Back when Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was in the early stages of its post-announcement period, the major feature of the sequel was “Destruction 2.0.” Which, really, is the kind of feature you’d find in a sequel to a game presumably utilizing Destruction 1.0. In an industry currently enthralled in the depths of iterative improvements on successful designs, I was expecting Bad Company 2 to just be more of what I dug about the original game, except now with its M rating I was also getting the in-world hit feedback (blood) that the Battlefield series has needed since its inception.
And, oh, how I dug Bad Company. The Battlefield franchise is one of my longest-running adorations in gaming. I, especially, sunk entirely too much time into Battlefield: Vietnam and Battlefield 2, but nothing that would compare to the amount of time I would spend playing Bad Company. I had a group of four or five friends, up to three of which would gather with me almost nightly for two-three straight months (an eternity in my attention span) and just jump online to play the same maps over and over. We developed an entire metagame out of Bad Company‘s “dog tag” feature, which awarded a player the dog tag of any victim killed with by a knife. We would hold comparisons at the end of a round based on which of us had acquired the dog tag with the most ludicrous name. And it’s Xbox Live, so the names were ever-so-reliable in their inanity.
The hook of the Bad Company ‘spinoff’ is two-fold: destruction and the “complete package” shooter (and, as it turned out, completely amazing audio). Destruction was always the selling point of Bad Company as a product. The ability to wreck the structural landscape made for a dynamic infantry combat experience that most games that claim “destruction” almost all thoroughly fail in delivering. This feature, combined with the ‘new’ (for the Battlefield franchise) Rush game mode which focused player attention on objective choke points, created a chaotic multiplayer pace filled with the kind of moments that make friends tell stories to one another the next day. If a target puts an obstacle in between you and him, the solution was almost always to switch to the grenade launcher attachment (which a number of guns had) and just blast away his safety net and kapow him in the face with a subsequent bullet. BC’s paramount feature was not the destruction, but the inevitability of vulnerability.
The quality of Bad Company‘s single-player component was not a selling point, but rather its existence in the greater whole of the game that was Battlefield: Bad Company. It was DICE’s first real attempt at making a full-on console shooter; a fleshed out single-player campaign combined with the franchise’s trademark multiplayer with a streamlined and improved approach to persistent rankings/stats and unlocks that started with Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 2142. As with any first attempt, the single-player was not on par with what the gaming public at the time wanted: the Call of Duty experience. BC treated its single-player in a way which befit the game’s design: lengthy, wide-open missions on suitably expansive maps. Players were given objectives and told to go get those objectives done, but the path and means players took to accomplish these objectives was left unspecified. If the player died, he was simply respawned at the last checkpoint while the battle waged on in his absence (there was no resetting of the game state). The narrative, too, was an appropriate level of camp in the modern war setting involving the search for gold amidst a building war between the United States and Russia. At one point in the game, one of the characters does a happy dance as he frolicks down a hill into an enemy encampment saying “There’s gold in them thar’ hills” (there actually was).
BC’s appropriately unique handling of its campaign was not as high-intensity and filled with the “holy shit” moments that the Call of Duty games have always thrived in. BC’s campaign was also filled with encounters that sometimes fizzled due to a poor player handling/approach of them as well as by a not insignificant amount of down-time between objectives. These are all qualities of the series that any Battlefield player knows well, though, and is part of the series’ charm (in my mind). The combination of intense, dynamic, unpredictable firefights with the exploration, traversal time, and the approach of a major encounter are hallmarks of the Battlefield experience. As such, BC’s single-player was not perfect, but who the hell cares.
Bad Company 2 relishes in just how not-Modern Warfare, specifically Modern Warfare 2, it is. The characters take enjoyment in the occasional direct joke at MW2, promotional materials outside the game actively mock various parts of Infinity Ward/Activision’s promotional materials for MW2, and so on. The problem here is not that DICE is not allowed to make fun of Modern Warfare or any other shooter because, well, that’s hilarious for everyone. The problem is that the Bad Company 2 campaign is, ludically, little more than a Call of Duty knock-off.
The most notable difference between the campaigns of BC and BC2 are the absence of the open maps and the large enemy bases with variable approaches (with few exceptions). In their place, we have narrow corridors with very defined paths and easily-identifiable trigger bounds to advance the mission and spawn the enemies in the next area. When a player dies, now, he must restart the game from the last checkpoint in a game world that is similarly restarted (unlike BC’s persistent state). It’s a very faithful recreation of the style of design that overfloweth the bounds of the first-person shooter genre, and a disappointing change to the promising, if flawed, structure of the first game’s campaign.
By switching to the rail-heavy (though not rail-exclusive) single-player progression style, it is disallowing players from fully engaging in the mayhem the destruction allows for. With the player always moving forward, he never has to worry about being trapped in a building with his back to cover that can get blown away by nearby enemies. He is never trapped up in a house with enemies attacking from all directions. He rarely has the opportunity to rush into a base and end up in a situation where his limited cover transforms into no cover whatsoever, and the exhilaration of barely surviving that scenario. What BC2 doesn’t seem to realize is why Call of Duty and its ilk employ that style. The Call of Duty games are notoriously carefully scripted. Infinity Ward (and Treyarch) aim for a very defined, specific sort of experience and they have customized their toolset and game to deliver that experience. This is something they do exceedingly well — better than anyone else in the industry right now. That said, as any Call of Duty game with a somewhat large map and a vehicle or two have proved, the game systems are not well-suited to much behind the incredibly fast-paced, intense infantry combat.
