Dear Bungie, I am writing to thank you, for one particular part of your recent and in almost all senses admirable game, Halo: Reach. This part was clearly designed with me, Alex Spencer, in mind, and for this personalised service to loyal fans you should be applauded. The Holographic Decoy is, as I imagine you already know, a great big hug to my mind as a gamer. For people like me, for whom there is no greater gaming pleasure than really, deeply annoying one’s friends, this is a beautiful invention. Thankyou for that moment of opponent bafflement when two of me come running at them. Thankyou for this new feather in the sniper’s cap, smoking out an enemy with a decoy mindlessly running in their direction, before splitting their skull in twain on the moment they poke it out from cover. Thankyou, most of all, for giving me a way to make my friends chase after an entirely lifeless holographic copy of myself, only to realise, having spent half of their precious ammunition, that it melts away under their pistol-whipping melee attack. The Holographic Decoy represents nothing less than a sheer one-hundred-percent endorsement of my gaming habits and pleasures. The low-level griefing of friends has found a new tool, tailored and sharpened to its specific, sadistic purpose. For this is a method more destructive than ramming someone’s car off the road during a tightly-fought race; more annoying than kicking someone at just the right moment during an otherwise civilised game of Wii Golf. More beautifully, aggravatingly simple than Solium Infernum‘s Vendetta bartering system, which allowed me to tie rudely-phrased passes at fellow players’ mothers to ridiculous demands. It is an electronic version of me which all of their senses invite them to shoot, but by which they achieve nothing except their own frustration. This is all I have ever asked of you, Bungie, and with Halo: Reach, you have finally delivered. Thankyou. Yours loyally,Alex Spencerxxx
There is a war raging in my household right now. It is not one fought with virtual bullets and soldiers, though they are entangled in the conflict. It is one fought in the physical sphere; in the living room, to be precise. The two sides? Those those who lay praise at the feet of the ‘Recon’ control-scheme and those who venerate the mighty ‘Default’. It is a series of battles, all fought over the same two-inch strip of white plastic battlefield, the weird hybrid known only as RB – the ‘Right Bumper’ – placed, between the buttons and triggers from whom it draws its mongrel DNA, on the top right of the Xbox 360 controller. Every battle begins the same way. In the middle of a particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach, an index finger strays to RB. It is squeezed, the player expecting a triumphant raising of gun-butt to the back of an enemy’s head. Instead, their avatar snaps a magazine into the rifle. Meanwhile, their opponent turns round, and places a messy no-scoped sniper round into their visor. The ‘seconds until respawn’ counter ticks down. “WHAT?!?” comes the inevitable cry. “WHY THE HELL IS RELOAD ON THE BUMPER?!?” This person is a follower of the ‘Default’ faction. A particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach. An index finger squeezes RB. They wait for the assault rifle they have been recklessly emptying – into the American 13-year-old who has been aggressively questioning their sexuality all game – to reload. Instead an impotent melee animation plays, gun-butt meeting disinterested air. They crumple to the ground, plasma rounds still hot The ‘seconds until respawn’ counter ticks meaningfully down. “Fag”, quips the 13-year-old. “WHO DID THIS?!?” screams the player. Meet the ‘Recon’ axis. Immediately, there is shouting, and cursing of names. Accusations are flung like daggers: did you do this? Did you change my set-up? Any further than this, I am afraid, conversation becomes unrepeatable on this family-friendly blog. The offended player presses ‘Start’, attempting to pause an ongoing game, while they fiddle with the settings, which only makes things worse for the person they are sharing a screen with. Treaties have been suggested: Why don’t we all agree to use the same control scheme? The response is a unequivocably clear ‘No’, often accompanied by language more colourful than one imagines hearing in the hallways of the UN building. Here’s the thing: controls are personal, as individual as the angle of a computer keyboard or the tuning of guitar. They represent your only way of interacting with this fictional world which exists inside the television screen. With that hindered, the link between you and the world of the game is severed. Personally, I always liked the switch the Halo games made between their second and third installments, taking advantage of the then-new 360 controller. ‘Reload’ was pushed onto the aforementioned bumper. For Halo 3, this also meant that the weapons wielded in the left or right hand could be reloaded individually with the two bumpers. It was a decision borne out of functional necessity, no doubt, but it felt more magical than that. You see, by placing all interactions with the guns on the bumpers and triggers, the game created a sort of distinction between the mechanical and the physical. The melee, jump, and change weapon functions were all assigned to the face buttons, colourful and inaccurate, the human inside the armour. The analogue-precision of the triggers and bumpers were saved for the Spartan’s primary interaction with the world: blowing things up with military efficiency. It fit in neatly with the Halo universe, which revolves around this dichotomy of precision and gleeful abandon. Dropping people silently from afar with a sniper rifle vs. manically squealing as you pound them in the face and hope for the best. It helped define the contrast between it and the (clearly inferior but equally fitting) controls of the Call of Duty games, then in the ascendant. That was a messy world of sudden headshots and dirt and blood flecked onto your screen. Halo is a clean-edged world of genetically perfected robo-men doing battle. Reach switched to a more CoDesque control set for its default, but that was nothing less than a flagrant betrayal of the series’ roots. Those controls were as much part of the series’ differences in the admittedly inbred world of first-person-shooters as having a recharging shield, rather than the traditional percentage health of med-packs. Call of Duty 3 had incorporated the more organic approach of red splats obscuring your vision rather than a health-bar. But Halo took that piece of artifice and moulded it into part of the game, a game where you played a man in a suit of armour which granted you extraordinary abilities. Now, with Reach‘s ‘armour ability’ toys (jetpack, shield, hologram, etc) assigned to the left bumper, that feeling is augmented. …Until someone comes and messes with your controls and puts them back to stupid ‘Default’ mode, that is. And so, the conflict rages on, at home and online. There are websites where ‘Default’ aficionados scoff at the ‘claw grip’ necessary to jump and aim at the same time. Which is practical enough, from a utilitarian standpoint and everything, but can’t you see how it ruins my fantasy? Can’t you just give in? This post is dedicated to the brave, stubborn menof St Stephens Road – the Benjamin Edwards, and GeoffreyMaillards of this world. May their names and uninformedpreferences be forever etched into the face of history.
