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Halo - Please Rate This Review
Halo is a game that focuses on a particular set of skills required in the combat that may ensue between two individuals or small armies fighting with weapons which, on the whole, stem from those which would be commonly associated with a modern close quarters battle field. Halo exaggerates the strengths and weaknesses of guns, vehicles and strategies to force the player to make interesting decisions which reflect those which may be made at one point or another in a real life combat scenario. It also uses its sci-fi theme to throw in some variables which have no place in the modern battlefield, but which pose some interesting questions as to the skills which may maximize their effectiveness. While many of these weapons and such would not be expected to be seen alongside the weapons with which we are familiar in this day and age, most of them seem largely inspired in their properties, by old fashioned weapons such as catapults and bow-and-arrows.
A large emphasis is placed on weapon selection and implementation. Just before each battle, the player is presented with a number of different weapons and vehicles from which the player can carry 2 weapons and man a vehicle, if they desire. As with many FPS games, each weapon has a particular set of capabilities along with some inherent weaknesses: e.g. the shotgun shoots a cluster of projectiles with each shot which spread out as they travel, making it very powerful at close range but weak and inaccurate at medium and long range. Bungie does an excellent job of providing interesting pros and cons to consider every time the player switches a weapon by exaggerating the properties of weapons we know to just the right amounts, but also by inventing new ones to create a game which stands somewhat separate from the real-life phenomena which it otherwise imitates. The sniper rifle, for example, is given a weakness which is far from existent in the real thing: a line appears in the air, clearly showing the path of each shot fired, so that the enemy is alerted to the exact position of the sniper (in real life, the ambiguity of the sniper’s placement is its main strength). Another example is the so called ‘needler’, which fires relatively slow moving, purple-luminescent projectiles, which home-in on, stick to, and, soon after, explode in the target. It is up to the player to work out exactly how such a weapon is best used. Furthermore, weapons can be picked up in the middle of the battle, often from downed opponents. This often challenges the player to asses the dangers of switching weapons against the advantage that might be gained by doing so.
In each moment to moment scenario, there are many split-second choices to be made as to how exactly to use each weapon in combination with movement: the player must find a balance between direct attack and offensive or defensive movement. The shield plays a large part in shaping this process. The shield can take a certain amount of damage before it is depleted and the main ‘health’ can be attacked, but the shield will always recharge after the player has not been hit for a few seconds. Each player must try to deplete the opponents shield while maintaining his own. He must let he’s own recharge when it is very low, but in this time, the opponent will also do so, unless you gets in a quick shot to re-set the shield recharge timer. For the most part, it is hopeless to attempt to kill your opponent from long range, since he can always pop behind cover and let his shield recharge to full, and so, aggressive movement is necessary. Once again, Bungie creates the core system, while it is up to the player, and indeed Bungie, to work out how to work with it, what strategies are effective. Much like chess, the strategies which develop out of the simple rules could never have been imagined by the creator.
The vehicles have a believable set of pros and cons which are slightly exaggerated to avoid over-powering, retaining the possible usefulness of each weapon and vehicle. In the first Halo, most vehicles could not be destroyed, perhaps due to the technical difficulty of implementing this feature, but the functionality was still largely included. Shots fired anywhere on the vehicle would slightly damage the driver, resulting in the inherent weakness of many vehicles in that they provide a larger target, making the driver more vulnerable. The vehicles also have more difficulty navigating tight spaces and sometimes finds itself in a position where part of it can be shot by the opponent, which hurts the player inside, while the means of attack (the fixed gun) is not in line with the opponent. And so one will often have to leave get of the vehicle, perhaps taking cover behind it and luring the other player out before quickly jumping back into the high powered gunner turret (if the vehicle is the warthog). Naturally there is far more to the pros and cons of each vehicle, but suffice to say, they have all been very well balanced in order to create scenarios where the players have to make interesting choices.
The player also has frequent access to grenades, which are crafted excellently, emphasizing much of the functionality of real grenades, whilst allowing for other strategies which have less in keeping with the modern battlefield. The main grenade types throughout the Halo series have been the frag and plasma grenades. Both can be used to flush out enemies behind cover or around corners, as expected, but the plasma grenade will stick to any enemy, before exploding, making it more like some sort of medieval weapon, like a ball with spikes or something, or perhaps comparable to an arrow lit on fire. The frag grenade has the advantage of exploding quicker then the plasma.
Many more strategies, as well as very satisfying accidents, are made possible by the physics system. Weapons, grenades, crates and vehicles will all react convincingly to nearby explosions resulting in all sorts of emergent gameplay possibilities, such as; throwing a grenade to a gun which an opponent wants to pick up, propelling it out of their reach, or throwing a grenade to a vehicle which an enemy is hiding behind such that it tips over and squashes him.
The enemy AI, on the whole does an excellent job of forcing the player to think about the range of approaches and to skillfully pull them off. The Elites have recharging shields just like the Mastercheif, demanding aggressive play, since picking them off from long range will not be effective with most guns as their shields will keep recharging. The jackals carry shields, which force the player to aim very accurately, or use energy weapons to destroy the shields. The grunts basically make up the numbers, and encourage aggressive play in order to make them dispatch and cower.
It feels as though each level, particularly in the original game, has been designed to focus on a particular set of skills, by only making certain weapons or vehicles available, and crafting the level design and enemy-types to provide interesting challenges for each. An example of this is the library, which pits the player against masses of un-intelligent ‘flood’ creatures. The player becomes very competent in dealing with lesser opponents in competitive multiplayer modes, and also develops fast, reaction-aiming, particularly with the shotgun, which is usually the weapon of choice against the flood.
The result of this system of long-term and split second choices is an extremely elegant and emergent gameplay experience. The factors which must be taken into account when making these decisions are such that the player will rarely be confronted by the same situation and the same choice to make twice. The elements are arranged in 3D space with continuous time, and are absolutely analogue in their positioning and such. Further more, the choices themselves are very much analogue ones (apart from the pre-battle weapon selection).
The controls are designed impeccably to pose a minimal boundary between the player and the game system. Of note is the grenade hotkey which allows the player to throw a grenade at any time, but is also designed such that the arc, and thus length of throw, is decided simply by the angle at which the player is looking. This makes for a highly intuitive input, compared to having the arc determined by how long the button is held. Grenade aiming is absolutely a skill to be mastered, and it feels well deserved when you stick a plasma grenade to your opponent from half-way across the field. Also of note is the execution of the right analogue stick for aiming. They have got spot on how fast the camera should turn depending on how far in any direction the stick is pushed, and also the speed at which the turn speed accelerates the longer the stick is pushed. Halo is the only console FPS that I have truly felt comfortable turning the camera and aiming in.
Like all good sci-fi, the interest of the visuals lies largely in the functions they indicate, and, in a game, actually have. Halo has a rather minimalist visual style, and the focus is placed heavily on the active gameplay elements. Nonetheless, there is a prevalent atmosphere captured in the scenery and background sound throughout most of the levels. I think this atmosphere exists quite separately from the gameplay, lends itself wonderfully, in my opinion, to evoke an overriding feeling of playing the game. This has been dimmed slightly in the later games which are more glossy, but it is still there.
Halo is a very well crafted system, which allows for a high degree of mastery, which is, for me, desirable, considering how compelling I find the subject matter of the core mechanics. This subject matter is very similar to most other first person shooters, but I think that Halo executes them so elegantly such as to allow for a considerably higher depth of possibilities then in others.