Battlefield does not have this problem; its wide-open, modal gameplay has defined the series since Battlefield 1942. Bad Company, especially, should have no feelings of inadequacy or doubt. Its general gameplay systems combined with the very well-handled destruction made for memorable, incredible, and continually enjoyable gameplay experiences in multiplayer. The overall dynamism and level of quality in the single-player portion of BC wasn’t to the level of its multiplayer, but it was DICE’s first real attempt at a full campaign. Rather than iterate on the original’s promise, though, Bad Company 2 takes the route of the games it mocks and the end result is a cage which limits the kind of dynamic gameplay that comes out of the Bad Company series’ trademark destruction.
I awake and find myself in an abandoned armory. All I can hear is the sound of a fly buzzing through the air. Occasionally, some other unidentifiable animals create a serene soundscape of yelps and caws in the background. Despite the complete lack of windows or portholes in the weapon dealer’s hut, I get the feeling that it’s sometime in the early morning.
In an attempt to determine what I’m supposed to be doing, I bring out my journal. According to its pages, I am tasked with going to a chemical dump and finding a recipe for Agent Yellow. According to my notes, Agent Yellow is a military-grade defoliant and the other faction, who I’m pretty sure was the source for my last mission, is sitting on a huge supply at this chemical dump. So that’s that then.
Putting my journal away, I open up my map to try and re-orient myself. I can only assume this is what amnesia feels like. My map says I’m at Mike’s Bar. I figure I’ll go to the actual bar and catch up with old friends. Opening the door back to the outside world, I see a big white supply truck parked right outside. It’s got an absolutely massive gun mounted atop it. I think this is mine. Even if it’s not. Also it’s the middle of the night. So much for intuition.
Every movement I take is confusing. Basic walking is simple enough. Jumping too. I’m clearly still in tune with what it takes to both aim and fire my gun as well. As I attempt to switch my weapon, though, I find myself throwing a grenade. A grenade right into the back of my supply truck. My old supply truck now, I guess. I keep trying to get my pistol out, failing miserably every time. One time I even noticed that I was crouching. Then it hit me and, by hit me, I mean I reached the end of the combinatorial line and only had a few impulses left which would get me what I wanted. Success. I have my silenced pistol in hand now as I walk to the bar.
Along the way I shoot a lawn chair.
When I enter the bar, I notice the fly that in the armory must have followed me in. An old guy at the bar looks at me, and leans on the bar in an apparent attempt to feign disinterest. He says “Here comes trouble” when I approach him and has a grin on his face. He seems incapable of saying anything else once we’re face-to-face, though, so I assume we had some awkward relationship in the past. A twenty-something at a nearby table asks me “What are you doing out here, man?” when I walk by. That’s apparently as far as he wants to take the conversation as well. A blonde guy near the door doesn’t even care for an introduction and just stands there, checking out the old guy at the bar. I feel the urge to break the ice between the two. This bar’s dead.
Leaving the bar I accidentally threw a Molotov Cocktail instead of switching back to my AK-47. It, unfortunately, landed on a blue jeep near the bar. I hope this was blondie’s. I notice that my white supply truck is still there in one piece; I get in, the engine turns over, and drive as quick as possible out of the growing fire by the jeep. Quickly opening my map, I see I’m only about a five minute drive out from the chemical dump. I put the map away and get going. Thirty seconds pass and I take the map back out because I’m lost. Oh. Okay. There. Got it. Map goes away again. Okay, fuck it. This thing stays out.
Is it wrong of me to wish this thing had a radio? The creaking I’m hearing from this bridge as I drive over it is somewhat terrifying.
My map says I’m near Cock Fights. That sounds awesome. Wait, what, why am I being shot at. Oh. There’s apparently a patrol near the Cock Fights. I suppose that makes sense. Keep the cocks in check. Feverishly, I put my already-damaged supply truck in reverse and go as far away as I ca–I hit a tree. I jump out of my truck (from the right door as apparently I hit something on the left side as well) and make a run for it oh god dammit I just threw another grenade. Amnesia is rough. Hiding behind a nearby rock, I wait for the sound of the voice of one of my assailants to get a bit closer… And, there. It took half a clip, but he’s down. I sit still for a few seconds and see one of his comrades running out to look at his downed body and, bam, he joins him. Well. He would if I could aim. Now that I have three of them shooting at me at once, I fall back a bit.
Unfortunately, I fell back too far. As I attempted to take out the other guards I managed to burn through both of the clips of ammunition for my AK-47. Swapping to my silenced pistol, I realize the futility of being an amnesiac who jumps right back into the fight as if however many months have passed won’t affect a thing. Crouching down to the ground, I move through the grass in a serpentine fashion just as I have been taught. I notice a two-door white car as I walk past and just as I make a mental note of its location, I see a slumped over body leaning against it. I don’t remember shooting this guy.
My screen turns red. How have I been shot? I’ve been all sneaky-like. Looking around, I see the body slumped against the car was not a dead body, but someone who had been injured and was taking cover. He holds his pistol weakly in the air as he lets a few more rounds off in the direction of my face. I’m hit once more. I throw a grenade — this time it’s intentional — and run for cover. Now he’s dead. Oh. The car. So is the car. Frick.
I know there’s at least one other guy still in the area. I have a mental count going. Plus I hear him talking to himself. I think I can sneak up on oh my god it’s a grenade and this time I didn’t throw it. And I’m still near the near-wreckage of this car. I run for cover, away from the guard, and scrape by with just a few injuries. I have the cat-like reflexes of a cat. A cat recovering from amnesia. I stick a syringe in myself to make the pain go away and then switch back to my weapon HOW MANY TIMES CAN I ACCIDENTALLY THROW A GRENADE. Or in this case another Molotov Cocktail. My bodily impulses need to get in check. Also my sneaking ground is now on fire. Time to take this fight to the guy who started it. And there he is. I drop my pistol’s entire magazine into his face. And… He’s still standing. I reload and fire off eight more rounds in rapid succession. Still standing. I say screw it and run up closer, aim for his head — because it’s personal at this point and because my pride can only take so many misses — and he goes down like a drunken narcoleptic.
