Gaming Stories: Halo: Reach – Firefight

The face of easy credits.

I haven’t played Halo 4 yet. I’ll probably get to it at some point; “the Taking of Scarabs 1, 2, Boom” is one of my favorite gaming memories, and I would rank Halo 3: ODST as one of the best games I’ve ever played.  I have faith that 343 Industries will have done an acceptable job of creating a good Halo game. For me, Halo 4 would have to compare against the most recent Halo game I’ve played, Halo: Reach.

Bungie implemented a level progression system in Halo: Reach tied to credits that players could earn in the campaign, in multiplayer games, and in Firefight, which could be played with others or solo. To incentivize the player to buy into this progression system, Bungie tied avatar customization options, such as helmets and armor, and a number of achievements to the credits and the progression system.

As always, where there is a system, there will be ways to exploit it. I remember when someone on Xbox360Achievement.org’s Halo: Reach message board pointed to a strategy in the Gruntpocalypse game type in Halo: Reach‘s Firefight mode that players could use to make credit farming in Halo: Reach a breeze. That turned out to be an understatement. At my peak, I could farm 10,000 credits in about 10 minutes of play, which reduced Halo: Reach into a daily yet very disposable experience for me.

Hooray credits!

While the strategy was relatively simple, it took skill to execute. The key was to kill the Grunts as quickly as possibly with headshots using the DMR battle rifle. The credits rolled in as long as I could maintain the streak of headshots; inevitably, a Grunt would tag me with a plasma grenade, which would end the streak and the possibility that I could continue to earn credits at a rapid pace. By that point, it was time to move on and count my haul for the day.

The tools of the professional.

As always, people may decry that credit farming strategies demean a game. I contend that implementing these strategies requires a deep understanding of how the game works. To farm for credits in Gruntpocalypse effectively, I had to know the preferred Firefight map, Corvette, intimately. I knew the Grunts’ spawn points, and I knew how long it would be between each Grunt’s spawn. I knew the angles from each spot on the raised platforms. I knew the timing to run back to my spawn point to reload my DMR. I knew how much splash damage I could expect if a Grunt launched a rocket from his Fuel Rod Cannon or threw a plasma grenade at me. I knew the map well enough that I could play when I was tired from a long day of work and life or when I was still sleepy because I had just woken up. I was in that stage for at least 10 minutes a day every day for more than a month. There may have been times where I knew that map better than I knew how my apartment was laid out.

Strangely enough, it never occurred to my friends or me to actually play regular, actual Firefight in Halo: Reach even though we were obsessed with the Firefight mode in Halo 3: ODST. By allowing players to customize their Firefight experiences in Halo: Reach, I think it took away from the common stories that Halo 3: ODST‘s Firefight maps would help create. My friends and I could compare notes about how we handled the snipers that would spawn in the map “Crater” or how we would roll together in a Warthog to take down the Wraith tanks on the map “Lost Platoon” in Halo 3: ODST‘s Firefight maps. It’s possible that Bungie opened too much of the experience to the player’s control; with the ability to customize, our common points of reference for our Firefight stories were gone.

I suppose that I’ll always have my credits from Halo: Reach‘s Gruntpocalypse mode and the wonderful cyborg arm it bought my avatar.


The Year With No New Games-Part 8: The New Game Masters

I am a child of the 1980s and 1990s, the heady days when there would still be cartoons on our local Fox affiliate (WNYW-NY), the independent channel (WPIX-NY), and the unaffiliated channel (WWOR-TV) during the ungodly early weekday hours, weekday afternoons after school, Saturday mornings, and early Sunday mornings. These included Captain N: The Game Master on NBC, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, and eventually more questionable shows like Double Dragon and Mutant League. During the weekend, after the cartoons finished, there would be live action shows like WMAC Masters (which I rediscovered through a Google search for “martial arts tournament fake”). There was one show that I dimly remembered until a multi-pronged Wikipedia, Google, and YouTube search unearthed it and triggered warm memories of admiration and jealousy. It was Video Power, and the show I remember was apparently the show’s second incarnation, but what could be more memorable to a child than a game show where kids competed against each other in video game score attacks and video game trivia quizzes?

