From Visegrad With Love

Vehicular Manslaughter

The vehicles in Reach are more of a mixed bag. While some of the pre-release chatter alluded to an expanded stable of vehicles in Reach, only three of them turned out to be combat vehicles, and they are all highly derivative of past rides from the series. The Rocket Hog is essentially a Warthog with a Missile Pod strapped to the back, and it seems to have been added so there would be a less devastating variant for use in Multiplayer (and, tragically, Firefight) than the Gauss Hog; both the Gauss and Rocket Hog make only token appearances in the Campaign.

The Falcon is a greatly improved iteration on the Hornet with strong feedback and a subtle learning curve. It has a weight and heft while remaining agile enough to warrant Bungie’s title of “the Warthog of the skies,” and it shines in its star turn in New Alexandria. The one down beat is the boring firing cadence and weak feedback on the main machinegun turret; in this one regard the dual weapon load out of the Hornet made it more interesting to fight with, if not to fly.

The Revenant is a simple blend of the Ghost and the Wraith. The inspiration that birthed the Chopper in Halo 3 is absent, along with the Chopper itself. This is unfortunate because the Revenant is a very poor replacement. With controls and movement modeled after the Ghost, the plasma mortar is a weak — but noisy and chaotic – take on the Wraith’s signature glowing glob of doom. It feels instantly familiar and features a very shallow learning curve, a shadow of the Chopper where the gulf between a skilled and unskilled pilot was vast. Much of the greatness of the Chopper was in the way missions were designed around its implementation — the wide, expansive dunes on The Ark ideal for cruising over. There is no such clear role for the Revenant in Reach. It is telling that each of Reach’s other main vehicles — the Warthog, Falcon and Mongoose — are given a sequence in which their capabilities are showcased, while the Revenant’s role is never clearly defined.

The Revenant is a poor substitute for the Chopper.

 

The other new vehicles include a forklift and a set of sluggish trucks of various shapes and sizes, all a nonfactor in combat. They are part of an overall effort to imbue the game world with greater verisimilitude, but the novelty quickly wears off, and the effort seems like an odd use of development resources.

The returning combat vehicles have all seen their qualities drop off since their last outing. Warthogs and Mongoose (Mongeese?) feel lighter and are more prone to driver-ejecting flips on even mildly bumpy terrain. They are unusually fragile against infantry fire, and the net effect is they feel looser, less sturdy and ultimately less useful.

Much more problematic is Reach’s approach to vehicle damage and the way it has been decoupled from player health. The Halo series has seen a few different methods to address vehicle health. In Halo 1, the vehicles that weren’t indestructible featured their own health bar, which whittled down over time. From Halo 2 onward, the series has tied the health of a vehicle to the driver. While the vehicle could be degraded into increasingly damaged states visually, the actual performance was not degraded. In so doing, player health became the proxy for the state of the vehicle, and we were kept informed as to whether it was in danger of blowing. (Player health would drop faster when a vehicle had taken more damage, making damaged vehicles easy to destroy.) In all cases, the game provided a clear reading of when our demise was near when in a vehicle.

This is not the case in Reach, where vehicle health degrades independent of the driver, creating situations where vehicles explode when the driver or pilot is in good shape. Some vehicles even see their capabilities degrade as they take damage, which makes them even less useful. The net effect on vehicle play is to discourage us from using them after they’ve taken even moderate damage; otherwise, we risk an untimely and unexpected demise. This is another way in which Reach’s combat cycle lacks clarity, taking away information we need to judge situations.

The video below illustrates the damage model for the Ghost, where a willing test Elite sees a pristine Ghost take aim at him before he returns fire and damages it. First the Ghost’s plasma cannons begin to fire off target, making it difficult to aim at even medium range. Then it explodes, even though we have full health and partial shields. There is no warning as to which shot will destroy the vehicle.

Halo has always encouraged us to use vehicles while seldom requiring them, but in its approach to the health system, Reach actively discourages it. A damaged vehicle is best abandoned, as there is no clear warning to when it’s going to spontaneously combust; we cannot make sound tactical decisions if we do not know what our health status is. It is startlingly poor game design, made more so by four previous games where the designers knew not to do this.

Because of the poor vehicle design and strong infantry gunplay, it is often safer and more satisfying to forgo them.

Covenant Dance

The Covenant have all returned and are now refined in much the same fashion as the weapon arsenal, making each species more distinctive and more interesting to fight. Halo 3 and ODST used a class hierarchy to distinguish the visual signature and capabilities of the Brute Soldier, Captain and Chieftains, and Reach has taken this approach and applied it to each enemy type to even greater degree. Dealing with a pack of jetpack and Nerfle-toting Elite Rangers is a very different proposition than staring down an agile, aggressive Ultra. (Classes are not a new concept to Halo, but they have never been made so distinct as in Reach.) Also noteworthy is their fluid animation; Bungie’s investment in motion capture techniques has paid rich dividends.