Looking around, I lost my supply truck. The car I planned on taking is only a burned-out husk. My sneaking area is on fire. There are three dead bodies. I’m down a health syrette. And I have no ammo. There are also neither cocks nor cock fights occurring at this location.
Oh, this is apparently an ammunition-heavy outpost, though. So scratch that bit.
As I’m walking to the chemical dump, I notice my diamond finder 2000 blinking. I follow its signal to a nearby, thankfully abandoned, shack. I whip out my machete without lighting anything on fire, break down the door, and open the briefcase that I only hope isn’t some poor soul’s life savings. One measly diamond. So I’m sure if that was the case he just recently started saving. I’m providing him with an incentive to find a better stash, really. I slash a few more things with my machete because it restores some small amount of self-esteem given that I just blew up two cars and almost died at the hands of three poorly-trained guards. I also run in sprints and do neat little slides which make me think of fonder days.
I see an unmarked guard post near the Claes Products chemical dump that I momentarily contemplate seizing for the sake of cryptographical completeness. I then have a flashback about the rigorous battle I just completed and think better of it. Maybe some other time, I say. Well. A little look won’t hurt. I ascend a nearby hill and take out my spyglass and have a gander at the guard post. I see angry guy with gun. Two angry guys with guns. Three– oh, they have ammunition. I don’t need any of that. I mark that on my map and skidattle.
Except apparently I chose the one direction in which they have a sniper looking at. This can’t be a real thing right now. I run through the forest towards the chemical dump with my machete, in the hopes that this sniper has ADD. He doesn’t. He somehow has the only direct line of vision into this small little valley entrance to the chemical dump. I turn around, try to find him, and eventually see a small sliver of a man in the distance. Armed only with my silenced pistol, as I don’t want to alert the whole guard post to my location, I line up the shot and…
I die. This is an actual thing that’s happening. Oh. Wait. I’m not dead. I open my eyes and low and behold: a beautiful woman! She’s helping me! This is totally the best icebreaker. I’d talk but the only thing I can think to say is “Hey, I like your face” so I keep it in. She gets me to my feet, instructs me to check my wound, and fires off a few rounds at the sniper to give me some breathing room to do so. I like this lady. By the time I inject a syrette into my wound, she’s gone. And I make a mad sprint towards the chemical dump.
It’s a very wide-open space. Scoping out the terrain with my spyglass, my only real option is a sprint towards a nearby wood pile and then take out the only guard I can see quickly and quietly. Chances of success: slim.
I make the mad dash to the wood pile easily enough. I pull out my silenced pistol and creep a bit closer to the guard. He’s walking towards me, so I line up the shot. Holy crap I actually took him down. Go me. As I crawl towards the body to get some ammo, I discover that there was a second guard nearby whose clothes helped him blend in with a tree. I duck behind cover and hope he just thinks his friend is sleeping. He stood over the corpse a second too long and I took him out in one shot. I now assume that before I lost my memory I was pretty much the consummate badass. Crawling a bit closer to the big warehouse, I notice another guard who is almost completely invisible in the darkness. He was dispatched with as much ease as his two compatriots.
Moving forward, I crawl along the side of the building look for an entrance. I hear at least two guards chatting it up inside. I eventually find a small torn hole in the fencing which is just big enough for me to crawl through. It’s also right next to a giant explosive barrel. And a nearby guard. Fantastic. If I was a smart person, I would not do what I’m about to do. I take out the guard in the warehouse with my silenced pistol, hoping it doesn’t draw an abundance of attention in the next ten seconds. I slip into the warehouse prepared to be sighted by a group of guards and… nothing. I look up to the second floor railing and see nothing. I then hear a group of guards outside talking:
“Do you hear that?”
“Yeah, are they attacking?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s just one guy.”
I killed that guy.
His friend ran for cover, so I made my way to the back of the warehouse. Unfortunately, another guard discovered the corpse of the first guy that I dispatched in the area. Just as I turned around, he tossed a grenade my way. I run, evade the blast, switch to my AK-47, and empty a clip through the smoke. Unsurprisingly, I fail. I then see a muzzle blast from the enemy as the smoke clears, aim at it, burst fire, and kill him. I run up to the second-floor railing in the warehouse as three more enemies close in from me at the front entrance. I try to throw a grenade and realize, unfortunately, that they’re all gone for some strange reason. I see a crate filled with grenade supplies in the distance, though. I drop two magazines taking out two of the three enemies closing in on me. With only fourteen rounds remaining, I turn around to drop down to the ground and see, oh hey, I see a brief of diamonds. I grab it, because money is important, and then run out of the warehouse to a nearby hut (grabbing the grenade supply in the process).
I also find some ammunition and syrettes in the hut. And, uh, a folder? I grab it and I feel like my objective is complete. Now I just have to make it back to blondie at the bar who I now discover is the source of my mission. There’s a jeep nearby that somehow managed to make it through the skirmish that I grab and drive out in style. I hit a few trees and ran into a river, but I made it out of those A-OK. No problem. The engine is smoking but that’s a feature.