It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m in love. It’s not an entirely healthy relationship, I know, but goddamn it, Halo: Reach makes me feel so good. I present this, the first of a planned series of articles this week on why. “30 seconds of fun, over and over again”. And in one fell swoop, Bungie pinned down everything about why their game Halo: Combat Evolved was so deeply addictive and satisfying an experience, leaving games journalists all kicking around with nowt to do. Self-aware as Bungie might have been about Halo‘s successes, however, they’ve struggled to fully recapture it. While the multiplayer has retained its initial vitality, growing over the years with the addition of online play, new maps, weapons, and ideas, that’s not been so true of the singleplayer campaign mode. The new mantra for Halo 2 was “Halo 1 on fire going 120 miles per hour through a hospital zone chased by helicopters and ninjas. And the ninjas are all on fire too.” Which, incidentally, is not a bad illustration of how over-encumbered the campaign segment of each following iteration has been. It’s telling that the last two Halo campaigns have done away with Halo 2‘s key innovation, dual-wielding two independently-triggered guns, altogether. From the very first, there was a sense of trying to recapture Combat Evolved‘s singleplayer magic; of faking it under the looming shadow of the Law of Diminishing Returns. But Halo Reach‘s singleplayer has stolen that spark back, and breathed new life into playing Halo on yer lonesome. A lot of that’s in the little things. The Covenant Focus Rifle, for example, neatly solves the problem of tension-creating but hugely frustating enemy snipers by forcing them to keep a consistent, visible beam on that headshot for a few seconds before it drops you. In the multiplayer, that means a more interesting, quirky variant on the standard sniper rifle. In the campaign, it reduces frustration of sudden random deaths without losing any tension. Mostly, though, it’s how streamlined the experience is. Bungie have dispensed with the vast majority of mythology that plagued Halo 3‘s nonsensical attempt at storytelling, or efforts at experimentalism that proved beyond the ability of ODST. It also ditches the Flood, a brilliantly fresh enemy for one or two levels, but the first thing to come along and undermine Halo‘s classic balanced formula. What does that leave? It leaves simplicity. There are plenty of other things I love about Halo campaigns – the satisfying weight of the vehicles, the feeling of genuine responsibility for your marine sidekicks – but ultimately they all weigh down the purity of the core “3o seconds of fun”. Looking back fondly on the first Halo, as I often do, it’s those wide-open green and blue vistas. The claustrophobia of Flood-infested corridors and Warthog races through linear tunnel systems, even the feeling of getting your hands on the all-powerful Scorpion tank for the first time, just melt away. It was always about those open environments. They’re iconically pretty, and provide these peaceful moments where you’re presented with a small base of enemies, three or four well-placed Elites and whatever two half-empty weapons you’ve happened to end up with. And you look at it all and try to work out how to best solve this puzzle you’ve been handed. These peaceful moment before you run in and watch it all fall apart, are something Bungie have managed to finally restore. For Reach‘s greatest asset is one that sounds monumentally lazy: the campaign levels are largely recycled. The arenas where this kind of battle takes place are shared with the multiplayer, or the co-operative Firefight mode. This means they are designed the same way Halo’s finest multiplayer maps are: full of explorable nooks and crannies, offering tucked-away weapons, or alternate approaches to the action. Reach‘s big addition, ‘armour abilities’ – toys which grant special abilities from jetpacks, shields, and holographic decoys of yourself – manage to genuinely increase your options, as well as streamlining Halo 3‘s smart but rarely-used similar range of pick-ups. All of this means there’s a unique feeling of being in control of your experience, making battles feel spontaneous, which just isn’t available in any sociably multiplayer mode of the game. Playing on your own means that: a) you’re not responsible for anyone else, and b) you can set the pace yourself. Trying to find a moment of quiet in Slayer deathmatch, or even playing the campaign alongside a co-op partner who wants to push relentlessly ahead, never offers the same experience. So you sit on your own in the dark, and eye up the Spire, having already died on your last six attempts at taking it. The Elites have all got powerful-but-short-range plasma cannons, one sniper has tucked himself up at the top, and there are a couple of Hunters there … and there. You swear softly under your breath. But right before Death #6, you happened upon the spot where the mighty rocket-launcher is hidden. So you look down the scope, empty your last three shells into those Elites over there, hold LB and sprint for your life in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the rocket-launcher in your grubby metal-clad paws before they catch up with you… Simple.