From Visegrad With Love

Do Not Fear Thy Enemy

One of Bungie’s design goals with the revamped Covenant was to make them frightening and alien again, and they have succeeded in the latter. This was the motivation for having all enemy types speak their native tongues rather than English, and it informs much of the visual design. But they are not frightening opponents. Not in the way gold sword Elites were in Halo 1 and 2, or Brute Chieftains in Halo 3 and ODST. Despite Noble Six’s reduced agility, we are a more capable soldier than in previous Halo titles in nearly all situations.

Despite (or perhaps, because of) our reduced base traits, Bungie equipped Noble Team with the most effective weaponry in the series and then added Armor Abilities to the mix, making us the most potent soldier the series has seen to date. Thanks to the 3x zoom and pinpoint accuracy of the DMR, we can dismantle entire encounters without taking anything but sniper fire in return. And when powerful enemies do come close, we can sprint or fly away to safety.

This is where the impact of the sprint and jetpack abilities are really felt. In previous Halo games, we often faced opponents who could move as fast or faster than ourselves, which forced us to find ways to counter or escape them. In Halo 3 and ODST, a Brute Chieftain wielding a Gravity Hammer was terrifying, in large part because for the first time we had to deal with a powerful foe that was much faster than we were. Once they began their loping gait toward us, we had to quickly decide whether to try and take them down in time, or to flee and hope to get obstacles between us.

Many an encounter ended with a game of Spartan baseball, where we were the ball. The past two Halo games were littered with interesting encounters, in which the Chieftains were the key threat and took considerable improvisation and effort to thwart. They were intense, strategic battles against a superior foe.

Many a Chieftain duel ended in a game of Spartan baseball.

 

In ODST, thanks to the slower movement speed of the Rookie, not only were Chieftains faster than us, but so were Hunters. The opening flashback mission, Tayari Plaza, climaxed with a truly intense Hunter encounter, where a pair of Hunters would lock step in hot pursuit, chasing us in, through and around buildings as we scrambled for shelter and flung everything we could find at them.

These kind of frenzied flights do not take place in Reach, because we can either dismantle the Chieftains, Elites and Hunters before they get near us, or simply outrun them to safety. The Covenant cannot counter our enhanced horizontal or vertical mobility gained from Sprint and Jetpack; they are often trump cards. Without a superior enemy, much of the tension drains away from the combat. For all the strengths of the combat feedback loop, there are no encounters where the enemy is capable of overrunning and flushing us out of our positions, a cornerstone of many Halo encounter designs in previous entries.

Those hammers are almost comical when you can just fly away to safety.

 

There is a stark contrast in the approaches to combat capabilities in the last two Halo titles. ODST scaled back our abilities in doing away with the Battle Rifle, dual wielding and equipment, while slowing player movement and reducing jump height. On balance, we got a precise but weak Magnum and a scoped SMG for slightly longer-range automatic fire. The result was a game focused on a more intimate and dangerous style of combat against often superior enemies, and the resulting battles urged thoughtfulness in the way we worked through them.

Reach moves in the opposite direction, giving us a powerful, long-range rifle and the ability to flee to safety at will. A superior foe is scary, which forces us to employ to a wide array of tactics to dismantle or avoid. An inferior one can only be made fun to shoot, which is what Reach accomplishes.

Notably Artificial Intelligence

While the Covenant is not frightening, our Marine and Noble Team companions often are due to surprisingly poor NPC AI in Reach. A big step back from the previous entries in the series, the friendly AI exhibits erratic behavior throughout the campaign, where a Marine in a vehicle can be as dangerous and unpredictable as any enemy.

Much more problematic are the members of Noble Team, who are invulnerable and cannot be disposed of easily. They are instructed to stay close to Noble Six, often teleporting up to our location if we leave them behind. ONI, an otherwise strong mission, has a metagame running through much of it. That metagame is to keep Kat out of the driver’s seat of the Warthogs at all costs.

As a gunner, Kat (and the friendly AI in general) is quite short-sighted, only engaging enemies at close range. Since the Covenant will fire from a greater distance, the disparity can lead to death or near-death as we try to coax our gunners to shoot at an enemy in plain sight.

When not on the Gauss Hog, she and the Marines fire the regular Warthog chain gun in short, controlled bursts, as if they’re using an Assault Rifle in Halo 1 rather than a large mounted turret. This can also lead to our demise as enemy Ghosts and Revenants show no such restraint. Because of this, the Warthogs on ONI (and Tip of the Spear) are often best used as portable stationary turrets, moving them from encounter to encounter on our lonesome before hopping in the gunner seat. The problem is, Kat is enthusiastic about driving, and she’ll hop into the driver seat even if it means flinging us into a withering barrage of death.

A viable strategy for dealing with Kat and the Marines on ONI has multiple tiers: 1) Abandon Kat whenever a Warthog is deposited; 2) Destroy all spare Warthogs so she and the other Marines can’t use them to exact revenge; 3) If she catches up on foot, pick her up, transport her to a far region of the map and leave her there; 4) If she catches up, repeat step 3. It’s unfortunate that schemes to work around, rather than with, the AI often yield the most effective results.

