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.


Gaming Stories: Streets of Rage 2

Pounding electronica is playing. Enter stage left, but I’m facing right. Turn around and walk left. Pick up the hidden extra life behind the mailbox. Punk in blue jeans and blue vest approaches. Jab-jab-vertical kick. Three more punks approach. Jab-jab-Grand Uppercut/Bare Knuckle. Two more punks approach from behind. Backfist. Punk with mohawk and a yellow jacket approaches. Knee press-jab-jab-Grand Uppercut/Bare Knuckle. The punks have now gathered into a tight group. Knee press-jab-jab-grapple-knee flurry 1-knee flurry 2-back throw. Knee press-jab-jab-grapple-knee flurry 1-knee flurry 2-vault over opponent-body slam. Surrounded by punks. Dragon Wing. Go straight.

When all else fails, spam Grand Uppercut/Bare Knuckle.

That might seem like gibberish to you, but that’s how I think of the very beginning of Streets of Rage 2. When I close my eyes, I can see the first punk in blue approach. I can play out exactly how I would attack him and remember how long I had before his comrades joined him. I know the exact timing window for each attack sequence and how each enemy would react to my attacks. Don’t jump against the bald, shirtless enemies because they’ll uppercut me unless they’re holding lead pipes. Don’t get in too close against the enemies with the mohawk and the brightly colored jackets because they’ll find an opening to throw me.

Every time I play Streets of Rage 2, I react to the same sequence of enemies with the same moves. It’s like our actions are scripted for us. I walk left to pick up the hidden extra life. The first group of punks try to ambush me from the right. I turn around and hit B-B-C-B on the Genesis controller to chain jab-jab-vertical kick. I press the advantage and hit B-B-double tap right on the directional pad-B to chain jab-jab-Grand Uppercut. The second group of punks try to ambush me from the left this time. Hit C-B simultaneously to use the backfist. The punk in the yellow jacket is here, so I hit C-down-B to make Axel yell something incoherent and jump into the punk in the yellow jacket to start the combo. Time passes, but the attack sequence at the beginning of Streets of Rage 2 is eternal.

This box survived multiple moves.

In the grand 16-bit console war, I was on the Sega Genesis side. One Christmas, my parents unveiled a brand new Sega Genesis Fighting System, which had Streets of Rage 2 as the pack-in game. I delicately removed every piece from the box (for a while, I still had the exterior cardboard box, the interior Styrofoam casing, and all the twist ties and plastic bags that came in the package) and hooked it up to the TV. I would get a few other games over the years (Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Columns and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine for my mother), but Streets of Rage 2 was my faithful companion for years.

There are four playable characters in Streets of Rage 2, but my memory is only attached to Axel, and it’s probably for an almost trivial reason: the first player’s selection defaults to Axel in the character selection screen.

There are multiple ports of Streets of Rage 2, but my muscle memory needs the original three-button Genesis gamepad to realize its full potential. The round directional pad would click in just right, and the B-button was ground into just the right groove from my presses. I’ve tried the XBLA version and the version included in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, but they don’t feel right to me. Maybe it’s controller latency or how the directional pad on the Xbox 360 controller feels. Or maybe my muscle memory is so strongly tied to the Genesis controller that my hands refuse to recognize any other way of interacting with Streets of Rage 2.

One final thought: Streets of Rage 2 rules, Final Fight drools. Only one of the two games allows the player to build combos like the ones I described above, and it’s not the game by Capcom.

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.


The Cold Stream Update for Left 4 Dead 2 Brings Team Zombie Out of Hiding

There is a group of us on XBox Live (including Co-Op Critics Dan Evans and Kim Wong) that have gamed together for the better part of five years now. We initially came together around Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2007, but the group really jelled with the arrival of the original Left 4 Dead in 2008. In fact, we put so much time into playing that game together, that we dubbed our gaming group ‘Team Zombie.’ To this day, whenever the call goes out over Twitter for some co-op gaming, the Team Zombie signal is shown in the sky, no matter what game we’re actually playing.

Outside of Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 though, our group doesn’t game together as much anymore. Part of the issue is shooter fatigue, which gets worse with each new iteration of CoD or Battlefield. But part of it is also that no games can quite match the Left 4 Dead series in terms of co-op fun.

So when Valve finally brought he long-awaited Cold Stream update to Xbox on July 24th, it was a pretty big deal for our little group. And since its release, Team Zombie has been back in action, having as much fun as we’ve ever had with the game.

Cold Stream is great because not only does it bring a new level to L4D2, but it brings the rest of the maps from the original game into L4D2, and they’ve all been updated. Many of the ways we used to beat the old maps are no longer possible, as the levels themselves have been tweaked. This has made all of the maps feel new again, and it’s resulted in the laugh out loud, screaming and yelling sessions that brought the group together in the first place.

So I’d like to thank Valve for Cold Stream, because it got the band back together. It was a long wait, but well worth it to be fighting for my life with Team Zombie again.