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What makes Halo so special?
What makes Halo so special?
As those of you who are familiar with my writing will know, I love Halo, and I have tried numerous times to explain what makes it such a great game. I have also spent some time highlighting the crippling design faults in other very popular games, which prevent me from enjoying them. The more I think about it though, the more Halo seems to share many of these design peculiarities, and so I ask my self, why am I never bothered by them in Halo.
If I start a campaign level in Call of Duty 4 (This applies to most, but not all of them), I immediately feel annoyed that the game has thrown my into a situation which doesn’t seem to make sense to me. I don’t know what my goals are, and I don’t know what parameters to expect things to go by. Let me explain. As far the goals are concerned, since it’s a pretty standard FPS, I expect my goal to have something to do with killing the enemies shooting at me, but there are a number of possibilities within that. Am I supposed to kill them all, assuming there are a finite number of them? Or are they respawning, in which case, how am I supposed to stop them respawning? This second question is where the problem of the games parameters is introduced. Supposing one parameter is clear: that enemies will always respawn, until you do x to stop them (in reality, the game offers no such consistency, but let’s supposes for now that it did). Firstly, how do I stop them? Often there is an invisible boundary which, when crossed by the player, triggers the enemies to stop spawning.
It goes without saying, that this is a very unrealistic and unintuitive phenomenon. We can guess that it is designed to force the play to approximate a familiar battle scenario where one side has to constantly push up for one reason or another, rather than simply sitting back and picking off all of the enemies until the path is clear. Without delving into the limitations of this system, let’s except that this could potentially lead to some fairly interesting gameplay scenarios.
The important thing here is that it is very much a computer game device, and for it to achieve the effect I imagine it desires, the system around it must be crafted with that in mind. This means you can’t just craft the rest of the game to communicate to the player based on the game world acting like the real world, when you have this core which is so unlike the real world. When such a device as respawning enemies is introduced, I expect videogame parameters along side it. If a game says, push forward against respawning enemies to push their spawn points back, I say, “fine, but what are the parameters. Can I get blown up at any moment by artillery from a few miles away which I could do nothing to avoid, as in real life? Surely not.” And indeed the game says, “No, of course not, rest assured that as you are pushing up, employing good tactics, running from cover to cover, you will not be randomly blown up through no fault of your own.”
“Ok good”, I say, “now what can I expect of these invisible barriers? If barrier x stops enemies spawning from spawn point X, then surely barrier x must come a Suitable distance before spawn point X, such that I, the player, can get to it knowing that I am not running right into the incoming waves of enemies. I’m not saying that such a game would be bad, that’s a different matter, but for me to make informed decisions on how to play, I must know that one or another sort of parameter exists on this subject?” Alas, dear reader, I’m afraid that no such parameter exists in Call of Duty 4. Often the spawn points on the enemies front will be pushed back when you get within, say, 10 meters of them, but sometimes you can get within a couple of meters of the room from which they are conspicuously waltzing. How can the player make an informed decision now on what strategies to employ when they don’t know what parameters they are dealing with?
“Ok”, I say, “despite this major blunder, the majority of the game may still be playable. At least you were apt enough not to throw in random artillery strikes. Now what other parameters can I expect to shape my strategies around? Can I expect to have always 1 clear enemy front to attack? Or if there are to be more, can I expect them to be clearly stated? Surely if the game revolves around me pushing up against enemy spawn points, then I must know roughly where these points are that I am to push against?”
“No”, says the game, “Spawn points may pop up at any time from any position. Poor player, you might as well do away with any hope of strategy, for while you may think you are doing the right thing to deal with the enemy in front of you, this may turn out to have the adverse effect when enemies start spawning from your left and your right.
“What am I to do then?” I ask. “Am I to push against each one of these spawn points one after the other? How can I even plan this when I don’t know where the respective invisible boundaries are for each, nor whether you might decide to throw in another spawn point at any time.”
