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Halo 4

Monday 28th January 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve had Halo 4 for about three weeks now, and played through it once on Heroic and the first four levels on Legendary, and in multiplayer I have reached SR35. Impressions so far: it’s a great Halo campaign, but not my favourite – at the moment I don’t think it’s quite as good as Halo 3 or Reach. I didn’t mind playing as the Rookie ODST or Noble Six, but as someone who believes that Halo games’ storylines are of tertiary concern to their gameplay mechanics and level designs, I was surprised by how pleased I was to have the Chief and Cortana back.

Unfortunately, in Halo 4 there isn’t as much close-range fighting with Elites as I’d like, I’m not too impressed with the Promethean Knights, and time will tell how replayable the levels are. (The developers seem to have done less to encourage players to replay the campaign this time – although they’ve added a “personal bests” system to the website, the removal of Bungie’s “metagame” score/time attack system feels like a huge loss to me, and Campaign Challenges refresh much less frequently than they did in Reach.) At the moment my best-to-worst ranking of the campaigns is something like: Combat Evolved/Anniversary > Halo Reach > Halo 3 > Halo 4 > ODST > Halo 2.

Multiplayer is good, but when it comes to loadouts, surprisingly I’m not sure I like having quite so much freedom to choose weapons, armour abilities, and tactical/support packages – unlike Reach’s limited selection of presets, there’s so much freedom in 4’s loadout system that I seem to spend more time umming and ahhing and worrying about whether I’ve picked the right combination of tools than I do simply getting on with playing! However, unlike some players, I don’t have a problem with not knowing what opponents are using – it’s simply the choice of what to pick for my own loadout that bothers me!

I’m not too impressed with Spartan Ops; the mission objectives aren’t that interesting, and the unlimited lives means it feels like there are no stakes to anything – you’re just brute forcing your way through. Pretty cutscenes and bespoke voice acting are really no replacement for the customisability, Skulls, Scoring and Lives of Firefight. (A Halo mode without Grunt Birthday Party? Now that’s just wrong!)

Here are some more detailed comments about different aspects of the game…

PRESENTATION

Interesting that for the game’s menu system they’ve gone back to the chunky, screen-filling rectangular panels of the original game, when every game after Halo 2 has used a system of small text menus. Maybe it was mandated by Microsoft, for consistency with the tile-based Metro design of the dashboard? It’s an OK change, but in the pre-match lobbies, I preferred the way players and information were displayed in Reach.

Annoyingly, Challenge and Commendation XP earnings aren’t shown in the post-match XP breakdown, even though that seems to be the point when they’re added to your total. Can’t imagine why that was omitted!

In Reach, the Commendation screens displayed your overall totals for each type of action. In Halo 4, it only shows you the total number you’ve done within your current proficiency level, so you have to go to the website to see your true overall total – not a change for the better, in my opinion.

When you press the Back button to bring up the scoreboard in multiplayer games, you can no longer move while it’s displayed. It also no longer shows which players are in Party Chat like it did before. And when highlighting a player you want to review or mute, you can’t use the right stick – you have to switch to the D-pad. WTF is up with that – holding Back and using the D-pad do not go well together!

What do you mean, saved screenshots don’t get uploaded to the Waypoint website the way Halo 3 and Reach screenshots used to go on Bungie.net? A minor thing, but a step backwards from something that, back in Halo 3, was so innovative for a console game. 😦 In fact, even with the background video disabled I find the Waypoint website as a whole (which I think uses Silverlight?) much slower and more awkward than Bungie’s less flashy, but faster and more usable version.

The Saved Films system has taken a few steps back from previous games – not least because unlike Halo 3 and Reach it no longer shows clip lengths, only file sizes, which is information that’s less front-and-centre and less useful to know. After a good match, it’s quick enough to save a video from Temporary Files to Local Files – but because you can’t choose what name/description to give it, you then have to dig into the map list and find the video in order to give it a more unique description. Then you choose Save to give it a more descriptive name – but it doesn’t rename it, it saves a copy of it. So in order to delete the unwanted duplicate, you have to check the exact save time and file size of both copies (which would be easier if you could compare running times) before deleting the unwanted one. These are minor things, but again, they represent backward steps from Reach (whose file browser system wasn’t perfect either, admittedly).

