A brief and opinionated look at the evolution of Halo’s time-honored multiplayer – its twists, its turns and its future…
Despite many attempts by other game developers to emulate the combat system displayed in the Halo trilogy, Bungie’s multiplayer experience remains unmatched, no less improved upon. From top to bottom, whether you’re talking about the ground-level faculties like movement speed and sandbox diversity or the broad-based aspects like matchmaking and load balancing, Halo’s multiplayer component is arguably the best of our generation. As of late, however, its community is fraught with an ambiguous and problematic malaise. There is an exodus of sorts and the culmination of seven years worth of evolution in Halo multiplayer is in question – perhaps even in jeopardy.
Why doesn’t it feel the same as it did before?
A legitimate question for any fan to ask when the quality of what they hold dear suddenly becomes suspect. But to understand what is wrong, we must know what was right: How had Bungie tapped into a fleshy pulse – that living catalyst – which drove gamers to unflinchingly dedicate the last seven years of their lives to a single franchise. We could spend hours pouring over the various reasons that Halo’s current matchmaking system, seamless user interface, saved films/screenshots and overall customization options trump almost every other gaming product in feature scale and size, but I want to focus on what makes any game essentially fun – in particular, what makes Halo’s combat evolved.
Halo: Combat Evolved would become the template for the franchises’ legacy.
To do this we have travel back in time to around 2003 and squeeze into my previous thousand square foot apartment where there are four large standard definition televisions conjoining two rooms and sixteen loud-mouthed friends murdering each other for fun. They’ve bonded together from just about every race, creed and walk of life, but their solitary form of entertainment tonight is mutually resonant.
In their tightly-clinched palms are a variety of original Xbox controllers. You remember these: the iconic Duke, the S-Controller and its own litany of jewel-encased variants. Amidst the clamor of gun fire and grenade explosions, one can hear the elaborate profanity, the vitriol-laden taunts and the promise of violent reciprocity. Afterwards, I lie in bed as my wife prepares divorce papers next to me (I kid). I recall the events of the virtual internecine which had come to an end. And when the lights go out, I stare up at the ceiling playing out the battles in my mind, scene-by-scene and moment-by-moment – bullets, grenades and glory.
This was Halo: Combat Evolved and it was halcyon days of Halo’s combat system. While this is where we started, it is far removed from where we are now. Many have suggested that the differences between this title and Halo 2 were so substantial that they could literally be considered separate games. This may be true from a purist’s hardliner perspective, but Halo is still Halo to most people. Although there were very big changes, people recognize this series’ emblematic gameplay whether it be Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2 or our current platform, Halo 3.
Capture the Flag was an earmark gametype on Halo: Combat Evolved and remains the most popular objective gametype in the franchise.
But if we are now lost, the most obvious place to find our way back home would be to start at the beginning, right?
The first game of the trilogy had an unbelievable following at a grounds-roots level, reverberating even still to this day. Despite, at the time, receiving petulant barbs from PC gamers who believed that the game was simply just another first-person shooter, thousands of gamers kept the title on the top ten retail lists for years and week-in/week-out they brought their hefty black machines to each others’ houses for the legendary LAN-play. Whether you agree with its superiority on the first-person scene, Halo: Combat Evolved’s multiplayer popularity was irrevocably undeniable.
But what engendered this? Why was it such a powerful experience?
While not revolutionary and perhaps even somewhat borrowed, Halo: Combat Evolved’s core mechanics and gameplay was a hodgepodge of right choices. The two weapon system forced players to move around the map and generated a strategic element in each enemy encounter. The balance of the sandbox also permeated, and while oft-contended, Halo: Combat Evolved’s legendary pistol, the M6D, seemed to level the playing field for any and everyone, giving the player who spawned into misfortune a fighting chance at survival rather than a swift burial. Vehicle combat was practically without transition and played like a natural extension of its on-foot brother. Everything from the responsive movement and cunning map design to the game’s intriguing and often entertaining physics made Halo: Combat Evolved unforgettable.
The piece of God’s throne which has subsequently been lost.
If that was the case, why did Halo 2 depart from it so emphatically?
There were a lot of reasons offered by Bungie, but perhaps the most obvious was Xbox Live. Halo 2 would have online play through Microsoft’s online gaming service, something its forerunner did not. This meant that not only would the population of players be larger, but it would also offer sanctuary to both the seasoned veterans of the MLG circuit and the witless nubbery of someone who simply liked the game’s box art. The skill disparity would be more diverse and the networking conditions would be more strained – so, Bungie determined, there would need to be considerable changes going into multiplayer.