At the end of each Video Power, the winner would have a chance to run a prize gauntlet to attach as many games to his or her head and torso as could remaining attached through Velcro. This was the climax of the show, the apotheosis of these gaming idols. I was fascinated by each player’s run and broke them down in my imagination to find strategies for balancing time, the unreliability of the Velcro, and the critical path through the maze to come out with as many games as possible.

This was before the Evo Championship Series, before I discovered Twin Galaxies through The King of Kong, before I found out about the Nintendo World Championships, and definitely before speed-running games was a filmed and shared experience. I didn’t see The Wizard until long after Video Power‘s run ended, so the children I saw on Video Power were my childhood standard-bearers for gaming prowess. They had unlocked the games’ secrets. Maybe they discovered them through the Worlds of Power tie-in novels, so I read them, indirectly inspiring a lifelong love of books. (I know I keep looking for gaming tips in Neal Stephenson’s novels.) Maybe they consulted the tomes of cheats and hints, like Tricks of the Nintendo Masters, which always had the worst cover designs. While I could try to match the show’s scores on Super Mario Bros., I just didn’t have access to games like Double Dragon III: The Gem Masters, Mega Man, or Super Glove Ball.

Since then, I’ve learned about things like critical path method for project management and how that applies to high level video game speed-running, counter-intuitive methods to enemy encounters in single player games like letting them hit you so you can exploit the invincibility flicker, and the meta-game that goes on behind competitive multiplayer games. I’ve become an adult, so I don’t hold people who are great at games with the same adulation that I did as a child. And gaming expertise has seemingly fragmented. For example, while winners of the Evo Championship Series may compete in a number of games (Justin Wong, most famous for dominating Evo for years and for the single greatest counter series in Evo history, for instance, competed in Evo 2009 in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Street Fighter IV, Street Fighter III: Third Strike), the games will often share a system (which is why players like Justin Wong may stick to only Capcom fighting games in competitions and not compete in other two-dimensional games with different systems and timing like Mortal Kombat, much less three-dimensional games like Tekken or Soulcalibur). It makes sense; become a jack of all trades and risk also becoming a master of none or concentrate on a few games that are similar so skills can transfer from one to another.

In a way, the spirit of mastery of all games has diminished since the Video Power and Nintendo World Championship Series days, when players had to be ready to compete in a variety of games with different systems. The spirit is kept alive at the Penny Arcade Expo’s Omegathon, but I contend that the spirit is also kept alive by those who are derisively called “achievement whores.”

Consider Ray Cox, also known as “Stallion83,” the current Guinness World Record holder for highest gamerscore, who is on a quest to reach 1 million gamerscore points. According to his profile on TrueAchievements.com, he’s played 1,254 total games, ranging from Kinectimals to Ratatouille to Too Human. He’s achieved nearly 82% of all possible achievements, including the DLC that he owns for the games that he’s played, of these 1,254 games. By necessity, he’s had to plays games in all the genres currently available on the Xbox 360 and Windows Phone and acquire as many of the achievements in them as quickly as possible.

Cox, by the nature of his quest, is an extreme outlier example, but his peers all have had to dip into a variety of genres in order to accrue their gamerscore. To me, Cox and his peers carry the spirit of masterful play, adaptability, and comfort with any number of systems that I believe is in the spirit of Video Power and Nintendo World Championship Series players. One might sneer at their quest or treat achievements and gamerscore as Microsoft’s cynical attempts to hook players into the Xbox 360’s ecosystem. One might even question how achievements and gamerscore are negatively affecting game development. But I appreciate the spirit of what they do. They strive for mastery, for finding the most efficient ways to deconstruct a game to its core components, and then they move on. They are, to me, the new game masters.


The Year With No New Games-Part 6: “This is all your fault”

[SPOILER WARNING NOW FOR SPEC OPS: THE LINE. But you really, really should play the game. Tour the content on the easiest difficulty level if you have to.]