I loved the Reach level Long Night of Solace, but one thing that kept putting me off replaying it was those long, unskippable cutscenes as it transitioned between the on-foot and space combat sections. (Same way the unskippable end sequence sometimes put me off replaying the original Halo level The Maw.) I haven’t yet replayed Halo 4’s levels enough to tell, but I do hope that it won’t turn out to contain cutscenes as gratuitously unskippable as that…

WEAPONS, ARMOUR ABILITIES, LOADOUTS

New Halo game, new grenade arc to get used to! This time you have to aim much higher than ever before, and I still haven’t got the hang of it…

Farewell, plasma rifle, needle rifle, and plasma repeater – never the most useful guns, but ones I always enjoyed using. The Storm Rifle seems like an alternate version of the Plasma Repeater, and I haven’t really found it very useful yet. Likewise, the Suppressor seems less effective than the human Assault Rifle.

I was a fan of the Grenade Launcher from Reach, and although it’s a shame that the sticky detonator loses the EMP effect, the fact it comes with its own radar screen is a lovely touch that can be very useful.

I like the Hard Light Shield much better than Armour Lock in Reach! It loses the satisfying boosting-vehicle-smashing capability, but because players using it are still mobile, it doesn’t bring gameplay to a halt in the same way. And because it’s only effective against attacks from certain angles and delays shield recharging, its strengths and weaknesses are better-balanced. Also, it seems to be the only decent defence against the ridiculous Incinerator Cannon that I’ve found so far…

The Thruster armour ability puts a nice little twist on fighting the Hunters in the penultimate Campaign mission, but at first I didn’t find it very useful in multiplayer: it doesn’t have the speed or range of Evade from Halo Reach, and it recharges far too slowly to use it more than once in any one gunfight. But then I realised that it’s not so much a tool for throwing off an enemy’s shooting/reload/melee rhythm (the Hard Light Shield is the thing for that), and more a defensive tool to escape behind cover when you have no chance of winning a fight. I’ve found it particularly useful on Abandon, where you can fall off one of the high building’s ledges and then Thruster-boost through a ground level doorway.

I like the mechanism used for the Boltshot charge and the Railgun – you have a bit more freedom to choose when to release them than you do with the Spartan Laser, but you can’t just hold it down and wait for something to touch your crosshairs like you can with the Plasma Pistol. (The Plasma Pistol runs down far too quickly for my liking, but I suppose that was how they chose to balance out the fact you can spawn with it.)

CAMPAIGN

Grunts’ backpacks don’t explode any more! 😦 BOOOOO!

The game may look lovely, but it feels less solid than in previous games. Lots of people seem to have had problems with dropped guns disappearing at annoying times – an example of developers needing to cut corners now they’re beginning to push the Xbox 360 too hard?

The Warthog engine sounds a bit weedy in this game…

Jackal snipers and Crawlers with Binary Rifles represent something of a return to the dark days of Halo 2. Oh well, at least this time glowy red things appear over their heads while they prepare to shoot, so you can place your headshots better than you could in Halo 2.

I played through the first mission on Legendary, reached the low-gravity section of the level, died a lot, quit out. Resumed it the next day, and when I shot one of the Jackal snipers, his Beam Rifle floated all the way over to me, and with its help I finished the level in one life – and now the Halo Waypoint website counts that as a Flawless completion, with a best mission time of 10 minutes! I really am not a fan of misleadingly corrupted stats such as that.

At first I thought that way the Jackal sniper’s gun floated over to me in that incident was a remarkable, rare event, but then I read this post by Lothar Hex on Rllmukforum, and since he experienced the same thing, now I suspect that that specific gun may be scripted to preferentially float in the player’s direction:

However I just remembered something from my Legendary playthrough that made me realise why I fucking love the Halo games. On the very first level when you exit the ship, I was fighting some enemies at distance, when I ran out of ammo, I backtracked and discovered a Covie sniper rifle lying near my start position and used it to clear out the enemies. On further playthrough I was looking for this rifle but it never appeared again. Then I realised what had happened. I had taken out the guy with the rifle, and due to the game’s low gravity the Jackal’s death throes had actually launched the rifle towards me because of the area’s low gravity. It just went to illustrate that you can play the game so many times, and the fights will almost never be exactly the same each time. Yes even though games like MOH and COD will have enemies who may try and flank, they are most designed around big set pieces. Halo is design in putting smart enemies in areas of a level and seeing what happens. That situation with the rifle may be a minor example, but the way my battle had turned out combined with the area’s physics and the enemies reactions to my action threw up a little scenario that I doubt could be reproduced so easily.

