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.
Narrative is an essential part of any game; I don’t think anyone ever denies that point. Even the most emergent game design has the goal of presenting some sort of narrative to its players. Story sets the stage for meaning (of gameplay). It frames the player’s context for the actions he engages in within a game world. When I rail against cut scene heavy games or completely non-interactive, heavy-handed delivery of a writer’s script to players, it’s not the story that’s the problem, it’s the presentation. In an ideal world, we, as designers, are not telling, we’re not showing, we’re informing the doing — the actions that players engage in and the feats they undergo.
When games give players the epic scope of saving the galaxy, destroying some reawakened ancient evil, or whatever other classical portrayal of good versus evil on a grand scale, they’re fulfilling gamers’ power fantasies. It’s hard to infuse any real intimacy into these scenarios. They’re inherently “cool” and maybe some of the characters were memorable for some specific reason, but the emotional bonds with the people met and the events that occurred are so far removed from anything resembling our every day reality. When gamers recall the events of Halo, the destruction of Halo and the invasion of the Flood. When we think about most Final Fantasy games, it’s hard not to think about the generic world-ending event that was the central story conflict. Even Mass Effect, a game which put such an emphasis on the people around the player for the beginning of the game, has its most memorable moments when some ancient alien race enters the picture to destroy the galaxy. If it weren’t for the sex scene, would we, as gamers remember any of the personal events in the game?
To look at the majority of games, one might think that gamers care only about saving the world. What happened to saving the guy/girl? Having an arch-nemesis that was bad because he was a believable form of corrupt human being that didn’t have a final form that takes up numerous screens?
When I think of The Darkness, I think of Jenny.
I recently finished playing through this game and while the premise of the game and the game mechanics is the existence of The Darkness — a thoroughly corrupt, evil, other-worldly force bent on death and destruction — the story was about love and vengeance. There is an absolutely brilliant scene in the beginning of the game where the game’s protagonist, Jackie Estacado, sits on the couch with his girlfriend Jenny. She makes some comment about it being her apartment so she gets to control the television remote control and she puts “To Kill a Mockingbird” on. At this point, Jackie and Jenny simply relax and watch the old movie. Jenny gets cold and cuddles up with Jackie, the two hold hands, and eventually she falls asleep. The player, at this point, can choose to just sit with Jenny as long as he wants and watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird. At some point, though, the player has to progress with the game and the story, and the mere choice of getting up and leaving Jenny on the couch while she sleeps is actually kind of a hard decision to make. Any player who allows himself to get immersed in the game should feel a sense of security and love during this scene while understanding the complete violence that lay ahead for the player and Jackie once the choice to leave the apartment is made.
Soon after, the game makes a stark, wide-reaching tonal change and becomes a story of revenge against a pair of, admittedly, very two-dimensional villains (though the villains remain very human, defeat-able foes). Despite how crazy The Darkness gets, the theme of the real-world portions of the game remain not only grounded in reality (aside from the player’s Darkness abilities) but focused on traditional mafia movie values of family, tradition, and respect. The game utilizes the fantastical nature of The Darkness to externalize the protagonist’s inner struggle with violence amidst a profound love he feels for Jenny. The Darkness (the entity) also happens to serve as the player’s entry-way to some fascinating and enjoyable gameplay mechanics.
The Darkness works so well as a game due to its focus and cohesion. Despite actually sending the player to an unbelievably insane vision of “hell” (it’s not hell, but it’s a good descriptor for people who haven’t played the game or read the source material), somehow it never feels like the player is blowing up the Death Star. It remains grounded in the conflict of its four central characters: Jackie, Jenny, and the two villains. It’s an intimate story that expertly informs the entirety of the player’s gameplay experience.
And as a result of that intimate focus, The Darkness is one of those games that will stick with me.
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.