Part of playing to 100% completion and unlocking all achievements in a game often means beating games at the highest difficulty level. Sometimes, my memories of beating games at their respective highest difficulty levels are fond. For example, finishing the last campaign in Left 4 Dead on “Expert” difficulty is still one of my favorite gaming memories, while beating Crysis 2 on “Supersoldier” mode with a fully powered Nanosuit and complete awareness of how to approach the game’s combat puzzles fulfilled my power fantasy. Other times, my memories are less kind, such as the sour aftertaste of using an exploit to progress through Bayonetta on “Non-Stop Climax” mode or how rote the experience felt beating Resident Evil 5 on its highest difficulty level. I like to think that I’ve now played enough games that I can beat most games, no matter how hard. After all, I’m part of the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare “Mile High Club.” I’ve beaten Halo: Reach on “Legendary” difficulty by myself. No game should be beyond my ability to complete.
Behind my imaginary achievement trophy case is my box of secret shame, the games I abandoned for any number of reasons. I couldn’t beat John Woo Presents Stranglehold on hard difficulty? I couldn’t finish Prince of Persia (2008), SSX, Burnout Revenge, Split/Second at all? But no game should be beyond my ability to complete! 
Over the past month, I’ve immersed myself in Spec Ops: The Line to the exclusion of all other games. Other reviewers have described the game a 4-5 hour affair, and that might be the case if they played it on the easy or normal difficulty level. But on the second highest difficulty level, “Suicide Mission,” I needed about 15-20 hours in total to complete the game and unlocked the gaming feat, morality decision, and collection achievements. Only one achievement awaited me: beating the game on its highest difficulty level, “FUBAR.” And so I thought to myself, “I’ve beaten all three Gears of War games on ‘Insane.’ I’ve beaten Army of Two: The 40th Day on ‘Contractor’ difficulty. I can beat Spec Ops: The Line on ‘FUBAR’ mode, even if it will take me a while.”
Ultimately, I realized that trying to grind my way from checkpoint to checkpoint in Spec Ops: The Line on “FUBAR” might actually eliminate, rather than enhance, my appreciation for the game. So I did something I wished I had done when I passed a climactic moment in the game: I stopped playing, placed the disc back in its case, and moved on.  
Let me explain.
There was a point in Spec Ops: The Line where I didn’t want to play the game any longer. I was sickened by what I had done. I could have blamed the programmers for putting me in this position, but that would ignore my choice to not only pull the trigger but also continue to play. I had to assume responsibility for my virtual actions; anything else would be a lie to myself. I then rationalized my decision to continue to play by telling myself that I had to keep playing because there was no way I could let what I had just done be the last thing I would let my character do in the game. I was playing an American soldier. There had to be a moment of redemption. Other games, movies, and books had taught me that.  
This is where I lay out the spoiler warning again. 
I had encountered moral quandaries in the game before this moment of decision and rationalization. Earlier in the game, I had to choose between saving a CIA operative and two civilians from a group of US soldiers. I chose to save the CIA operative, and then I felt like a fool when he succumbed to his injuries by the next cut scene. Three lives lost over nothing.
Not long after, I came upon an enemy encampment that seemed no different than other enemy encampments that I had already encountered. Since I had a scoped weapon, I tried to snipe some soldiers first to thin them out. But they seemed to keep respawning, which violated the rules of limited enemy spawns that the game had previously established. Then, I was gunned by snipers. All the while, my AI teammates debated the use of a nearby mortar cannon. I couldn’t find a way down to the encampment; unlike other similar positions in the game, I was not given a choice to climb down from my platform. I respawned and tried to snipe the encamped enemies again, marked the snipers for my AI teammate to counter-snipe, and sought refuge in the little cover that platform provided. I was gunned down again. I wanted to solve the combat puzzle without using the extreme measures to which the game was steering me. After all, I was an armed American soldier in a video game. I had already killed scores of enemies. Every time I died, I respawned, and the enemies would appear in the same places as before. Effectively, as I was in other modern military shooters like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, I was a god with the ability to choose who lived and died with a simple finger movement. I was mighty; therefore, I was right. 

For all that might, for all the enemies who have died because I pulled the trigger, I chose poorly. Frustrated, I selected to use the mortar and rained fire on my enemies. From a computer display similar to the “Death From Above” sequence on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, I burned my enemies with white phosphorus. As the white dots on my screen stopped moving a pull of the trigger at a time, the camera panned to one more group of white dots that I had to eliminate. They moved differently than the other white dots, and they were penned in what looked like a holding area. The game wouldn’t let me continue until they too fell, so I pulled the trigger until those white dots disappeared too. 

