Monday, October 18, 2010

Halo, or Back to the Sofa

There's something special with finding a game, for a video console, that really pulls me in. In this case, it was Halo Reach. In fact, it began with me and a friend playing through Halo ODST at my place. It was a mediocre experience, at first, but it planted a seed in me. I had forgotten the fun and simplicity of Halo. Probably because the second and third installment was sort of a disappointment and added unnecessary layers of complexity, like dual-wielding and a truckload of utility items, not to mention... was it 4 different grenades, instead of the original 2?

What I loved with Halo (1) was the genius simplicity of the game play. That, and of course the rather awe-inspiring story and sci-fi setting. How a few simple building blocks that made the game mechanics up was rearranged every 30 seconds or so to provide interesting variation. You and some enemies had shields, some didn't. There were two different types of weapons, those that fired plasma and those that fired physical bullets. Plasma weapons were better at chewing through shields, bullets better at doing damage to unshielded foes. You could only hold two different weapons, and was constantly swapping up new guns from fallen foes, constantly changing your arsenal, not always allowing you to go with your favorite setup. There were also 2 different types of grenades; standard human produced grenades and plasma "sticky" grenades (which stuck to enemies if you hit them with it). A few memorable and easy-to-control vehicles, both human and alien ones.

And one of the trademarks of Halo; the recharging shield. Instead of having a standard health bar that could only be replenished using health kits, you had a shield bar that would regenerate to full capacity - if you could stay out of harms way enough time. This led to a constant pace; fight, cover, fight, cover. There was a point to take cover more than to just hide and scream; you regained lost strength. Simple yet an effective way to keep the pace up.

Enemies would be of varying difficulty, some enemies would charge at you, some would stay further away, and they were all wielding one of the various weapons in the game. One small grunt could pose almost no threat in one encounter, while another grunt would eat up your shield with one shot from a plasma pistol the next encounter. Some of the small enemies would run screaming if a superior to them was killed nearby, some would relentlessly go for you. Some enemies could not be taken on head-on, and you needed to get in behind them or get them to lower their shields, or eat through them, or lob a grenade at them hoping they'd roll for cover and let you get a few shots at them before they raised their shields again.

Fun and interesting enemies, the locales and level design make a world of difference in every encounter, clear major goals ahead making you want to keep going. The game repeats itself over and over again; I remember someone saying that Halo was like the same 30 seconds repeating for hours, and yes, that is probably spot on. But, considering the setups of the enemy squads are slightly different each time, whether it's due to their number, what types of enemies they are, what weapons they have, their aggressiveness, and considering your weapon load-out will vary after each encounter, and considering the battlefield looks a bit different every time, every encounter is truly unique. Even the Library level (those who have played it either hate it or hate it - personally I hate it but love it as well) is repetitive but always changing.

Even the same encounter will probably play out differently each time you play it. Take out the big one first, the small will perhaps run screaming for a while making them easy targets. Failing to take out the big one, and the small starts lobbing grenades, that eat your shields forcing you to hide or run yourself. Last time you played, you had a magnum with plenty of clips. This time, you might have used up your bullets in an earlier encounter and had to pick up a plasma pistol instead. Each unique weapon dictates how you can handle the situation at hand, and the situation at hand. I could go on explaining this for ages, but simply put; it was pure fun, alone or cooperatively.

Halo 2 added complexity and better graphics, but I suppose that forced them to make smaller maps, because I often felt cramped not to mention lost. Halo 3 was beautiful, but had way too many items and gadgets and dual-wielding weapons. Halo ODST had taken a step back towards simplicity; gone were tons of gadgets and dual-wielding, but there were still 4 different grenades.

Strangely, after having played ODST, I felt a growing need for more Halo. It started to come back to me, what I had felt with the first game. So, me and 3 friends decided to get Halo Reach, the latest Halo game, and play it through this weekend. Apart from being a bit crowded to play 4 spartans at the same time, it worked pretty well and was really a lot of fun. We played through it on Heroic (the 3rd of 4 difficulty levels) which took some time getting used to. The thing is, Heroic is hard. Really hard. And playing 4 players scales up the difficulty even more to match, so if you think you'll go in rambo style... well, luckily you will respawn a few seconds later near a friend so you can go look for the smudge that once was your body and try to recover your weapons.

