Between listening to gaming podcasts and reading different articles about Halo 4, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the game’s combat and encounter design, and what makes it different from other shooters out there. I hear people praise the combat in Halo 4 a lot, and much of that praise surrounds the enemy AI, and how the AI and mix of enemy types create a robust combat experience. That’s certainly true, but I think the reason Halo’s combat really clicks for me is that it’s design is a perfect match for how I like to approach combat in any game–methodically.
A lot of shooters are designed to push you forward as a player. Call of Duty is the most obvious example of this. You are not expected to stop and think, you are expected to run and shoot. You are most successful when you can charge in and take enemies out as quickly as possible. In some cases, enemies will continue to spawn until you do charge past a certain point. This type of design creates tension by evoking a “seat of your pants” type of experience, where you are constantly in danger of losing control, but also feel like a superhero at the same time.
For me, Halo feels the exact opposite. You are frequently encountering scenarios where you are tremendously outnumbered, and often outgunned as well. Charging in will often result in a swift death, and wasting ammo early in an encounter can create a near-impossible situation later on. A methodical approach is usually rewarded, as even on the higher difficulties, there are multiple ways to tackle an encounter, and there are enough resources to get you through, if you manage them appropriately.
[Minor Spoilers Ahead]
One of the encounters in Halo 4 that provides a shining example of rewarding a methodical approach is the end of the very first mission. You have to battle Covenant forces on the exterior of the UNSC ship Forward Unto Dawn. Covenant dropships are flying in reinforcements, and your job is to get to a control room where you can fire one of the FoD’s missiles. It’s a huge, open area, and there are enemies on three sides of you (in front and on both flanks), almost all of whom you must go through to get to the control room. Once you actually hit the launch button, a malfunction forces you back outside to manually open the launch hatch, which is protected by more waves of enemies.
I’ve played through this battle several times now, and it never gets old. As you step out on the exterior of the ship, a battle rifle is floating by that is a must-have. With it, you can address the Jackal snipers that are pinning you down, and either take out several Grunts, or a few Elites before running out of ammo. I came into the battle with a grenade launcher, but the limited ammo meant I could not waste any shots, especially if I hadn’t used the battle rifle on the Elites yet. If I hadn’t cleared a path down the left flank of the ship yet, I had to circle all the way around to the right, where I could grab a Covenant Carbine for some mid-range sniping, but the Elites would usually require me to get closer, as they are more likely to dodge long-range attacks. Even when I used the battle rifle effectively, and made my grenades count, I usually ended up low on ammo as I climbed the ramp to the missile control room. After the launch malfunction, I would have to scrounge for weapons in order to take out the last waves of Covenant and launch the missile, before completing the encounter.
Each time I didn’t take a thoughtful approach to the encounter, I ended up in the meat grinder. I tried to bull rush my way up the left flank a few times, and got as far as the ramp before the crossfire killed me. I got sloppy with the battle rifle a few times and the snipers I left standing kept me pinned down until I ran out of ammo. Wasted grenade launcher shots made for some ugly melee battles (and losses) with Elites. But every time I died, I knew exactly why, and it almost always came down to not thinking things through.
That emphasis on a methodical approach appeals to the RPG-lover in me, and it’s how I pretty much play every game, no matter the genre. In a lot of games, that style goes against the design of the game, and I usually make the game more difficult for myself by trying to stick to my playstyle. This is especially true of shooters, which is why there aren’t many to be found on my “all-time favorite games” list. But the Halo series, particularly in its campaigns, is a great fit for my preferred style.
Ironically, I spend almost no time with the multiplayer components of Halo games, because that methodical aspect of the gameplay goes out the window in those modes. That’s when I switch over to Call of Duty, as high-octane, panic-inducing multiplayer is what they do best. In fact, many of my friends prefer that series, as they find Halo’s gameplay too slow, even boring at times. When it comes to single player however, for me, Halo’s combat design cannot be beat.