Those particular white dots were civilians, and I had just massacred them. 

Once the cutscene that laid out in gruesome detail what exactly I had done ended, I faced a choice. I could stop playing altogether, accept that I had committed an atrocity in a video game, and move on. Or, I could refuse to take responsibility for what I had done, just as my avatar, Captain Martin Walker, had done. I could shift my blame to someone else, declare that I had no choice because I was forced to do this, designate someone as more evil than me, and focus on killing that person to redeem myself. I could tell myself that I was a mighty armed American soldier, that I had massacred these people for a reason, and that I would be redeemed and shown to be in the right by the game’s end. I might now be a compromised hero, but I’ll finish the game a hero nonetheless. 
So I plowed on, believing that I would find redemption in the game. I tried to save a civilian, but he was killed in the crossfire between my soldiers and the enemies. I tried to ally myself with the CIA-led insurgency,  but that ended up dooming anyone left alive to dying by dehydration. There would be no redemption for my avatar or me. Sometimes, the moral taint is just too great.
Only one challenge remained. I still had to beat the game on “FUBAR” so I could claim 100% completion and physically and mentally archive the game. I paused to wonder if this was psychopathic; why would I play the game again knowing that I had to burn those civilians again to progress? I put the thought aside and tried to solve each combat puzzle with great patience, moving from checkpoint to checkpoint. The game itself tried to deter me by making my avatar and AI teammates much more feeble while increasing my enemies’ might. On the second playthrough, it seemed that I was no longer mighty because I was no longer right. I couldn’t even pretend to be right. 
After a particularly challenging firefight last night, I gave up. Knowing what challenges laid ahead was demoralizing, but not as much as the knowledge that the easiest combat puzzle ahead would be killing those  civilians again. As frustrating as the experience would be, I could have probably broken the game into one combat puzzle a night until I finished them all. I was already skipping cutscenes in my “FUBAR” playthrough; in effect, I had already started reducing the game just to its combat components, which are not the strongest parts of the game. But that would drag Spec Ops: The Line down from an interesting experience to the tedium of play, and I appreciated what the game had tried to do too much to do that. 
I’ve quit on games before, either because I couldn’t grasp the controls of the game (SSX) or the tedium of play took hold, and I couldn’t be bothered to play anymore (Prince of Persia). This was the first time I’ve stopped playing because I appreciated the game too much to reduce it into its component puzzles to be solved.
I’m still reflecting on the game, its themes, and how well the mechanics tied into them. I still need to process how the game drops its verisimilitude and how the lead writer’s comments about the story now tie the game to Silent Hill 2 and The Dark Tower series of books in my head.  

The Year With No New Games-Part 5: “Mastery”

This weekend, I relaxed and didn’t play a game at all. I didn’t load up 10000000 on my iPad. I didn’t play Spec Ops: The Line on my 360. I didn’t charge up the DS Lite in order to play yet another game of Civilization Revolution. Instead, I just sat back and watched as some of the best speedrunners in the world plied their craft for the
Kings of Poverty’s speedrun marathon to raise funds for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).

Last time, I discussed briefly the idea of tedium of play that comes with 100% completion. Watching these players break down games by pixel movements with perfect timing, like some of the jumps in cyghfer‘s run of Bucky O’Hare on Hard mode, where the player loses a life with just one hit, or exploit game glitches like dram55‘s use of ceiling sticking in Super Mario World and cyghfer’s use of a glitch that allowed him to enter walls and teleport up a screen in Mega Man 2 showed that mastery of a game inside and out can come with “tedium of play.”

One of my secret sources of gamer pride is the fact that, once upon a time, I could complete Streets of Rage 2 in less than 50 minutes on hard mode using Axel. Because I only owned 4 games for the Sega Genesis (or the Sega Mega Drive, if you’re so inclined), I would say that I mastered Streets of Rage 2. I knew combos for each character, the timing and placement for weapons dropped by enemies or found in the stage, and most importantly, a certain standard for quickly I could finish the game and how high my score should be.

