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Halo: Why It Stands Out In A Class Of Its Own

I bought my son an XBox and Halo 3 for Christmas. Wanting to bond with my son, we played together. I got hooked. I began to enjoy it quite a bit. When I tried playing other games with him, I never really enjoyed those games as much. There was something special about Halo, and at the time I couldn’t put my finger on it… most likely because I hadn’t a clue about First Person Shooter games yet.

There came a time just months before Halo: Reach came out that I began to look at forging, and I found the forging tools incredibly difficult. I loved the creativity of forging a new map, but had not any clue what went into making a good competitive map (I am still learning, folks).

Then Reach came out, and I was more interested in forging with Forge World and the new tools than actually playing the game. I found myself forging until five in the morning, then get a couple hours sleep, go to work all day, come back home and forge until five in the morning again.  Life was good… very, very good.

I also really enjoyed playing Reach. I knew there were people complaining about the over powered grenades, and the jet packs, and what nots. But I was having fun with my new shiny toy, and couldn’t be bothered to understand the issues they were raising.

Through it all, Halo had a mystical joy to it. From mowing down dozens of zombies with a turret on Living Dead (The Pit, Ratsnest) to driving the hog with my son gunning on Sandtrap or Valhalla, to forging two maps that got into Reach’s match making, to Invasion (by far the most complex and team oriented multi player game type ever in any Halo title), there was something special about Halo that just gripped my attention and demanded more of me.

Then came Halo 4. The forging tools were just a little better (though I would prefer the Forge World canvas and the palette that came with it). But the game play took a massive turn for the worse. So severe were the deficiencies for the game play that the population has pretty much simply abandoned Halo. And with so little interest in the game, forgers have lost interest as well. But it isn’t what is wrong with Halo 4 that I want to focus on in this article, but rather what stands in Halo 4 and indeed all of Halo that makes it my favorite FPS and why I won’t turn my back on Halo despite the challenges presented to us by 343 Industries.

Another FPS

I bought a copy of Far Cry 3 because its level editor unleashed creative talent beyond anything possible with Halo. But at the same time, I found that the game play is repulsive – like its game engine is over 20 years old or something. This love for level editing and repulsion for the game play tore in me, and it made me think very hard about why Halo was so dear to my heart.

Then one day as I was playing Infinity Slayer on Haven I had an epiphany. An enemy I killed immediately spawned with an iCannon and killed me moments later as I moved around a corner. I knew that the game went shallow exclusively from the randomness that Infinity Ordnance Drop introduced, but this single event brought it home in a very clear and real way. This epiphany was my first step in realizing how Halo 4 was being CoD-ized by 343 Industries, and I didn’t like it one bit. (I will talk more about other aspects of what this epiphany taught me in future posts.)

So as I contemplated how Halo 4 was more CoD than Halo, I asked myself why do I like playing Halo 4 and not CoD? That was when I realized the one game mechanic that Halo titles have had that no other could share – the fire fight.

Cohesion Between Theme and Mechanics

In FPS, you want to make an environment, a backdrop, an experience, in which everything holds together, is cohesive through out, and flows as a coherent, singular theme. You don’t want a game element or game mechanic to feel or appear to be “out of place”. If a game mechanic exists, it must be reasonable and work with the theme of the game through out.

Take a look at Call Of Duty, Far Cry, or any other game today. They all have one thing in common that Halo does not. They all have the game experience of “get shot and you drop”. That is, they are realistic. If you get shot by a gun, you drop and die immediately. If someone else gets the drop on you by flanking you, you haven’t a chance, and you quite often don’t see who it is either.

Most if not all of these popular games are set in present day with corresponding present day weaponry. What does that mean? If you shoot your opponent, they need to drop, or something will feel wrong. If a bullet to the head doesn’t take them down immediately, something will feel out of place. Being able to stay on their feet will make the game seem very unrealistic and imaginary. Such a mechanic breaks immersion – the player will have trouble feeling that they are in the game, because they will feel like it is really just a poorly built video game. It won’t seem realistic at all.

Halo is different in this one key way – the futuristic setting of the game’s theme lays the foundation for futuristic armor that allows a player to take multiple gun shot hits and still move around pretty much unabated. The theme makes this game mechanic seem realistic and very much a reasonable expectation. The player remains immersed in the game, and has the ability to jump, move, turn, return fire, duck, find cover, etc. In other words, flanking or getting the drop on someone isn’t anything of a sure kill in Halo.

Why is this the most important game mechanic, making Halo my FPS of choice?

The Key To Entertainment

Because it allows players to engage the enemy, to join the battle, to return the challenge. It allows the player to engage in the one activity that makes FPS fun – the fire fight. And it makes this fun last for more than just a few seconds at a time. Some firefights can last tens of seconds.

This one game mechanic alone promotes team work by magnitudes – because fire fights can take time to win, players can get into the action to help their teammates battle their enemy. And even if your opponent gets the drop on you, you can still feel a sense that you have a decent chance of living and fighting back, even winning the fire fight.

But the biggest benefit from this game mechanic is that there really is a fire fight. Compared with other FPS, Halo fire fights can last quite a while, because people don’t just drop all over the place. And the fire fight for me is fundamentally the most interesting and entertaining aspect of FPS games. (After all, First Person Shooters are shooter games first!)

It is true that Reach came out with a much better graphics engine than Halo 3, and people say that Halo 4 has improved the graphics and animation even further. But graphics and animation quality are not enough to make a fun game. It is the engaging fire fights that make Halo stand well above the crowd.

I will write other articles about Halo game mechanics and how they have changed, and explain from an analytical perspective how the game play has dropped in quality as a result. But I want to close this post with the thought that Halo, despite the poor mechanics that have shallowed the game play in Halo 4, is – for me – still far more entertaining than anything else out there.

UPDATE May 2014: I came across this video that expresses the same concept as “choice” that players can make to deal with being engaged by their opponents. It echoes my feelings quite well.