Since I took the same route back to the bar as I came, I knew to avoid the cock fights. I hug a nearby wall as I drive speeding by and WHAT WHY is my malaria striking now. Really? I take a quick pill and realize that not only is the cock fight guard post restacked with enemies, but they heard my not-so-incognito jeep. This time, though, I’m not screwing around. I man the mounted gun and just relieve the guards of their posts. Done and done. I do a quick repair job on my jeep’s engine and we’re good to go.
The rest of the drive back to the bar was surprisingly uneventful. When I walk into the bar, blondie says “The bitch is back” which I guess is a thing. He then promptly asks if I found “it.” I hand him the folder, and I guess his name is Paul, and he tells me “Holy crap this is great!” And that’s it. No diamonds or anything. My reputation increases, which is all well and good exept I can’t buy new weapons on reputation alone. Thanks a lot Paul. Dick. I knew you were no good. I should have gotten the old man to take you out. Why do you even want a recipe for Agent Yellow anyway? I should just kill you now. I won’t. But I should.
And because a simple mission for some blonde guy in a bar yields such interesting, dynamic gameplay that compels me to write about it in ways that I simply don’t for most games, Far Cry 2 is my Game of the Decade.
Halo 3: ODST is about a group of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers that drop into allied territory to fend off aggressive, hostile forces and complete some secret mission under the veil of a general liberation of the city of New Mombasa. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, all of the soldiers get off course and land in varied parts of a large city, isolated from one another, and in the middle of an urban warzone. If this sounds like material borrowed from the historic exploits of the 101st Airborne when they dropped into Normandy, I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence. What this setup allows ODST is the opportunity to cast the player as “The Rookie,” the archetypal new guy.
The Rookie begins ODST alone in the African “mega-city” of New Mombasa when he wakes up in his drop pod six hours after the initial ODST drop. When the Rookie comes to — presumably in the middle of the night — the city is largely abandoned by its human civilians and, instead, Covenant forces are idly patrolling the streets. With no real objective nor any idea of the events which have transpired while he was unconscious, the Rookie begins a trek through the city to piece together the events that transpired throughout the course of the day and reconnect with the rest of his ODST squad. The Rookie’s progress through the story is determined by a series of
somewhat hackneyed narrative devices“relics” which he finds scattered about the city. The Rookie, presumably, uses the placement of these relics in the environment to interpret the entirety of the event (which all involve the happenings of his fellow ODST squad-mates) that caused this relic to, uh, exist. The mild awkwardness of the narrative presentation aside, the Rookie’s lonely escapades in the largely desolate night-time streets of New Mombasa contrasted against the more standard Halo mission fare present in the relic-inspired flashbacks is actually a gameplay structure that works very well.
It’s remarkable that in a franchise as ubiquitous as Halo, Bungie chose to take ODST in a direction that actively attempted to avoid the typical “War, Fuck Yeah!” space marine ethos. Over the course of the ODST single-player campaign, players spend about 30-40% of the game simply wandering the streets of New Mombasa as he/she makes her way to the next mission segment. During the course of this gameplay there are somewhat ‘random’ enemy encounters spread throughout the city. Sometimes players can evade these encounters, sometimes they can’t, but they’re pretty trivial combat scenarios in generally-designed encounter spaces. Then again, an encounter in a Halo game is rarely dull or routine. The Rookie’s gameplay sections do nothing if not to prove how durable Halo 3’s general combat systems are. Bungie also proves how much more interesting their combat system is when they limit the abilities of the player character rather than continually add systems on top of an already powerful Master Chief. The complete removal of dual-wielding, for instance, shows how much more interesting the Halo gameplay is when players have to make hard choices. When dual-wielding, players can have an energy weapon and a ballistic weapon in the same weapon set due to one-handed variations of each type of weapon. In ODST players can only have one weapon active at a time, which makes the typical yin (plasma) and yang (ballistic) combo all the more difficult — and rewarding.
The primary dilemma with the solitary exploration of New Mombasa’s post-invasion night life is that it’s an anemic experience unfitting the Bungie pedigree. Players are given a loose objective at the beginning of every segment and that’s the extent of the guidance given. The player then chooses to go from A to B via one of a two-or-three paths through the city streets (and occasional buildings). There just is not a whole lot to do along the way other than, maybe, find one of the thirty audiovisual logs spread throughout the city. And finding these bits of side-story are interesting, but they’re not enough to build a gameplay experience on. The gist of the exploration through New Mombasa is taking in the atmosphere and fighting. While Halo 3’s combat is pretty consistently engaging and interesting, combat for the sake of combat is rarely an enjoyable endeavor for players.
Players typically need their actions in games to feel like narrative progression, character progression, or the mostly intangible personal progression. Narrative/forward progression is progression from a starting point to an ending point in a game’s directed “campaign.” This is the primary means of progression in most single-player-enabled games. Character progression is the advancement of the character a player assumes in a game. In a lot of ways, character progression happens in parallel to narrative progression, but, especially over the last few years, there are a great deal of examples of character progression independent of story progression (especially in multiplayer shooters and MMORPGs). Personal progression is the player’s mental state of feeling like their skills are obviously progressing through their endeavors; most games teach players the skills they need as they ramp up from starting a game to finishing it. Some games, like EA Blackbox’s Skate series, actually utilize personal progression as the driving force of the game and offer players targeted opportunities to improve their skills throughout a thin narrative progression. It is incredibly difficult for games to properly frame personal progression in a way which feels obvious and meaningful to players. Skate accomplishes it by having the gameplay revolve around an entirely skill-based inner loop where no modifiers are ever made to the gameplay throughout the entire game’s progression. The entire game is centered around a skill-based control mechanism that never changes, but that is always guiding a player’s advancement through the thin character and narrative progression via the in-world treatment of the player’s character as some “rising star.” In a sense, reminding the player that the he has learned skills that maybe he only recognized in his reflex/subconscious memory.