Elites in this game didn’t really make a huge impression on me. They seem to have a stance that makes them appear narrower than in earlier games, which differentiates them a bit from the broader Promethean Knights. But their behaviour didn’t stand out to me – largely, I think, because most of the combat in the game seemed to take place at longer range than in most other Halos. I’ll try a few missions with Mythic on, to see how they behave when they hang around for longer.

You know in mission 2, Requiem, where as you climb up the tower Cortana says “the Elites have issued a general alert – we’re about to have our hands full”, and then there are four grunts and a Sword Elite who rushes at you? I had to retry that checkpoint many times on Legendary, and found that by timing my sidestep away from the Sword Elite just right, we would continue circle-strafing around each other indefinitely (or until I meleed him a few times, unopposed). That’s not something I ever remember doing in previous Halo games, but here I was able to do it pretty consistently most times I restarted the checkpoint. I wish you could still use Theatre mode in Campaign, because it’s something I’d probably put on my File Share! (But I tried doing the same with a sword Elite I encountered in Spartan Ops, and he seemed to keep doing sword lunges that I couldn’t avoid. Different rank, different behaviour, maybe?)

Those Promethean Crawler dogs are really satisfying to kill with single headshots – just as satisfying as the balloon-like POP that Flood spores made in the original Halo (but only the original). Like Flood spores, their role is to harass rather than really threaten you, but unlike the spores they can do so at range, which is a change that works well. (Annoying that the ones with Light or Binary Rifles can sometimes one-hit-kill you on Legendary, though – but fortunately that orange glow usually gives you some warning.)

I was much less impressed with the Promethean Knights. They remind me of Halo 2 Brutes in their lack of feedback to weapon impacts. I’m normally a fan of flashy digital/Matrix code effects (like the way enemies dissolve in MGS2 Substance’s VR Missions), but in this case it didn’t work for me. There’s just not enough of a visible difference when a Knight’s shield is up or down. Not sure what I think of their teleporting attack – it mixes their attacks up in a good way, but unless you’ve got a close-range weapon like a shotgun, it can result in some cheap-feeling deaths.

Overall, although I like the Crawlers and Watchers, the Knights just aren’t differentiated enough from Elites for me – and they certainly don’t have as much character (no equivalent of “wort wort wort”!). Perhaps it’s time for Halo to introduce an enemy type that reverses the “plasma against shields, ballistic against flesh” mechanic (so you’d have to switch to a plasma weapon for an effective finisher, instead of a human bullet headshot), and the Prometheans’ digital nature could have provided a decent excuse for them to behave like that – a missed opportunity?

This post by Aimless on Rllmukforum pretty much sums of the Campaign’s combat for me:

Whilst I definitely rate the campaign highly, I don’t really enjoy fighting the Prometheans.

Crawlers are okay by me: they traverse the environment in a unique way but can be dispatched easily with precision weapons, so they bring a new dynamic to combat. Functionally Watchers are also interesting, although I think they miss a trick by not really requiring a specific approach; as far as I can tell they don’t have a weakspot or a particular vulnerability, so it’s just a case of shooting them with whatever.

For me the Knights are the real disappointment. Fundamentally they require a similar strategy to Elites — pop shield, go for the head — but I think they screw with the dynamic by teleporting away when you’re going in for the kill plus they don’t have the same level of feedback that an Elite’s gradual shield glow, and eventual pop, have. If I’m missing something then hopefully someone can fill me in, but as it stands I don’t really see what they bring to the table other than annoyance; on Legendary the shotgun variant strikes me as particularly cheap.

This is a bit of a tangent, but something I love about the original Halo is that even on Legendary you can take down a Hunter with a single magnum round in the right place. Now I agree they probably should be a little bit more resilient, but the thing I’ve always enjoyed most about the series’ combat is that when you know how to handle them any individual enemy is fairly trivial, the challenge arising from picking apart mixed groups, constantly adapting your approach based on the composition of hostile forces. Whilst this is largely true of Halo 4 — Grunts still only need a headshot, Jackals the one-two to hand and head — I often felt like the only particular strategy the Knights encouraged was “hold on to a power weapon, and don’t put it down or it’ll disappear”.

