, I always felt like I could try different approaches. Unexpected, wild, “heroic” moments genuinely “just happen”, and with some exceptions there is a distinctive blend of linear level design with “set piece” conflict zones with unscripted, evolving combat situations. This is when the formula is at its best.

One last note about combat: I have mixed feelings about squadmate participation in Halo: Reach. Its exciting to feel part of a team of elite soldiers, and its nice to have truly competent AI assistance for once. But its obvious that the “named” characters have “script invulnerability” and I found myself exploiting that on occasion. It suspends disbelief and sometimes frankly I feel like they “steal my thunder”. However their presence seemed to diminish as I got further along into the game, so perhaps they are a kind of “training wheels” found mostly early on.

Progress through the levels remains largely linear. During one segment of play, I was able to choose which one of two objectives to complete first, but the non-linearity afforded by this was illusory at best. No matter which choice you make it seems both encounters proceed the same way and your squadmate verbally agrees with your decision either way. No information is given to inform your decision so the choice seems largely superfluous. Having played both paths I felt let down and even a little “insulted” by the shallowness of the choice. Perhaps because the dialogue made it seem more noteworthy than it really was.

Finally, though this might be more superficial, I thought I’d note the new game engine and the art direction in this game. Though there are superficial and iterative differences in gameplay between the Halo games, as of late the developers have relied more on ambiance and mood to distinguish the titles in the series. Also, the “look and feel” of Halo has become a part of the games’ “language” and distinctiveness. For example, the series has been both praised and criticized for its color palette of bright purples and oranges and greens in the past. Bungie tried (successfully in my opinion) to change the ambiance significantly in the recent Halo 3: ODST, but a part of the Halo “mystique” has always included strange alien megastructures and impressive sci-fi vistas. While I still haven’t seen anything as instantly wow-worthy as my first glimpse of the Halo structure in the original game, Reach the world certainly feels vaster than some of the more claustrophobic moments in previous games, and that most shooters in general. Still, Reach feels a bit too earth-like which might make sense (terraforming?) but is a bit of a letdown. Bungie has stated that they wanted to make the Covenant (enemy aliens) seem frightening again, and while they are all recognizable, the added detail and general “beefiness” of the newer models does make them seem more threatening. They also no longer speak English, so there are no more amusing quotes from your foes when they spot you or kill you. While the effect is very subtle, I think it does make them feel a little more menacing and alien.

There are other aspects of Reach to evaluate as I continue playing through and maybe I’ll come back and append some other thoughts to this exercise at a later date. I must say I don’t envy Bungie the challenge of constantly finding the balance between adding new elements to Halo while staying true to the now almost sacrosanct core gameplay. While I must admit I’ll probably continue picking up new Halo titles as they are released, I do not begrudge them the fact that they’ve decided to pass the torch and move on to other game concepts. After so much Halo it seems hard to think of them as the developers of other great games, like the Myth series.

Random personal thoughts:

I’m left wondering what the balance should be between sequel iterations and new concepts in gaming in general. Video games share aspects of movies, books and art, where we value innovation and fresh ideas, but on the other hand they share aspects with traditional games, such as poker, Risk, and Life, where we accepts variants but expect constant and consistent core mechanics, and competitive sports such as baseball and football where we’d be very upset indeed if the rules changed significantly. Competitive games like Halo and Starcraft seem to have taken a lot of aspects of these games where debates about minute rules changes can go on endlessly, complete now with “old-timers” complaining how “when I was young this game was more pure” and all. Interesting development, and not necessarily as negative as some might suggest. I think perhaps the games “industry” has room for both “classic” mechanics and innovation.

Comments are closed.