One of the keys to Halo’s combat design is the way each enemy type is susceptible to particular attacks, rather than responding optimally to blunt force. The Plasma Pistol overcharge to strip an Elite’s shields followed by a headshot is the signature moment in Halo’s combat loop, and it makes a welcome return alongside the Elites. It leverages the simple beauty of the two-weapon limitation while encouraging players to use their weapons in tandem, not isolation. This two-part method coaxes us into employing more methodical, efficient means to kill enemies.

Elites make a welcome return in Reach.

A similar level of nuance has been applied to combating the rest of the Covenant, from knocking the helmets off Brutes to staggering the Skirmisher leaders when they cover their head with energy shield gauntlets.

By layering in these methods, even more so than past Halo games, combat in Reach is less about plowing through enemies and more about dismantling them — a quick two-tap to de-mask and headshot a Grunt, an overcharge and follow-up headshot on an Elite, a precision round to the shield notch to stagger and then dome a Jackal. Moment-to-moment combat is engaging and rewards the methodical over the frenzied. Especially on higher difficulties, exploiting efficient kill methods elevates from convenience to necessity.

Meanwhile, the visual feedback that enemies provide when taking fire has been amplified. Skirmishers pop into the air when headshot;  Elite shields flare more intensely as they take damage; Drones burst asunder when headshot; Grunts take to the air on a gout of methane propulsion as their tank ruptures. It adds up to a more visceral and satisfying combat experience than the series had seen before.

The one enemy Bungie was unable to make fun to fight is the Drones, the insect-like infantry which attack from above in swarms. Since their introduction in Halo 2, every Drone encounter has played out the same: Everything comes to a full stop until they’re cleaned up. Reach is no exception. On the plus side, they are much more satisfying to land headshots on, thanks to their new-found explosive properties. Interestingly, the Skirmishers seem to have been a replacement of sorts for the Drones, as they, too, are an agile, speedy foe that specializes in flanking tactics, moving through environments in unconventional ways. They replace Drones in Firefight, which are used only lightly in Campaign, making their inclusion seem more in the interest of giving representation to every previously seen Covenant type as anything.

 

Drones are back, and they still bring combat to a halt.

 

The late addition of Brutes to the campaign serves much the same purpose as the absent Flood in past Halo games: a new variety of enemy midway through to shake up the style of combat. They have been refined from their Halo 3 iteration to have a more distinctive style than the Elites, losing the power armor from Halo 3 and ODST and imbued with a different set of vulnerabilities (needle super combine, or cap removal then headshot?). It’s an effective change of pace, arriving just when it is most welcome.

The one down note on the Brutes is that their pack mentality, which saw groups breaking off from their Chieftain to pursue the players in the last two Halo titles, does not appear to be in effect in Reach to nearly the same degree. They are much more formidable as individual combatants than before, and they seem to be governed by more individualized AI. It’s a missed opportunity, as Brute pack battles applied to Reach could have been something special.

Nonetheless, the Covenant in Reach is more distinctive, diverse and interesting to fight than in any previous Halo game. They complement the superb gunplay perfectly. This meshing of combat mechanics and weapon diversity with well-designed enemies is the greatest strength of Reach’s Campaign. But looking beyond the gunplay, there are a number of other factors that work to undermine the quality of the combat.

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15 Comments

  1. August 11, 2011
    Reply

    Nice job elaborating on Reach’s strengths and weaknesses – we shared many of the same opinions here, but you did a much better job examining them than my brain did. 🙂

  2. August 12, 2011
    Reply

    Woah….. there’s a lot of thought in there – I’d never really thought about how the change to DMR really changed up the play from H3/ODST to Reach – I think it’s a sign of a great game where most players would not have noticed this variable change – at least in their first run through.

    Cheers

  3. HSAR
    August 12, 2011
    Reply

    I shared much of these thoughts myself, but as Leviathan has already said, you pulled much more out of it than I managed to.

    I really wanted to love Reach, but these rough edges that you touched upon, combined with the loss of signature Halo music (which was much more of Halo than I thought, because I missed it constantly) really hampered it for me.

    I still think of Halo 3 when I think of the Halo series in general.

  4. August 12, 2011
    Reply

    It’s like you took the most wonderfully high level of vocabulary I don’t have and used it to write out exactly how I felt when playing every bit of Reach. Bravo, sir. This surely was a pleasure to read through.