And there were…
Though Halo 2 saw the succession of several of the original game’s weapons, all had considerable changes and several were removed including the default starting weapons, the MA5B assault rifle and the legendary M6D pistol. The rocket launcher now easily homed in on vehicles all but guaranteeing a kill, player’s melee attacks sent them careening toward their enemies, the ultimate close-quarters power weapon was introduced in the unquenchable and omnipotent energy sword, fall damage was removed and the poor ol’ M90 shotgun underwent a vasectomy. Many also noticed the alteration of vehicle physics due to their enhanced destructibility. Auto-aim and aim assist systems were exponentially increased, presumably to mollify any potential networking issues. One of the biggest changes, however, was a new style of short-range combat: dual-wielding (the ability to carry and fire two weapons simultaneously). From this change, the M7 SMG became the new default starting weapon; dual-wieldable and including an extremely low amount of efficacy, range and for a lot of people, fun.
Ivory Tower was a textbook example of how a small asymmetrical map should be designed.
Even well after the 1.1 update in April after the game’s release, many hardcore fans still disliked the new approach no matter what explanations were offered in its wake. They despised the coddling of Bungie toward lesser skilled players and scoffed at the claims of networking limitations. Through all of their squalor, many failed to really account for what was great about Halo 2 – only now has it become so vividly clear.
Apart from the brilliance of the innovative matchmaking system, there were a number of uncontested combat elements which were head and shoulders above the previous iteration. Halo 2’s overall weapon/vehicle sandbox was bountifully larger, including the entertaining use of turret emplacements from a third-person perspective. With the increased size of the sandbox, players were afforded with more choices on the battlefield – and choice is extremely important in multiplayer. The game also saw the addition of boarding (players could hijack vehicles being operated by the enemy), which gave the infantryman an opportunity to counter what had previously been a practically unchecked vehicular rampage.
For many, however, the single greatest achievement that Halo 2 offered was the maps.
Undoubtedly, Halo: Combat Evolved had some impressive maps for its time (Sidewinder, Blood Gulch, Hang ‘Em High, Prisoner, Damnation and Derelict were strokes of brilliance, even if somewhat accidental), but Halo 2’s default and subsequent downloadable content took the evolution of the game’s combat to another plane of existence. They not only tapped into what was right and balanced from a geometry and purpose-centric perspective, but the maps also had an amazing amount of character, detail and beauty. Whether you preferred the wispy simplicity of Lockout’s perilous walkways and platforms, the pristine, whirring alien architecture of Midship or the sand-drenched and blood-stained beach of Zanzibar, Halo 2 had cornered the map department in ways that most other shooters can only envy.
Sanctuary, one of the first downloadable maps for Halo 2, was a perfected mid-size symmetrical map.
That’s not to say that Halo 2 never saw a bad map; it absolutely did, but the maps were never the real problem with Halo 2. The real issues with Halo 2 were in (1) sandbox balance and (2) network solutions that negatively affected the game’s mechanics. Although the hardcore fans argued tooth and nail against the dozens of incremental changes revealed in Halo 2, most of that list can be coalesced intp those two categories. Now, looking back from Halo 3’s multiplayer platform, it’s clear that Bungie recognized the problems with both of those two branches.
So then, it was no surprise that when Bungie sat down to look at Halo 3’s multiplayer, they developed solutions for many of these complaints. Halo 3 represents the bulk of those solutions made manifest and the multiplayer beta months before the game’s release proved this to everyone who was afforded an opportunity to play. It appeared as though Bungie had listened to the fleshy pulse of their fan base and were making amends.
The rocket launcher no longer homed in on enemy vehicles, allowing the machines to survive and once again return to a place of prominence. Melee attacks, auto-aim and aim assist were all toned down considerably, falling somewhere in between the respective flavors of Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2. The M90 shotgun reversed its vasectomy (there is a God!). Although destructibility remained, vehicle durability and physics returned, to some measure, back to the olden days of Halo: Combat Evolved. Dual-wielding was tweaked and its showpiece, the M7 SMG (now also retooled), was now taking a backseat to a new starting weapon, the original assault rifle’s successor – a longer-ranged MA5C. Even the M6D saw its own kind return in the form of the M6G, a less-powerful but similarly satisfying field weapon. And with this new sandbox, a quantum leap improvement over Halo 2’s already bursting one, the new game showcased what many believe is the best large-scale map the trilogy has ever seen: Valhalla.
Valhalla is arguably the greatest large map in the trilogy; a balanced sandbox would finally find its place in an enormous landscape.