Halo 3: ODST’s New Mombasa sections fail to ever make the player feel like he is accomplishing something. In ODST’s missions, which work in the typical Halo trappings, the player encounters new enemies, characters, and constant narrative progression. The dynamism of Halo 3’s combat mechanics prevent these segments from ever really getting dull; but that stark contrast that is drawn from the jumping back-and-forth between The Rookie and the more linear, structured missions in the ODST flashbacks constantly reminds the player that his time in the dimly-lit streets of New Mombasa are filler… Which is incredibly unfortunate because the solo experience in New Mombasa is absolutely beautiful; it’s a dedicated solo experience, encourages thoughtful progression through gorgeous blown-out, ember-filled buildings all taking place amidst a fantastic Film Noir-inspired score composed by Bungie veteran Martin O’Donnell.
As a quick aside, it seems completely irresponsible to see so many reviewers ripping on the ODST price. Having played the game now I am somewhat frightened over the amount of “price versus content” discussions surrounding the game. The single-player campaign is the length of a typical Halo campaign except, this time, there are no Flood. Not even a single Flood mention. Well. There’s a flooded city, but there are no Flood. And Firefight. ODST also includes the full Halo 3 multiplayer along with every map pack ever released for the game (which, arguably, is of negligible value since Halo 3 is an Xbox 360 staple, but the map packs may not be). Plus Firefight.
Oh, Firefight. Let’s talk about Firefight for a second.
Halo 3: ODST has a mode that is essentially Geometry Wars reskinned as Space Marines versus Aliens. And it is glorious. Four players in co-op have the opportunity to fight against wave after wave of Covenant within the space of a single, confined arena. Unlike Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode, which is conceptually similar, Firefight feels like a mode that was actively treated different from standard gameplay. As four players advance through a Firefight session, ODST applies a number of the skulls from Halo 3 to the ruleset which force all involved players to rethink whatever strategy has gotten them to where they are. There are skulls which cut the amount of ammunition that the Covenant drop by about 75% (ie, ruthless), one which only allows players to regain stamina by meleeing enemies (more ruthless), and a skull which makes ballistic weapons useless against shields (not ruthless until famine is active at which point it’s evil). Basically, Firefight is Halo 3’s typically excellent combat system modified per-round and per-set to require players to think on their feet even more than normal while also providing a scoring system that is providing constant feedback and rewards to players who excel. It’s heaven.
ODST is a strange little package. It’s the best campaign the series, the glorious nature of arena shooters and intense four-player cooperative gameplay is alive and well in the game’s Firefight mode, and and the refined Halo 3 gameplay make for Bungie’s best production to-date. It somewhat saddens me to think that Halo: Reach may revert back to ever-powerful (and completely uninteresting) Master Chief, as going from the ODST marines to Master Chief in Halo 3 multiplayer was a completely deflating experience. That is, however, neither here nor there. Play ODST and experience Bungie’s least-hyped and most well-executed Halo since the series’ debut back in 2001.
Bungie’s original Halo, released for the Xbox in 2001, was a landmark console game. Aside from giving Microsoft’s freshman entry into the console arena a system seller and a uniquely Xbox cultural character, Halo was the best first-person shooter to be released on a console since the days of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. It had intelligent single-player gameplay consisting of varied enemy encounters in open terrain, solid gunplay, support for 4-16 player local multiplayer, and a perfect control scheme and input response. When Halo 2 was released three years later (with an astonishing increase in visual fidelity over Halo), the campaign remained largely the same but the multiplayer took advantage of Xbox Live and quickly became the multiplayer game of the console generation.
Halo 3’s predecessors made for a pretty rough act to follow. Aside from being the first Halo game on a new generation of consoles, what could Halo offer to the series that would have the same gravity as Halo 1’s general existence and Halo 2’s standard-setting multiplayer? The non-ending, second game in a trilogy sort of ending that Halo 2 had didn’t really leave Halo 3 much room as far as story and game universe goes; Halo 3 had to continue the saga of Master Chief, the Covenant, the Flood, the Brutes, and so on. As such, the single-player campaign for Halo 3 was left to gamers’ minds as a foregone conclusion: there will be more Master Chief, the loathsome Flood would have to come back, something about Cortana, the come-uppance that the Prophet of Truth has coming, and all of those other story threads that exist within the Halo universe as established by the first two games.
And that’s exactly what happened. Halo 3 is the kind of game that everyone expects to be excellent, polished, and all-around amazingly-crafted game experience. And it is. The problem with the single-player portion of the game is just that: it’s as expected. The original Halo came out in 2001 and its core design principles are still heavily intertwined into every fiber of Halo 3’s existence. It’s a game where none of the weapons have an iron-sights aiming mode, where players can run and shoot their assault rifle without noticeably increased bullet spread over standing still or crouching, and where players have one movement speed with no spring or stamina. In some ways, Halo 3 echoes of first-person shooters of yore, which focused on action, cool weapons, and input simplicity. Halo 3’s core mechanics are focused in a completely different area than so much of its competition.
What Halo 3 does is to provide a series of wide-open and interesting encounters for players to utilize every strategy, play-style, and tactic they have in order to complete the encounter. Halo 3’s best “levels” are not the ones with the most awe-inspiring scripted events or action-packed shooter segments. Halo 3 is at its best when a level is composed of a series of discrete encounters that span wide, open outdoor environments (which is in line with Bungie’s “30 seconds of fun” mentality). It’s a game about surveillance, execution, and reaction.
