Fragging Health

Beyond The Frontline

BTF #5 : Fragging Health

Beyond the Frontline is a regular feature where the staff here get up on the soapbox and put forward an idea or idea relating to Halo. Each BTF is a talking point designed to start a dialogue and unlike our regular word blasts and articles, the entries are short and sweet.
If you agree or disagree with any of the points raised we strongly encourage you to reply in the comments and be part of the conversation!

Halo’s two layered recharging health system is one of its most defining traits, mimicked in countless shooters and action games since its release. It was the key that allowed Bungie to focus on refining moment to moment encounters in ways the DOOM-style classic health meter didn’t. The developers could safely assume players would have a minimum threshold of life thanks to the recharging shield, and build out encounters accordingly.

But for such a key aspect of Halo’s game design, Bungie were unable to settle themselves on how to utilize it, and have made changes large and small with every subsequent Halo game. Bungie has changed the pace of the shield recharge, speeding up in Halo 2 and 3, which accelerated the pace of combat. Less time waiting for a shield recharge is less time spent hiding around a corner.

More drastically, Halo 2 and 3 actually hid the layer of health beneath the shields from players entirely, creating an invisible layer of recharging health once shields are depleted (and ditched health packs in the process). This cut out the process of hunting down health packs, which meant players spent more time in combat.

The removal of visible health also creates a tension between the aims of the game designers and the need for players to be kept aware of their condition. On paper, it sounds strange to restrict players from being able to see how much health they have left. After all, knowing how much health we have left is probably the most important thing for us to keep tabs on.

Bungie addressed this in two ways. The first was by simply observing how Halo’s shield system and weapon designs motivated players to behave, particularly in Multiplayer. Once shields are depleted we’re motivated to seek safety because we’re vulnerable to head shots from precision weapons. It doesn’t matter how much health we have left under the shields: once they’re gone, we can be killed instantly, and we respond accordingly.

The second way was through weapon balance. Frag grenades and sniper rifle body shots strip fully loaded shields. Should either cut deep into player health below, they would appear to have inconsistent behavior, sometimes killing us when our shields – the only visible indicator of health – was full, and sometimes not.

A look at how visible health bar, recharging health and health packs points to another aspect of how Bungie has used the dual health system.

Until Reach, a recharging health meter has only been used when it’s hidden from us, likely also with combat pacing in mind. If health also gradually recovered, we’d be motivated to stay in shelter until it was also recharged, which would slow down combat as everyone turtled up even longer between encounters. Motivating faster play was particularly important since Halo 3 (and to a greater degree, Reach) added elements such as Regens and Bubble Shields that extend the duration of encounters and often slow combat down. Adding in more incentives to slow the pace of the game would have a significant impact.

(ODST’S return to the heath pack system was done without the need to balance Multiplayer, and was in step with that games more methodically paced gameplay.)

We see this on display in Reach, which essentially splits the difference in the past approaches, using a partially recharging health bar that still necessitates a health pack for players to become whole. But as implemented, the approach is an odd one, since players with full shields and 1/3 health depleted can be instantly killed by a lone frag grenade; the partial recharge still sends us scurrying for health packs just as fast as before. When combined with the many other ways Reach slows down combat, though base traits and armor abilities, Reach’s encounter time and the duration between them is often very long.

The return of a health bar in Reach also likely shifted the way weapons are balanced, in much the way the hidden bar did in Halo 2 and 3. It’s hard to imagine Reach’s grenades, which are fatal at full shields and marginal health damage (and vice versa), being included were health invisible. If health were hidden in Reach, we’d have a grenade that would sometimes kill when we had full shields, and sometimes not; a reduction in damage and a return to their shield-stripping nature would have been the natural solution.

The ways Bungie has evolved the health model and pace of combat from game to game presents a challenge any time the idea of “classic” Halo game types come up. Changes in the health system, and related shifts in player traits have made each Halo title play distinctly different from the others. Which game sets the baseline for classic Halo? The answer will yield dramatically different games.

All of which raises the question of what route 343i will go with Halo 4. The Reach title update has been a clear signal that they are listening to the player base, and it’s telling that nearly all of the new options (damage bleed, Armor Lock adjustment, classic Magnum and Active Camo nerf) all accelerate the pace of combat. Whatever approach they take, our first look at the Halo 4 HUD will tell us much about their thinking, and what the pace of combat in Halo 4 is likely to be. The question is whether to build on Bungie’s latest effort, or to reach back for a more classic style of Halo. The question is, what is classic?


Do you agree or disagree with us? Tell us what you think below in the comments. Feel free to check out other BTF entries here.

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