Precursors of this map existed in the form of Blood Gulch for Halo: Combat Evolved and Coagulation for Halo 2 – essentially two bases, tucked in a spacious canyon with an undulating and verdant valley that separates them. Valhalla is the pinnacle of what those maps stood for and its success above them is largely due to the proper implementation of compartmentalization, localizing small bouts as part of a larger battle and hedging off sniper exploitation through the large, rising geometry. As we soon find out, however, this map was one diamond in what many feel was a cluttered batch of coal and this design philosophy based on separation may have been taken too far.
Never-the-less, Halo 3 forgave many of the sins of Halo 2 and even offered contrition in a laundry list of interesting additions: unique new weapons, a support weapon system which allowed the removal and mobile use of turret emplacements, incredibly fun new vehicles and the advent of a third combat element, equipment. Halo 3 touted online cooperative campaign missions, the ability to capture screenshots and footage from both campaign and multiplayer, powerful stat tracking online and in-game, as well as Forge, an object editor which put to shame Halo 2’s once advanced multiplayer customization options. Halo 3 did a lot of things right on paper, both fixing Halo 2’s problems and implementing exciting new components.
But only months after this monolithic and revamped game mode was launched, other games began to steal Halo 3’s online thunder. Many fans, although in love with the beta, felt something was missing when the finished project rolled around in September of 2007. Something was wrong with the multiplayer – it wasn’t like we had remembered. The near immediate accusation which was leveled was the melee attack’s inconsistency.
Nearly a year before the game was released, Bungie began claiming that Halo 3 would rely on the ‘golden tripod’ of combat, their self-named system of weapon/melee/grenade encounters which made combat, well, golden. During their improvements to the networking code, they decided to eliminate the potency of host advantage when it came to hand-to-hand combat (something Halo 2 saw abused considerably). This was the birth of melee arbitration: A split-second process where the game rewards players with a kill even if they physically executed a melee moments after their opponent, giving whoever had the most health in that “instance” the kill. Bungie has since resolved this issue to some extent, shortening the window for arbitration to occur and awarding both players with kills/deaths in the event of a ‘tie,’ but this initial problem was by no means a small reason why players started to look elsewhere just months after Halo 3’s launch.
For a few months, even after the first downloadable content pack and the melee-fixing patch, many serious Halo 3 fans still found themselves wondering what still felt broken. It wasn’t just the melee attack, there was still something off – something else was wrong with the picture, something elusive…
Lockout, the most popular map in Halo 2 (and perhaps the entire trilogy), had the most random design, but nothing existed without purpose.
The odd transition from Halo: Combat Evolved to Halo 2 was that vehicles were almost entirely negated by the ultimate of all anti-vehicle weapons, the homing the M19 rocket launcher. Halo 2, ironically, had three massive maps at launch (Waterworks, Coagulation and Headlong), as opposed to Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 3, which only had two a piece. This doesn’t account for the first map pack for Halo 2 which included Containment for free, a fourth enormous map which was supposed to focus on vehicles in a sandbox which all but eliminated that form of combat.
To the average player, the removal of enjoyable vehicle combat reflected a serious departure from the time-honored tradition created by Blood Gulch and Sidewinder. But every cloud has a silver lining…
What this did for Halo 2 was put the smaller and mid-size maps on the front row. Players migrated to maps which didn’t focus solely on vehicles: Lockout, Midship, Sanctuary, Ivory Tower, Ascension, Zanzibar, Turf and Warlock became the new bread and butter of Halo combat. Custom games saw squads replacing the effete SMG with the surgical BR55 battle rifle (the M6D’s virtual successor). These small-to-mid-size maps became the holy grail, our quintessential definition of what Halo had now become and what evolution had wrought.
When we look at Halo 3, it would seem to us that this should be a mirror reflection of the best of Halo 2. Players had been conditioned for literally years with the best maps that Halo 2 had available, playing them in an unending repetition – at their heart’s content. So when they took the jump to Halo 3’s online arena, they were hit with a brutal reality – Bungie’s philosophy for map design had changed.
Burial Mounds was not the greatest mid-size, asymmetrical map for Halo 2, but it decimates much of what Halo 3 has offered thus far.
On paper, what worked to fix the problems they had with the exploitable openness of several larger Halo 2 maps (Coagulation, Waterworks and Burial Mounds for example) should technically work for Narrows, Construct and Epitaph, right? Separate the combat, segment encounters and sever the cross-map line of sight to allow more localized movement. That would have the same positive effect, correct?
When you bring Valhalla’s ingredients and compartmentalization to smaller maps, you ruin the exact attributes which made Halo 2’s small/midsize maps work so well. What are these attributes I speak of?