When a player first enters an encounter space, the enemies are almost always unaware of his presence. If there are marine AI entities following the player, they will stand still and remain inactive until the player makes his first move. During this time, the player is free to wander around areas which are very clearly outside of the enemy’s viewing range. Players can get an idea for enemy groupings and patrols, what kind of weapons they’re rocking, any hidden snipers, and valuable mid-battle weapon caches that will be of use once the encounter starts. The caches are particularly of note because regardless of a player’s first move: the resulting battle will never end with a swift, tactical execution of actions. Halo 3 is not a game like Rainbow Six where the best room entry is one where all enemies are neutralized simultaneously; Halo 3 is a game where players have to weigh the threat level of every enemy and attempt to take out as many high-threat targets in the first phase to ease the difficulty of the ensuing chaos.
A high-value target in the game is very dependent on circumstance. In some cases, the high-value targets will be vehicles or turrets which, if a player is on foot, are almost always more deadly than any single enemy soldier. In the absence of vehicles, the high-value targets are group leaders. Halo 3’s AI is organized hierarchically so in the absence of generally dangerous vehicles roaming the battlefield, the high-value targets for players are the leaders of a group. A group of Grunts will have a Brute as a leader and while that leader is alive, the Grunts are an organized and somewhat formidable arrangement of enemies. Once the leader is dead, though, the grunts are scatter-brained, frightened, and prone to just running away and hiding. I am unsure if group AI exists within a formation of higher-level enemies like Brutes, as later in the game there is a clear “Brute Leader” in a given pack.
Once the player has his plan of attack internalized, the execution phase begins. The player’s first action will be to take out the high-threat targets that he noticed during his surveillance; if he’s lucky, he can get maybe a fraction of what he had intended (the reality of his plans will become more clear through trial and error). At that point, all of the enemies in the battlefield are actively engaged in combat and will act within their series of groups.
And everything after the initial attempt at execution is, essentially, the reaction phase. When every enemy is in battle, players have to constantly be reacting to the death of squad-mates (who are only sometimes useful), the movement of enemy groups throughout the entirety of the encounter landscape, and the player’s own shield. A player’s shield can’t take much of a beating before it sends players into what feels like a near-death state when the shield bar is flashing red and the player feels like just one more hit would kill them. This is an interesting phase since, really, even up to Heroic level diffculty, players can actually take a surprising amount of punishment in the near-death phase. Halo 3 just makes that phase feel like near death to signal that players need to find cover imminently. At this point players will move from cover to cover — as Halo 3 is a “loose cover” game unlike the “hard cover” of Gears of War or Killzone — as they attempt to eliminate enemy by enemy on the battlefield.
Also during the reaction phase is the concern of weapon type, ammunition, and vehicle usage. One of Halo 3’s most prominent and important design principles is the focus on player motivation/movement through resource scarcity. Since no single weapon ever really allows players to fully “stock up” on ammunition, every player has the constant goal of finding ammunition or new weapons to use mid-battle. This forces players to adapt a roving point of attack throughout the duration of an encounter. Aside the inherent tension and urgency this gameplay feature adds, it forces players to see an outdoor environment as more of a “level” than simply an unnecessary, although attractive, vista. And the utilization of Halo 3’s incredibly fun and well-implemented assortment of vehicles lends an entirely new layer of complexity and replayability to the encounter as a whole.
The entire surveillance, execution, reaction concept is, essentially, the idea behind Far Cry 2 design Clint Hocking’s intentionality and improvisation idea (presentations: Intentionality and Improvisation). Which is that a well-done game based on emergent gameplay design allows for players to spend time formulating a plan of attack and then have a given game turn that plan upside down and force the player into a quick improvisational phase (reaction) where he forms a new plan of attack based on his new situation. It’s an excellent way of keeping players continually immersed in their combat experience by, essentially, tossing a wrench into the innards of what they thought was a well-laid plan. For most players, the fun of combat isn’t having everything go according to plan, but rather adapting to a plan gone haywire as a result of external factors.
Halo 3, like its predecessors, breaks down when this gameplay model is violated for the sake of narrative continuity and “variety.” Unlike the complex AI that governs the Covenant forces that players fight throughout most of the Halo games — the heirarchal AI that is incredibly easy to recognize by any player due to its human-like behavior in combat — Halo has always had “The Flood” come into the game at some point. The Flood are savage, unintelligent, and incredibly aggressive enemies that follow no real recognizable AI patterns other than: see human then attack human.
This strategy would entail its own set of player strategies and reactions if handled properly, but one of the issues with the Flood in the Halo games is that their introduction into the game world is almost always coupled with terrible, confined, indoor-heavy level design. The most egregious offense of which is the “High Charity” level in Halo 3 where players enter a Flood-invested ship from Halo 2. In this level, the entirety of the aesthetic is an orange, red, and brown-heavy color scheme coupled with thick murky atmospheric effects, and a constantly feeling of claustrophobia. This level is also incredibly confusing to navigate and results in numerous points of player confusion due to a complete dearth of recognizable interior landmarks and an overly organic architectural style which is not conducive to any player-recognizable sense of flow.
The Flood’s issues run further than any given level, though. Bungie has valiantly tried three times to make this alien race more palatable to its players, but the issue each time is simple: the Flood are visibly-brainless creatures in a game which has no need for them. The foundation of one of Bungie’s most talked-about design principles is the “30 Seconds of Fun.” I can’t find a definitive reference for this, but the gist of this principle if Bungie can make an encounter or scenario as fun as possible for thirty second bursts, then they can string together those scenarios back-to-back for an enjoyable gameplay experience. If this is the company’s approach to Halo 3 — a game which has a six-to-seven hour long campaign — why is there the need to add an entirely different enemy type which provides for a completely different play experience more than half-way through the game?
