Getting Methodical With ‘Halo 4’

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.


Gaming Stories: Halo 3

We all have anecdotes about our games, and the power of single-player video games lies in the games’ ability to bind us with shared moments. If I know that you’ve also played Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, I can reasonably assume that you too faced the disappointing final boss in an empty and anti-climactic mansion. It’s a common touchpoint, and communities are built on sharing our experiences.

So, from now until the end of the year, I’m going to try to share one of my gaming stories a day. The goal is not to recap the game’s events but to tell my story of that moment, almost like building my personal gaming memoir.  
Since Halo 4 was released last week, let’s revisit my favorite moment from Halo 3, which I’ve titled “The Taking of Scarabs 1, 2, Boom.”

For as large the scope of the Halo series has been, it’s a surprisingly solitary experience. Humanity is losing an intergalactic war, but the chapter “The Covenant” in Halo 3 was the first time that I felt like I was a part of a great war. The fiction places the Master Chief as a monumental figure, the demon of death feared by humanity’s enemies, but he is usually a solitary operator in the field. The space battle taking place above Earth outside Cairo Station at the beginning of Halo 2 was nice to observe, but ships blowing up in the distance didn’t convey to me the feeling of being part of something grander. So, when cutscene that opened “The Covenant” showed seven dropships in formation ready to conduct a coordinated strike on enemy bases, I sensed that this chapter would be different. 
Once the combat started, however, the game’s scope narrowed again. With our forces divided to hit the enemy in three simultaneous blows, I was alone to face the opposition in my tower. I remained alone even when I flew over to another tower to rectify the botched mission there.
Once the three towers were under friendly control, and I boarded a Scorpion tank in silence. As part of the metagame between the developers and the player, I knew that I would not have been given control of a tank unless I was going to face a challenge that required it. We moved from a vibrant and sunny shore through a tunnel to snowy mountains that were lit by a weak sun. The lonely piano at the beginning of “One Final Effort” is almost wistful, one set of notes repeating the other in a different octave, and I saw the snowy plain where the battle would take place. The strings have joined the piano, but I’ve lost a passenger on my Scorpion tank. The strings are have become more energetic, and I’m struggling to navigate the snowy cliffs in my unwieldy tank while fighting a combination of enemy Ghosts, Wraiths, Prowlers, and turrets. 
“Hornets in-bound!”
Even the piano had picked up the pace by now to join the strings’ energy. A Scorpion tank and Hornets? Something wasn’t right. We used the Hornet earlier in the chapter to escort a dropship and engaged in dogfights against Banshees, but we’ve been on the ground since then. The passengers on my tank have all perished, and the tank itself is on fire.  
Two Scarabs! Repeat, two Scarabs!

“I count two Scarabs. Repeat, two Scarabs!”

Well, now I knew why the developers have given me all this firepower. 
The air started swarming with Hornets and Banshees, joined by the pounding music. I had to choose how to solve this combat puzzle. We had taken out a Scarab in Halo 2 on foot and a Scarab earlier in Halo 3‘s chapter, “The Storm,” on a Mongoose. Should I use the Scorpion or the Gauss Warthog to knock the Scarab down so I can board it to destroy it? Should I just use the Scorpion’s cannon to fire directly on the Scarabs’ engines to trigger their destruction? I could, but enemy Ghosts scampered to and fro, almost vibrating in their enthusiasm to stop me. Should I use the Hornet to destroy the Scarabs from the air? I could, but enemy Banshees vied with friendly Hornets and a friendly Pelican dropship for air superiority. 
I made my choice. I would take to the skies. I weaved in between enemy fire, and I was methodical in my assault. I destroyed the enemy Banshees. I wrecked the Scarabs’ main guns and bombarded the troops who dared to show themselves on the Scarabs’ decks. I stripped the Scarabs’ of their armor. And then I directed those rockets into the Scarabs’ engines to trigger their destruction. I had felt like the god of death and destruction that the Covenant’s Grunts ran in fear from before, but this was on a greater scale than ever before. The music swelled, the Scarabs’ engines finally went critical, and there was a satisfying “Boom.” 
“Both Scarabs down. Well done.”
Thanks, Cortana. I like to take pride in my work.
“Kill the stragglers.”
Oh. That’s a bit bloodthirsty of you, but what’s a few aliens more? The music is positively triumphant, almost inspirational, as I did what Cortana asked.
“Calamity! If we only had more time.” 
As I crossed the bridge to my next mission objective, the strings faded away to one sustained note, and the melancholy piano returned. I agreed with 343 Guilty Spark. That was the series’s finest moment, the perfect melding of music and player control in a combat puzzle, and this was the closest the Halo games came to matching the scope that it tried to present. This near perfect moment was all too brief, and replaying the section would be nothing more than chasing that high to diminishing returns. I secured that memory and moved on to slay some more aliens.

‘Forward Unto Dawn’ Brought Me Back to Halo

As I write this, it’s Halo 4 launch day, and I just picked up my copy of the game. Two days ago however, I hadn’t even planned on picking up Halo 4 at launch, as I was only planning on picking up one shooter this holiday season, and had made the decision that I’d be getting Call of Duty: Black Ops II instead.

But a funny thing happened over the past couple of days–I came to realize that the Halo franchise is really the only first-person shooter series I’ve been consistently interested in this console generation (and the one prior). Watching the excellent Forward Unto Dawn web series drove home that realization, and after watching the first couple episodes, I preordered the game in the eleventh hour.

When I say that I’ve been consistently interested in the franchise, what I mean is that I’ve played all of the Halo games, and I’ve completed the campaigns in each one. As I thought about it, I realized that the Halo series is the only FPS series that I have completed all of the campaigns in. In Call of Duty, the last campaign I finished was World at War. For Resistance, I didn’t even play the third game. Same for Gears of War. But the combination of story and setting in the Halo games kept me interested in the universe enough to complete all of the games, and it’s what’s brought me back for the latest installment.

I realize that for a lot of people, this is the opposite of why they play Halo. For many, it’s the multiplayer component that brings them back each time. And while multiplayer has always been executed very well in the Halo series, I’ve never been a big fan of it (probably because I’m not very good at it). I usually a handful of hours with the multiplayer of each game, and then move on to other shooters I fare better at. The last time I played a Halo game, it was the multiplayer mode for Reach, and my apathy for that part of the game is why I wasn’t overly excited about Halo 4. So much of the media coverage dedicated to the game is focused on multiplayer, that it’s easy to forget about the campaign.

But the campaigns have always been great in my mind (even Halo 2), and Reach’s was fantastic. The last moments of that campaign provided one of the most emotionally powerful experiences that I’ve ever had in a game. Seeing Forward unto Dawn made me realize that I am excited about the return of Master Chief, and I want to learn more about the Forerunners, and what happens to Cortana’s sanity as the end of her life draws closer.

My interest in Halo over other shooters makes sense to me when I think about my gaming preferences as a whole. I’m an RPG nerd–I need a world I can get immersed in. Story, setting and characters trump gameplay for me. When compared to other shooter series, there’s a lot more to explore in the Halo universe.

So, while Forward Unto Dawn was primarily designed to introduce new players to the series, it has served to bring me back and remind me why I became of fan of the universe in the first place.