Shooters have become glossier and more cinematic, and insanely well
polished of course. But without naming any names, it’s no secret that
they’ve also become increasingly less interactive. In fact some of them
now almost feel like part of a different genre to the stuff that first
made me a fan. Level designs are increasingly funnelled. Weapons are
increasingly ‘realistic’ and similar in effect. AI is less demanding of
creative play. Interactions are increasingly a case of follow the
leader, do what you’re told. Playing an FPS used to feel like being a
sculptor of action. Now a lot of them make me feel like I’m just an
actor in someone else’s play.
The truth is that I’ve labelled
myself an enthusiastic FPS player for a very long time, but over recent
years I’ve only felt like a fan in principle, finding less and less
examples that really gave me what I wanted. Because what was the last
great mainstream console FPS built around the qualities I’m
after? Singularity? Bulletstorm? Bioshock 2? And two of those tanked
So I started to gravitate towards Halo 4 a couple
of weeks ago. The series had long had a reputation as a freeform shooter
sandbox, so out of borderline desperation I decided that it might be
time to give it another try. The development shift from Bungie to 343
Industries helped too, if only in terms of giving me an outward
justification for backing down on my long-held anti-fanboyism. Pride
swallowed, excuses in place, I got hold of a copy and gave it a go.
ye gods, was coming back to Halo a beautiful experience this time
around. Yes, it has issues. There’s too much repeated level design in
the campaign, and too much arbitrary button-pressing by way of narrative
McGuffins. But I can forgive a handful of dated old-school design
crutches when they come along with so much old-school design brilliance.
Each and every time I get into a firefight in Halo 4, magic
happens. In campaign, a run-in with overwhelming opposing forces isn’t
intimidating or irritating. There’s no fear of the cheap bullet-hell
onslaught and attritional grind that ‘certain games’ bring in such
situations. There’s just opportunity and excitement. Between the
inter-locking intelligence of its enemy AI and the adventure playground
puzzle-box of its environmental design, playing Halo 4 today is like
finding a crisp waterfall of rainbows and wishes in the middle of a
baked-hard desert of uniformly coloured sand. Multiply all of the above
by the sheer number of ways that every single encounter can be
interpreted and reinterpreted by each combination of weapons you and
your co-op partners may be packing, and you have a vision of multiple
possible, completely different Halo 4s stacked on top of each other,
just waiting to be unlocked by player experimentation.
multiplayer is a revelation. Because now that I’m actively looking to
Halo for something specific, I’m seeing what it can really do for the
first time. After tiring of multiplayer shooters built around
twitch-focused hide-and-seek and insta-kill machine-guns, what I
perceived as Halo’s slowness is now obviously just a perfect pace for
allowing methodical, tactical firefights.
That weapon-set isn’t
insipid, as I once thought. It just demands thoughtful use and has its
power pitched towards playful, completely asymmetrical cat-and-mouse
combat rather than instant domination. That regenerating shield isn’t a
cop-out for cowardly players. It’s a fundamental tool in facilitating
drawn-out skirmishes and a back-and-forth, almost conversational combat
flow. It’s also a fantastic route to poker-style battles of nerve and
wits, as players back off to preserve their own shield while trying to
work out exactly how much punishment their opponent can take.
you probably know all of this already, because there’s a good chance
you’ve been happily playing Halo for years. But alas it’s taken 11 years
and a very particular set of circumstances for me to come to appreciate
it, as well as a rather hefty change of attitude. Now that I’m actively
reaching out to Halo rather than poo-pooing its efforts in favour of
those of its genre rivals, it’s obvious why it’s so good.
combination of internal and external forces I’ve ended up really getting
to know the game for the first time. To be fair to my earlier self,
that can be a tricky thing to do unless you really want to, particularly
when you’re dealing with the kind of great game design that thrives on
subtle intricacy and depth. But the experience has been a positive one
all round. You see not only do I like a new game now, and not only has
that discovery really cemented what I personally want out of game
design, but it’s also made me realise just how easy it is to close
yourself off to the good stuff. Even if – in fact especially if - you
think you’re already looking at it elsewhere.
Fanboysism. Positive or negative, it gets your nowhere.
Now to get myself a copy of Halo Anniversary and start from the beginning. Again.
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