I love Bungie. I love the Halo universe. No matter how much I want to, though, I cannot love Halo multiplayer.
It is a game about duels. Discounting snipers or campers who are problematic in any FPS game, when mobile Player A sights mobile Player B, these players being opponents, they will run straight at each other with the most appropriate weapons at their disposal, and someone is going to die. Perhaps both of them. They will never attempt to retreat, they will have no time to call for help, it’s effectively one-on-one from the moment A and B lay eyes on each other, and that’s it. The end.
It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about every-Spartan-for-himself Slayer, Team Slayer, or any other variant of the game. Unless you snipe or camp, it is all about memorizing where the weapons lie on any map, getting them as quickly as possible, and then facing off one-on-one and surviving as long as you can until someone puts you down.
Never, not once, in all my time playing Halo 3 did I ever hear a player say the words “Flank them.” I’ve never heard the words “Suppressing fire” or “Fall back” uttered. Nor discussion of a “Feint” or “Covering fire.” These concepts simply do not exist in any Halo multiplayer circle I have walked among. This is unique in my FPS multiplayer experiences. Even in old-school shooters like Medal of Honor there were sometimes attempts at team communication when team-based play was the match type.
It does not come down to being in random groups, and therefore not having cohesive team play on that account. I play first person shooters on XBox Live with a very tight team of squadmates who have been playing together for years. We have gone through Call of Duty: World at War, and both Bad Company games, and both Modern Warfare titles, and Operation Flashpoint together, and we pride ourselves on tight comms and teamwork. Some of “the squad” have been playing FPS games together since World War II Online. We demonstrate proper FPS squad-based tactics as much as one might expect from a bunch of civilian gamers.
When we play Halo, we don’t use any of those words. There is simply no time for them. Halo multiplayer is a blunt object. It doesn’t matter if I am being killed by, or killing with, one-shot sniper rifle rounds, headshotting with a BR or the new DMR, or any other skillful fashion of dispatching the enemy, it still feels like being smacked in the head with an engine block or bashing someone with a concrete slab.
What I want to know is: why does Halo work this way? What is it about this particular first person shooter that even though it has now been through three iterations, judging by the Halo Reach Beta the gameplay still doesn’t feel like it has matured at all?
Here is a basic introduction to boiled-down Halo team multiplayer gameplay:
Again, this is “boiled down,” but there’s more truth here than fiction. Halo multiplayer = people murdering each other, over and over again, until the victory conditions are met. “How is this different than other first person shooter multiplayer games?” you might ask. I can’t speak to every FPS ever made because I haven’t played them all, and I’ve been told that Halo bears much similarity to Quake III Arena in the sense of being a frenetic ballet of duels with melee attacks more powerful than most or all ranged attacks; but in other FPS games I’ve played recently, Deathmatch is only one of several modes.
Domination mode in Modern Warfare, World at War, and Modern Warfare 2 certainly had their share of Deathmatch-style confrontations, but there was still plenty of room for strategy. “Strategy” can be defined as “That which takes place prior to contact, or upon breaking off from contact.” Deciding which flag to go for, whether you want to feint at the C flag when you really want the A flag, or temporarily taking a position which you know damn well you are going to lose simply to force the enemy to deal with the annoyance and bleed some of them off your intended target. These strategies had their places.
Sabotage or Headquarters modes likely involved some modicum of strategy. In Sabotage, squads need to work together to clear the forward advance of the bomb carrier. Tight comms win the day in calling out enemy sniper positions, or where the enemy base of fire is being laid down from. Teammates need to break up into escort and seek-and-destroy teams to bring victory. In Headquarters, victory is best procured by breaking up into teams to cover approaches to the HQ while it is being seized or destroyed. Teamwork beats Lone Wolf strategies any day. Even when my squad played these games with random players filling gaps we could still count on some modicum of cooperation.
Halo has Capture the Flag, which sounds like an objective-based gametype, right? So, how does this play out in the Halo Reach Beta?
At this point both teams usually slaughter each other down to one, maybe two men standing on one of the teams, but for sake of moving this forward, let’s say that a member of the Red team survives and picks up the flag.
What we wind up with is an exercise in rolling murder very similar to Slayer mode, only the murder site floats with the location of the flag. The actual strategies utilized to resolve gameplay don’t change one whit. Get a team together who is better communally at dueling than the other team, or one player out of 8 who actually places the objective of the match above garnering a positive K/D ratio, and you get a win for that team…but more often than not, efficiency of straight-up murdering tends to win the day.
This is what I was experiencing around the time I posted my last update on the Halo Reach Beta. I was waiting for the Invasion gametype to be released, hoping that it would add a more strategic element to this new installment of Halo multiplayer.