Don’t get me wrong, reader; I am not particularly complaining that I find the game difficult; rather I tend to push through it rather quickly. This, however, is not down to my skill (aside from the moment to moment skill of aiming accurately and ducking out of fire when a few shots come my way). On the contrary, I feel I am just clumsily stumbling towards victory with a few deaths on the way, without any real understanding of why. This is because the game rarely gives me the information I need on which to base effective strategies.
Of course the reality is much worse still, because not even the premise of pushing up against spawn points is consistent. Sometimes, believe it or not, the enemies do not respawn, but the player is given no indication as to when. Once again, he cannot know what strategies to employ: should he push up, assuming the enemy is respawning, or stand back and pick them off, assuming there is a finite supply?
Now let us look at Halo. Obviously there is no spawning in Halo, most enemies exist in the level from the beginning, and those who make their entrance in dropships, from pipes and such, come in a limited supply, so every one that the play kills, is one less they have to worry about. If we look more closely however, we might think that similar problems of a lack of information might exist. If you enter one of Halo’s many large battle scenarios for the first time, you don’t know where the snipers are, you don’t know where all of the pockets of ground troops are, or which are going to jump into vehicles, you don’t know where the reinforcements are going to come from until you see the drop ship approaching, which may be too late. Say, for example, that you are in one of these battles, and you find yourself near a building with your shield almost down and some elites firing their plasma rifles in your general direction. Do you go into the building? You don’t know, is the answer. You don’t know whether or not there are a couple of grunts waiting to finish you off the moment you step in. So there you have a lack of information resulting in the player not being able to make an informed decision. So why do I restart with nothing but glee after being finished off by the grenade which happened to rebound off the explosion of another from a good 20 yards off, which flew, unexpectedly, into the doorway just as I entered?
When that happens, instead of being frustrated at dying, perhaps without even making a mistake, I am simply grateful for the rock solid laws which govern the Halo universe, and appreciative of the scenarios which develop naturally from them. Here we have a scenario which is perfectly understandable by the player: “you are in a battle, contained in this single open space, where most objects are governed by a certain consistent set of physics. You are up against a finite number of enemies, you do not know where all of them are, or what they are going to do, since all of them are governed by dynamic AI, but use your wits soldier, to kill them all, before restocking and advancing to the next arena.”
But what’s so different in COD4? Could we not equally say, “You are in a battle, contained in this single open space, where most objects are governed by a certain consistent set of physics. Spawn points will pop up in various locations and it is your job to get near enough to the spawn points for them to deactivate. Once you have deactivated all of the spawn points, you may advance to the next battle. No, the enemy AI is not very dynamic, but you can deal with them nevertheless.”? Indeed, I see why not, and when I imagine such a game, it seems like quite an enticing proposition, if in need of a little adjustment. So why can’t I stand COD4’s single player mode? Perhaps I have been underestimating the impact of the narrative and style of both of these games. Undoubtedly, Halo has terrific core mechanics, which allow for far more depth and mastery then those in COD4. Also, there is undoubtedly room for improvement in the structure I identified earlier, with the spawn points randomly popping up, and the invisible boundaries placed with no consistency. But I don’t think that these are what make me put the game down in disgust after every short play session. I fancy it may be the narrative which makes me refuse to engage with the gameworld. It is made very clear that you are simply one soldier in a unit, and not a high up one at that. Also just from our general impression of the sas from TV and what not, we have an idea of a very tight, coordinated team, who know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it (I don’t mean in terms of the politics). So when I’m dropped into a battle with a load of superiors who seem to know what they’re doing, I do not expect to be left to my own devices in leading them against randomly occurring spawn points. When we’re fighting through the streets in Iraq, and we’re being shot at from the 1st floor of an overlooking building, I do not expect to go alone, and of my own appointment, into the building full of enemies, and take them all out as they spawn from the bloody bathroom. When I’m a genetically improved super soldier named Mastercheif, however, I do.
As I’m writing, though, I don’t believe it, that something seemingly so trivial could have such an impact on the game. What do you think?