Here are a few that come to mind:
- Long Lines of Sight – The ability to see and shoot across the map properly balanced with cover.
- Nonlinearity – Architecture which doesn’t stifle choice.
- Predictable Physics – Environments which react to a player’s actions consistently.
- Use of Space – Every place has a reason and purpose.
Unfortunately, even the higher-quality maps from Halo 3 like Guardian and The Pit suffer from this radical change in small/mid-size map design. Bungie was right to take the wide-open and deadly spaces of Coagulation and meld them into individual segments and compartments in Valhalla, but taking this theory to small maps has proven erroneous.
For example, although Guardian was never intended to be a port of Lockout, it was alleged to be the ‘spiritual successor’ of the aforementioned map. This time, however, it would include larger knee-walls, narrow corridors and accentuated linearity – it was a series of closed-off rooms and corridors which offered very little choice. A clear distinction from the open platforms and walkways of its older brother. Rather than have a map with Sanctuary’s symmetrically perfected long lines of sight and properly balanced cover, The Pit gave us a massive wall in its center, sacrificing nearly all ranged cross-map combat and squeezing the player through movement stifling tunnels and around unscalable platforms.
These maps are some of the best that Halo 3 has in the small-to-midsize department, but because of the philosophical change in how they were designed, they fall short of their closest comparisons in Halo 2. Other maps don’t even come categorically within arm’s length of the previous stable.
Narrows has only two ways to get from one base to the other, not including the perilous and overt man cannon. Construct, although somewhat redeemable, falls prey to similar movement constraints as well. There are only a handful of ways to physically move from the bottom spawn points to the top combat arena – which can be effectively camped with a strong enough team. Epitaph, although beautiful, also has a similarly confining architecture, one long corridor separated by a maze of peripheral walkways that guide the player in one direction rather than offer them choices.
The average Halo 2 player had gone from playing the crème of the crop, to playing a largely inferior and somewhat broken series of maps. We were bred to enjoy smaller maps because of the broken vehicle combat of Halo 2, but now that the former sin has been absolved and those wounds have been mended, the bandages Bungie created for those large maps still choke the parts of gameplay on the smaller ones – the ones which never needed healing in the first place.
The default maps in Halo 3, while entertaining at times, collectively did not meet the standards of its precursor. This, in my opinion, is the single barrier which will determine whether it falls to obsolescence or goes the way of glory like its predecessors’ maps. Can it be fixed? Absolutely…
Enter downloadable content.
Avalanche is being bred from a stable of already successful large-scale Halo 3 maps (Valhalla, Sandtrap and Last Resort). No one should worry about this one.
Admittedly, Halo 2 had some grand default maps, but its golden days were in the spring and summer of 2005, when Xbox Live play for the game was at an all-time high and they were releasing nine new multiplayer maps, several of which would become historically profound. As of now, Halo 3 has already impressed with downloadable content in the Heroic Map Pack, featuring Standoff and Rat’s Nest, two large maps which promised and delivered impressive vehicle encounters and properly executed close/mid-range battles – and we expect similar success in the Legendary Map Pack’s Avalanche for those same reason.
But big maps were never a problem in Halo 3; Bungie nailed that aspect of the game. It was the small maps, the medium size, infantry-operated maps which need be awakened.
Blackout is the new Lockout: Halo 3’s potent gameplay combined with the most popular map in the franchise’s history.
Next week, and for the first time in this console generation, we will see the advent of two categorically smaller Halo maps in Ghost Town and Blackout. The way they play and the success they have will greatly dictate the multiplayer potency of Halo 3’s future. These maps will be the crucible, the fulcrum – they’ll be the determining factor on the game’s ability to once again retain its presence in a year which will not only see entrenched Call of Duty 4 fans but also the second coming of Epic’s Gears of War franchise.
Ghost Town has qualities reminiscent to the popular Turf; it is the only original map in the Legendary Map Pack being released on 04/15.
No, this is not a denigration of the competition or a demand for Halo to dominate the leaderboards on Xbox Live as it did with Halo 2, but something has happened in the Halo community, something critical and alarming. Our brothers in arms have left their first love for another. If these maps and those which follow fail to recapture the fans who’ve become disenchanted, then Halo 3’s multiplayer may well be at an end.
If they succeed, however, this will ignite the fleshy pulse buried in the lifeblood of the community. Members both new and old – both loyal and prodigal – will grab their battle rifles from the shelves and wage war. If downloadable content can resolve the problems we’ve discussed, Halo 3 will once again regain the glory of the franchise.
I hold firm to the latter and if you’re a Halo fan, you should too.