Hypothetically, a game’s campaign from a ludological perspective is the slow progression of a player’s mastery of the game up through the ending, which is the culmination of all of the player’s skills in some glorious ending segment. If we take this as the case for Halo 3, then the player learns the ropes of the game in the first level, runs out of new content for his primary toolbox around the half-way point, and is then required to think about everything he was taught in new, more profound ways as he is pit against increasingly difficult combinations of enemies as he nears the end-game.
The introduction of the Flood is essentially forcing a completely different style of play on Halo 3’s players just as those players are interested in taking everything they have learned about the game up to that point into bigger, more dangerous battles. Instead, they are forced to play a simpler, more run-and-gun play style against a variety of enemy who are strong and stupid in some of the game’s most uninteresting and traditional level designs. It’s a strange, undesirable thing to force upon a player who is, at that point, feeling like they “get” the game and are looking forward to applying their mastery on an entirely new level of encounter complexity.
This is all made worse by Halo 3’s treatment of the Flood being a surprisingly complex one. While the basic operations of the Flood are to attack the players with absolutely no care for their own well-being, the Flood this time around — and I didn’t play Halo 2 as much as the first or third game — are an incredibly dynamic, ever-changing enemy force. There is one Flood enemy that, from its base form of a squirmy, crawling Spore-like creation, can turn into a turret capable of mounting on any floor, wall, or ceiling or, alternatively, can turn into a hulking beast with enormous strength that’s incredibly hard to take down. And, while all this is happening, Flood spores are roving around the level looking for new bodies to infest and breathe life into that, but if the player manages to kill all of the spores then there will be less enemies to deal with. It’s a completely different type of enemy than the human-like tactics of the Covenant that the player sees throughout the other 80% of the game.
It’s hard to definitively say whether or not a Flood-less Halo 3 would have made the ending stretches of the game a repetitive, painful endeavor to complete. At the time of writing, I have played through the entirety of the Halo 3 campaign three or four times and I have played through the gorgeous, intuitive, and and well-paced introductory handful of levels a couple more times than that, so I know my response to that scenario. The Flood levels aside, a number of Halo 3’s more wide-open levels (some from the beginning and some from the middle) have always stood out in my mind as being some of the finest examples of what an action game can be if games open up their levels and expand the capabilities of their AI a little bit.
IndustryBroadcast.com is a site spearheaded by Ryan Wiancko with the goal of putting a number of articles written by game industry professionals and contributors into an audible form. It’s an interesting idea and one that appears to be getting a bit of attention as the site gets more and more content put into audio.
It’s kind of weird listening to someone not-me read something by me.
The average video game, as it is thought of by both mainstream culture and even most gamers, is a heavily-authored gameplay experience with a discrete beginning, end, and climaxes strewn haphazardly about. At this point in the life of the video game, gamers are essentially conditioned to think of games as self-explanatory adventures with a very specific premise, purpose, and linearity. On a fundamental level, the way that gamers approach progression and purpose in a game like Call of Duty 4 is the same way that gamers did back in the mid-1980s as a pudgy plumber tasked with saving a princess. In Call of Duty 4, the set of tools will change from mission to mission, but the player will continue along a carefully-scripted path with intent and focus until that mission’s terrorist princess is found and rescued/executed. This method of game design essentially keeps the gameplay bound to the whims of a script or plot, but it provides its players with very well-crafted and well-paced entertainment.
The gaming industry has taken a number of its cues from film. This is not a slight (in the slightest); as an initial influence for narrative form, gameplay pacing, and general presentation, the role of movies have played a significant part in the development of video games. A number of the industry’s most popular and enjoyable titles have a great deal of cinematic qualities to them, one of which is the Call of Duty series. Call of Duty has always given players very tightly-designed set piece battles interspersed with in-character/perspective narratives in a manner which, for the very first title in the series, seemed heavily influenced by HBO’s Band of Brothers miniseries. Then there are games like Quantic Dream’s Indigo Prophecy and forthcoming Heavy Rain which place the foundation of their game design on emulating the experience of cinema through a very limited and constrained set of player actions. These games are, quite literally, interactive movies that ideally take the best aspect of a movie and combine it with the most enjoyable features of a video game. In practice, these games are typically interesting for a single play-through (if that) and allow for minimally-interactive gameplay over a sub-par cinematic experience.
A game which is wholly designed around the power of dynamism and emergent mechanics is one where a player is his own gameplay experience director; a player manages pace, narrative, difficulty, and any number of other components which make up the specific game. The game’s designers abandon total authorship in favor of promoting interaction through player creativity and experimentation. In order to make this methodology work, though, a given game must have a thorough system of game mechanics which has the ability to actively promote and encourage player interaction in meaningful ways while dynamically balancing the game world. It is, in a sense, an economy or ecosystem of “fun.” It’s an approach to game design which results in a true gaming sandbox, turning the game into what is classically understood to be a “toy” rather than a video game. The difference between these two terms can be seen as nothing more than a linguistic bait-and-switch, but there are some who consider the contrast to be a legitimate differentiation: a video game is a game which provides discrete objectives in a traditionally authored manner and a toy is an interactive sandbox with “no real point.”