    Being able to put words to how Reach makes me feel is a powerful thing.

  5. deep_nnn
    August 12, 2011
    Reply

    I liked the Magnum’s roll in campaign. During LASO challenge runs, I’d use it up whenever it was available over using the DMR. Gotta save that precious DMR ammo for the long range encounters. As you know, prepping for LASO or any other high difficulty is an important part of the game plan. If the Magnum is in limited supply during the easier difficulty settings, is that really a problem? Perhaps it’s all part of a required redundancy to accommodate the variety of difficulty settings.

  6. deep_nnn
    August 12, 2011
    Reply

    I think I prefer the Halo 3 Hornet over the REACH Falcon. I believe it filled campaign and multiplayer roles better. I know your document is about campaign but the inability for the Falcon to carry objective holding passengers in multiplayer has me ticked off at it.

    Regarding the Chopper. You said “a shadow of the Chopper where the gulf between a skilled and unskilled pilot was vast”. I feel you let multiplayer capabilities creep into the discussion here. I doubt driver skill level plays a serious role for either of these two vehicles in campaign. They both have a fairly good stand off capability in campaign though I’m quite sure the Chopper had greater range with easier aiming than the Revenant has. That would make it easier for unskilled pilots to use in campaign. As for multiplayer, I think the story is reversed.

  7. deep_nnn
    August 12, 2011
    Reply

    Regarding vehicle health decoupling. I am okay with vehicle strength being completely independent from personal health. I also believe occupants with any shields and full health should survive the exploding vehicle. While playing campaign, this situation was never a problem for me. It is a bigger problem in multiplayer.

    I am very impressed with your inclusion of video examples.

  8. Dwayne515
    August 12, 2011
    Reply

    Absolutely spot on. Many issues in this article are ones which I picked up myself but couldn’t seem to fathom [i]how[/i] it was an issue, something which you have enlightened to me now. I have to agree with HSAR’s opinion of Halo 3 being the monument of Haloness. I think we will see these issues much more clearly when Halo:CEA is released. Thanks for writing such a brilliantly thought out article.

    • Dwayne515
      August 12, 2011
      Reply

      Wow, italics fail on my behalf ^. Still kinda new to that kinda stuff =D

  9. deep_nnn
    August 12, 2011
    Reply

    Regarding the Crow’s Nest, hallway and Brute encounter. I always used the same approach with the BR as I now do with the DMR. Whittle away the shields or armour with lesser weapons and then headshot them with the BR. There was a perfect yet narrow range for this combat to occur. So I guess I disagree with your opinion on the BR vs DMR in some situations even though I agree the DMR has a greater effective range.

    One thing that must be considered is, the statistical information the developer has acquired from previous titles. I.E. They know how many people have completed the campaign and on what difficulties. Some of the design decisions you are unhappy with may have been the result of an effort to attract more players into playing further into the game and at greater difficulty settings. If successful, the game could become more satisfying to a larger player base. The side effect of such efforts is the loss of the game’s long standing veterans. Perhaps such losses are inconsequential when it comes to selling games and dare I say, ‘beneficial’.

    Sorry for the multiple posts. I am not sure when I’ll stop reading the article and when I might get back to it. So I am reading a bit and posting a bit.

  10. deep_nnn
    August 12, 2011
    Reply

    The space flight sections were what I enjoyed the least. Like so many flight/space battles, you wind up chasing pixels. Specks of information on the screen which you target and destroy. The enemy is rarely close and the narrow POV makes for either extremely difficult or very easy combat. Once I learned to hide behind the main station structure or behind the Savannah later on, the battles became boring while praying not to get killed on the higher difficulty settings. I simply endured the situation.

    I was skimming at the end because it was so extensive and my attention span had expired. Perhaps you should have released this in segments starting months ago.

    Great write up GhaleonEB. I’ll bet a couple of developers, who are near and dear to us, are going read this very carefully.

  11. Cailus
    August 12, 2011
    Reply

    Much of what’ve you said, I agree with. It’s a superb analysis. There is one bit though, which disappointed me more than any other facet of Reach’s design, and that’s the story.

    In the FoR novel, there are incredible opportunities to create the greatest Halo campaign of all time. Almost all were ignored. We get no true sense of grandeur, or epicness, save for the truly brilliant New Alexandria mission. Noble’s Spartans are very poorly utilised, as you pointed out. The game failed for me, spectacularly, and was almost insultingly easy to complete on Legendary. Only the Halo 2 campaign failed worse than this, in my opinion. If I want to remember Halo ten years from now, I’ll play Halos 1, 3 and ODST…and Reach will lie forgotten.