Here’s another quote from a Rllmukforum post (this one by Kayin Amoh) about something I too experienced in the Banshee sections on Heroic and Legendary:

Although I will say this – if you get into a banshee on Legendary, what happens is ridiculous. Enemies who’ll happily let you snipe them from range (AI at range can be a bit iffy, simply standing around as you pick off their buds) will all – and I mean ALL – immediately turn in your direction and turn you into a melted slagpile within seconds. It’s insane.

I find Banshees less fun in this game than they were before, and not just because of the enemies’ targeting priority: you can’t hover very well, and you can’t fly up as vertically as you could before.

STORY

With rare exceptions (Second Sight comes to mind), I’m not a player who attaches too much importance to videogames’ storylines. Generally, all I need in an action game’s plot are are excuses for it to send me to a variety of memorable settings, to fight enemies in varied ways. The Halo games generally do that very well, but it’s not a universe that I have much interest in pursuing in in media other than videogames.

Having said that, the specific trappings of Halo 4’s plot were rather less appealing than those of previous Halo games. Like the Ark of Halo 3, Requiem is a much less interesting Big Dumb Object than the Halo rings were. The Didact makes a much more generic antagonist than eccentric old 343 Guilty Spark, and the Composer’s activation seems a much less urgent threat than the Halos firing, or Reach getting obliterated. To me, the Master Chief’s aim of getting Cortana back to Halsey to fix her rampancy seemed a more interesting reason to hurry along than yet another “It’s The End Of The Universe As We Know It”.

I don’t really like seeing what the Forerunners looked like. The fact that they were unknowable long-dead creatures, communicating only through their Monitors and the glyphs and architecture they left behind, added a lot to the atmosphere of level exploration in Halo games. I preferred that to finding out that one of them is still around, and basically just looks like Lord Voldemort… 😦

MULTIPLAYER

The announcer’s pronounciation of “LAWST” annoys me every time!

The two Regicide modes are great fun – better than standard free for all.

As for the maps… I seem to have a lot of success on Abandon (especially whenever I get a SAW in an ordnance drop, mwahahahahah!) I don’t mind playing a lot of Ragnarok, but I’m not keen on the way Haven seems to get selected every time it’s an option. Complex feels a bit like Powerhouse from Reach, but I’m not sure it’s as good.

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The Zoonami website’s Zelda: Ocarina of Time design analysis

Thursday 15th March 2012 Leave a comment

UPDATE 12 April 2015: I originally created this post purely so that Google would notice and index the Zelda OOT article, to draw attention to a fantastic article on game design. Alas, the company and the website are gone again now; probably for good this time. So I’ve reworded this post and added Archive.org links.

Martin “GoldenEye And A Bit of Perfect Dark” Hollis once formed a company called Zoonami. They never released a game I was interested in (although Funkydilla, their proposed post-Amplitude/pre-Guitar Hero rhythm action game, sounded promising), but they had a website that was surprisingly useful in some unexpected ways.

For me the most informative thing on their site was definitely
The Making of GoldenEye, a transcript of a speech given by Martin Hollis about the creation of what is, as we all know, the greatest game ever made. (There are also a couple of other GoldenEye Making Ofs online, such as this 2011 one at NowGamer and one that was summarised by Rllmuk forumite Graham S. David Doak also made some interesting comments about it in Retro Gamer #6, July 2004.)

The Zoonami website was also home to this excellent analysis of the puzzle design in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, by someone credited as G. Rees. (That author also seemed to have published this version on his website.) I always love reading good analyses of videogame level design, and that article is one of my favourites. Ever wondered just how complicated the Water Temple is that led to you getting stuck on it for so long? Now you know.

Other really good breakdowns of game level design that I’ve come across online:

What a difference a frame makes

Wednesday 22nd February 2012 Leave a comment

Interesting blog post from Jaime Griesemer on the difference between a three-frame Halo melee attack and a four-frame melee attack.

I have successfully rewired my brain

Sunday 28th February 2010 1 comment

“Games that put select where you expect cancel or that offer 16 useless presets are shooting themselves in the foot. Or, more precisely, games that don’t give the choice of whether or not to invert are most likely shooting players in their own foot.”

Edge‘s Ten Commandments, issue #128 (Oct 2003, their tenth anniversary issue)

I had a pretty roundabout path through console FPS control schemes. Excluding my early experiences with Zero Tolerance and Corporation on the Mega Drive (they don’t really count here), it went something like this: Read more…