Here’s how Invasion works:
6 Spartans and 6 Elites are broken down into 2-man Buddy Teams. They may respawn on partners if those partners are no longer in combat, or they may respawn at set points on the map.
The Elites are tasked with disabling one of a pair of shield generators, by standing near the control panel of that generator for 20 seconds. That time is cumulative – it does not need to be 20 continuous seconds. Either target is viable. One the shield generators are down, the Elites must defeat the security systems protecting a computer core, again by standing near a control panel for 20 seconds. This time is also not cumulative, and there are also two control panels with either being a viable target. Once the security is down, the Elites must capture the computer core and deliver it to a landing pad up several flights of stairs to their waiting Phantom drop ship.
If the Spartans force the clock to run out at any point along this process, Spartans win. If the Elites evacuate the computer core, Elites win. As the match progress from part 1 to part 3 a greater variety of vehicles and weapon sets become available to the combatants.
One would think there would be a lot of room for some strategy here, right? Comms might tighten up, even teams of random players might start cooperating, yes?
This is what we get:
The gameplay based around tightly-defined objectives changes nothing. The game still breaks down into a series of running duels resulting in traveling mass murder until either the clock runs out or an Elite manages to limp the computer core to the evacuation point…but when I’m playing as the Elites it’s never because we’re cooperating. Even when I have my social settings prefer “Chatty, Team” players. When I’m playing as the Spartans it comes down to our being better murderers than the Elites, but not because we’re coordinating on comms to defend the position as best we can, as a team. We’re just winning most of the duels or have the last man standing.
The Halo Reach Beta is failing to hold my attention. It has nothing to do with needed tweaks to the gameplay – it’s the lack of any sort of subtlety or strategy. It’s because Halo multiplayer is boring when you’ve spent time playing games like Battlefield where squad-based tactics win the day, where even if your K/D spread is horrible you can play smart and still win the day because strategy plays a part, not just twitchy reflexes.
Halo has always been a very simple form of first person shooter. It was a necessity forced upon Halo: Combat Evolved based on the reality of running on a console versus a PC. Around the time Halo: CE was introduced, PC FPS players were enjoying games like Counter-Strike, Tribes, Rainbow: Six, and Battlefield. Halo no longer has the excuse of running on a “mere console,” however, not when developers are making the XBox 360 the primary development mode and porting a version to PC, not vice versa as was previously traditional.
Halo has deliberately eschewed some of the fundamental mechanics of modern FPSÂ games such as perk or class builds, and pre-selected equipment and gear loadouts. Halo has offered limited mobility to the players such that Sprinting is still only an option. The grudging steps Bungie has taken to move into the modern-day FPS world in Halo: Reach are not enough to give Halo multiplayer gameplay the same sort of depth that either a Modern Warfare 2 or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 offer us as a matter of course if that’s what we are looking for.
I see one of three possibilities:
1) Halo was never intended by Bungie to support strategic gameplay. It was meant to be a frenetic shooter in the vein of Quake III and this formula, having been proven successful, has never been questioned.
2) Halo players, limited to simplistic gameplay by Halo: Combat Evolved, never grew out of their addiction to Slayer, even when those players grew up in eras where they had easy access to deeper, more strategic games to play. This would explain why every Halo multiplayer match, regardless of game type, turns into Slayer.
3) Halo players really are some of the biggest assholes communally on the face of the planet, hopelessly addicted to personal glory, egged on by their flagship status among the Major League Gaming association, and wearing their status as obnoxious teabaggers like badges on their sleeves, stripping them of the maturity to ever properly cooperate during gameplay unless doing so inflates their personal scorecard.
I could explain Invasion mode’s lack of a proper strategic component on the fact that it is too small a map, perhaps. There are too few covered approaches to the objectives to force the Spartans to reposition and put eyes on, allowing them to concentrate firepower on just a few locations and thus turning the game into the traditional duel fest. This is often a problem in Battlefield: Bad Company 2’s Rush mode on some of the maps which funnel players into obvious kill zones. Perhaps if Invasion mode were playable on other maps there might be environments in which the game mode shows its true strategic potential?
Perhaps the as-yet-unlocked Shield Defense mode, which will feature multiple, simultaneous objectives to be defended by the Spartans or destroyed by the Elites, will allow the strategic aspect of Halo multiplayer team play to shine? It is possible that Shield Defense may allow for the sort of strategies one employs in Call of Duty/Modern Warfare Domination mode, or in Battlefield Conquest matches, where teams of Halo players keep careful eye on the objectives as Spartans to organize their defense, or use feints and two-pronged attacks as Elites to split up the defenders and force breaks in the Spartan line…
…but I have a feeling that Shield Defense is going to look something like this (shield generators represented by the grey circles):