Labeling a video game as a toy (which often seems to be used in a derogatory sense) then leads to the informed sect of the gaming mass asking: where’s the game? This is a question that serves as a plague for the existence of truly open-ended games like Keita Takahashi’s recent Noby Noby Boy. Noby Noby Boy, quite literally, gives its players a playground in which gamers can just experience the game mechanics working in harmony with each and the game world as a whole. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, I suggest watching a random person play around with the game (the game’s site is unique as well). It’s almost completely incomprehensible, but it’s clear that that the game has some sort of ecosystem in which the player is an agent of… destruction? The purpose and intention of the player’s character erm–thing is left entirely up to the player’s discretion. Noby Noby Boy is, in this sense, one of the truest examples of a dynamic, emergent game design; however, there is no proper economy of gameplay mechanics. It’s a playground where there is no repercussion for player wrong-doing, no presented reasoning for advancement, no rewards for experimentation beyond the absurdity of the basic situation; in short, there is no real reason to play or continue playing Noby Noby Boy. And that’s a problem.
Video games aren’t toys, but video gaming as an entertainment medium already present players with a number of toy-like qualities such as the promotion of player creativity and experimentation such as the kind of player ingenuity that flourishes in the confines of something like Spore’s creature creator. Games can also provide an open playground for entertainment like the aforementioned Noby Noby Boy or, for an example that is representative of the traditionally-held notion of a video game, Real Time World’s Crackdown. The problem lies with the fact that video games are not toys. Toys are something that are real, persistent, easily accessible, and provide an instant gratification and tactile response for people. People of all ages are drawn to the allure of toys, especially ones which inherently promote creativity such as LEGO and Play-Doh; there is no complex instruction manual (unless you’re going for a specific LEGO model) or no confusing interfaces or control mechanisms, the toy is just there for playing. Games have no such luxury of simply existing in our common, shared physical space; they’re complex pieces of software that are designed to be as entertaining as possible but typically have a high barrier of entry in terms of console or PC hardware, monitor or television, controller or keyboard/mouse, and the actual twenty-to-sixty dollar game itself. And after all of this, it’s not enough for a game to simply present itself as a toy.
Where the completely open-ended gameplay of Noby Noby Boy went wrong is in its inability to present its players with meaning, purpose, and profundity. This is an area where the cinematic influences in video games have very positively influenced game design: the message model of meaning. Constructing a game world governed by the most well-balanced system of mechanics and then filling it with all manner of interesting micro-narratives will mean absolutely nothing on its own. A player can approach that world with no semblance of emotion or purpose and subvert the intention of every developer and designer on that hypothetical game’s development team because that player has no reason to willingly submit himself to the game or become immersed in its world. It’s in following a cinematic method of storytelling, then, that games have squeezed out their model of narrative presentation. Which is a topic unto itself, but the notable aspect for this piece is the way that cinematic storytelling imbues meaning on a player’s actions in games.
Consider Naughty Dog’s recent Playstation 3-exclusive action/adventure game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. In a lot of ways, it’s a very safe, by-the-books game. It has a scruffy-looking and witty main character, his older and more experienced wise-cracking sidekick, and a cute and precocious romantic interest. In this game, the trio are involved in a multi-locale trek to uncover the secret of Sir Francis Drake’s fortune and the whole story has this very Indiana Jones-like atmosphere and whimsy to it (despite the main character killing thousands of people over the course of the day). What was remarkable about Uncharted was not its plot or its gameplay, but rather it was the game’s ability to infuse its entire cast of characters with more personality than most games ever approach for even a single lead character. Every cut scene in Uncharted was a reward for the player completing a segment of gameplay and these cut scenes expounded on the life and depth of each character in such a way as to continually build upon each character’s meaning and contribution to the game. Every time a cut scene aired in the game, the player was drawn a bit more into the world of Uncharted through the game’s leading man and woman. And when the player is drawn more to his in-game avatar, every in-game action is more impacting, every scenario is more meaningful and understandable, and the integrity of the game design is strengthened.
At this point, the goal becomes allowing for the creation of an open-ended game with its emphasis placed on the emergent scenarios produced by its game design to reflect the same sense of meaning and purpose in its dynamic sandbox as a game as heavily authored as Uncharted. To a large extent, Maxis had a great deal of success with The Sims series in this regard. The Sims games are primarily sandbox gaming experiences that charge players with the sole goal of running a successful household of sims. These games have the mechanics to promote a game design which consists of surprisingly deep strategy gameplay while simultaneously allowing players to treat the game as nothing more than a high-tech doll house. The Sims manages to create exigent circumstances solely through the nature of its source material: if there’s something that every gamer in the world understands, it’s the pressing needs and minutiae of the daily life of a human being.
If only it was simple to “open up” existing game genres and fill them with an economy of self-balancing game mechanics. Far Cry 2, for example, has some of the most brilliantly designed and implemented combat I’ve seen in a video game in years. Players are given their tools of destruction and then are, in the short term, tasked with the elimination of enemies. The game populates the world with various factors: grass, huts, ammo depots, propane tanks, and so on. The way that combat unfolds is dependent on all of the game’s mechanics working together to create a dynamic, unpredictable combat scenario that generates a player narrative that is a combination of what the game’s designers intended and what the net yield of the system of game mechanics created while the player worked to resolve the combat situation. And as well as Far Cry 2 worked to create these emergent gameplay experiences, the game took an enormous development team years to create; over it’s forty-three months of development, the team size peaked at 65 people for year one, 105 for year two, and an astonishing peak of 268 individuals for the third and final year of the game’s development.
Putting the reality of development complexity and cost aside, the real question becomes: do players really want the power (responsibility?) to play a game and determine what they find fun within a given playground? Video gaming’s adoption of a cinematic flair for storytelling has led to games which possess a number of movie-like qualities, but no one would ever argue that a game like Call of Duty 4 is bad or not enjoyable because of it. For the high price of an average game, though, we should be offering players more than a heavily-authored single-player campaign that is only interesting for one play-through.