  12. scarab
    August 13, 2011
    Reply

    I hope 343i take head of your comments about friendly AI and your comments about their driving.

    If 343i can’t fix friendly driving then don’t have them drive unless they have been told to drive via script. Or… there are plenty of spare buttons and axes available when you are a hog gunner for giving the driver instructions (stop/go, directions) and for fast position switches that wouldn’t even require dismounting.

    We should have Warthogs in Halo 4 but will we have friendlies?

    -PS

    You can ditch Jorge in the spire encounter – equip jetpack and drive one of the trucks. Jorge will take his gunner position and then you can drive the truck over the cliff. Jorge will have no hard feelings about it and will give you encouraging comments from time to time from his position at the base of the cliff.

    You will find it easier to board a Banshee without Jorge shooting both craft out of the skies.

  13. DandD.
    August 13, 2011
    Reply

    I disagree on multiple points. The biggest one has to be saying that Combat Evolved had a rafined combat. Once the Magnum was introduced, all of the levels became a walk in the park. The only moderately difficult level was Truth and Reconciliation, and that was because it had no Magnum. That Pistol, like the DMR, lead fight on long ranges where enemies did not stand a chance, and it was, honestly, the best weapon for all enemies and ammo for it was abundant.

    Another thing I disagree is on weapon “babysitting”. Combat Evolved did have that…in massive amounts. Take Assault on the Control Room, once you get outside you have a Sniper and Rocket. Ok? You are basically set for the rest of the level. There is ammo in the first area you find them, then there’s ammo in the next area near the Scorpion (another tool that makes the level a cake walk), then you have ammo inside the cave, once outside you have, yet again ammo near the pillar structure in the next canyon. Once you go through there, you have ammo again after you defeat the hunters. Another thing is that massive battles are seldom avoided by the use of active camo, which is found in lots of convenient places. The camo in AotCR is found in the big pillar, and it gives you enough time to make it to another one where the Marines are pinned down by the Hunters, and that ones allows you to run from a massive army. The saddest thing is that, without that camo, you could have actually helped the marines which were pinned down from the Shades, but no. Another one is found in the invis elite room, and allows you to walk outside in the Control Room canyon and jack a Banshee and end the level…? All you need is to replay the level and you are set. Like you said in some cases in Reach, you can diversify the combat, but you are risking by not accepting the easier way out. That is true in the encounter I mentioned earlier. Why fight your way to the pyramid when you can just jack the Banshee and skip?

    Another thing that i disagree is the Marine/Noble team friendly AI. Noble team needs to be the meat shields, the NPCs that kill few enemies, since they are pretty much invincible, they are automatically overpowered. If you have enough patience, you ca let them do everything, yet it takes a long time. That’s the general concept of not making hard difficulties easier by aid of invincible allies. As for Marines, they will generally do a good job at shooting, I mean you can play easy normal, and see that they do a pretty good job, the only thing they really don not do well is driving, i agree on this. Their driving is horrible. But aside from that, as in previous Halos, arming them with better weapons will give you a great advantage. In ONI, i got Kat on the Gauss turret, and a rocket marine in the side seat. They tore through everything, yet you still had to drive them well. The Hog is a teamwork vehicles, be it in MM or Campaign, bot the driver and gunner need to do something. If you just drive the Hog close, stop and expect the AI to kill everything, the enemy will take advantage of that. You need to navigate the vehicle so that the gunner has a chance to shoot, while the enemy has a hard time to react.

    Yet another thing is the vehicles, they do “seems” to have a random explosion pattern, but it is not the case once you start to learn them. Revys and Wraiths can take a beating and will not explode even when smoking. Ghosts and Warthogs will once the vehicle’s body begins to degrade and when fire/smoke rises from it. In that case, the solutions are to either abandon it or to driver through and maneuver is such a way as to not get shot. Elementary. And the Revenant has a pretty big role. It’s the medium assault vehicles between the overpowered wraith and underpowered Ghost. It fills in the gap of defending medium sized area with moderate firepower, and somewhat resembles the Prowler by the added passenger.

  14. Herr Zrbo
    August 16, 2011
    Reply

    Spectacular write up, but I’m going to disagree with your analysis of Lone Wolf. It just seemed tacked on to me, like Bungie said ‘whoops, we forgot to kill off Noble 6, let’s just throw him up against some enemies in an unwinnable situation’. I would have preferred that Noble 6 die at the end of PoA, perhaps sacrificing himself somehow so the PoA could safely escape. This could have even mirrored Jorge’s death, ie, someone has to stay behind to arm the bomb. Otherwise I just felt that Lone Wolf was a rather lazy way to have Noble 6 die off, and not even in an honorable or inspiring way.

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