The Marines in Reach also have the odd tendency to become disconnected from the action at times. Stranger still, the enemy AI largely ignores them when they are in that state, as if the Marines were not fully incorporated into the encounter. Below is an illustration of one such encounter near the end of Exodus. After arriving as reinforcements, they sort of float through the battle as disinterested observers.

This can be hard to spot during actual gameplay because our attention is focused on combat, but in a large portion of the encounters in Reach, the friendly and enemy AI are not actually fighting each other, but performing independent pantomimes. This is a stark contrast with the rest of the series, where, to varying degrees, all sorts of interesting emergent battles came from the interactions of friendly and hostile AI characters.

Split Personalities

The problems with NPC AI are more pronounced in Reach because we spend a large proportion of the Campaign fighting alongside them. The opportunity to be in a squad of Spartans is something that eluded the rest of the Halo series, and it’s one of Reach’s most unique elements; it’s a great opportunity to see just how deadly Spartans can be in concert. Unfortunately, as with Kat’s problems with vehicles on ONI, AI issues plague Noble Team, and while it’s one thing when anonymous Marines are being problematic, it’s something else entirely when it afflicts the main characters in the game.

From a balance standpoint, if the rest of the team is too effective in combat, then encounters would just play themselves out with minimal input from us. A delicate illusion must be struck, one where we have an effective team that is nonetheless leaving much of the combat in our hands; they need to support but not dominate. There are times in battle when the illusion holds, the concert of return fire, combat dialog and our focus on the enemy creating the feeling of fighting alongside an elite combat unit. Even more often, the illusion is broken as we watch Noble Team soak up massive damage without any effort to avoid it, while spouting nonsensical one-liners, token and ineffective return fire and exhibiting questionable combat tactics (such as Emile’s use of his Shotgun, which has a much shorter effective range than he seems to think it does). As such, the rest of Noble Team is often best used as distractions, enabling flanking tactics rather than serving as a force to be reckoned with. The Noble Team we see in cinematics bears little resemblance to the team we fight alongside.

The members of Noble Team make good meat shields.

This schism affects not just the gameplay, but the story. Kat is an interesting character, her intellect as sharp as her wit, as tough as she is sardonic. But in-game, she is a different character entirely, and the frustrations she causes on ONI and other missions pile up. After playing a mission, the character we remember is the one we fought alongside, not the one during the opening cinematic. And Kat is very hard to like when in battle.

In this way, the shortcomings in the combat AI have undercut the effectiveness with which Reach’s story is told. No amount of cinematics, however well-produced (and Reach’s are largely excellent), can cause us to mourn the demise of characters whom the rest of the game has caused us to despise. Beyond the impact on gameplay, the AI creates a major shortcoming in Reach’s storytelling.

Unlike the aftermath of the Covenant invasions in ODST, Halo 2 and Halo 3, Bungie has put considerable effort into incorporating the civilian cost of the war on display in Reach. From a narrative standpoint, this is critical as the fall of Reach needs to carry an emotional cost we can relate to; the desolate, abandoned urban settings of the previous entries in the series left the war feeling isolated and without impact. An entire mission, Exodus, is focused on this side of Reach’s fall, and it is home to a mix of effective and frustrating incorporation of civilians.

Our first encounter with civilians shows what the Covenant leaves in its wake: death. We find the corpses of the unarmed along the wayside, a delicate balance between horror and taste on display (no slain children, though hints of them via a teddy bear). The rail ride in the Falcon is one of the best cinematic moments in the game, as we get our first full view of how overwhelming the Covenant invasion is, the crushing odds the UNSC faces and the overall sense of hopelessness that is settling over the conflict. Where Bungie takes a misstep is in how the living citizens of Reach are incorporated.

Citizens regularly flee into our line of fire, yet we are punished if we contribute to their demise.

 

The primary way the rules of engagement have been enforced in the series has been to turn our allies against us should we kill too many of them. This kept the enforcement of the rules within the context of the game world. Reach’s unarmed civilians are a new addition to Halo, and they’re handled differently: Kill one, even accidentally, and Noble Six is instantly killed in return, as if by the Guardians. This is the worst possible way to handle the integration of civilians into the game. Killing one of Reach’s citizens results in Bungie shouting, “Don’t do that,” and punishing us, rather than producing a logical and expected outcome. Other options, such as preventing us from firing on them at all (common among other shooters) or setting the ample Marines upon us should we slay too many are less intrusive methods, and in the case of the latter, makes allowance for accidents. When combined with the poor NPC AI, Reach’s approach is an especially unfortunate decision. Many an attempted Flawless Cowboy run on Exodus has prematurely ended thanks to a civilian running toward thrown grenades.

It’s disheartening that in this fifth Halo game from Bungie, the issue of how to handle NPCs has been dealt with so poorly.

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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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