From Visegrad With Love
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 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.
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.
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.
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.