And crap. Halo Reach is beautiful. From the scenery to the details of the spartans and enemies and weapons. Like, for example, some grunts have different machine parts on their backs. Probably mostly for decoration or to show their "rank", but some have some sort of gas tanks on their backs as well that when shot starts spraying gas wildly, making the grunt's body spin away like a balloon. Pieces of armor will fall off of elites and hunters, the different energy weapons emit pretty light of varying colors that gets reflected in the ground.

Also, Reach goes back to the first installment of simplicity; now there are only 2 grenade types again, and you cannot dual-wield. However, you can choose different "special abilities". This is an ability that will charge up once used, and will provide things like running speed, extra shields or the ability to fly. Simple, and all of the abilities have their use.

We also played a lot of Firefight, which is a mode where you hold out on a small map while wave after wave of Covenant come with dropships and try to kill you. You must survive 5 waves and your team shares a total of 10 lives I think. When all lives are lost, you cannot respawn, and if all players die then, it's game over. If you do survive however, you're awesome and everyone loves you. This mode actually came in ODST and was probably fun there as well. Again, the game is simple but really broad. You can have your playstyle and set of favorite weapons for different situations and be really quite unique.

One really memorable thing that happened last night was we were on the last wave of Firefight. There were two tanks (Wraiths?) left and a bunch of brutes, one wielding a gravity hammer (get too close and smudge) as well as some elites and grunts. As I run down a slope towards a tank firing at me with both its main cannon and the anti-personnel turret at the top, I hear the announcer say "last man standing". Crap, the team had run out of lives and I was the only one left. I jump up in the air with my jump jets, dodging the tank's fire, while firing all I got down at the turret operator. I got him, then slammed the tank to bits with my fists, before taking off again. The following minutes was like a dance, with me jumping, running, flying, dodging, sniping grunts, swapping weapons, taking out shields, showering brutes with bullets while dodging their concussion weapons, dodging hammers, finishing monsters with melee, and taking out another tank, and finally completing the wave.

It was pure adrenaline and I haven't had as much fun in a loooooong time. And the best of all? The game recorded everything, so I can show it off whenever I like ^^ ... Halo is a game of skill. You move a lot, and most weapons fire projectiles that you can dodge. It also makes the game less about good aim and more about trying to outsmart your opponent, while of course being able to aim well helps a lot. I have rediscovered my love to these games. You play as a hero, you feel like a hero, but you meet resistance that really wants you dead. It's like an old arcade game but in modern clothes.

And, it's not about terrorists. Or world war 2. Seriously. But it seems that for every time someone says "enough with the ww2/terrorist crap already" there is someone out there thinking "oh you know what would be great? ANOTHER ww2/terrorist game!". You are boring. You are oh, so boring. Boring. No, you probably won't portray it in a "special" way. It's boring. And you know what? It'll always be boring. And grey. I bought an expensive computer (and game consoles) with graphics cards that can handle color. You know, red and yellow and blue and green, those kind of things. You might have heard about them. And for everyone saying "please give us color" there's someone out there thinking "oh you know what would be great? Instead of green, we'll pull the saturation all the way down to 1% and it'll be like... you know, realistic! Because trees are grey, right?" ... I visited a friend today and he had paused a replay of his fight against a hunter in ODST on Legendary difficulty (4th difficulty level) which pretty much shows that Halo is not like any other mainstream shooter. On screen we had a blue tint, an orange truck on a street, one red energy bullet lighting up one part of the screen, and a huge ray of green death coming in from the left. That's more colors than you could find in Gears of War 1 and 2 combined!

*rant rant*

(By the way, I must admit I really liked Gears of War in cooperative mode, but it's just really grey and sadly other developers have started to think that you have to be grey in order to sell...)

I love the fact that I'm sitting in my sofa again, just playing. It's so much different from playing on the computer (which I love - don't get me wrong). In the sofa I only have the game and me. No mail, no Skype, no programs that wants to update, no facebook. Great for escapism, and I need that more and more these days.

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