A quick word about Streets of Rage 2, which I will contend was a better game than any of the Final Fight games. I’d go as far as saying that Streets of Rage 2 is the finest side-scrolling brawler of the 16-bit generation. I’d also go as far as saying that beating Streets of Rage 2 with Axel or Max on Mania mode, the highest difficulty level, is a very different experience than beating it with Blaze or Skate. Finally, while Streets of Rage 2 had no in-game achievements (until the re-releases on Xbox Live Arcade and in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection), beating Streets of Rage 2 with Blaze and Skate on Mania mode would be as close to 100% completion as one could get. It took months of attempts to grinding the game, finding the optimal timing and strategies to handle enemies before I could beat it with Blaze. It took years of off-and-on play until I could beat it with Skate. So why didn’t I consider this tedious?

The easy answer would be that I didn’t find grinding Streets of Rage 2 until I mastered it because I had no other games to play. Another easy explanation would be that tedium looks very different to an adolescent boy with limited responsibilities than to a man with limited leisure time. But I think that the tedium comes with the artificial structure, that the implementation of achievements, trophies, and Gamer Points and my psychological acceptance lays the foundation for me to find the act of play a chore.

Grinding Streets of Rage 2 and grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 are very different things, even though the same vocabulary is used to describe both. Grinding Streets of Rage 2 until I could beat it with the toughest characters to use on the hardest difficulty mode meant that I was still playing through the game, progressing through different environments, hearing different tracks, and experiencing different stimulation. Grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement meant, as I mentioned last time, meant that I was herding other willing players into a building on a multiplayer map and blowing the building up with C4, hoping that the game would recognize those kills as mine.  Grinding Streets of Rage 2 meant that I was achieving mastery; grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement that I was filling up a bar in a game.

Seeing the speedrunners come near world record times for games like Batman (NES) and Bad Street Brawler reminded me of what mastery of a game and pride in your play looked like. Whenever you’re feeling burnt out on gaming, take a look at speedrun archives like Speed Demos Archive, a stream on SpeedRunsLive, or even a playthrough on Let’s Play Archive. Sometimes, seeing someone who really knows what he or she is doing with a game is the cure to gaming burnout.

Also, please check out Team Sp00ky‘s archive of the Kings of Poverty’s speedrun marathon (part 1 and part 2) and donate to RAINN, either through the Kings of Poverty’s collection or directly.

The Year With No New Games-Part 4: “Completion”

I wish I could say that I had been away for so long because I was fully immersed in clearing off my backlog, that my pile of shame has been leveled, and that the new games have my complete and undivided attention. But that would be a lie.

One factor I had not considered when drafting the original gaming schedule was how time consuming finishing some of them would be. Another, slightly more important factor I had not considered was how quickly I would feel burnt out on gaming in general, and achievements-oriented gaming in particular, after a few months of this project. The most important factor I had not considered was how difficult it is to balance school, work, and family, particularly raising a toddler, would be. At the end of the day, I just didn’t want to play anymore.

It turns out that once I popped (an achievement), I actually could stop.

That said, it’s the redefinition of “completion” that accelerated my burnout. Last time, I mentioned that the pursuit of 100% completion derailed this project. We normally call the act of experiencing a game’s full plot or playing a game’s last level “completion.” But there are other difficulties and other modes to conquer, other challenges (self-imposed or designed by the creators) to overcome, other collectibles to discover. And therein lies the relatively arbitrary demarcation of “100% completion,” which I defined as “all achievements earned.” And that usually means some tedious play.

 “Tedious play” is a wonderful oxymoron. How can play, which is supposed to joyous, be tedious? It’s tedious when you’re leading a coordinated group effort to enter into buildings so an achievement boosting partner can demolish it, thereby scoring demolition kills in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. It’s tedious when you’re playing a particular checkpoint in Gears of War 2‘s campaign again and again so you can use the Brumak to score 100,000 kills. It’s tedious when you’re caught in a cycle of dying and respawning just so you can join Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare‘s Mile High Club. And yet I’ll smile when I think about the moment when the Demolition Man, Seriously 2.0 and Mile High Club achievements popped.